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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
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The Buddha in the Attic (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Julie Otsuka

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1,4001365,413 (3.78)205
Reading this book was like reading a poem! Written in the collective voice of Japanese "picture brides," it follows the women from ship sailing to internment during WWII. They are seasick, marry, divorce, fall in love (sometimes with men other than their “husbands”), have children, grieve losses that we do or don’t connect with, and through it all speak with a voice that sings like a praise hymn and a lament simultaneously. I haven’t read a book that has such wonderful use of voice and language since “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. ( )
  jenn_stringer | Apr 29, 2012 |
English (120)  French (4)  German (4)  Italian (3)  Dutch (2)  Piratical (1)  Norwegian (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (136)
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33. The Buddha in the Attic (Audio) by Julie Otsuka, read by Samantha Quan and Carrington MacDuffie (2011, 3:52, ~110 pages in paperback, listened May 26-29)
Rating: 3 stars

A National Book Award and IMPAC Dublin award finalist, this short book, told in a collective we, covers the experience of Japanese mail-order brides. They immigrated to California by boat to meet their various generally disappointing husbands and live generally unexpectedly difficult lives as agricultural laborers until they were all sent to concentration camps during WWII.

I had just given up on several audiobooks when I tried this one, really as a backup, and found myself instantly caught up it. I kept on enjoying it for awhile. I was caught up by their expectations and really a bit stunned by what they found. It's almost unimaginable, the difference. Unfortunately it keeps going and going and going. By the end I was thankful it was so short. So a mixed experience for me. ( )
  dchaikin | Jun 27, 2015 |
I really enjoyed this different style of writing - no "characters" as such gives the impression (quite correctly) that these experiences were wide spread, and while the results and effects were different for many people, there is a common thread. ( )
  FionaWh | Jun 22, 2015 |
June 14
Finished A Budda in the Attic today.
a summary from the reading guide is provided below
In her magnificent new novel, which can be viewed as a prequel to her first novel, Otsuka spins the clock to just after the turn of the century, as a group of young women from Japan are brought to San Francisco as mail- order brides. In eight haunting, incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces their new lives: from their arduous voyage by boat, where the girls trade photos of their husbands- to- be and imagine uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco, and their tremulous first nights with their new husbands; to their backbreaking toil as migrant workers in the fields and in the homes of white women; their struggle to learn a new language and a new culture; their experiences in childbirth and raising children who reject their heritage; and finally, the arrival of war, and the agonizing prospect of their internment.
This was a different sort of novel to read, written in 1st person plural. Each chapter depicts a time in the lives of the mail -order brides, first the boat ride, then the first night with their new husband and eventually being seen as traitors and sent to relocation camps. I would have to say that it was a good thing that the book was so brief because once you get the style, it loses something of a narrative by not having any characters to follow. I can assume from the acknowledgement that there was a good amount of research put into the book, so each sentence is like a separate image or a line of poetry and as a whole you get to experience what they endured. The Japanese people depicted in this account come off as incredibly noble and trusting that things will work out. Some sample lines are listed below:

We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting. We simply worked, that was all.

The Nishimotos of San Carlos left out bowls of fresh orchids from their nursery on their kitchen table for whoever was moving in next.

Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day. ( )
  novelcommentary | Jun 13, 2015 |
This was a book club pick, and an interesting choice. It was narrated by the collective "we" which I've never seen before, but was very effective, I think, for the subject matter. It's about Japanese brides being bought and brought to America and their experiences. It ends during WWII and the Japanese being relocated to concentration camps who knows where in the US. I just finished another book called The Auschwitz Escape, and I find it ironic that we had camps like this in the US, at the same time the Nazis did in Europe. True, we weren't exterminating the Japanese, but what we did was still shameful. I liked the book and liked the author's writing style. I recommend this book. ( )
  sandra.k.heinzman | Apr 2, 2015 |
This was a book club pick, and an interesting choice. It was narrated by the collective "we" which I've never seen before, but was very effective, I think, for the subject matter. It's about Japanese brides being bought and brought to America and their experiences. It ends during WWII and the Japanese being relocated to concentration camps who knows where in the US. I just finished another book called The Auschwitz Escape, and I find it ironic that we had camps like this in the US, at the same time the Nazis did in Europe. True, we weren't exterminating the Japanese, but what we did was still shameful. I liked the book and liked the author's writing style. I recommend this book. ( )
  sandra.k.heinzman | Apr 2, 2015 |
Japanese women come to the US as brides. What they find is not what was promised in the letters and photos they received. They have to reconcile themselves to the lives they now lead.

I liked the sparseness and starkness of the prose. There were no characters per se but the group as a character. The relentlessness of what is happening shows the harshness, bleakness, and hopelessness of their lives. I'm glad I read it. ( )
  Sheila1957 | Mar 23, 2015 |
I loved this book, from the first page to the end, I was pulled in and didn't want to put this book down until I devoured it.

This book isn't the traditional type of novel, it's prosy, I'd say it's closer to a long narrative poem than a novel. While there are characters, they are all nameless, faceless, yet their story is told, in a beautiful, flowing narrative. From their first moments on the ship to their lives in California, they author tells their story and I found it to be beautifully well done.

You do get a full story, as the reader, you can feel the power and emotion of the characters who are speaking as one, telling their story, and while it wasn't exactly what I expected from this book, I think they way the author chose to tell the story was incredibly well done. I loved how well it flowed, how lovely the writing was, I couldn't put this book down, reading it in a sitting - truly a spectacular book

Also found on my book review blog Jules' Book Reviews - The Buddha in the Attic ( )
  bookwormjules | Feb 28, 2015 |
Loved it. Read it very quickly, and was sad when it was over. I really like this writing style, "collective first person" I believe it's been called, and would actually like to try it out in my own work. Highly recommended. ( )
  KelAppNic | Feb 14, 2015 |
Otsuka's book was an unexpected delight—but, yes, it is definitely thought provoking. She designates it a novel, but for me it was a poem of the very best kind. The writing sings; it just happens to relate a story. No, many stories, the most dramatic and poignant of which is the transport of Japanese during WWII. The book is short, about 100 pages, but I believe it will stay with me a long time. Although I rarely recommend a book, this one I recommend highly. ( )
  AntT | Jan 24, 2015 |
The style of first-person plural is not an easy one to use in a novel. In this case it serves to remind the reader that the story describes the experience of a vast number of individuals. The text forms a rhythmic, steady pulse beating time to the inevitable conclusion. It is a heart-breaking reminder that for many immigrants, life in the new world was not what they expected. In this case the immigrants were Japanese "picture brides", carrying photos of their prospective husbands who in reality turned out to be quite different from their descriptions: the first of many disappointments.

This book is a little jewel: important to history and to our multi-cultural society. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote VivienneR | Dec 9, 2014 |
This historical fiction novel tells the story of Japanese "picture brides" coming to California in the early 1900s.  It begins with their journey on the ship from Japan, and continues through their first nights with their new husbands (few of whom match their photos or descriptions), their work and lives in America, the birth and raising of their children, and the effects of World War II on them all, culminating with their being sent away to relocation camps.  The final chapter of the book is written from the point of view of the non-Japanese families left behind.

The latter section of the book is strongest.  California-born author Julie Otsuka's Japanese-American grandfather was arrested as a suspected spy the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, and his wife and children (including Otsuka's mother) spent three years in the Topaz, Utah relocation center.

The book is unusual in that it is written almost entirely in first person plural, and it reads almost like free verse, thanks to the repetition of phrases (usually at the beginning of sentences).  This does get tedious after a while, as the repetition makes the book start sounding like a series of lists.  That, and the use of the "we" narrator, limits character development.

This book won the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2011 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction, and was a 2011 National Book Award finalist for fiction.  Actress Samantha Quan reads most of the book, while well-known audiobook narrator Carrington MacDuffie handles the final chapter.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library. This review also appears on Bookin' It.] ( )
2 vote riofriotex | Aug 23, 2014 |
A series of stories about Japanese women in the early 1990's traveling to meet their new husbands in America. The stories use spare prose, and a royal "we" language to tell the story of landing in San Francisco, fanning out over California, then being rounded up during WWII and sent to internment camps during the war. The method of storytelling reminded me a lot of O'Brien's Things We Left Behind way of story telling ( )
  nancynova | Jul 20, 2014 |
An uncommon book, given that it's written in the first person plural. The device worked well in my view, although it might not appeal to everyone. It came across to me as a sort of cubist patchwork of images, which resulted in a complex - and lovely - vision of the Japanese "picture brides" in California. Almost an extended poem, but very absorbing. At times I could hardly put it down, although it is in no way a typical page turner. ( )
  meredk | Jul 18, 2014 |
In this short novel, I got a deep, sad, account of what life was like for Japanese immigrants. This is the story of several Japanese women, who made the journey from Japan to San Francisco after marrying their husbands (sight unseen). When they arrive--their husbands are not who they said they were--their pictures might be them, several years earlier, or might be someone completely different. Their husbands "take them"...repeatedly in many different ways, and put them to work: in the fields, as maids, as whores. They have children (or don't), they work, they toil, then they are interned by the US goverment.

The book was written in an interesting first-person plural point of view: "This happened to us; we came from small towns" etc.

Overall an interesting book, pretty small and easy to read. ( )
  csweder | Jul 8, 2014 |
Enjoyed as I was reading it, but two months later I don't remember it strongly. ( )
  judgedee | Jun 22, 2014 |
Novel is a misnomer for this hypnotic indeterminate prose work. Listing, repetition (anaphora)bring Biblical cadences to this reportage (Japanese American immigrant experience up to & including internment during WWII). This is a Song of Ourselves sung by "we" who are the collective body (mostly female)both part of and apart from an America now called homeland. Mail-order brides, tenant farmers, itinerant field workers, gardeners, maids, prostitutes, shopkeepers, students, American-born children. The moment of disarray, of absence immediately following the expulsion to the camps brings to mind the film A Day Without a Mexican, here transcribed to A Day Without a Japanese American. Experience becomes both universal & entirely personal & unique. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
A great short novel written in a poetic format. This is the story of the Japanese immigrants coming to the US as mail order brides. It is also the story of their leaving behind their homes because of WWII. I loved the repetition of the story; I have not read a novel written like this before and I found it quite enduring. This story of these Japanese women and their children is truly unforgettable. The struggles they faced and their journeys will stick with you after the story ends. ( )
  bnbookgirl | May 22, 2014 |
This book delivers a truly unique and unforgettable reading experience. Written in plural form ("we"),which is not a common form, what a great way to emphasize the commonality of these women's lives, even as their stories took different paths. The form also contributes to a realness, and a sense of immediacy, urgency and anxiety that made me feel part of the action, as if I,too, was a part of their community.

Otsuka's prose is in a way poetry --an image, an allusion, a word, and you "get" it. Short phrases of what a person wore, said, or did are like the brushstrokes of a larger portrait or like the stitches woven in an intricate tapestry.

While it doesn't take long to get through 129 pages, I wouldn't classify this as a "quick read" or a "light" read. It took only a couple of days, true, but I lingered over much of it, savored the words with the story.

( )
  FAR2MANYBOOKS | Apr 5, 2014 |
This is a very interesting and powerful poem novella about the coming and going of Japanese immigrants around the time of WWII. I liked the style of the poem as Julie Otsuka told the story through the lives and point of views of many people at once. The repetitive verses made the poem fluid and the historical aspect made it enlightening. ( )
  Dnaej | Mar 14, 2014 |
This is a very interesting and powerful poem novella about the coming and going of Japanese immigrants around the time of WWII. I liked the style of the poem as Julie Otsuka told the story through the lives and point of views of many people at once. The repetitive verses made the poem fluid and the historical aspect made it enlightening. ( )
  Dnaej | Mar 14, 2014 |
I didn't like it at first. The fact that all of the characters at once are talking was not appealing at first, but grew on me. It is the story of Japanese brides who come to join their Japanese husbands and are treated badly to say the least. ( )
  MarkMeg | Mar 1, 2014 |
In the early 1900s, many Japanese women traveled from their villages to California as "picture brides," the intended of men already in America who sent them letters and pictures and the money to come to the U.S. to marry them and work with them. Told in a collective "we," this is the story of many of those women from their time on the boat to the internment during World War 2.

This slight book is at once a potentially quick read and one that you want to take your time reading. The unique narrative structure seldom focuses on one individual - though there are moments when an individual speaks or otherwise stands out from the crowd - but gives a panorama of a collective experience. A fascinating, challenging read that would be perfect for a book club willing to read more experimental, literary fiction. ( )
  bell7 | Feb 17, 2014 |
A wonderful way of telling so many stories of Japanese brides coming to America. This small book packs a lot of power. What amazing lives! How fortunate I am! I feel lucky that a friend recommended it. ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
I loved this book. It's so different from anything I've ever read the way the stories are intertwined. I love the way the author tells the story about the lives of these women. It is so beautiful and sad and it is definitely something I will hold close to and remember
1 vote KerryAD | Feb 3, 2014 |
★★★★ ( )
  cecilia_huard | Jan 27, 2014 |
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