Julie Otsuka: The Buddha in the Attic

“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 exist.

The Buddha in the Attic is a short novel based on the true experiences of Japanese-American immigrants in the early 1990s. It begins with a group of group of Japanese picture brides journeying to America on a boat to finally meet the husbands they only knew through letters and photos. They compare photos of their spouses and imagine what their new lives will be like in a foreign country where men held doors for women and it’s always “ladies first.”

However, it turns out that even in America, they will lead invisible lives — both as women and as Japanese immigrants. It turns out they were lied to. Their husbands are 20 years older than the photos led them to believe. Their husbands weren’t accomplished business men in American. It turns out they would still be farmers wives or house maids in a foreign land that didn’t welcome them.

As years go on, the women slowly lose their sense of identity. They stop grooming themselves and live routine emotionless lives as though they were machines. Working in the public for their families and working in the home for their husbands. But whatever the Japanese women do, they remain in the background — quiet, cleanly, and reliable, but always invisible.

When war breaks out, the situation worsens for Japanese Americans. Eventually, the suspicion grows and they are removed from their communities. It is only then do the Americans notice the Japanese among them. It is only when they disappear that they become present.

Overall, this book was interesting to me because it was like all of the Japanese picture brides from the both were speaking in one voice and their experiences melted together into one. It was also beautifully written — quiet and gentle, as though a Japanese person was speaking to me.

Kathleen Grissom: The Kitchen House

WK-BC920_ARENA_DV_20120814154317Although The Kitchen House takes place on a tobacco plantation in Virginia during the era of slavery, it was more about challenging traditional understandings of what constitutes a family. Lavinia is only seven years old when both of her parents die, her brother is sold away, and she is brought to the Pyke’s plantation to work as a servant in the kitchen. She is clearly different from the rest of Captain Pyke’s “properties.” She’s a white girl from Ireland with fiery red hair and freckles on her face.  However, throughout her childhood and even into young adulthood,  Lavinia remain largely oblivious to the different social positions of whites and blacks. While her innocent ignorance enables her to  regard Captain Pyke’s slaves as her own family, it also proves to be a double-edged sword.

Overall, I highly recommend this book as a must read. You will not be disappointed by how well the characters and their relationships with one another are developed. You may even find yourself thinking in the dialect used by some of the characters!

Patricia McCormick: Sold

Within the first few pages, I was hooked. Completely attached to Lakshmi, a thirteen year old country girl from Nepal. I feared for her when she was on her way to Calcutta, though she herself was oblivious of her situation. The whole time she fantasizes about the city with gold roofs; fantasizes about the luxuries her family can now enjoy with the money she earns as a maid. When Lakshmi arrives at the “Happiness House” and sees  girls “wearing dresses of ever color,” adorned with flashy jewelry, eyes painted “with black crayon,” and lips “like red chilis,” I wanted to tell her that this is not where movie stars live.

A short fictive novel based on extensive research and true experiences, Sold is a glimpse into the Indian sex trade.  You may find yourself cringing with Lakshmi, crumbling the book with hatred, when the fish-lips man becomes her first customer. You may find yourself shouting at the book, trying to get Lakshmi to understand that the American man is not trying to “trick you and shame you and make you walk naked in public.” No, he is your route to freedom. You will want to nudge her, encourage her to follow him.

Overall, this is truly a book worth reading. Although it did leave me with the devastating thought of, “if this is a toned down version of reality, than how much more cruel is reality for these girls?”