Bookish tidbits


A few quick items:

So cool

So cool that my interview with the writer Martha Toll about Her Own Vietnam was one of the top 5 posts last month in the Washington Independent Review of Books. Here’s how they describe it:

“Martha Anne Toll conducted a thoughtful Q&A with Kanter, one that touched on everything from women warriors’ emotional scars to the rise of feminist presses.”

Here’s the interview, in case you missed it.

Damn, they’re good

File this under “These writers are getting a lot of acclaim and don’t need any help from me, but damn, these books are good.”

30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #21 Wendy Lee

Photo: Hillery Stone

Photo: Hillery Stone

Wendy Lee’s second novel, Across a Green Ocean, starts out simple and sad. A middle-aged woman, Ling Tang, gazes out at the lawn of her suburban house, which hasn’t been mowed since her husband Han died suddenly a year ago. Like the overgrown lawn, the novel seems familiar at first, but grows more mysterious and compelling the further you explore.

Saturated in secrets

Ling Tang and her husband are Chinese immigrants who raised two American children: Emily, an over-achieving immigration lawyer married to an entitled white man, and Michael, a gay man who has not yet found his footing as an adult or come out to his family. Michael is not alone; his sister and mother have secrets too, as did his father. The Tangs are saturated in secrets, straining to love one another despite realizing they don’t know each other at all.

When Michael discovers in his late father’s papers a recent letter from a Chinese friend that says, “Everything has been forgiven,” he makes an impulsive trip to China to finally learn something about his taciturn father’s past. What he discovers cracks the deep reserve that has kept his family members isolated from one another.

A ghost on the tongue

Lee does a masterful job of presenting the reader with a pivotal moment and only later revealing its meaning. We revisit certain scenes, each time seeing it from a different character’s point of view and deepening – or completely overturning – our previous understanding of the event. The book sparkles with lovely descriptions, for example a woman sipping tea until “the bitterness became a ghost on her tongue.”

But what I enjoyed most about the novel was its depiction of life in America as an immigrant and as the child of immigrants. Ling, from Taiwan, visits other immigrant households and “recognize[d] the way people displayed English magazines… on the coffee table, while the newspapers in the kitchen were in their native languages. She understood what it meant to try too hard.” Emily says her parents “were such immigrants – putting mothballs in their closets, keeping furniture covered in plastic, refusing to drink tap water unless it had been boiled, not trusting the dishwasher to get the dishes clean.”

Across a Green Ocean is a moving depiction of people dealing with exile, isolation and the cruelly broken immigration system in the U.S. – and a set of relatives struggling at long last to become a family.

The sigh of exasperation heard round the world

On the first day of 2015, the novelist Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You) published an article in Salon designed to “fix our Asian-American women writer blind spot” after being told by one conference organizer too many that, “There aren’t a lot of you out there.” Ng’s article provides a long but admittedly incomplete list of such writers, including Wendy Lee, whose first novel, Happy Family, was published in 2008. Dig in.

Want a free copy of Across a Green Ocean?

In February I’m giving away a copy of Across a Green Ocean, which was just released on January 27, 2015. For a chance to win this and other free books, sign up for my free monthly newsletter, Being Bookish.

Green Ocean



30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #19 Celeste Ng

Still looking for holiday gifts? Consider a book. Maybe this one.

Starts with a jolt

At first I resisted reading Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. I felt I had read enough “missing child” novels over the past few years. That would have been a mistake.

The book starts with a jolt: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” The novel is indeed about the aftershocks that shake a family and a community when a child vanishes. But this book is different from the others: Lydia was missing long before she disappeared.

Unwanted things

Her mother is a white woman who yearned to be a doctor but ended up a dutiful and despairing wife and mother. Lydia’s Chinese-born father is a college professor who specializes in studying that ultra-American icon, the cowboy.

Lydia is the favored child, so obviously the focus of her parents’ love and ambition that her younger brother and sister get little attention from their parents. Indeed, the parents create a room for the unplanned youngest child, Hannah, in the attic “with the unwanted things,” and sometimes briefly forget about her.

Spooky narrative voice

We learn about the story in bits and pieces, from the distinctive perspectives of several characters. The narrative voice itself has its own spooky character, telling us at one point that Lydia’s mother is wrong about her belief that the local lake is shallow.

In a book about the strictures of race, gender, identity and the meaning of family, I was particularly intrigued by the characters who hover at the outer edges of the fractured Lee family. Hannah Lee is a fascinating character, a child so isolated among her siblings and parents that she is shocked and thrilled when one of them lets her hug them instead of brushing her away. Her “body knows all the secrets of silence.” Because her relatives rarely speak to her – and this family uses words like veils – she understands more than anyone else about what is really going on.


Some novels haunt me after I’ve finished them, and Everything I’ve Never Told You is one of those. But rarely do I wish for a sequel. In this case, I do.

Celeste Ng, please write a novel about Hannah and her adult life. I’ll wait.