The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic

Julie Otsuka (Adult Historical Fiction)

They came from all over Japan: Yamaguchi, Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Yamanashi, and Kagoshima.  Most were virgins ranging in age from just fourteen to thirty-seven years old.  Some came from the city and wore stylish clothes while those from the country wore patched and re-dyed kimonos.  They all came—from the mountains to the seashore—to board a boat that would take them to America.  All were going with a promise and a picture.  All were leaving to marry.

Julie Otsuka writes about the “picture brides” (similar to mail-order brides) of the early 1900s who, through a matchmaker and family recommendations, traveled from Japan to marry a fellow countryman in America.  The families of the brides were often influenced by money, the brides went to escape poverty and held dreams of a better life, and the grooms were looking for companionship while reaping the benefit of an extra pair of working hands.  The women quickly realized the folly of their aspirations and that their lives as migrant workers would define them as no better than slaves.  The promises of a picture showing a smiling young man with a hat in his hands standing in front of a white picket fence were quickly replaced with beatings, curfews, and living conditions often unfit for an animal.

Otsuka presents these women’s stories in eight sections: Boat Ride, First Night, Whites, Babies, The Children, Traitor, Last Day, and A Disappearance.  She takes her readers from the initial journey to America and then through marriage and childbirth and finally to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps. We are dragged through an emotional gauntlet yet these disturbing and deeply personal stories lack any kind of emotional teeth.  There’s simply nothing to really sink in to due to the choice of the author’s writing style.  Otsuka opts to tell her story through first-person collective.  Because she paints her story using very wide brushstrokes, we are presented with anywhere from six to twelve lives in the span of a single paragraph.  She sacrifices depth for breadth and we end up with prose that reads more like a bulleted presentation.  When describing the dreams of the women’s children, she writes, “One wanted to save up money to buy his own farm.  One wanted to become a tomato grower like his father.  One wanted to become anything but.  One wanted to plant a vineyard. One wanted to start his own label.  One could not wait until the day she got off the ranch.”  And on and on.  The vast majority of the book is like this with sentences starting off with “Some of us” or “Most of us” or Many of us”.  Only briefly are we allowed some glimpse into the humanity of these women when we get flashes of names like Akiko, Kazuko, Chiyo, and Makiyo.  The only time we really get a sense of mourning and loss, ironically enough, is when the Japanese had been driven from their communities and it is their American neighbors who are left to deal with their absence and loss.  As they recollect memories of their displaced Japanese neighbors, only then do we get a sense as to who these people were and the impact they had on those around them.

I feel that Otsuka really missed an opportunity by choosing to tell an anonymous and faceless story.  Without some figures to latch on to, we fail to form any kind of connection with these women and their ill-fated lives.  I feel nothing would have been lost and so much more would have been gained had she decided to focus on three or four individual women and allowed us to follow each of their separate journeys.  We would have been able to hope, dream, despair, and mourn with them as they tried to navigate a world that was often cruel, unforgiving, and unfair.  Instead, we got Polaroids rather than a movie.  We got one-dimensional versus 3D.  We got an indistinguishable group and not a living, breathing person.

The title of this book refers to what these women had to leave behind.  Instead, it might have been nicer to focus on what these women carried with them: not just a lifetime of pain and hurt and sorrow, but also an abundance of hope and honor and resilience.  These women slaved and birthed and suffered and endured because to do otherwise would have brought dishonor to their family and to themselves.  Former hi-tech executive and mentor, Peter Strople wrote, “Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.”  I am grateful for Julie Otsuka for bringing the stories of the “picture brides” to light and although this particular book didn’t resonate with me, these women deserve to have their stories heard so that their legacy is not confined to the written page, but rather should live on within our hearts.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Adult Historical Fiction)

Juliet Ashton is tired of writing under the name of Izzy Bickerstaff and no longer wants to be considered a light-hearted journalist.  She wants to create something meaningful, but has no idea where to find inspiration…until a letter comes.  It’s a kind note from a Mr. Dawsey Adams of St. Martin’s, Guernsey who found her name and address written on the inside front cover of a book written by his favorite author, Charles Lamb.  He asks if she could kindly send him the name and address of other bookshops in London (for there aren’t any left on Guernsey after the war) so that he may acquire more Lamb books?  Through several letters, Juliet begins to learn more about Guernsey and its famed Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and she has questions.  Questions such as how could a pig begin a literary society and what exactly is a potato peel pie?  Perhaps this is the inspiration that Juliet has been looking for?

I admit I was in Heaven while reading this book—a book about people who love books.  What’s not to like?  It also doesn’t hurt that the writing was witty and sharp, the characters were endearingly flawed and humorously relatable, and the story had an equal mix of quirky, sadness, drama, humor, treachery, suspense, and yes, love.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a touching and bittersweet book about the residents of Guernsey during the German occupation of the Channel Islands during WWII.  Through the stories of the island’s residents, as well as a few of the prison camp survivors, we get a glimpse of the toll that the destruction, separation, and isolation had on the human psyche.  We are also given stories of bravery, selflessness, and heroism, which illustrates the strength of the human spirit even during the darkest of times.

What started out as a ruse to prevent dinner guests from being arrested by German soldiers, the literary society ended up showing its members how much power a book possesses.  Books can motivate, educate, inspire, entertain, and transport us to worlds far beyond our borders and imagination.  For the members of the Guernsey literary society, a book turned a fisherman into a Casanova, saved a man from a life of inebriation, allowed a collector to find his faith, and bridged two very unlikely friendships.

I was a little wary when I discovered that this book consisted entirely of letters.  Would it have the same depth and weight of a typical novel?  O me, of little faith.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a descriptive, warm, engaging, and satisfying read that will make you long for village life and allow you to believe in love again.  And while this book reminds us that life is often tragic and history sometimes reveals the worst in humankind, it also shows us how resilient the human spirit is and how expansive our hearts can be when the need arises.

Just as a particular song might come on the radio when you need it most or the perfect meme pops up on your Facebook feed that strikes a certain chord, I believe a book acts in the same capacity.  It finds us—chooses us—and makes us think, challenge, defend, or dream while allowing us to imagine, escape, explore, or be comforted.  The perfect book always seems to find us at just the right time and it changes us somehow.  And when it does, WE then become the conduit and pass it along to someone in need of a good laugh, cry, or shriek.  Books are indeed powerful.  As Juliet wrote in one of her letters to Dawsey, “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.  How delightful if that were true.”  Maybe as delightful as a potato peel pie?  I’ll let you decide.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (YA)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas   

John Boyne (Young Adult Fiction)

Bruno slowed down when he saw the dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy.  Although there was a fence separating them, he knew that you could never be too careful with strangers and it was always best to approach them with caution.  So he continued to walk, and before long they were facing each other.

Bruno may have been just nine years old, but he knew something was wrong when he came home from school and found the family’s maid in his room packing up all of his belongings.  His father had received important military orders and the family was to leave their luxury home in Berlin to go someplace that Bruno had never heard of before.  When Bruno saw his new home, he didn’t like it all.  Theirs was the only house on the road.  And it was much smaller than their other home.  And behind it was a big yard with a spiky fence all around it.  A yard that contained small huts, several soldiers, and many, many men and boys all wearing identical striped pajamas with a matching cap.  It was all very strange.  Yes, Bruno didn’t like this place at all.

Bruno is innocent, naïve, and an unlikely protagonist who neither recognizes nor understands the horrors of the concentration camp located behind his new home.  Through his young and selfish lens, he only sees unfairness when he views the camp for why should there be so many boys on the other side of the fence who have one another to play with while he has no one?  Bruno is absolutely angered by this injustice.  Of course, the reader realizes what the true injustice is, which makes Bruno’s self-centeredness all the more unpalatable.  Boyne doesn’t introduce readers to the boy in the striped pajamas until halfway through the book, which allows readers ample time to become acquainted with Bruno.  During that period, we realize that Bruno’s “faults” are really just him being a small, sheltered, and unworldly boy of nine: he’s thoughtless, scared, self-indulgent, petulant, and irrational.  But Boyne also shows us a Bruno that is kindhearted, inquisitive, and who understands the value of maintaining a secret and the importance of keeping a promise.

I’ve read several books for both juvenile and young adult readers that deal with the Holocaust and concentration camps.  This one is unique in that Boyne shows us the horror through two young boys of the same age, height, and physical features—virtual mirror images of each other.  Bruno is essentially the “before” while Shmuel, the boy in the striped pajamas, is the “after”.  One is German, well fed, idealistic, and blissfully ignorant while the other is Polish, gaunt, hopeless, and worn down by hate, starvation, and fear.  It’s a stark contrast and Boyne is able to successfully illustrate the horrors of war and bigotry without having to delve into graphic detail.  Although this book is recommended for grades 9-12, its implied acts of violence (there is one brief mention of a dog being shot) and death make it suitable for younger readers although a knowledge of World War II would help put the subject matter into context.  The use of repetition and puns also help to successfully reinforce key points and ideas for readers.

Above its grisly subject matter, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a touching story about two lonely boys who find comfort and security through friendship.  American entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker Emanuel James “Jim” Rohn said, “For every promise, there is a price to pay.”  Bruno had to weigh the value of a promise he made and although he knew very little about politics or geography or just the world in general, he did know that there was value to be placed on life and that you always, always keep a promise…especially to your best friend.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

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The Human Comedy by William Saroyan

The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy

William Saroyan (Adult Fiction)

In a small town in Ithaca, California, during World War II, there lived the Macauley family—Mrs. Macauley and her four children: Marcus, Bess, Homer, and Ulysses.  Marcus is serving in the army, Bess is attending college, Homer is determined to be the fastest telegraph messenger in the West, and young Ulysses, who at four years old, is enamored with everything in his very small world.  The Macauleys are workers, dreamers, and God-fearing folks who are living each day to its fullest while trying to find their own particular place in the world.  For Homer, it’s a time of hurdle races, playing catch, and riding his bike, but with the war and the grim news printed on each incoming telegram, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to put off manhood any longer.

This novel was billed as a coming-of-age story, but it truly is so much more.  With its short chapters—almost vignettes—The Human Comedy gives us a humorous and bittersweet peek into the lives of the citizens of Ithaca.  The elderly telegrapher fearing retirement, the son fighting in a war that he doesn’t understand, the town simpleton with a naïve heart of gold, a young boy with big dreams and ambitions, the teacher trying to impart a sense of civility and kindness into her students.  All of these wonderful characters’ stories are stitched together to form a tightknit community that mourns their fallen, cheers their heroes, comforts their sick, and opens their doors (and hearts) to strangers.

The Human Comedy is considered semi-autobiographical as many of the novel’s characters and situations are based on real-life people and events from Saroyan’s childhood.  Like Homer, Saroyan was a second-generation Armenian immigrant who lost a father quite early in life and worked as a telegraph messenger while a teenager.  Interestingly, The Human Comedy began as a screenplay written by Saroyan, but while Metro Goldwyn Mayer was filming the movie, Saroyan decided to turn his screenplay into what would become his first novel.

One of the novel’s youngest characters, Ulysses, gains great pleasure and satisfaction from the simplest things.  He often runs alongside the train as it travels through his town, waving to its occupants who always ignore our young man.  On one occasion however, a black man sees Ulysses and returns his wave while shouting, “Going home, boy—going back where I belong!”  The Human Comedy is a story of love, loss, decency, humanity, and kindness, but most of all, it is a story about home and the people we are blessed to call family.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

An Elephant in the Garden – Michael Morpurgo (YA Historical Fiction)

An Elephant in the Garden

An Elephant in the Garden    

Michael Morpurgo (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

Lizzie is eighty-two years old and is idly spending her days in a nursing home.  But today is February 13th and on this particular day, she has a story to tell.  It’s a rather sad story because on this day, in 1945, the bombers flew over Dresden, Germany and set the city on fire.  Lizzie, her brother, and her mother are forced to flee their home.  The Red Army is coming from the east and the allied forces—the Americans and British—are coming from the west.  They would go west, but they would not be going alone.  They would be bringing Marlene, a four-year-old elephant that Lizzie’s mother rescued from the zoo.  It would be this wonderful, gentle companion that would keep their spirits up, open unexpected doors, and ultimately save their lives.

Michael Morpurgo proves once again what a gifted and compassionate storyteller he is.  An Elephant in the Garden is a beautifully told and compelling story that transports the reader into war-torn Germany as thousands of refugees struggle for survival during World War II. His characters leap off the page and we are there to share in their daily quest for food, shelter, and obscurity from the encroaching Russian soldiers.  In his Author’s Note, Morpurgo writes that his story was inspired by an actual female zookeeper who saved one young elephant from certain death.  The zoo’s director had given orders that all animals were to be killed rather than risk their release into the town should the city fall under attack.  If you Google “Belgium, Zoo, Elephant, WWII”, you can see actual photographs and the story which inspired this heartwarming book.

At my library, this book is shelved in the young adult section; however, I think children as young as nine would appreciate and benefit from this story.  Stories about war are often dark and bleak, but the overall message of courage, resilience, friendship, and hope spans across all age groups and garners mutual appeal.

When Lizzie was conveying a moment in her youth, she recalled an instance when she was talking to Marlene, desperate to find some comfort and understanding from her silent friend.  She said, “For an answer she wafted her ears gently at me, and groaned deep inside herself.  It was enough to tell me that she had listened, and understood, and that she did not judge me.  I learned something that day from Marlene, about friendship, and I have never forgotten it.  To be a true friend, you have to be a good listener, and I discovered that day that Marlene was the truest of friends.”  Morpurgo reminds us that true friends not only listen with their ears, but also with their hearts and sometimes the best friends need not offer words in return, but simply just offer themselves.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

 

 

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut (Adult Fiction)

By all measures, Billy Pilgrim would be considered a lucky fellow.  He’s survived the bombing of Dresden in 1945, a POW camp, and a mountainside plane crash.  He’s married, has children, and enjoys financial security as a successful optometrist.  But, Billy also time jumps, which can prove inconvenient at times.  He’s also been kidnapped by aliens and taken to another planet where he spends his time as a zoo exhibit.  Did I mention that he’s in the sights of a hired assassin?  It’s just another day in the life of Billy Pilgrim.

Slaughterhouse-Five is considered semi-autobiographical as Vonnegut shares many of the same military experiences as his main character.  His novel is an anti-war dark comedy that delivers a bitter social commentary on the pitfalls of free will and the destructive nature of man.  It also flirts with being a bit anti-American since the description of the American POWs—as compared to the other detainees—are far less flattering and the particular slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse-Five) chosen to hold the Americans was once used to house pigs.  Although Vonnegut was born and raised in Indiana, this novel and its message were undoubtedly influenced by the current events of the late 60s: Woodstock, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Protests, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.  Vonnegut lays it all out there and has no qualms letting us know that he was none too pleased about the current states of affairs at that time.

Vonnegut’s novel was selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time, although I personally found it difficult to enjoy.  Given the time of its publication (1969), I understand the sentiments that Slaughterhouse-Five articulates, but I think less would have been more in this case.  Combining the firebombing of Dresden with time travel and then adding alien abduction on top of it left the story feeling disjointed and haphazard.  Just when the reader is feeling engrossed in a particular storyline, we are catapulted to a different time or planet.  It’s like trying to stand on the deck of a ship during rough seas and not seeing any sign of calm waters on the horizon.  Rather than being able to admire the overall view, you just want the voyage to be over so you can return to solid, stable ground.

Vonnegut also uses a lot of sensory imagery and phrasal repetition to reinforce the feeling of pain, the approach of danger, or the smell of death.  He is particularly partial to the phrase “So it goes” and one individual even took the time to count each occurrence…which turned out to be 106.  These three simple words always followed a mention of death and served as a convenient means of topic transition; however, by the fiftieth time you’ve seen it, it begins to lose its impact and has outlived its intended purpose.  Solid ground never seemed so far out of reach.

With all of the blatant anti-war messaging found throughout the book, I thought nothing stated Vonnegut’s intended message more simply and effectively than a rather benign scene where Billy jumped back in time and was watching a late movie.  It was running in reverse and showed American bombers during WWII.  As Billy watched, planes once pockmarked with bullet holes were suddenly pristine, German fighter planes were busy sucking bombs back into their holds, smoke and fire were lifted from the ravaged city, crewmen and civilians were again healthy and whole, and the dangerous minerals used to make those deadly weapons of war were safely restored back to the ground and no longer a danger.  Unfortunately, we know all too well that this didn’t happen.  So it goes.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Night Garden by Polly Horvath (J)

the night garden

The Night Garden

Polly Horvath (Juvenile Fiction)

Despite the war overseas, life was fairly predictable and peaceful in the spring of 1945 for the family at East Sooke Farm.  Twelve-year-old Franny Whitekraft had her writing; her mother, Thomasina (Sina for short), had her sculpting; and her father, Old Tom, had his gardens—his many, many gardens.  There was the English garden, herb garden, Japanese garden, Italian garden, kitchen garden, statuary garden…but perhaps the most mysterious and closely-guarded garden of all was the night garden.  That garden Old Tom kept locked up nice and tight.  So, days floated by with little fanfare until one day, Crying Alice (that’s Mrs. Alice Madden to you and me) showed up on the Whitekraft doorstep and dropped off her three children: Wilfred, Winifred, and Zebediah.  You see, her husband, Fixing Bob (who does maintenance on the Canadian Air Force’s special plane), is going to do something stupid and she simply has to go and talk some sense into him.  Now, if three new houseguests weren’t enough, just throw in a UFO, ghost, psychic, several mysterious letters, mermaids, and a missing plane and you’ve got a recipe for anything BUT a predictable and peaceful spring.

This is the second book by Polly Horvath that I’ve had the pleasure of reading (the first being The Canning Season) and she continues to amaze and please with her witty dialogue and amusing situations.  Horvath not only entertains her young readers, but she manages to educate them as well.  She’s an English teacher’s dream as she dishes out a veritable smorgasbord of delicious words to savor:  presaged, traversed, bereft, contiguous, compeers, and ilk.  Aren’t they scrumptious?  She also delights us with an assortment of quirky characters that we feel inexplicably drawn to—not in spite of their flaws and rough edges, but because of them.

The Night Garden is a non-stop, heart-thumping thrill ride that will excite and enthrall readers of all ages.  It is a story of family and a love that is blind, slightly deaf, and a little bit thick, but love amongst family is often like that.  The Night Garden also provides us with many valuable lessons—from Miss Macy’s advice on being prepared (“Always wear clean underwear.”) to Franny’s philosophy on self-sacrifice (“Well, we were all put on this earth to suffer.”).  But perhaps it is Old Tom himself who best sums up the greatest lesson of all, “Never, ever, ever have houseguests!”  Old Tom is seldom wrong.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com