Book by Book

Welcome to my book review page. I’m Karen Kao, author of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle and many other works.


I recently ran across the word tsundoku in a New Yorker short story written by Camille Bordas called “Most Die Young.” Wikipedia defines tsundoku as follows:

“Tsundoku” (n.) is the condition of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them. “Tsundoku” originated as Japanese slang (積ん読) “tsun-doku”. 「積ん読」 came from 「積んでおく」 “tsunde-oku” (to pile things up ready for later and leave) and 「読書」 “dokusho” (reading books).

Now I know my condition has a name. At last count, I have 93 books left to read.

book by book

craft writing
Bird by Bird. Image source:

The title of this book review section is inspired by a lovely, generous book by Ann Lamott called Bird by Bird. First published in 1994, the subtitle of the book reveals its remit: Some Observations on Writing and Life.

I had never heard of the book until last year’s end of season get-together of my critique group. As fellow writers, we share our manuscripts with each other for comment and support. For this session, we brought our favorite book on writing. First we explained why we chose that book. Then, if so requested, we agreed to lend our treasure to one of our number.


I borrowed Lamott’s book from my friend and fellow writer, Anna, after hearing how gentle and kind Lamott can be. The inspiration for the title of her book is one example (p.18-19):

[T]hirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulders, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

cold hard facts

Writing is like getting into a cold swimming pool. You can try to inch in, hoping the water will warm if you can wait long enough. You can jump in, feet first and nose held tight and hope you don’t hit rock bottom. Or you can dive to the floor of that pool, now alarming close to your bulging eyes. However it is you write, you’re going to get wet.

All writers are readers. Reading may very well be the only way to learn how to write, other than to just do it. Now that I write professionally, it’s sometimes hard to remember what reading for pleasure is. I’m always looking for the stray comma or the hackneyed phrase. Does the character arc seem a bit too fantastic? (Unless I’m reading fantasy, in which case does the character remain earthbound?) In that sense, a critique group is a master class in writing. You can reduce a story to its constituent parts, laying it out with anatomical accuracy on the examining table.

But where is the joy in that? If I read only to understand the mechanics of a story, how can I find its soul?

the best of the best

book of short stories
Best American Short Stories 2014. Image source: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website

Heidi Pitlor, the long-serving series editor of the Best American Short Stories, plaintively said in her 2014 introduction:

From my vantage point, there are moments when it seems that more people in this country [USA] want to write than read. Many people who read this book are in fact writers in training, reading in order to learn to write books.

Yes, I read to learn but I want to read for pleasure too. For me, pleasure comes at that moment when a book ceases to be a book and becomes a journey. Maybe I’m on a bus staring out the window, dreading the class I’m about to teach. Or, I’m hurtling down a rocky road in a pickup truck whose brakes are indifferent to time and speed. For sure, I’m feeling what the characters feel however painful or silly or gross that might be.

It doesn’t always happen, I’m sorry to say. Some stories just don’t move me. But that’s ok because I can still think about why that is.

So every book I pick up, I’ll read to the end. I’ll read widely, even promiscuously. I’ll mix short form with long form fiction, non-fiction with memoir, journals with podcasts, English and Dutch. Will you join me on my journey across the (virtual) page, book by book?

my book reviews

Below are the links to the reviews for books I’ve read in 2017 and moving into 2018. If you can’t get enough, there are some books I rated in Goodreads for the crop I read in 2016.

literary journals

Cityscapes: Concrete, a special edition of The Shanghai Literary Review (May 2018)

Kaleidoscope: Glimmer Train Winter 2015, No. 92

Electric Literature: The Masters Review and The Common

Narrative Magazine: Story of the Week in Narrative Magazine, issues April and May 2017

On the Road: The New Yorker podcasts, Bitter Oleander, The Masters Review

Magazine Mashup: The New Yorker, Narrative Magazine, VERSO/ and The Shanghai Literary Review

fiction (long)

High Life: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Games People Play: Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba

LA Love Song: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Accommodation: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

One Fish, Two Fish: Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan

Madame Bovary Revisited: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Fight Club: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Alphabet Soup: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Annotated Alice: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Doors and Windows: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Wired Women: Flesh and Wires by Jackie Hatton

Gormless in Gotham (or How to Write a Micro-Scene): May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes

Chinese Lessons: A Free Life by Ha Jin

Southern GothicYoung God by Katherine Faw Morris

Sentinel Tree: The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Putz: Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Body Parts: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translator Jonathan Wright

Happy Family: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

Zen: The Gate by Natsume Soseki

Geometry: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Tracks: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Iron Horse: The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi

fiction (short)

Interstitial Spaces: Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

Judge Dee: The Chinese Nail Murders by Robert van Gulik

The Art of the Story: The Art of the Story edited by Daniel Halpern

Kawaakari: Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Kawabata Yasunari

Empty Pasture in Afternoon: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Vietnam: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Carrots & Kiwis: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa


I haven’t reviewed all of the non-fiction I use as research materials for The Shanghai Quartet. If you’re interested in the historical backdrop to The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, you can have a look at A Reading List. If you want a bigger picture on Shanghai history, try this.

La Migra: The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú

Reform!: The Tragedy of Liberation – A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 by Frank Dikötter

Chinese Cooking: Slippery Noodles by Hsiang Ju Lin

Little Red Book: Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong by Mao Zedong

Close Reading: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Joodse Huizen 4 (Jewish Houses) edited by F. Rijksbaron, E. Shaya and G.J. de Vries

Rules: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (4th edition)

Dutch History Writ SmallOns Kamp by Marja Vuijsje


The Piano Teacher: Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang

Sacrificial Acts: Three Tragedies: Antigone, Oedipus the King & Electra by Sophocles, translator H.D.F. Kitto


Three Poets: Signs & Wonders by Charles Martin, After the Lost War by Andrew Hudgins, Ghosts of Old Virginny by Milla van der Have

The Dancing Girl and the Turtle: publication date 01.04.2017