I See Your 10 Underrated Novels and I Raise You These: International Women’s Day Edition

Today the website shortlist.com posted “10 Underrated Novels from Great Authors.” All of the authors you’ll no doubt note are men and, with the exception of Murakami, also white.

In part to celebrate International Women’s Day but also because I’m just genuinely pissed off that there were no female writers and basically no writers of color on the list, I’d like to give you an alternative. So, here is my list of 10 Underrated Novels by Great Authors:

1. The Two of Them by Joanna Russ. Russ is perhaps most known for The Female Man and We Who Are About To… but The Two of Them expands some of the ideas presented in her other works while also deconstructing oppression in new and vivid ways. The story centers around Irene, an agent, who helps a young woman escape a male-dominated world where men are not allowed to “see” women.

2. Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn. Krohn is, I think, better well-known in her native Finland than in the United States but that is a travesty I hope to help remedy. Tainaron is essentially an epistolary novel: a nameless narrator writes letters to describing the wondrous natural beauty of this city. There are talking insects too. The prose is outstanding

3. Mission Child by Mauren F. McHugh. Her award-winning debut novel, China Mountain Zhang, introduced me to McHugh, though her short stories are also regarded as some of the best in the SF/F genre. At this point, I think I’ve read everything she’s ever published. Mission Child is easily my favorite though. The narrative resembles, to some degree, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (another great writer: see below), but is wholly McHughified: about a young woman who flees her home and embarks upon a journey of the spirit and identity. 

4. Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Karen Tei Yamashita. I-Hotel was an incredibly moving portrait of the civil rights movement from 1968-1978 as seen from San Francisco’s Chinatown. TtAofRF is more playful but just as serious and, in a lot of ways, more experimental than I-HotelI mean, it’s told from the point-of-view of a “satellite” narrator hovering around our protagonist. This book pretty much takes on everything and succeeds.

5. Very Far Away from Anywhere Else by Ursula K. Le Guin. Known for her Earthsea and Hainish Cycle novels, Le Guin is also an accomplished YA fiction writer. Very From Away from Anywhere Else is about Owen – seventeen, would-be scientist – and Natalie – eighteen, determined to be a music composer. It’s a story about finding your niche, about relationships, the meaning of friendship, and it is one of the most moving books I’ve ever
read.

6. Kabu Kabu: Stories by Nnedi Okorafor. Better known for her excellent novel Who Fears Death and her YA work, Okorafor is also a master of the short story. Each of these stories packs and unpacks so much in such little time, some of which deal with Americanized Nigerians returning to Nigeria (authors writing about similar topics include Chimamandi Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole, both brilliant) and politics but always with at least a hint of the speculative element. My favorite in this collection is “Spider the Artist.” (Okay, so a short story collection is not a novel, but trust me, these stories are so complexly satisfying, you’ll feel like you’ve read a novel after reading them.)

7. Moxyland by Lauren Beukes. Everybody’s talking about Beukes’s The Shining Girls right now – and they should be: it’s incredible – but let’s not forget this wonderful dystopian gem of a novel. Moxyland is as sharp, smart and funny as Beukes’ award-winning novel Zoo City and, in many ways, its themes – of online social identities, government corruption, etc. – are more prevalent now than ever.

8. The Secret City by Carol Emshwiller. Emshwiller, most notable for her short stories, writes some really great novels. In fact, any of her novels could be on this list of underrated works. The Secret City is ostensibly about two aliens stranded on Earth, waiting for rescue. But the story of Lorpas and Allush is far deeper than this and touches on themes of xenophobia, the struggle to define oneself, and the meaning of the place we call “home.”

9.Phosphor in Dreamland by Rikki Ducornet. If you are not familiar with Ducornet’s work, get thee to an

Amazon and purchase anything she’s written. Anything. Phosphor in Dreamland is her most underrated work, I think, because of its denser prose, lack of typical narrative tension, depraved beauty, and perverse humor. It is in a lot of ways like reading a fever dream, but its images – particularly that of the loplop (the last of a species of bird) – remain etched in your mind long after the last page.

10. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. This brief novel about a woman leaving her home in the West Indies to be an au pair for a family in the US is one of the best works of Kincaid, seconded only by The Autobiogrpahy of My MotherLucy – the book and the titular character – is fueled by sexual, political, and familial anger that concerns much of Kincaid’s work, but it is no less striking or important. Perhaps because it is such a short novel, Lucy tends to be overlooked (or, at least, I haven’t heard it mentioned as much as some of her other work), but this needs to be rectified post-haste.

T H A I L A N D: Part III

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Parts I and II of my adventures in Thailand can be found here and here.

Part III

Thursday was full-on straight-up no-shit capital-H hot. By 8am I was sweating.

Moddang and I headed to Wat Pho, a temple in the old part of Bangkok. Like Wat Pananchoeng, Wat Pho was somewhat influenced by Chinese architecture and culture. There are several Chinese statues flanked on either side of doorways.

We tried to make it to the grand palace but quickly ran out of time. Moddang had IMG_0038some clients to see at Siriraj Hospital (where King Rama IX, in poor health at the moment, is also staying). We made our way through crowded, hot streets. Vendors selling food and trinkets were set up everywhere in every direction under big umbrellas. I smelled chicken and beef and deep fried things, grill smoke, cilantro, sweat, and a hundred other smells all at once. Finally, we made it to the dock where we took a ferry across the river to the hospital. We ate a quick lunch in a suspicious-looking coffeehouse, though food turned out splendid – indeed, the spicy apple salad I ordered was the first time I experienced the “narrowing of the senses” I sometimes get when food is too damn spicy.

Anyway, we made it to Siriraj in time. I waited for Moddang in the hospital coffee shop and read most of John le Carre’s Call for the Dead. I ordered a couple of iced teas; the waitstaff, who were very kind and happy, nonetheless seemed a little weirded out by a farang (foreigner) in their establishment. Still, it was nice to cool down for a little while – I’d been sweating pretty profusely.

IMG_0071When Moddang finished, she and I and her boss (farang like me) took another ferry downriver. We said our goodbyes to her boss and took the train to Siam Square. I was back to sweating through my clothes, so the air conditioning in the huge (and I mean huuuuuuge) mall was most welcome.

We ate an excellent dinner at Greyhound. Moddang ordered salmon sashimi with dill and mint leaves, and a dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, chili peppers, and sugar. I’d never eaten raw salmon before except in maki rolls, not to mention that I’m not a big raw fish fan in general, so I was a little suspicious. The dish was light and flavorful. Particularly of note: the first bit I tried was without the dill or mint; the second, with the dill, was an entirely new sensation of taste and, for a moment, I contemplated eating nothing else but this dish for the rest of my days; the third piece, with dill and mint, doubled that feeling.IMG_0137

I ordered a buffalo burger (so American, I know). The reason I ordered it, however, wasn’t because I was feeling homesick or tired of Thai food (that’s simply impossible) – it was because the bun the burger was served with charred and injected with squid ink. So, um, yes please. The burger was fairly standard in taste except for the basil leaf which, for whatever reason, raised it from pretty good to wildly good. I’m definitely putting basil leaves on all my burgers now.

We also ordered a spicy soup dish which, while good, was the least interesting of the meal dishes. We only had two tiffs with the restaurant: 1) they neglected to serve us the buns and butter that usually come before the meal, and 2) Moddang was given chopsticks and I was not: a clear iinsult to my farangness! I kid, I kid.

After dinner, we wandered the mall for awhile. There was so much to see, so many flashing lights. We visited Siam Paragon, another huge mall next to Siam Square (Siam Discovery, yet another gigantic shopping center was accessible by train tube, but we didn’t go). In Paragon, we found an awesome bookstore. I was happy. Moddang was happy.

Clarion chums Kali Wallace and Tom Underberg each have a short piece in this anthology, edited by our final two weeks instructors, Jeff and Ann Vandermeer.

Clarion chums Kali Wallace and Tom Underberg each have a short piece in this anthology, edited by our final two weeks instructors, Jeff and Ann Vandermeer.

We took the BTS and MRT trains home. Moddang’s parents picked us up at the station and we returned to photobooks of Moddang’s youth. Although we needed to wake up early again to get to Salaya, we were up until midnight talking, looking at photos, and watching YouTube videos. After awhile, I didn’t mind the heat at all.

T H A I L A N D: Part II

3-headed Elephant seen from Rama VIII Bridge.

3-headed Elephant seen from Rama VIII Bridge.

Part I of my trip to Thailand can be found here.

PART II

On our way home from the beach, we stopped at Seacon Square, a huge shopping center, not far from Moddang’s house. Here,  I managed to get a few gifts for my friends and family back in the US, and we also bought Bubble Tea for Moddang’s family. Back at the house, her maid Na Aw had made me a birthday dinner of pad thai. If you’ve only ever had pad Thai in the US, then you’ve never had pad Thai: this was supreme.

(I also tried a variety of fruits I’d either never heard of or had never tried: more cham poo, mangosteen, lon gon, and lom yai [known as longan in the West], as well guava and pomelo, and the famed king of fruits: durian, but more on that later.)

On Wednesday, Moddang’s parents took the two of us north to the old capital, Ayutthaya. We left before sunrise, stopping at the open market near their house. Many of the vendors were either still setting up or already cooking chicken and beef, and deep frying. Moddang’s mother bought us each two drumsticks and a bag of sticky rice for breakfast. It was the first day one might call “balmy”.

In Ayutthaya, we visited the Buddhist temple Wat Yai Chai Mongkorn. I was IMG_9689spectacularly unprepared for the awe I felt there. Much of the temple was ruins, and a giant Buddha statue lying on its side was exposed to the elements, its torso and legs protected by a large sheet. We climbed steep steps to a small room where a man sat and handed out folded pieces of paper with square golden strips inside for a donation. Moddang told me you unfold the paper and press the golden square onto one of the several statues of Buddhas in the corners of the room. We looked down on a garden with a large white Buddha statue.

The second temple we visited was Wat Pananchoeng, which was built to honor a Chinese princess who took her own life. The Buddha inside was huge and golden. I lit candles and incense; I again pressed gold-painted paper onto many Buddha’s hands and chests and legs; I was swatted with water by a monk.

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Moddang’s father asked me if I wanted my fortune told. He told me to sit on the right side of a small ceramic elephant with a handle on its back. The first time I was to think of what I wanted and that I would succeed in picking up the elephant by the handle with just my pinky finger; the second time I was to think of the same thing I wanted and that I would not succeed in picking up the elephant. So I did, and the first time I was able – though just barely – to pick up the elephant with my pinky; the second time, however, I couldn’t even lift it a little. A good thing.

In the Chinese princess’ shrine, I shook a box of sticks to tell my fortune. According to this fortune, I will not be successful in the short run in what I want to do, but if I keep working and work hard, in the long run, I will see some success. Not exactly promising or inspiring for a lazy American growing up an instant gratification world.

Outside of Wat Pananchoeng, we searched along a row of vendors for trinkets and gifts for the folks back in the US. I found a couple of things but had many gifts to go.

Lunch on the boat. Chao Praya.

Lunch on the boat. Chao Praya.

Ayutthaya is located in the valley of the Chao Praya river. For lunch, Moddang’s parents rented a boat that took us along the Chao Praya while we ate. We had fried rice, a beef dish, more fish, and spicy soup, and washed it down with Coke. The river was dark green and mostly calm. We saw a man and presumably his son fishing with nets. The boat passed the royal family’s house situated on the banks of the river; it was very modern and stylish.

We also saw perhaps the most interesting of sights on the river: a Catholic church, a Buddhist temple, and Islamic mosque all within hundreds of feet of each other.

Buddhist temple and Islamic mosque along the Chao Praya.

Buddhist temple and Islamic mosque along the Chao Praya.

Christian Church along the Chao Praya.

Christian Church along the Chao Praya.

(As the boat returned to the dock, the captain let me pretend to steer.)

The Pondering Captain.

The Pondering Captain.

Wednesday evening, the other maid P’Tik had cooked us a fresh and powerfully spicy dinner. It consisted of beef with a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, chili peppers, and cilantro poured over it; a dish called yum made with shredded white mushrooms, black mushrooms, lettuce, fish, squid, and shrimp.

IMG_9901Earlier that day, between Wat Pananchoeng and the boat ride, Moddang and I visited the cultural center of Ayutthaya where we learned a little of its history. There were lots of old maps – by both Thai and Dutch mapmakers – of the old palace before it was burned to the ground by Burmese warriors. We visited the ruins of the old palace and temple. The scorch marks along the red and brown bricks of the remaining buildings and walls were still evident. Moddang and I climbed the ruins. As upon entering Wat Yai Chai Mongkorn, the sense of awe I felt at witnessing the ruins was tangible; conversely, however, where I felt something akin to the spiritual at Mongkorn, at the burned palace my awe was tinged with its loss.

Part III Coming Soon.

T H A I L A N D: Part I

IMG_9563I arrived in Bangkok just shy of midnight under a blood orange moon. After I’d passed through immigration (easy) and found my luggage (much delayed), I met Moddang and her brother Moo at Gate 3 and the three of us made our way to their car. I’d been told/warned of Thailand’s suffocating heat, but I’d planned my arrival in a twofold operation: 1) I arrived at night, and 2) during the cool season. Outside, it was as pleasant a night in early summer Chicago – nice breeze, no mugginess. When we got to Moddang’s parent’s house, I went right to sleep (I had decided not to sleep at all on the plane from Chicago to Hong Kong – a 16 hour trip – and managed a quick nap from Hong Kong to Bangkok).

On Sunday morning, I woke without any effects of jet lag. I was very happy. After family introductions and a small breakfast of soy milk with added goodies and chom poo (a dark green fruit that has a pear-like taste, possibly called a “water apple”), we all drove to Pattaya, south of Bangkok for lunch.

Mum Aroy was a beachside restaurant on the Gulf of Thailand. It was a light andIMG_9260 breezy day; I thought that if this were the cool season, that’d sit right by me and perhaps the hot season wasn’t so bad as everyone said. Moddang’s parents ordered a feast for lunch. The first that came was a whole cooked fish bathed in lime juice, cilantro, and chili peppers. I was offered the fish’s cheek, an honor because it is considered the best part of the fish; and it was: sweeter than the rest of the fish, the flesh melted on your tongue. We also had a plate of fried pork fat, clams and fish balls that was very good; a similar dish consisting of fried pork fat, mussels, and fish eggs was much spicier but just as delicious. There was spicy tom zap (which, to Moddang’s family’s surprise, I ate without coughing or turning red), a vegetable dish with water lilies, and of course a bowl of rice. For dessert, I had rambutan on shaved ice; Moddang had creamed corn on shaved ice, which was, I must say, much tastier than I expected. All in all, it was a great welcome-to-Thailand lunch.

Between lunch and dessert, Moddang, her mother, and I took some photos on the beach:

IMG_9334We drove to Nong Nooch Village after lunch to watch the elephants. Before the elephants, however, we caught a show of traditional Thai dancers which Moddang described as “lame” and “for tourists.” The elephants, however, were cute and dusty; how they loved those bananas. We were back in Bangkok by evening, and settled in for some quiet conversation and KFC (Moddang wanted me to experience Thailand’s version of the famous chicken franchise).

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Although I hadn’t experienced any jet lag yet, I was pretty exhausted and by 9pm we had gone to bed; Moddang had to get up early on Monday, anyway. So we woke at 5:30am and the two of us drove to Salaya, west of Bangkok, where she works at Mohidal University – Salaya Campus as a music therapist and teacher. Even at six o’clock in the morning, traffic through Bangkok was crushingly congested. Salaya is about thirty miles from Moddang’s home but it took us a good ninety minutes to get there. While she worked I sat beside a pool filled with fish and finished Cat Rambo’s Near from her Near + Far collection of short stories. It was yet again another beautiful day and not hot in the least.

IMG_9548After Moddang finished work, we drove two hours to the south of Thailand, to Cha-am, for the night. We stayed in a luxurious hotel right on the Gulf. I drank Singha; it’s true what they say: beer from the source is so much better than exported. We swam in a freezing cold pool. In the morning, we woke before dawn and went down to the beach to watch the sun rise. We saw a beached jellyfish. There were fishing boats out on the water. The sun rose from behind a fog, then broke through, bright and golden, and I pretended to eat it. It was my thirty-third birthday.

seasecrets!fossils!fictions!: The Dragon Tree

ssff coverThe Dragon Tree by my sister Mandy (under the moniker seasecrets!fossils!fictions!) came out all the way back in the caveman days of 2011. April 20th to be exact.

But it’s been on constant repeat for me the past year and a half and I wanted to remind those of you who’ve maybe put aside in our ever-constant desire to find the Next Thing to have a listen again because it’s still as awesome as you remember, and to introduce it to those whose radar this fine little EP might’ve slipped under the first time around. Just follow that link above, of course, but you know that.

You can find some photos of Mandy and I recording the EP at my old blog here. (Sadly, I have misplaced those awesome specs. A true loss.)

The Dragon Tree was recorded at Kedzie Garden Apartment Studios, and mastered by Justin Turner.

Them Prickly Oscars: Predictions’n’Such

“What’s that dreadful smell?” you ask, wrinkling your nose. “Smells like campfire and piss and 65mm.” Why, dear friend, that’s the smell of Oscar season! ‘Tis here, ’tis here, and not a moment too soon!

So, then, in the interest of what interests me (predictably), I’ve compiled a list of my predictions. But wait! There’s more. I have picked who I think will win, who think should win, and the ever-illustrious Upset – the nominee who could surprise us all and take the win!

(By the way, I’m totally stealing this format from some article I read a few years either on Yahoo or CNN or something, so if anyone notices, help give me props where props are do, because I can’t remember where and can’t seem to find it…)

On to it then. Yes?

BEST ACTOR:

Bradley Cooper: Silver Linings Playbook

Daniel Day-Lewis: Lincoln

Hugh Jackman: Les Miserables

Joaquin Phoenix: The Master

Denzel Washington: Flight

Who Should Win: Daniel Day-Lewis. Because, I mean, come on. Day-Lewis could be cast as paint drying and I’d be captivated by his performance.

Who Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis. Duh. He played the most famous president in American history. More famous than Washington. More famous than Kennedy. More famous than Van Buren.

The Upset: Hugh Jackman might pull a cat out of the bag. He was truly masterful as Jean Valjean, singing and bearded and sad and whatnot.

BEST ACTRESS

Jessica Chastain: Zero Dark Thirty

Jennifer Lawrence: Silver Linings Playbook

Emmanuelle Riva: Amour

Quvenzhane Wallis: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Naomi Watts: The Impossible

Who Should Win: Quvenzhane Wallis. Has a child actor ever won best actress? I don’t know and I’m too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia, but Ms. Wallis was absolutely outstanding in Beasts.

Who Will Win: Emmanuelle Riva. Full Disclosure: I have not see Amour (to be rectified this weekend), but from what I’ve heard her performance as a woman suffering from a stroke is great.

The Upset: Jennifer Lawrence. Maybe? You never know. You don’t. You don’t know! Jennifer Lawrence is awesome and she should’ve been nominated for The Hunger Games. Speaking of, why the hell wasn’t The Hunger Games nominated for stuff???

BEST DIRECTOR

Michael Haneke: Amour

Benh Zeitlin: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Ang Lee: Life of Pi

Steven Spielberg: Lincoln

David O. Russell: Silver Linings Playbook

Who Should Win: Benh Zeitlin. This being his first feature film, Zeitlin captures so much of post-Katrina New Orleans – no shot is wasted.

Who Will Win: Michael Haneke. I think the Academy will give Haneke the award for making a film mainstream audiences can watch (as opposed to his other films which are most definitely not for your average moviegoer). I’m not saying it’s right; I’m saying it’s what they’re going to do.

The Upset: Steven Spielberg. What??? Spielberg as a Left Field Candidate??? Yes. That’s right. Lincoln was a great film, but directorial-wise, it was no Saving Private Ryan (which Spielberg won the award for in 1998). Still, we’re talking Spielberg here and he is well-loved.

BEST FILM

Amour

Argo

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Django Unchained

Les Miserables

Life of Pi

Lincoln

Silver Linings Playbook

Zero Dark Thirty

Who Should Win: Beasts of the Southern Wild. This post-Katrina fantasy tells the story of a “hushpuppy who lived with her daddy in the bathtub.” It is, at times, difficult to watch because it doesn’t flinch from real emotion and real pain, but it is an incredible story about the survival of a poverty-stricken girl.

Who Will Win: Lincoln. As in-depth as it gets at the busy politicking during the Civil War to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery, Lincoln is masterful and reminds us that we can do good things.

The Upset: Zero Dark Thirty. Despite all the controversy regarding the waterboarding scenes, this one might sneak its way to the Oscar.

That’s all the predictions I’m going to do. (The rest of the awards don’t matter and we all know it! No…I kid, I kid. Kind of.) I am a little peeved that The Hunger Games didn’t get any nods because I thought it was a very good movie – particularly Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. Anyway. I digress.

A Tale of Arthur Miller, the Orb-weaver Who Lives Outside My Kitchen Window, Part I

Arthur Miller was hungover this morning. Naturally. She’d spent last night bumping and grinding in a strobe-lighted club, the floors there stickier than her stickiest web. Her carapace throbbed, her coxas were totally numb from all the dancing, and her abdomen was full of acid, ready to retch. She shouldn’t’ve done all those lines of coke.

Somewhere not so far away a bell chimed; the echo caused her web – which is normally fit as fiddle and strong as an ox – to shake. So it was going to be that kind of day, was it? thought Arthur Miller.

Still, she wouldn’t let Yolanda know. Yolanda was the fly caught on the silky outer threads of her web. Poor Yolanda, thought Arthur Miller. She buzzes so earnestly.  Perhaps she’d been out on a moonlit winging of her own, enjoying the company of the night breeze, when she’d been snared. Flutter those tiny little fly-wings, Arthur Miller said in Orb-weaverish, knowing full well Yolanda couldn’t understand and that there was no moth nearby for translating. Flutter away, my sweet, I’m still going to eat you. At least, Arthur Miller decided, there was one good thing to come of this morning.

Damn, she was hungry. It’d probably physically hurt her more to eat Yolanda than for Yolanda to be eaten: Arthur Miller’s palps were agitated and raw, but such were the dangers when leading a life of Dionysian excess. Grumbling, she.made her slow descent toward the trapped fly who, as she saw the spotted thing come for her, began to squirm and squeak all the more to no avail.

Arthur Miller passed the kitchen window where I was doing early morning dishes before work. I don’t know whether she saw me or not, but I watched her devour the fly. It was slow at first, almost as if the orb-weaver was reluctant. Then, she pounced. Her legs very delicately encircled the fly; her palps held it to the shiny web. Her fangs bit the fly in half in less than a heartbeat. Poor Yolanda, I thought. She’d buzzed round my living room the day before and made good friends with a dustmite in the corner.

She hated to hear flies beg. Yolanda tried every trick in the book: I’ll bring you more coke, I know the hottest clubs in town, I’m a mother – I’ve laid many eggs in manure, and so on. Don’t talk, Arthur Miller said so that Yolanda would understand. It’ll go by quick, I promise.

Then Yolanda said something Arthur Miller really didn’t like. She said, I know what happened to Dr. Praphasirirat.

That riled Arthur Miller. How dare this dumb fly bring up the doctor, her one and only true friend, who had so mysteriously vanished moons and moons ago? She was so angry she ate Yolanda without even thinking about it.

When she was done and fully sated, she returned to her patch of web and rested. She’d score some coke later this afternoon and then she’d go see Commander Kittywiddles in the alley. If Yolanda really did know what had happened to Dr. Praphasirirat chances were high she’d told the commander. Arthur Miller closed all of her eight eyes then, and waited for the pulsing in her carapace to abate.

To Be Continued…