Tag Archives: when the emperor was divine


My final read of 2011 was The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. This was my second Otsuka novel – the first was When the Emperor was Divine, which I read just before The Buddha in the Attic and reviewed here.

Buddha in the AtticThe Buddha in the Attic is about picture brides who came to the U.S. from Japan in the early 1900s in search of promising futures with young, handsome men whose pictures they carried with them on the long trip over. Most of the women were met by men who looked very different (older, shorter) and were significantly less wealthy than they had promised in their letters. On arrival, these women were forced into lives of sharecropping, farming, laundering, cleaning houses, or other physical labor – a far cry from the luxurious existences they had expected.

The Buddha in the Attic isn’t a linear story; instead, it’s like diary entries from a hundred women compressed into a mosaic. The book is grouped loosely into chapters covering the trip to the U.S.; the first night with their new husbands; the reality of their new lives; the babies they had; the Pearl Harbor attack; and (as described in much more detail in When the Emperor was Divine) the Japanese internment in which most of the women lost their homes, their jobs and sometimes their husbands. Some people may not be fans of this almost poetic approach, but I liked it a lot. Otsuka wrote in the first person plural, kind of like a Greek chorus. I loved the breadth of the women’s experiences, and how she took a single defining event, such as the first night of marriage or the trip over on the boat, and showed how different women experienced it.

The Buddha in the Attic was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I can see why. It’s fresh and different and moving. I think between the two novels, I slightly preferred When the Emperor was Divine. It was a little more satisfying because it followed one (admittedly nameless) family. But I liked The Buddha in the Attic a lot too. These women led such difficult and painful lives, and Otsuka really captured them, poignantly, in great detail.

This is a quick read, and I really recommend it.


OtsukaLast month, Julie Otsuka was a finalist for the National Book Award for her book The Buddha in the Attic. I hadn’t heard of her before, but was intrigued by both that book and her first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, which is about Japanese internment camps during WWII. When the Emperor was Divine is told from the point of view of four members of a Japanese family living in Berkeley in 1942 – the mother, who receives orders to pack up her family and move from their home; her daughter, who describes the long, dusty train ride to Utah, where they lived for 3 years; her son, who talks about the monotonous life they lived in the camp; and finally the father, who was sent for four years to prison on suspicion of being a dangerous Japanese loyalist.

When the Emperor was Divine is short but packed with evocative, powerful prose. Otsuka never gives her characters names; their anonymity only heightens the process of deracination and loss of ownership they went through in the camp. It’s such a sad, embarrassing episode in our history, and Otsuka doesn’t dramatize it – she lets the details and facts tell the story dispassionately. At one point, she simply lists all that the son remembers about her father – “He loved pistachio nuts. He liked to doodle. He wore beautiful suits and did not yell at waiters. Whenever the boy knocked on his door his father would look up and smile and put down whatever it was that he was doing. He was extremely polite.” etc. No flowery emotion here, but none needed – you can tell how the boy feels about his father just by this list.

I read a comment on Amazon that said that at an author event, Otskuka revealed that while researching her book, she didn’t interview people who had been interned at the camps (and who are dying off), but instead relied on books that have been written about the period. I was disappointed to hear that. There is a lot of detail in When the Emperor was Divine that I’d assumed had come from primary sources, not necessarily from her imagination or from a book. But knowing this didn’t lessen the impact of the book for me, which was strong. I liked this book a lot and look forward to starting The Buddha in the Attic.

Hey, FTC! How was your holiday? Oh, mine was great, thanks. In fact, this book was a Hanukah gift – nice, huh? So you don’t have to worry about the undue influence of a free review copy here.

Google Reader Roundup

Due to the Snowpocalypse that hit DC last Friday, I had a rare chance to catch up on my Google reader over the weekend. I found a lot of great book-related posts. I thought I'd share some of them here:

Jacquelyn_mitchard Heather at Book Addiction reviewed the new Jacquelyn Mitchard book No Time To Wave Goodbye. It is the sequel to her bestseller, The Deep End of the Ocean, which is about young boy who is abducted and returned to his family nine years later. The sequel picks up many years later, when the family is celebrating an Oscar nomination for a documentary about the disappearance. Then, "suddenly everyone is thrust back into the same nightmare they suffered over a decade ago." I remember reading The Deep End of the Ocean many years ago, and was intrigued to see what the sequel was like. Heather had some issues with the pacing of No Time to Wave Goodbye, but ultimately she enjoyed it and was glad that she read it. 

Gwen at Literary License reviewed a book I saw at BEA last spring – Lying with the Dead by Michael Mewshaw. I've been curious about it ever since I saw it. According to Gwen: 

In Michael Mewshaw’s latest novel, three grown siblings, all haunted by
a traumatic childhood, converge on their dying mother’s home in
Maryland….The narrative alternates among the three voices of the siblings, but,
because there’s little difference [between them], much of the
effect is lost. Further, depicted as unrelentingly abusive and selfish,
the mother has few redeeming qualities and forms an unconvincing
emotional center of this novel. Mewshaw’s real strength is in writing
credible dialog. At least half the book (and probably more) is straight
dialog, which keeps the pace lively and engaging. Although lacking
depth of characterization, Lying with the Dead is an entertaining and
quick-paced family drama.

Becky at A Book A Week featured a book about a family during the Japanese internment in the U.S. during W.W. II: When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka. I've always been interested in this time in American history. Here's an excerpt of her review:

Emperor The book has only six chapters. Each one describes one event in the
life of this family. The first chapter describes the housewife
preparing to evacuate from her home, under orders from the U. S.
government. She packs up her family’s belongings, closes up the house,
and prepares for departure to an unknown place, for an uncertain amount
of time. Another chapter describes the woman and her children on the
train to the internment camp. Subsequent chapters describe the camp and
their experiences, with the final chapter describing their return home
to Berkeley, California at the close of the war, and the return of the
family’s father from imprisonment in Texas.

It’s a sad story of
loneliness and despair, of shattered dreams and trust. Otsuka never
gives her characters names, referring to them only as “the woman,” and
“the boy.” This distances us from the characters, yet at the same time
Otsuka excels at providing tiny intimate clues about these characters’
personalities and needs. Her simple approach belies a complex,
multilayered story. I wish I could remember who recommended this to me
so I could tell them how much I loved it.

And finally, Neil at Book Group Buzz wrote a post appreciating Alain de Botton, one of my favorite authors. He wrote, "The works of this Swiss-born writer,
columnist, and television commentator are concise, thoughtful, and
entertaining. They are diverse, covering subject including literature,
architecture, travel, material culture, and work. If you encourage
readers to pick up something by de Botton, everyone in your group
should be able to find something of interest. His prose is lucid,
employing short, clear sentences and interspersed with marvelous
descriptive examples." Most of the Alain de Botton books I have read are from his early years (On Love, The Romantic Movement), but this post features many of his more recent ones.

I hope you enjoy these links too!