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Fiction

Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

I was intrigued by the book first by its cover and then the title. When I have the book in my hand I was surprised how thin the book was.  Only 129 pages.

“That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word … They took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel … They took us before we were ready and the bleeding did not stop for three days.”

This passage may give a clue as to how Julie Otsuka’s book is to be read. It is an unusual novel in that it’s a story of collective voices. Voices of ‘picture brides’ who came in a boat with only a picture of their husbands to rely on, which doesn’t come out to reflect what is the true picture when they met their husbands face to face. On the ship, the women form a group and rub shoulders with people of all nationalities going to the promised land. A land where the bride will have the riches they want and realise the dream of marrying well. Once they get to the promised land, they are scattered to their husbands. This is where I find the description of the women’s experience with their husbands most harrowing. Some are treated well but a lot fall short of their expectations.

“We washed their clothes for them once a week in tubs of boiling hot water. We cooked for them. We cleaned for them. We halped them chop wood. But it was not we who were cooking and cleaning and chopping, it was somebody else. And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared.” – page 37

Japanese picture brides on the boat

Photo credit

Later, their live don’t seem to make a turn for the better as they work and slog at the fields and lived poor. They are isolated from the community, when their children are born, they became a stranger to their Japanese culture and begin to adopt the local one.

Then comes the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harborand suddenly these poor beaten souls are further ostracised by people in their neighbourhood and many are dragged away in the night to the detention camps and some decided to desert their homes.

The experience of reading Buddha in the Attic is a strange one. There is no common character.  There are flashes of scenes, voices, spurts of experiences and thoughts, one may contradict the other. It’s a string of litany of some women did this, some women did that… There is no anchor and I came out of the book thinking “Yeah, it’s all good, like good anecdotes which don’t quite do any good on long lasting memorable imprints on the heart nor the mind.”

A good book draws you to a particular character by the proverb “I” or a “he” or a “she”.  It is hard to identify with a group of people. Even if you are sympathetic with a particular character, there is no follow-up thread to tell you what happen to her after that. Coming into this book and hoping to read it as a novel would be a mistake. It’s like a Buddhist chant, there are 8 incantations. It is called incantation for a reason and they are not exactly stories. What it aims to do is to intensive the emotions and feeling of a group of people that have been wronged, a voice of “us” against “them”, a rant, a vent of anger and looking at it this way, the prose has achieved its objective.

So at the end I was relieved that the book is thin. The novelty of collective voices would have worn off if these disjointed voices were to go on for 300 or 400 pages long. It has its historical value but it hasn’t got an anchor.

Rating: 

Hardback. Publisher: Fig Tree, imprint of Penguin 2011; Length: 129 pages; Setting: Pre-WWII, California.  Source: Westminster’s library. Finished reading at: 3rd March 2012.

Other views:

Aths@Reading on a rainy dayThe Buddha in the Attic eventually left me feeling sad and indignant but not depressed. Since it’s one of my top reads from last year, I strongly recommend it.

Helens book blog: At first it felt as if I were reading a list, but I got used to the gentle rhythm of Otsuka’s writing. In the end I loved knowing many versions of the women’s experience rather than just one woman’s. To hear the similarities and differences of lots of women makes me feel as if I really have an understanding of what it must have been like. Otsuka manages to share not only events, but emotions, fears, accomplishments, and the drudgery of the picture brides’ lives.

The Hungry Reader: The Buddha in the Attic is about the human touch. Always about it. Julie Otsuka does not for once waver from it. The writing is beautiful and easy to read, without losing the emotion it wants to convey. At the heart of the book, there is a lot of hope and love for the women in strange ways. I cannot for one wait to read her first book, “When the Emperor was Divine”.

About the writer:

Julie Otsuka was born May 15, 1962 in Palo Alto, California. Her issei father worked as an aerospace engineer. Her nisei mother worked as a lab technician before giving birth to Julie, then two sons. When Julie was nine the Otsukas moved to Palos Verdes where she did well enough in school to be accepted into Yale. She had intended to study American studies or history but discovered a passion for sculpture and painting. She graduated in 1984 with a B.A. in art, then spent three more years waitressing in New Haven while building up a portfolio. It got her into the MFA program at the University of Indiana. She started in September of 1987 but wilted under the pressure. She left abruptly less than three months later.

After a month at home, Otsuka moved to New York. She learned word processing and found work with a temp agency, then a construction marketing firm. The following year she enrolled in a non-degree program at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. To finance the day program, she continued working nights as a word processor. Two years later she accepted failure as a painter. For the next three years, she spent her days reading at an uptown Manhattan pastry shop. She became enamored of the novelists she calls her “outdoor guys” — Ernest Hemingway, Richard Ford, Rick Bass, Cormac McCarthy.

Her creative rebirth began as humorous sketches written to amuse herself and a boyfriend. She used the sketches to win admission into Columbia’s MFA program in creative writing. She started in 1994. By the time she received her degree in 1999, she had written two and a half chapters of When the Emperor Was Divine. They impressed a top literary agent who agreed to represent Otsuka in 1998. She would have to wait three years for the remaining few pages to trickle in. The hard cover edition was published by Knopf in September of 2002 to universally enthusiastic reviews hailing Otsuka as an elegant stylist of understatement and evocative brilliance. The Anchor Books paperback edition was released in late October, 2003.

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

19 thoughts on “Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

  1. Thanks for the warning on this book. I was actually considering buying it but I did not because I feel $11.75 for sa short kindle edition of a novel is way to much to pay, at least double a fair price.

    Posted by mel u | March 13, 2012, 9:39 am
  2. This is only the second review of this I’ve read now. I’m always drawn to this book because of the title, and the interesting cover but honestly I don’t think it would be a book I would enjoy really.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | March 13, 2012, 11:25 am
  3. I’ve recently finished this book and had some of the same issues. I thought the writing was fantastic, but the style meant I couldn’t develop an emotional attachment to any of the characters. I’m pleased I read it and was therefore informed about this situation, but I was glad it was a thin book too!

    Posted by farmlanebooks | March 13, 2012, 11:58 am
  4. I love the photograph of the picture brides that you included. I agree it’s good that it is a short book since it would be difficult to read this style for too much longer. However, once I got into the rhythm of the writing style I liked that it means I learned a lot of stories and not just one. The experience of these women is amazing

    Posted by Helen | March 13, 2012, 12:53 pm
  5. I’m really interested in reading this one but unfortunately my library system doesn’t yet have a copy. I’m drawn to the idea of a collective voice, it gives a sense of number.. Thanks for posting the picture to go with the review, the picture says a lot.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | March 13, 2012, 7:17 pm
    • Sam,
      My borough library doesn’t stock up too I have to resort to Westminster library. I feel this is one of those book you should read via a library copy, unless you really love it, then own it.

      Posted by JoV | March 14, 2012, 12:41 pm
  6. My book club is reading this for December meeting. I have to admit, I am not really looking forward to it.

    Posted by Ti | March 13, 2012, 9:19 pm
  7. I have considered buying this book, because the title fascinates me, but after reading your review, i think I might desis at least for now.
    This is my first time on your blog… It was such a pleasure… Following you now.

    Please visit my book blog at http://riversihaveknown.wordpress.com/
    If you like it, please follow… It would be so nice to have you as a reader.
    Thank you

    Posted by Amritorupa Kanjilal | March 14, 2012, 6:28 am
  8. The title pulled me in as well, but I haven’t yet read it. Never thought it was such a thin book. It seems that Otsuka achieved her purpose, in making the feelings of a group known, but unfortunately at the cost of not really having a particular person the reader can relate to.

    Posted by Chinoiseries | March 17, 2012, 9:09 pm
    • Chinoiseries,
      Some readers may like it but I don’t particularly. I suppose if one can leave a book with strong feeling about something, even though not anchored on any particular event in the book, would be called an achievement. That’s why it is called a “Notable” book of the LA Times, it has yet to win any award. 😉

      Posted by JoV | March 17, 2012, 9:20 pm
  9. Sorry that you didn’t enjoy this one as much, but I loved reading your thoughts. You said it right – reading this one like a novel would be a mistake, and there really is no closure per se, and no what-next.

    Posted by Aths | March 31, 2012, 5:14 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: March 2012 : Wrap-up! « JoV's Book Pyramid - April 10, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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