The Buddha in the Attic

by Julie Otsuka

Hardcover, 2011

Call number




Knopf (2011), Edition: 1, 144 pages


Presents the stories of six Japanese mail-order brides whose new lives in early twentieth-century San Francisco are marked by backbreaking migrant work, cultural struggles, children who reject their heritage, and the prospect of wartime internment.

Media reviews

This passage may give a clue as to how Julie Otsuka's book is to be read. She calls it a novel. It is closely and carefully based on factual history/ies. There are novelistically vivid faces, scenes, glimpses, voices, each for a moment only, so you cannot linger anywhere or with anyone. Information
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is given, a good deal of it, in the most gracefully invisible manner; and history is told. Yet the book has neither a novel's immediacy of individual experience, nor the broad overview of history. The tone is often incantatory, and though the language is direct, unconvoluted, almost without metaphor, its true and very unusual merit lies, I think, in that indefinable quality we call poetry.....I am sorry that after it, in the last chapter, she suddenly changes her narrative mode and ceases to follow her group of women. The point of view changes radically and "we" suddenly are the whites: "The Japanese have disappeared from our town."
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Narrated in the first-person plural, The Buddha in the Attic is a slight, but powerfully moving piece of prose. It tells the story of a group of Japanese mail-order brides, from their journey to America, through marriage, work, childbirth and motherhood, until they and their entire communities are
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rounded up at the beginning of the war....Some might find the plurality of voice troubling, suggesting that it does little to restore individual identities to those whom history has forgotten, but I would argue the opposite. A host of individual characters and experiences crystallise as families and communities take root
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But the book’s plural voice is particularly effective at capturing their long, giddy conversations on the ship as they wonder if American men really grow hair on their chests, put ­pianos in their front parlors and dance “cheek to cheek all night long” with their lucky wives....But no story
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in the conventional sense ever develops, and no individuals emerge for more than a paragraph....Had we known them as full individuals — as real and diverse and distinct — we couldn’t have whisked them away to concentration camps in the desert. A great novel should shatter our preconceptions, not just lacquer them with sorrow.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member cameling
In the early 20th Century, picture brides from Japan came to the Western coast of the United States to marry men they'd only known through photographs and letters. Most came from poor families seeking a better economic life in the United States, believing their picture husbands to be the doctors,
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engineers, successful businessmen they had professed to be in their letters. What greeted them when their ships docked were more often the same men in the photographs they had clutched in their hands for the entire journey, but many years older.

This book is divided into chapters of these women's lives. Their journey to the United States, their first nights as married women to men they didn't know and now didn't even like, their backbreaking work as planters or harvesters in the fields similar to the ones they had tried to escape from, or work as maids in big houses, their unfamiliarity with a new language and new culture, the birth of their children and their transfer to internment camps during WWII.

The passion, the fear, the confusion, the despair and the anger of these women come through clearly through paragraphs that are written so beautifully and poetically. The tumultuous voices of all these women leap in bursts or energy and at times quietly but always urgently from the pages of this book.
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LibraryThing member rosalita
In The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka uses a strikingly original story form to explore the lives of Japanese mail-order brides summoned to California by strange men from their homeland who have emigrated before them. Rather than delve deeply into the stories of one or a handful of these women,
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Otsuka chooses instead to tell the stories of a multitude of women in a way that emphasizes the uniqueness of each of their lives. The unusual format is very effective at demonstrating the impossibility of ever telling the story of Japanese women in mid-20th century America. Each of them came from a different life in Japan, and found themselves married to very different men in America.

The multiple lives are recounted in an unwavering list format:

Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing. Some of us were farmers’ daughters from Yamaguchi with thick wrists and broad shoulders who had never gone to bed after nine. Some of us were from a small mountain hamlet in Yamanashi and had only recently seen our first train. Some of us were from Tokyo, and had seen everything, and spoke beautiful Japanese, and did not mix much with any of the others.

I don’t think this type of storytelling could sustain itself across an extended narrative, which may explain the slim size of Otsuka’s novel. Brevity in length should in no way be confused with slightness of impact, however. The Buddha in the Attic is a powerful insight into what life was like in pre- and post-World War II America for Japanese-Americans, and may haunt readers long after the final page is turned.
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
This is the first novel I've ever read that was written in first person plural. I started out very skeptical of this technique, but I fell in synch with it rather quickly thanks to the lovely writing of Julie Otsuka.

This is the composite story of young Japanese women who came to the United States
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to live in California prior to the onset of World War II. There men whom they had only previous seen on pictures awaited them for the purpose of marriage. The marriages took place and children were born. When World War II did break out, individuals of Japanese descent suddenly started to disappear from the American west coast. The end of the book was startling and horrifying.

This is a short book, but it's one that gives a great overall picture of the people of Japanese descent living in America prior to and during World War II. It was so well done, in fact, that I'm wondering how many of the individual "stories" were really facts and not fictitious at all.
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LibraryThing member cestovatela
I like books best when they contain characters. The Buddha in the Attic does contain any characters, and I think this is a problem. Rather than focusing on a few individuals' experiences, the book is told from the first person plural point of view: "On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long
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black hair and wide flat feet and we were not very tall..." For the first chapter, I found this method of describing the experiences of early twentieth century Japanese immigrants charming, but soon I began longing for a character I could feel attached to. I kept imagining that this character would arrive on the next page, or perhaps in the next chapter, for a full fifty pages before I realized that the whole book would be narrated by this mysterious "we." This approach is not without some merit. The book feels appealingly sweeping, and I really did feel that I gained a wider understanding of the lives of these women. The language is lyrical, the syntax is impressive, and the book's many small, thoughtful details tugged at my heart. Yet, without a few central characters, the book felt like an exceptionally beautiful non-fiction treatise, or perhaps an interesting experiment in literary style. There was never any suspense to it, and I knew I was never going to stay awake at night turning pages to discover the fate of a character I loved. That made the reading experience kind of hollow.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
More prose poem than traditional novel, Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic is a lyrical account of the lives of picture brides from the time they get on the boat to America in Japan in the early years of the twentieth century to their deportation to the Japanese internment camps during World
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War II.

She tells the story in simple declarative sentences such as these from the beginning of the book:

On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel a young girls and had lightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.

Taking this approach through their first meeting with their husbands, the birth and raising of their children and the their confusion and terror as America went to war with their homeland and they became suspected of being disloyal to their adopted country.

As you read this book parallels between the Japanese and Muslim Americans becomes painfully obvious. America may be country of immigrants, but once here, Americans are not eager to welcome new immigrants coming behind them.
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LibraryThing member gbill
“The Buddha in the Attic” reads as an impressionist painting of the lives of Japanese-Americans in the years prior to WWII and their forced internment during the war at the order of the U.S. government. Otsuka does this by describing a wide variety of experiences from the perspective of a
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general “we”, as opposed to developing individual characters in a standard plot. It’s an effective and interesting technique.

The first couple chapters describing Japanese women and girls taking the boat over the Pacific en route to a first night with new husbands already in America that they had only seen in pictures (and often not accurate pictures) were most interesting to me; the internment itself less so. I liked how the title of the book came from one of those forced away from home leaving a “tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.” I also liked how near the end Otsuka takes the point of view of white Americans in towns that the Japanese-Americans have suddenly disappeared from in her “we”. A slice of American history, and a shameful slice at that.

On saying goodbye to a loved one, and the memory of a child:
“On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.”

On Japanese culture at the time:
“Most of us on the boat were accomplished, and were sure we would make good wives. We knew how to cook and sew. We knew how to serve tea and arrange flowers and sit quietly on our flat wide feet for hours, saying absolutely nothing of substance at all. A girl must blend into a room: she must be present without appearing to exit. We knew how to behave at funerals, and how to write short, melancholy poems about the passing of autumn that were exactly seventeen syllables long.”

On sex:
“They took us with more skill than we had ever been taken before and we knew we would always want them. They took us as we cried out with pleasure and then covered our mouths in shame. They took us swiftly, repeatedly, and all throughout the night, and in the morning when we woke we were theirs.”

On being wife at the time:
“It was their women who taught us things we most needed to know. … How to wash a lipstick stain out of your husband’s favorite white shirt even when that lipstick stain was not yours. How to raise up your skirt on the street to reveal just the right amount of ankle. You must aim to tantalize, not tease. How to talk to a husband. How to argue with a husband. How to deceive a husband. How to keep a husband from wandering too far from your side. Don’t ask him where he’s been or what time he’ll be coming home and make sure he is happy in bed.
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LibraryThing member Goldengrove
The Buddha in the Attic tells the story of Japanese emigration to America, beginning with the women who trustingly boarded ships to go to the husbands they had married by proxy, arranged by the matchmaker. Mostly they found that their new husbands were neither young, handsome nor rich, but just in
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need of a wife. The story continues as the immigrants work in houses, farms and laundries, raise their children and settle in their new home. As the Second World War approaches they are beginning to find that their children are American, and themselves, an embarassment.
Life has not been easy, but they have made themselves a place; once Japan enters the war, however, they find that now they are seen as enemy - dangerous, foreign, traitorous. All people of Japanese origin are taken to internment camps.
The unique style of this book adds greatly to its emotional power. There is no narrator, no particular characters, rather, Julie Otsuka has wound together her intricate research of memories, diaries, photographs and records, and presents little snippets of lives in one story. The effect is to show us many individuals living one common experience.
As the Japanese are taken away the viewpoint shifts, and we hear the thoughts of the Americans who were their nieghbours, employers and friends. The wistful tone of this part of the book reminded me - unexpectedly - of Malcolm Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. Just as the settlers on Mars barely noticed the fading away of the Martians, so the Americans became more aware of an absence than of the leaving of the Japanese: they are quickly forgotten, their houses broken into and looted, the children's school places taken by others.
I found it a beautiful and haunting book.
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LibraryThing member Rdra1962
This book is written is a style I have never come across, and that includes other books written by the author. The paragraphs read almost as running lists, each one throwing out the different ways many women experience moments of their journey as brides immigrating to America.
Selected as brides
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for men already in the US, the women come from varying backgrounds and make their choices for different reasons. Every element of their lives differs, and each experience is valid and needed to be documented. Instead of focussing on a few characters and writing a typical narrative, the author has done an exhaustive amount of research and is presenting us with as many heartbreaking, frightening, exhilarating, triumphant, humiliating, mundane, shameful, loving and terrifying moments as she can. No word is wasted, no experience unimportant and all contribute to my understanding of the experience of the Japanese women who came here for a better life, who came here to find love, who came looking for the American dream and what happened to all they had worked for when after many years, Pearl Harbor happened.

To me this book read as a long, flowing poem and it honors and memorializes the lives, struggles, triumphs, failures, and sometimes destruction of these women.
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LibraryThing member mochap
listened to this moving book on CD--highly recommended format. Story of Japanese brides who came to America in the 20s to meet their new husbands, only to learn that the lives they had been promised were not what they received. Told mostly in first person plural ("We came...We learned...", etc.).
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Interesting device.
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LibraryThing member Clara53
Throwing caution to the wind - and why not?... - the author treads the ocean of cultural differences between America and Japan. A unique perspective. All those Japanese brides crossing the ocean to get to America, nursing all the wonderful dreams, and getting bitterly disappointed upon arriving.
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And then day by day building a new life, only to be thwarted by the government as the Second World War begins and being torn from their homes. Almost the whole book is written from the point of view of these women (no single protagonist, but you feel you know them all - through the powerful descriptive skill of the author), except that in the end Julie Otsuka switches to the reaction of the general American population - after their Japanese neighbors virtually disappeared.... An excellent work. It makes me want to look for the author's previous novel right away.
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LibraryThing member dallenbaugh
The Buddha in the Attic is a touching, actually heart rending, account of the lives of Japanese "picture women" coming to San Francisco in the early 1900's to meet their new husbands. The book tells of their dreams, the grim reality that greets them, and then their attempts to settle themselves
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into a life they could not even imagine would be theirs.

Each chapter "Come, Japanese", "First Night", "Babies", etc. consists of short sentences with each woman speaking, one after another after another, about their new lives, their feelings about what is happening to them, and how others "whites" treat them, sometimes kindly, but mostly as if they are subhuman.

Then, after they have, in part, been assimilated in and adjusted to their new land, the war comes with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese in America are rounded up and taken away to be put in camps as if they never existed except as a threat, and never contributed anything to their new country.

The book is difficult to read in long stretches, and worked better for me to read in short increments partly due to the subject matter and partly due to the style of writing. But the writing style ultimately made the book much more powerful in conveying the hardship of these families first in adjusting to their bewildering new lives, and then after believing in their success having to adjust to the idea their new country only considered them threats to national security.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
I loved Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine and have been waiting for years for her to publish a second novel. I had high expectaions, but, sadly, they weren't quite met. The Buddha in the Attic exhibits the same lovely, spare, almost-poetic style, reminiscent of a fine brush lightly stroked
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across rice paper--nothing to fault there. And in telling bits of the stories of Japanese picture-brides, Otsuka intrigues us with the beautiful, the sad, the mundane, and the horrific. The problem, for me, is her choice of what is mainly a first person plural narration--"we"--to represent them (although periodically she shifts to "they," speaking both of the women's offspring but also of the white Americans, who later become "we"; are you confused yet?). Otsuka claims that she chose this form because "the Japanese are a collective people," but it seemed more like a gimmick to me.

There are two main problems with this narration. First, stylistically, it starts to get monotonous, even though some of the details, events and images are striking. Second, aside from the basic fact that all the women are picture brides who emigrate from Japan, they are NOT all from similar backgrounds, nor are all their experiences in America all similar. Here's an example of what I mean--which is NOT Otsuka's exact language but my attempt to recreate a section of the audiobook:

Some of our husbands looked like their photographs. Some of our husbands were 20 years older than in their photographs. Some of our husbands had sent us photographs of a handsome friend. Some of our husbands were very tall. Some of our husbands were shorter than we were. All of our husbands had that strange smell. What was it? Some of our husbands beat us every night. One of our husbands treasured his wife like a pearl. Many of our husbands got drunk every night. Some of our husbands bought us special gifts to show their love.
Some of our husbands took up our work in the fields when we were too exhausted so the boss wouldn't get mad. Some of our husbands made us sleep on straw in the barn like dogs.

Well, you get the idea. I understand why many readers were captivated, but, personally, I wanted to know more about the woman who, when asked if she would sleep with a man for $5, told him she would for 10. I would much have preferred to read the developed stories of a few women's lives than to read these artful lists of "collective" lives. In When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka's multiple narrators--simply called the woman, the man, the boy, and the girl--were much more successful, I think, in creating the sense of a community's shared experience.

Would I have liked it better in print than on audio? I don't think so; the main reader was actually quite good.
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LibraryThing member amillion
I'd give this book 3 1/2 stars, but while the writing style is initially very intriguing, representing the communal shared experience and ultimately shared responsibility, the first person plural without any one particular narrator (ie. our husband was a farmer. our husband was a migrant worker.
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our husband was a fisherman.) grew to be irritating. It was a successful in making me feel the breadth of experience of these Japanese mail brides on their journey to the US, their disappointment and struggles of finding themselves in a different world than they'd been promised, and through to their internment during WWII. But I'm really glad it was a short book, I couldn't have read many more of the lists of experience. Overall, I appreciated the book, but enjoyed Otsuka's previous book on the Japanese internment "When the Emperor was Divine" much better.
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LibraryThing member julie10reads
Less a novel than a tone poem, The Buddha in the Attic is narrated in the first person plural: “we”. These are the voices of the “picture brides”, Japanese women of early 20th century who sailed to California (passage paid by their future husbands) to marry the men who had sent for them.
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Like brushtrokes on cold pressed paper, the women lay down their varied stories in shades of hope, fear, dread and desire. They paint their departures from home, the ocean voyage, their arrival and the consummation of the bargains they had made with strangers. For some, the picture is bright and happy. For others, the picture is dark with drudgery and degradation. No names are given, no distinct personalities conferred; instead, the author conflates the voices into a chorus of ghosts. I could easily imagine it set to music.
I’m not sure of Ms Otsuka’s purpose: is she laying to rest the memories of these women, women who had no choice in their own destiny? Or is she resurrecting them in order to give voice to a forgotten generation, a generation that suffered cruelly from racism and poverty? Either way, The Buddha in the Attic is an elegant literary composition. Recommended for readers who enjoy style as well as content.

8 out 10.
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LibraryThing member GCPLreader
The cover says that it's a novel. It's so tiny, though, that I'd call it a novella, but not even really that. In my classroom we'd qualify such a work as a brainstorm, or what we call "seed ideas". The entire novel is written in the 3rd person plural narrative and follows a group of Japanese
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"picture brides" in the early 20th century. Not that it really follows them, for we never know exactly who the novel is about. It's strange to read a book without characters, where the characters are a collective people and share a collective experience. But that's not right, either. For the experiences of the women are all different and only in the various chapter headings does the author assimilate stories of their arrival in California, being young wives, mothers, and in the finale-- victims of the US government's internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII. I wholly expected not to like this, yet the writing was so damn beautiful. I'll give it 4 stars-- it really is an original work. I would have preferred, however, that Otsuka use her gorgeous chapters as (what's the word?) frontispieces to chapters that follow specific characters. If nothing else, the author has given herself thousands of stories to explore and develop in the future.
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LibraryThing member KerryAD
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
LibraryThing member melissarochelle
Read from October 01 to 06, 2011

I really want to give this one four stars, but I'm not sure if it's that memorable. I loved the plural POV and the writing was great, but there was something missing. The story definitely has an impact and I want to learn more about Japanese immigrants from the early
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20th century. And I guess that's what was missing: that one story that draws you in. This felt like one big overview, perhaps if the "we" had been used every other chapter with some "I" thrown in between?

I'm not saying it was bad...but I just wanted a little more.
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LibraryThing member susiesharp
This was a fascinating little book, a quick read that really packs a punch. I read this for bookclub and one of the things that struck us was the collective “we” of this book, the fact that it wasn’t about one person making this journey to a new country it was about a whole generation. How
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some were happy with their new husband some weren’t, some were treated badly some not. It was just a very fascinating look at a whole generation of women.

The narration by, Samantha Quan & Carrington MacDuffie was very well done.
This is a quick yet powerful read that I highly recommend for bookclubs.

4 stars
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
This slim volume is a gem. In a few short chapters, Otsuka captures the experiences of Japanese immigrants in the early 1900s. Rather than illustrating this experience through the eyes of a few characters, the book is written in the first person plural. Here are the first few lines:

"On the boat we
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were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves."

In this way, we learn intimate details of the lives led by these "picture brides," women who came to America to meet their husbands. Despite the use of the first person plural, Otsuka conveys that the lives led by these women and their reactions to a new country were quite distinct. However, when World War II began, the Japanese immigrants were not treated as distinct people at all. Instead, they were sent away from their homes based on their collective identity, their Japanese heritage. With few words, but much emotion, Otsuka captures this experience as well. I expect that this book will stick with me because of its distinct style and sharp insights. Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
This is a short novella written in the first person plural narrative about Japanese women who were imported as brides to the U.S. in the early 1920's and ends with their removal to the Japanese internment camps in the 1940's. If you read the acknowledgements, you'll note that the author used some
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of Donald Rumsfeld's statements about Guantanamo for the statements of the local politicians at the time of the removal of the people of Japanese heritage. Read into that whatever you like.

The only other book I can recall reading in first person plural is Tim Obrien's The Things They Carried. Buddha has a similar cadence to that book, but perhaps not quite the same level of skill in building the story as Tim O'Brien.
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LibraryThing member Copperskye
Spare, concise and heartbreaking.

The life of Japanese "picture" brides brought to California in the early 20th century. Similar in style and a great companion and prelude to When the Emperor Was Divine, this is not a novel in the traditional sense - it almost reads more like a long poetry piece.
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The women, although sometimes named individually, are more often referred to as a collective "we". Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member queencersei
Buddha in the Attic follows the journey of Japanese mail order brides at the turn of the twentieth century. The novel follows the brides hopes and fears as they journey to America, the husbands that they marry and the children that they raise. It also details the beginnings of World War II, the
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fear as members of their insular community in California disappear, one by one. Finally they are nearly all taken by train into the interior of the United States, shattering the lives that they had worked so hard to build. The novel is unique in that instead of focusing on specific characters, it is written in a collective voice. This style works well and the novel is impossible to put down.
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LibraryThing member JGoto
The Buddha in the Attic is written in first person plural. We did this and we did that. This accomplishes two things: It speaks for a whole group and thereby tells us a history of a people. The group that the story follows are Japanese picture brides, leaving Japan armed only with photos of their
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future husbands. The second result of the "we" style is that it prevents any intimacy with characters. After the first chapter and a half, I began to wonder when the "real" story would begin. I wondered when I would see the "real" characters. After another chapter, I realized there would be no "real" characters or story. The chapters themselves became the story, beginning with the voyage across the Pacific and continuing with the meeting of husbands, the homes they lived in, the bearing of children, etc. The pages themselves sometimes read like a laundry list: "Home was a bed of straw ...alongside ...horses and cows. Home was a corner of the washhouse at Stockton's Cannery Ranch. Home was a bunk in a rusty boxcar in Lompac. Home was an old chicken coop in Willows that the Chinese had lived in before us." Etc., etc. It goes on and on in this monotonous style, sometimes for two full pages. It is a short book (only 129 pages), but I would have given up halfway through if I hadn't needed to read it for my book club. The last section did get better. It dealt with the internment of Japanese during the second world war. At last the people mentioned seemed human and their situation evoked my sympathy. The Buddha in the Attic received high praise and Otsuka's prose was likened to poetry. I'm sorry - I just don't see it.
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LibraryThing member Vivl
Beautiful. I loved the "hive mind" approach to fictionalising oral history, although I know it annoyed some readers: a few members of my book club would have preferred to have followed the individual stories in a more traditional manner. My thought was that to write it that way, while retaining the
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diversity of experience, would have resulted in a book at least 10 times as long and lacking in the delicious lightness of touch that blesses this slim and enchanting volume.

This made me want to know more about the subject, so I was glad to see Julie Otsuka's long list of references at the end.

I'm very keen to seek out more of her writing.
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LibraryThing member ccayne
My last read of 2011 with Agatha Christie, the library cat. This is a collection on vignettes about very young women who came to the US from Japan as brides. Needless to say, the picture didn't match the reality. Otsuka provides snapshots of the journey in very affecting yet unusual prose. Her
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style is more poetic than prose. She spins an image, a collective sense of their lives but does not create characters who we come to know. Much of her style reccites almost like a list how the women face each phase of the arduous journey from the ship journey to the U.S., meeting their husbands, sex, birth, motherhood, work, betrayal deceit to the internment camps. The piece on working in "white" California was quite something.
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