Julie Otsuka: The Buddha in the Attic

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“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.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies

988261_682712241754797_999308452_n The Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of nine short stories involving the lives of Indian American immigrants and their children. Some stories document the struggle immigrants go through as they attempt to adjust to a new society. Some characters want to hold on to their own cultural identity, or at least a peace of it. Others find it difficult to immerse themselves into the American way of life and, therefore, feel like an outsider. Sometimes, even the American-born children of immigrants feel like outsiders, unable to truly identify with either culture. In other cases, American-born children are largely disconnected from their heritage. For example, in the title-story, when Mr. and Mrs. Das visit their home country for the first time, they seem more like American tourists than Indians returning home.

Although none of the stories are action-packed, each one does take a small unexpected turn in the end. Also, the theme of love is evident in each story. For instance, in “A Temporary Matter,” Shobar and Shukumar are both aware of their faltering marriage. While both seek a new beginning, Shobar is alone in hoping for a new beginning together. However, love is not always related to romance. For example, in “When Mr. Pirzada came to dine” and “The Third and Final Continent,” love is more about friendship.

In general, although this book was a good way to pass time in the cardio room, it wasn’t a can’t-put-it-down type of book. Maybe the lack of action had something to do with it because it did seem kind of slow. But overall, I would recommend this book to immigrants and children of immigrants for I think they would definitely be able to relate to many of the experiences relayed in the book.

Piper Kerman: Orange Is The New Black

If you’re looking for jaw-dropping drama of prison life, unexpected turns, bumps in the road, or anything close to real experiences of hardships, this book may not be for you. Instead, what you’ll find is an account of the prison experience of an “atypical” female inmate, Piper Kerman. Unlike most of her fellow inmates, she’s a white, blonde, blue-eyed, middle class career women with a boyfriend/fiance, Larry, who seems completely understanding of her past. Also, unlike most other inmates whose criminal behavior was related to a need to survive, Kerman’s involvement in a decade old drug crime was the result of youthful curiosity and desire for adventure. Her experience in prison also seems atypical in that her race and educational background allots her several privileges that enable her to escape grueling experiences others may have. At least that’s the way she makes it seem.

Despite being completely void of drama or tension, I did find myself returning to the book multiple times a day. What I found most intriguing is the insight this book provides into the social norms of the particular prison she was at for nearly 2 years. Women who look after each other, special movie nights and dishes prepared in the microwave, the norms of greeting new inmates with gifts and the specific questions asked, etc. It sheds light on the fact that in any situation, where there is more than 1 person, there will be norms of some sort. And when those norms are broken, there are consequences. The book also provides insight into the fact that many female inmates are not adequately prepared to face the outside world. For instance, women in prison are not really taught how to find legitimate employment other than being advised to use the Internet. The problem, however, lies in the fact that most of these women either don’t know how to use computers or don’t own them. It’s no surprise, therefore, that inmates often return to prison shortly after release. Overall, it’s not the most action-packed book, but much can still be gained.