Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Julie Otsuka--Little Books, Big Books

Julie Otsuka
The 2011 National Book Award is announced this week and two Random House titles--The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht and The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka--are nominated for the prestigious fiction prize.  I (Liz) had read The Tiger's Wife back in March, and it is generally considered the odds favorite.  I'd overlooked reading Julie Otsuka's work, though, and this weekend decided that I should catch up with one of the books last year's winner, Jaimy Gordon, predicted might be an upset winner.  Being the crazy book fiend I am though (see: Operation Chuck), I read both The Buddha in the Attic and Otsuka's earlier book, When the Emperor Was Divine.

How to read two books in just over 24 hours?  It helps when both books are under 150 pages in length.  I'm not a speed reader--really, I'm not.  I just don't sleep.  I started with When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka's earlier book.  Emperor has become a classroom favorite along the lines of Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird, and it's not difficult to see why.  This is the story of a family of Japanese Americans who are evacuated to internment camps in World War II.  These characters--a mother, son, daughter, and absent husband who was taken to an enemy combatant camp--are relatively anonymous, archetypal.  The experiences they face are characteristic of those endured during one of the greatest civil rights atrocities in US history, and the absence of character names makes these stories feel universal and profound in their ordinariness.  I was also struck by Julie Otsuka's ability to write beautiful sentences with relatively simple vocabulary.  I'm not a language lover like the wannabe poets out there; my book love usually is character-related.  Still, I noted the vocabulary of this book and the beauty of her sentences.  This is a book that a high school student can read and appreciate, a book that challenges and educates and moves.

After finishing When the Emperor Was Divine, I picked up Otsuka's NBA-nominated, new novel, The Buddha in the Attic.  In one sense, Buddha is a prequel to Emperor, in that the time frame involved begins in 1919 and moves up to the Japanese internment in World War II.  However, while Emperor used a family to relate a more universal experience for Japanese Americans, Buddha uses a different tact.  This is a novel without specifics--it's the story of a whole group of Japanese women who come to the United States as mail order brides.  They are city girls, country girls, educated girls, innocent children, old maids, younger sisters too plain to become geishas.  They come to the US to meet husbands who were allegedly bankers, lawyers, business owners...but who are farm hands, day laborers.  These are women learning to survive in a foreign land.  In 120+ pages, Julie Otsuka manages to capture 25 years of struggle and strength for an entire subset of the population, and again she's captured beauty.  This little book is great.  If it manages to win the National Book Award, I won't be protesting, but even if it doesn't, The Buddha in the Attic is worth reading.

1 comment:

  1. "When the Emperor Was Divine" by Julie Otsuka is a non-fiction story about a Japenese family during WW2 whose father was taken from their California home and they were sent to an internment camp in Utah. It is a story of their struggles and everything they had to endure. A huge message through out the book is being postive and finding the good in things even when times are hard. Having and learning acceptance and tolerence toward everyone is the main theme through out this book. Although the family is stuck in an internment camp they still try to be postive and make the best of it. The only thing in the book I did not like was that the characters did not have names. I really enjoyed reading "When the Emperor Was Divine" because I learned a lot and it was extremly interesting.