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Okay, can we take a minute for these covers? Is it ridiculous to say that my expectations for Lunatic Fringe were really high just based on this cover? Well, to be fair, they were also very high because a) Allison Moon seems awesome and b) lesbian werewolves. Feminist, lesbian werewolves (!!!). That was about all I knew about this series, but it was enough to get me very excited. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, probably a feminist lesbian werewolf utopia, but that wasn’t what I got. Which is fair, I just think I had the wrong expectations going in.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of the term “New Adult”, but I think this is a genre that at least the first two books of this series fit into. New Adult is a new genre that focuses on 18- to 25-year-olds or so. It’s like Young Adult, but a step up. It focuses on college age people and their struggles. I feel like these books fit really well in this genre not just because Lexie, our main character, is just heading off to college when we meet her, but also because she is really trying to find herself through these books. She is struggling to establish her own identity, struggling with her sexuality (some variation of queer, but not necessarily gay), and struggling with her family (her dad is distant and her mom left years ago).
But yes, werewolves! A whole lot of werewolves. I’m not sure how to talk about this without spoiling the first book for you, because it keeps you on your toes, so I won’t go into too much detail here. I do want to address the feminism, however. I have a minor in Women’s Studies and many of my friends are WS majors and really involved in activism and feminism, so I was really excited to read a feminist and lesbian werewolf book, to say the least. This is not a feminist utopia, however. The feminist group (The Pack) in Lunatic Fringe is one that is definitely flawed. There’s classism, classism, bi erasure, and generally really simplistic, non-intersectional ideas presented. (Basically “men bad, women good”.) Now, these are addressed in the novel. You are supposed to think that there’s a problem here. So it’s not a problem with the book itself, necessarily, but do be warned that there are a lot of shitty things said in the first book, especially.
Another problem is that the big villains of this series, the Morloc, are bloodthirsty [spoiler for both books, highlight to read] rapist[end spoiler] animals who also happen to be an indigenous group. I mean, they are wolves, but they are indigenous to the area and predate settlers. They are discussed as an indigenous group in the books. The characters resolve that they don’t want to part of oppression of indigenous people, but they also don’t want to get killed. Fine, but why was a Native group made to be the villains in the first place? It reminds me of Twilight, where the Native people as werewolves are described by the vampires as smelly, dirty, dumb animals, etc. To be fair, there are also indigenous “good guys” in Tales of the Pack, but it still seemed really problematic to make the bloodthirsty, savage, animal villains indigenous.
I have some more issues that I’d like to discuss, but they are big spoilers, so. [spoilers for both books] First of all, I did not like Lexie with Sage. I guess I had assumed that Lexie was gay when it hadn’t actually been stated for sure–she has struggled with her sexuality throughout the books–so that is my own problem. But still! Her ex’s brother? That’s weird. That’s really weird. Also I don’t understand why Archer didn’t come back during the second book when they were all in danger. I’m sure it will be addressed in the next book.
Secondly, one of the minor characters, Jenna. I was also sort of annoyed that she seemed to do all the housework and cooking for no real reason. That didn’t seem fair at all. No one seemed to really acknowledge that she did all the work. Because, you know, women’s work isn’t real work. (Even in a feminist house.) AND THEN. She’s the one who dies! It’s like [spoiler for Buffy the Vampire Slayer] Tara’s death all over again! [end Buffy spoiler] Where the feminine character is killed as this innocent lamb, which totally erases her as an actual person versus just a symbol! I get that someone had to die, I just really didn’t like that the stereotypical feminine character was killed to show loss of innocence. It’s basically woman in a refrigerator, but the people’s plots that are being moved forward are also female. I OBJECT. But, you know, it’s probably Buffy that makes me so defensive here. [end spoilers]
There’s a lot more going on these books: the mythology of the wolves, Lexie’s mom’s story, Lexie’s multiple romances, the werewolves, the rape, the characters of Renne and Blythe… there’s a lot more that I could talk about, but mostly it wasn’t what I wanted from it. Even though there’s so much going on, I didn’t feel like there was the sort of depth that I was expecting. I say New Adult because it has a similar vibe to a Young Adult book. I think if you go in expecting a Young Adult/New Adult book with some really problematic elements, you would probably enjoy it more. I just had very high expectations for Lunatic Fringe, which probably weren’t fair and weren’t actually reflective of what the series was trying to do, but I was disappointed. Let me know if you’ve read it, and what you thought of these books!
Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin is the story of Garnet, a teenage ornithology enthusiast who spends a transformative summer in a lakeside town. Set in 1926, Silhouette of a Sparrow combines captivating historical detail with realistic characters and emotions while keeping it all on a believable, relatable scale. I was drawn in immediately by the writing, which has a unique voice without edging into caricature. Garnet is very relatable: she considers herself to be a regular girl, even plain, but any threat of the boredom that sometimes accompanies these types of characters is averted by her intricately described interests. She’s passionately in love with birds, and she notices them everywhere, cutting silhouettes of them out of paper because her mother approves of that hobby over her childhood outdoor explorations.
Garnet has to navigate several things during her summer in Excelsior, Minnesota: the relatives she’s staying with consider her to be poor and low-class in comparison to themselves, but they have their own secrets; she left behind her father, a veteran who came home unable to adapt to life away from the war, and her mother, who is desperately trying to keep the family together; Garnet takes a part-time job in a shop, confronting both the bias against working women and environmental conservation issues that are close to her heart; and her drive to be independent and enjoy her last summer before graduating (and marrying) leads her to meet Isabella, a dancer who flaunts numerous social conventions. All of the subplots wind together to make a full story, and none of them are left hanging or unfinished.
Garnet’s developing relationship with Isabella is one of the highlights of the story for me (I admit I equally adore all the bird imagery, which has tendrils running through the whole book). Their courtship progresses slowly and sweetly. Garnet and Isabella get to know each other gradually, each revealing their fears and hopes as they grow more comfortable with each other. I love that Garnet doesn’t consider her romantic feelings for Isabella to be wrong – she’s worried about what her family would think, but she seems just as concerned that Isabella’s reputation, instead of her gender, will be the cause of the disapproval. Another thing that satisfies me with this novel is that the relationship between Garnet and Isabella isn’t the main focus - Silhouette of a Sparrow is about Garnet’s development from someone who doesn’t know what she wants to someone who does, and who finds within herself the strength to go after her dreams. Her relationship with Isabella is integral to this development, but it isn’t the core of the story. It’s a lesbian romance not simply for the sake of romance, but as part of the lives of what feel like real people.
Dysphoria by Karelia Stetz-Waters
Artema Press, 2013, 350 pp
Dysphoria. On its own, the word means simply the state of feeling unwell. It is a loaded term, however, especially in the queer community. Trans*-folk use the word to describe the feeling of incongruity between how the body exists and how the brain expects the body to exist. Since the mainstreaming of that definition, dysphoria has also come to indicate any incongruity between brain and body, including such movements as transethnics, some furry lifestylers (humans with the belief that they are or connect to a particular animal), and apotemnophilia — self-desired amputation. This last borrowed definition is one of the major themes in Karelia Stetz-Waters’s debut thriller of the same name.
The story follows protagonist Helen Ivers as she begins her new job as president of a small New England college in the town of Pittock. Ivers is cool-headed and utterly capable, but she is haunted by the memory of her sister and her gruesome suicide. That haunting begins to creep into Ivers life as the college is rocked by the discovery of legs, dismembered by nearby train tracks. Flanked on one side by Drummond, the well-kept elder provost at Pittock, whose desire seems to lie with keeping the controversy quiet, and on the other with wild card Adair Wilson, a strikingly handsome lesbian drama teacher who is instrumental in finding the body parts and unwilling to let the tragedy go unsolved.
I found Dysphoria to be well-written, especially in comparison to many books in both the lesbian detective and thriller genre. The characters, especially Ivers and Drummond, are fresh and full-bodied (pun intended). At times, Stetz-Waters lingers in more literary and even experimental places, playing with form and perspective in some truly unexpected ways. I also found the story to be something truly original. As a fan of true crime, procedural shows, and, obviously, lesbian lit, Dysphoria definitely borrows from aspects of each genre but pulls together into something quite fresh. I especially identified with Helen Ivers. Her behavior, namely engaging in unfulfilling and utterly unerotic heterosexual sex in an effort to escape her own mental space, was frustrating (and frequently unpleasant to read) but I saw echoes of her thought processes in my own life.
Aside from the straight sex, Dysphoria also offers truly disturbing POV segments from the killer. We learn about his history of abuse, about his obsession with creating amputees — and the sexual nature of his fetish. I understand, as a reader, why this POV is included. It certainly ramps up the tension and creates a few “ah ha!” moments later in the book. For those more sensitive to stuff of this ilk, however, this might be the ultimate turn off.
The other major issue I had with Dysphoria was with love interest and plot driver, Adair Wilson. Because the book stays in Helen Ivers’ perspective most of the time, and because Ivers herself does not know much about Wilson, the character is left largely undeveloped. Wilson seems to act mysteriously when the plot calls for tension, to explain herself when Ivers needs the relief. Even the descriptions of Ivers’ attraction to Wilson are spotty at best. Aside from Wilson’s shocking beauty, I had trouble understanding why Ivers was attracted to her. Some of the circumstances the two women are involved in are entirely unromantic and even disturbing — on a level completely different from that of a serial killer. I felt like I should be fascinated and enamored with Wilson, but was given no reason to. Sadly, much of the book’s success hinges on this.
I will also draw attention, once more, to the title. Dysphoria. As I don’t possess any expertise in psychology, I cannot speak to the legitimacy of any of those who claim the term as a method of expressing body/mind disintegration, but as an ally of the trans* community and best friend of a genderqueer individual, I found myself pausing on multiple occasions when the lives of “transexuals” were used to (perhaps) legitimize the dysphoria of amputee “wannabees” — and by more than one character! I doubt it is Stetz-Waters’s intention to marginalize people who may be a part of her audience, but given her reassurance to me as introduction that she was, in fact, a “gold star” lesbian, I don’t think Stetz-Waters is all too concerned with being inclusive.
My reservations aside, I found Dysphoria to be, for the most part, an engaging and even thrilling read. As an alternative to much of what is currently available in lesbian crime thrillers, Dysphoria is well written, edited, and plotted. Each reader may have to contend with the level of violence, disturbing content, and casual marginalization they are willing to endure for fiction. While mildly curious about the sequel reportedly in the works, I don’t believe I will be tuning in for more of Stetz-Waters’s thrillers.
The Daughter Star / Susan Jane Bigelow
Candlemark and Gleam, release date May 28 2013 (e-ARC)
What a rotten way for everything to turn out. Freighter pilot Marta Grayline is grounded, trapped on her miserable home planet by an intrasystem war that’s separated her from her beautiful girlfriend, her career, and everything she loves.
When her sister Beth offers her a way out by enlisting in the Novan Emergency Fleet, Marta jumps at the opportunity to get back into space.
But when her ship is attacked and destroyed, she finds herself stranded on a mysterious space station with a crew that won’t answer her questions.
And, of course, then there’s the aliens – the planet-destroying Abrax that somehow seem to have a hold on Beth.
They’re coming for Marta, too.
She’ll have to face ancient forces, her own doubts, and the inside of an alien mind if she wants to get some answers, complete her mission, and unlock her own latent potential. The Daughter Star, the red beacon in the night sky, may yet be the key to the freedom and understanding Marta so desperately wants.
I jumped on The Daughter Star as soon as its galley showed up in my inbox (thank you, Danika and Candlemark and Gleam!) because Bigelow’s Extrahuman series has been on my TBR pile for months. After finishing this novel, everything else by the author has just moved up a few hundred notches, because The Daughter Star is one of the richest, most thought provoking SF novels I’ve read this year. Or last year. I haven’t actually felt this excited about aliens as a genre or construct since discovering (only a few decades late) Octavia Butler and Lilith’s Brood a couple of years ago.
Imagine that you have to leave Earth. That votes have taken place. That debates have gone on for over a year and that you, along with everyone else, have directed to a window that, you are told, opens out onto another planet. You have no choice. You—or your government—have already voted. One window–you don’t know which—will bring you to beautiful, peaceful Ad Astra. The other—and this is where you suspect you’re going, as you are neither rich nor influential, brings you to Nea. Nea. Where the gravity bites and all the plants want to kill you. Imagine the tensions that would exist between these two planets. New countries form. Bodies must change to suit new atmosphere, new gravity. Languages evolve. And, over the years, imagine asking why. Why these two planets? Why one Elysium to the other’s hell?
Now imagine that you’re long settled on Nea. Inhospitable country has led to strict borders and local governments, including one particular puritanical outpost on a rain drenched peninsula where you are, as a good young girl, expected to marry and produce enough offspring to flood the rest of your forsaken planet with the right sort of people. The aliens—the Abrax—are long gone. Earth is dead. You are frustrated, stifled, and the only gay in the village. You get out. You leave your sisters and parents and find a way out your country, off your planet. You join an interstellar trade fleet and do not particularly care about the inherent inequalities between planets, just so long as you can get off your own. You meet a beautiful woman. You can see the stars.
You are Marta Grayline, and you are going to have obscene, glorious amounts of character development before is done.
Marta moves from the rather flippant, naive, infuriating girl conjured up by The Star Daughter’s blurb into a questioning, determined, and often powerful woman by the time you see the last of her. I won’t spoil the plot—I can’t, it would go on too long. But watching Marta navigate her way through personal space, as well as the real kind, is a beautiful thing. Her relationships—with her siblings, with her planet, with co-workers and Abrax and the woman she is sure is the love of her life—are all so well drawn that I would forgive Bigelow if plot took a back seat. And it never does. I’m still left breathless by that. Every time I thought I had The Daughter Star figured out—and there were three distinct points where I was sure that I knew where this book was going—I, like poor Marta, was thrown something else. And does the twisting plot, character development, and the novel’s Serious Social Questions make for dull, worthy reading?
Like hell. The Daughter Star is often laugh out loud funny. Novans, as you might expect, have developed whole new avenues in gallows humour. Marta’s complete adoration for a girlfriend she barely ever gets to see—the way she can twist a memory to suit her longing–will touch many readers. Her relationship with Beth—the youngest and least known of her siblings, is also stunning. It was almost unfair that The Daughter Star had an ending to match of the rest of it: self contained enough for satisfaction, but still leading strongly to the other stories Marta has to tell.
Enough of this. Go read.
Reviewing this book was a decision I kind of hem-hawed about with, mostly because it’s about lesbian-identified women in/from the African continent, and as someone who’s never been to the African continent or anywhere close, I felt like yes, I should probably leave this one alone since these are experiences I could never really claim, and wouldn’t try to. But having read it I feel the real need to review it, to get out there that this is a really amazing, touching book and I think it can speak to anyone on any level.
It’s a non-fiction set of autobiographical stories, which is the first thing that attracted me to it. To see women, lesbian women, telling their own stories and having them published is still a rarity, and as a lesbian I always want to know more about what other lesbians all over the globe are going through. There’s this common theme in all our stories, and at the same time I’m upset to see anyone else go through the same pain and heartache, it’s comforting to not be alone. One thing to keep in mind is how very different every experience is, and I think this volume shows that well. There are women who identify as lesbian and women who do not, there are transgendered women, there are women who received support from their families and women who did not. Some women are from countries where discrimination against them and their partners is illegal but unenforced, some are from countries where discrimination is not only legal but societally encouraged as well; some of them were pulled out of the closet and some of them came out themselves. All of them hit home with me, and by the end of each woman’s story I felt like they’d been speaking directly to me personally.
These stories are real and heartfelt in a way that really brings them home, exactly the way I was hoping when I picked this book up (or opened its PDF, if you want to get technical). It isn’t something that you have to relate to in order to understand where these women are coming from, it’s very approachable and for that reason I think it’s a fantastic volume, a read that I would recommend to anyone.
My absolute favorite part of this book is the poetry by Mavourneen Finlayson throughout the whole text, in between most of the pieces. It brings together whatever pain or hope each piece put forward or makes you feel, kind of smoothing everything over and cleansing the palate for the next part. Her poems are all amazing and unique, and often I find in poetry that anything queer is a surprise, but in each of hers it’s latent throughout the whole poem, no matter its length. Her poetry brings the whole theme together, I think, in that the theme is exactly what it’s stated to be: reclaiming the L-word, by, for and about Sappho’s daughters Out in Africa.
A nineteenth-century insane asylum seems hardly an appropriate place for a teenage lesbian romance. Jane Eagland, though, manages to make this both believable and exciting in her young adult novel, Wildthorn. This historical tale is not just a romance, though that was my favourite part; in fact, a larger portion of the book is dedicated to interrogating some of the atrocious Victorian social attitudes to mental illness and gender non-conformity. The “isn’t-it-horrible-what-they-did-to-women-back-in-the-day” is a bit heavy-handed and reductive at times, though; what bothers me mostly about this is the implication that nowadays women are ‘free’ from sexism. Actually, what I found remarkable —and at the same time depressing, of course—is how certain sexist belief systems, like victim-blaming, are at work in this fictional Victorian universe and are still alive and well today, albeit in different forms.
So the novel deals with some pretty serious issues, and it’s not as light as you might imagine; or, at least as I imagined when I picked it up wanting a cute, melodramatic romantic thriller. Louisa Cosgrove is from a middle-class English family and she’s, of course, exhibiting all the typical signs of baby dykedom: she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and be a doctor; she has no interest in feminine pursuits like needlepoint and pointless social calls; she has very strong feelings for her older cousin Grace. While her life is already in shambles following the death of her father, Louisa ends up being sent to Wildthorn asylum, and you’re left in suspense for most of the book as to how or why this happened. Was it her jealous, underachieving brother who orchestrated this? Has she been mistaken for someone else?
The novel is a bit of a slog in the middle section, where Louisa is trapped in the asylum; this is how Louisa feels, of course, so on the one hand Eagland is mirroring Louisa’s experience. On the other, it gets a bit tiring, and depressing. Once the romance picks up, though, the book gets pretty exciting; plus there’s the whole issue of how she is going to escape!
If you love Sarah Waters and have already plowed through all her books, I would recommend picking up Wildthorn. It’s an obvious connection to make, but I really think Eagland nails the same kind of Victorian melodrama that Waters does, in the spirit of some of my favourite nineteenth century British writers. I love how a lot of the chapters end with a dramatic cliff-hanger, such as “It’s all been in vain, I’m going to die…”. The dot, dot, dot, of course, is key. Unlike Waters, though, because Wildthorn is a book for teens, you don’t get the fun racy sex scenes. But it is a little more explicit than the original Brontës, so there’s that, and it might tide you over until Sarah Waters’s next book is out.
Also, if you want feminist historical young adult fiction set in Victorian England, I highly recommend Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series, which has some paranormal/fantasy elements as well as an awesome lesbian character!
Finding Bluefield by Elan Barnehama
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Overview from Amazon:
“When Barbara Phillips arrives in Bluefield, Virginia, to begin her medical residency, she thinks she is headed for an uneventful few years filled with work in an obscure little town where no one knows her—which is exactly what she wants.
Everything changes when she enters Nicky’s diner and begins a journey that will last a lifetime as she falls in love against her better judgment and best-laid plans. The free-spirited Nicky later attends the 1963 March on Washington and impulsively and anonymously sleeps with a man in hopes of getting pregnant and starting a family with Barbara. When Nicky gives birth to Paul, her sister steps in to adopt Paul for his own “protection.”
Nicky, Barbara, and Paul escape Bluefield and make a life in upstate New York, only returning to Bluefield years later upon hearing of the death of Nicky’s sister. As their journey comes full circle, Barbara, Paul, and Nicky find their return to Bluefield is the catalyst for facing family secrets and forging family ties.”
Review: 3 out of 5 stars
This story takes place between 1960 and 1983 and follows the lives of Nicky and Barbara. The story is interesting especially as you place it into historical context and realize how much more difficult it was to be in a same sex relationship in the 60’s and 70’s and the extent that they had to hide their relationship. Having said that there were definitely times where I couldn’t fathom some of the decisions that Nicky would make just assuming that everything would be wonderful. She’s not just wearing rose colored glasses she has an entire rose colored bubble around her. I was disappointed in the lack of ramifications from several of these decisions. Especially the one where Nicky sleeps with a stranger because she’s always wanted a child. I just couldn’t relate to Barbara’s non-response to (a) being cheated on and (b) Nicky making such a life altering decision for both of them… without any input from Barbara.
Half way through the story, I realized that although I couldn’t relate to Nicky’s decision making process the story itself was interesting in that it portrays two women living their lives like any other couple and that not all relationships look the same.
Reading romance novels is bad for you. I read that in graduate school. Actually, I read a whole book to that effect. (Don’t worry. I love the genre. This isn’t a polemic.) To be fair, the study I read looked at heterosexual women. Nonetheless, one can draw some comparisons.
The classic romance novel pairs two flawlessly beautiful people in an exotic setting where, despite the fact that they are ostensibly wrong for each other, they have sex so fantastic it changes the PH of their blood. They get up in each other’s business starting on page twenty, then enjoy 300 pages of erotic courtship in which no one ever has to clean the sink trap, go to the doctor, or figure out what the cat has disemboweled on the back porch. No wonder readers’ lives pale by comparison.
Looking Through Windows by Caren Werlinger tells the story of Emily, a young teaching assistant grieving the death of her girlfriend, and Ann, a Peace Corp volunteer, finally back in the United States and wondering why heterosexual relationships leave her unfulfilled. The story charts their blossoming friendship and love and the challenges placed in the way of their relationship.
I knew Looking Through Windows was not going to be a standard romance when Ann and Emily admit their mutual attraction and then decide not to act on it because neither of them is emotionally ready.
What? No! I thought. They are supposed to melt into a pool of viscous lust, not make an emotionally intelligent choice that honors their friendship and supports the possibility of a deeper, healthier relationship in the future.
Therein lies the strength of Werlinger’s book. This isn’t escapist fiction. This is a realistic portrayal of – surprise! – mature love. This is not to say the book is without drama. Actually, it has a lot more than I expected given the leisurely pace of the first half of the story.
[spoiler, highlight to read] When Emily loses Ann (temporarily) and then loses her leg to cancer, my heart wrenched. When Ann sees Emily in the hospital – emaciated from chemo, bald, amputated, and vomiting in a basin – there is no way to mistake this for a Harlequin Romance. That’s a good thing. [end spoiler]
Unlike the classic romance that – studies show – leaves the reader wondering why don’t I live in Barbados and have abs like sculpted granite? Looking Through Windows will make the reader appreciate the things that truly make for good relationships. I finished the book and hugged my wife, thankful for our beautiful life that does not happen in Barbados and does involve cleaning the sink trap and identifying the bottom half of whatever it was the cat killed on the porch. Two thumbs up!
Now, I wouldn’t be true to my profession, if I did not offer a little constructive criticism. Perhaps because Werlinger’s book was a realistic portrait of life, not a fantasy, some parts move slowly. Unlike the average romance, the heroines in Looking Through Windows have jobs, exams, friends, families, landlords, chores, and conversations with people who are only tangentially related to the romantic storyline. On the flip side, when tragedy strikes, it strikes quickly and unexpectedly (rather like it does in real life), giving the second half of the book a much different feel than the first.
Incidentally, one of the really nice features of this book is the cast of sympathetic supporting characters. There are bad guys, but there are also a lot of kind people who try their best. It makes Looking Through Windows a very hopeful story, even as it deals with some difficult themes.
If you are looking for the quintessential romance novel, complete with butch-femme sports-bodice ripping, this is not it. If you are looking for a good drama that makes you hold your own loved ones a little closer, I recommend Looking Through Windows. Buy it for that friend who is always messing up her love life. There is a lot to learn here.
I am also pleased to report that Caren Werlinger’s long anticipated novel In This Small Spot is soon to be released by Corgyn Publishing. I look forward to following Werlinger’s career as she definitely has a lot to offer the lesbian community.
By Karelia Stetz-Waters
I was somewhat disappointed to learn that my all-time favorite lesbian writer had released a new memoir. That’s not my usual reaction to book releases. It’s just that Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal promised to cover approximately the same time period as her first memoir, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Why Be Happy also promised to set the record straight about what was and was not true in Oranges.
To be fair, Winterson explains in Why Be Happy that Oranges is not a memoir. It is a novel about a girl named Jeanette who has a childhood very, very similar to Winterson’s. In graduate school, I would have jumped on the postmodern implications of this statement. In the real world, I just call that a memoir with embellishments.
Either way, I loved Oranges. I read it when I was sixteen, the year I came out. It was the first lesbian book I read. It made me want to become a writer. I did not want Winterson to set the record straight and tell us, as she does, that her life sucked a little bit more than it did in Oranges.
Moreover, the second half of Why Be Happy is about how Winterson’s unhappy childhood continued to haunt and hurt her in adulthood. I wanted to think that Winterson, my hero, my role model, had come farther in her emotional life. Almost thirty years after Oranges, she was still writing about what a cold woman her mother was. I was mad. I wanted something different.
Still, the psychologists say that to be truly angry at someone, you have to truly love them.
I love Jeanette Winterson’s writing. I love her as much now as I did at sixteen. I love Why Be Happy as much as I love Oranges.
It’s her sentences. Lots of writers have good plots or clever premises. No one can craft a sentence like Winterson. It’s not that they are particularly long, complex, or laden with adjectives. Just the opposite. Her sentences are so clear, so sharp, so cold, like diamond stars hung in the darkness of the postmodern cosmos, their brightness a conversation with the unspoken space that surrounds them.
She is that good.
Perhaps the price is her happiness. The authorial voice in Why Be Happy is hopeful. She is striving. She is quick to say that she always embraces life. However she is still tormented. Pain and loss cling to every page. It is that intensity that I loved at sixteen. It’s that intensity that I love in Why Be Happy.
It’s the reason why Winterson can do what no one should attempt: two memoirs about the same story. I was lucky to get to read these books as they should be read. One at fifteen when one needs heroes. One at nearly 40 when one knows what heroes really look like.
By Karelia Stetz-Waters
This is a very smart book. Sometimes I open a book and immediately realize that this has been carefully crafted and very well-written, which, oddly, can also mean that it may be a less instantly enjoyable book: it may take some time and energy to read as well as to write. Body Geographic is definitely one of those books. It is a memoir that uses maps and migration as metaphor in piecing together Borich’s life. There are occasional maps interspersed with the text, and sections are labelled things like “Inset of Bodies so Real” and “First is the Map of Withstanding”. Borich and her families’ stories are told in fragments like this, not in a linear order.
I got the feeling like I was getting snapshots of people: evocative, but not even close to the full story. As Borich circles back to the same people or time periods, more layers get added to these brief impressions, but I still didn’t feel like I really knew these people. One example that I kept thinking about was Linnea. Linnea is Borich’s wife of two decades, but we do not really get a full conversation between them in the whole book. Linnea only speaks a handful of times. It’s as if she is lightly sketched, though more detail does get added later. I’m used to memoirs where I feel immersed in the “characters”, in their personalities, but there seemed to be a distance between the people in Body Geographic and the reader.
I may not be the ideal reader of Body Geographic: I am ridiculously, embarrassingly bad at geography, and I am not a visual person. I definitely don’t think in maps. I did find the metaphor a very interesting one, especially weaving the stories of her ancestors’ migrations and her own migration between her two home cities (Minneapolis and Chicago), but I am sure that anyone who has a better appreciation of maps and geography would enjoy it even more.
This is an extremely well-written memoir that was obviously very carefully put together, and I would recommend that it be read slowly, to really savor the writing and the style of it. It is surprisingly easy to read, but the fragmentation does make it harder to really sink into the story. This is a book that I appreciated the skill of, but didn’t necessarily feel emotionally invested in.
A warning, though: although Body Geographic seems to try to be positive while mentioning trans people, Borich uses the terms “biological woman” and “tr*nny”. Also, most of these references are towards trans women sex workers. I know that most of this book takes place during the 60s and 70s, but that’s still not okay.
If you’ve read Body Geographic, let me know what you thought of it in the comments!