Review of A Woman Like Her by Sanam Maher

My latest review for the Chicago Review of Books is up! This is a nonfiction account of an “honor killing” of a Pakistani internet celebrity for her provocative online activities. It was published by the wonderful Brooklyn-based small press Melville House. I learned so much about Pakistan, about the clash between online and traditional culture, and about this brave woman. Check it out my review here.

Reading in Utrecht, 1 February

I’m so pleased to be reading this Sunday to celebrate the Netherlands’ launch of Lucia Dove’s pamphlet, Say Cucumber. I love Nadia and Mia’s work as well, it should be a fun reading!

Everyone’s Invited: Group Reading and Book Party, December 1 in Amsterdam!

I’ll be hosting a group reading with a dozen poets to celebrate the launch of my book. (I need poets close by). Party to follow! At the fab Sociëteit SEXYLAND.

Readers will include Larry Kearney, who recently published a memoir of his friendship with Jack Spicer (!!), eminent translator of Dutch poetry David Colmer, and Dutch, American, Canadian, British and Sri Lankan poets: Anna Arov, Dean Bowen, Nadia de Vries, Lucia Dove, Erin Russell, Pubudu Sachithanandan, Milla van der Have, Marc van der Holst,  and Laura Wetherington.

Doors open 3pm, reading starts at 3:30pm.  Intermission at 4:30pm.
Party starts at 6pm. RSVP at the FB event if you so desire.

Address: Ms. van Riemsdijkweg 39, NDSM Werf, Amsterdam Noord.

Thoughts on Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool

First published in 2011, English translation in 2014

This novel is by the author of The Dinner, probably the best known work of fiction by a Dutch writer in recent history (which I haven’t read). This book was written after that success. I picked it up at a bookstore clearance sale, thinking I should read more Dutch writers. First the positive: Koch is good at suspense. The story had me in its grip, and he can build a character, scene and clear narrative voice. This translation felt right, too. It isn’t ever conspicuous or awkward in its construction, but it also somehow transmitted a European voice (as opposed to an American or British one).

Unlikable protagonists have been a favored vehicle fiction in the past 20 years or so, including in television (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White) and movies (Young Adult), although, granted the male ones are more easily accepted by audiences than female ones (e.g. Moshfegh’s Eileen). Koch takes up this device, creating, it seems, the most unlikable person he could imagine: a misanthropic doctor who is disgusted by the human body; who treats mostly artists, but dislikes art; who views having daughters rather than sons as a misfortune; who sexually objectifies every woman who crosses his path, etc. I think the intention is a kind of black humor but I can’t help but suspect the author behind it took some delight in setting down views that have become unacceptable via his creation, which he can easily disown – “scientifically based” sexism, for example (men are wired to impregnate young women and women are wired to want to reproduce with successful men) and homophobia (anal sex is unnatural). I suspect the author more than his character, because much of that stuff, in the end, is gratuitous, not in service to the story. Even if we give the author the benefit of the doubt (as a reader should) and don’t entangle him with his character, the mechanics of the story itself raise some questions. For example, how rape is positioned as a plot motivator, or how a single anonymous gay character offers a sympathetic ear to the evil doctor after suffering humiliation at his hands.

Questions of author v. narrator aside, I also thought that for being a tightly plotted suspense story, the ending sort of collapses. While there is great tension from chapter to chapter, when you examine the ending, or start asking questions (e.g. why doesn’t a medical doctor consider the possibility of DNA evidence before assuming who has raped his daughter and deliberately spreading cancer in his body?), the whole thing sort of collapses. There are also at least two multi-paragraph descriptive passages involving semen, which are two too many in my view. In short: not recommended!