The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the AtticTrue story: the other day I was looking at my calendar to see what was up for the week, and I noticed a bright red appointment labeled BOOK CLUB! the next evening. I said to myself, oh, crap, I have book club tomorrow?! and dashed to the shelf to make sure I had even obtained the book. Luckily, I had, and even more luckily, the book is only 129 pages long, so I settled in on the couch with plans to read it in a couple of hours.

Several hours later, I was done, not because the pages were secretly printed in tiny font or because I wanted to savor the words, but because I kept stopping every chapter or so to go do ANYTHING else. Make dinner? Sure! Play an hour or two of video games? Yes, please! Read this book? Ugh, fine, but only because I have book club in less than thirty hours.

It is possible, well, probable, that I came at this book very poorly. If I had read it knowing anything about it, I would have had a better mindset for the unconventional narration style and maybe wouldn’t have been annoyed nearly as much.

See, the book is written in sort of a first-person-plural point of view, but not quite exactly that. The narrator says “we” and “us” all over the place &mash; “We had long black hair”, “We often wondered: would we like them?”, “Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto” — but it’s a general, vague, hypothetical “we” instead of a specific one.

And of course there’s a reason for the broadness — the book is telling the general, vague, hypothetical story of Japanese women who came to America as brides in the years before World War II, and the point of view says both, yes, we are all doing different things but our cultural story is the same and yes, we all come from the same place but none of our lives are exactly the same. It’s fascinating and it makes you think about how many details of these women’s lives match your own, and but for happenstance this could be your life. The narrative stretches all the way to the departure of the Japanese for the internment camps, and the last chapter of the book abruptly changes point of view from the hypothetical we of the Japanese wives to the hypothetical we of the mostly white people left behind, and you can see the stark difference that those people didn’t think about how similar their lives were to their neighbors, that they took for granted that this wouldn’t, couldn’t happen to them.

So, fascinating. And sobering, if you’re, like me, a person who too often takes things for granted. But as a work of fiction? Sooooooooooooo boring. Those tiny details take up pages and pages of repetitive sentences and paragraphs and most of my breaks to go do something else came after me shouting, OKAY I GET IT, either in my head or out loud to my husband.

As a book club book, it was equally meh — it’s not a book that lends itself to strong opinions so we (we! augh!) were mostly like, yeah, it’s pretty okay. I think everyone else liked it a little better than I did, although I liked the switch-up in the last chapter more. I did find out during book club that the author has written other books with similar themes but different narrative styles, so we’ll see if I’m curious enough to read more.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a book club book, or as a last-minute read in general, but I do recommend it as a book to read when you want to get your thinky thoughts on and maybe one to get your bookish BFF to read and talk about with you.

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine

Woman with a Blue PencilI’ve got two words for you: mystery metafiction. If you like either of those words, you’ll probably like this book.

The conceit: this book is set up as if someone has found two manuscripts by an author and some letters sent by his editor and published them together as this new book. One manuscript, The Orchid and the Secret Agent, is a spy thriller published under a pen name, and the other, The Revised, is an unpublished manuscript with the author’s real name on it.

The book starts with the first chapter of The Revised, which is a fairly traditional mystery except that it’s set in 1941 riiiiight before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And has a Japanese protagonist. And a white villain. And a Japanese author, writing the book at the same time it’s set. So when the US jumps into World War II, well, the book has to change.

The author’s editor sends over a letter saying that the story’s got to change or go, and we can see that he decides on change, as the next bit we get is the first chapter of Orchid, with a completely different writing style, a Korean protagonist, and Japanese antagonists. But meanwhile the author is wondering what might have happened to the protagonist from his first draft, Sam Sumida, and we get the rest of Sam’s story woven throughout this book, and, we find, throughout the new novel as well.

It’s a little complicated to explain, but it reads just fine, with bits of each manuscript and the letters from the editor (the titular woman) trading off easily to form a story far more complex than its parts. You get the main mystery of Orchid, of course, but then you get a sort of science-fictional story in The Revised, as the author chooses to have Sam go into a theater before Pearl Harbor and come out of it afterward into a world where he no longer exists. And of course you get a story about how Americans treated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, and how they treated anyone vaguely Asian, and how this played out in direct and casual prejudice. And then on top of that you get a sprinkling of the fight between writer and editor to create the best story versus the most sellable story.

This is a really cool book, guys. The stories themselves as written are a little rough, as a consequence of their conceits and of the fact that we don’t actually get a complete story out of either of them, but put together they form something really intriguing. I have a feeling this is not going to be the next blockbuster novel, but if you can get your hands on it it’s a fun, quirky, and short read that is more than worth the time you’ll put into it.

Recommendation: For people who like their books a little thinky and a little weird, but not too much of either.

Rating: 8/10

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

So here’s a book I was probably never going to read, because everyone and their brother was fawning over it when it came out a couple years ago and I only go for those massively loved books if they sound like something I’d read anyway (see The Night Circus). And while I have a soft spot for Holocaust books, I have somehow never gotten into other World War II books in the same way. But perhaps this will change, because this was a pretty good book!

Hotel, as I will call it because dang, long title, is about a dude who hears about a trove of unclaimed stuff left after the forced removal of Japanese Americans from Seattle during “the war years” and is like, “Hey, I know a person who left her stuff there! I’mma go looking for a specific thing that might be there, but also I’ll take some time to prove to my estranged son that I have layers and maybe also stop acting like my father while I’m at it.”

Hmm. That sounds pretty bad. But for all that I love frame stories, I really prefer the frame to be around the story, not all up in it (see The Madonnas of Leningrad), and so this outer story with the dad and the son and the dead wife was pretty meh to me.

What I really enjoyed was the past story, with Our Dude, Henry, growing up Chinese and American at the same time and dealing with all of that drama and then also dealing with having a Japanese best friend (not good for Chinese or American kids at the time) and watching how her life goes terribly and unfixably wrong. There’s so much truth and sadness to Henry’s life at a new, white school — the loss of his old friends, the rejection by his new classmates, his parents’ pride in the scholarship that has him slinging food in the cafeteria every day, his attachment to the only other person who might understand. It’s quite beautiful.

I wish the whole of the book had felt that way; there was a lot of the frame story that was less than truthful and often boringly predictable. But not offensively so, and I was so excited to get back to kid Henry’s story that it didn’t bother me terribly much.

I’m not sure I would ever have picked this book up were it not for my book club, and I’m not sure I would go recommend this book to my past self without the reward of the book club, but I am glad that I read it and I hope it opens up a whole new section of war stories for me.

Recommendation: For fans of war stories and coming-of-age stories, and also possibly people who like jazz music.

Rating: 7/10