Marcia reviews Dysphoria by Karelia Stetz-Waters


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.

Karelia Stetz-Waters reviews Looking Through Windows by Caren Werlinger


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.

Until now.

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

Karelia Stetz-Waters reviews Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson


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

Karelia Stetz-Waters reviews And Playing the Role of Herself by K. E. Lane


Romance is my favorite genre. It’s my comfort food. And, like bread pudding, romances are easy to find and rarely awful. The catch is it’s hard to find ones that are noticeably better than the rest. It’s harder still to find ones that are really great.

In the world of lesbian romance, I’d give And Playing the Role of Herself a “noticeably better.” It gets a “two thumbs up” if you already like the genre.

K. E. Lane gets all the basic elements right.

The protagonists are likeable, and their growing intimacy is well developed.

The sex scenes are frequent and detailed enough that I felt like I got my money’s worth. However, they are not gratuitous or embarrassingly anatomical. Nor does Lane fall prey to any unfortunate metaphor usage. The waves of pleasure did not crash over the shore of her womanhood, and that’s a good thing in my book.

Additionally, the obstacles to the protagonists’ love are plausible and do not rely on either character being stupid or cruel. I hate romance novels where the obstacles derive from one person having the emotional intelligence of an area rug while the other acts like an angry pit-bull.

In And Playing both women are closeted actresses. The pressure of their jobs and the media spotlight in which they find themselves present good reasons why they cannot simply skip off into the sunset on page 50.

All in all, it was a thoroughly satisfying read with a good happy ending.

I have only two complaints.

One is that Lane has not written anything else.

The other is a bit more technical. And Playing is written in the first person, and I never quite believed that the first person voice was indeed a successful Hollywood actress. To be fair, the protagonist, Caidence, just landed her first big role. She is new to fame. However, she is successful enough to own a house, to drive a sexy convertible, and share a trailer with one of Hollywood’s hottest stars. She’s not the girl next door – but that’s how the narrative voice reads.  Caidence sounds like she could be a middle school science teacher or a friendly postal carrier.

I know people who have worked in Hollywood. Even the ones who work on the periphery of the entertainment industry or worked in Hollywood years ago have a unique way of seeing the world. I did not get that from Caidence.

In particular, I was struck by the way the narrator describes her beautiful girl friend Robyn.  The descriptions are good, but they sound like the things I would say about a beautiful Hollywood actress. The only problem is that I am an English professor from rural Oregon.  In the world of Hollywood stars, where beauty is a commodity everyone buys and sells, there is a different vocabulary.

This would be a minor quibble except that Lane misses out on some opportunities to enhance the intensity of the novel. If we really felt what it was like to be in the media spotlight 24/7, if we really understood the ways Hollywood can make and break people overnight, the plot points would pack a greater punch.

With that said, I didn’t pick up And Playing the Role of Herself because I wanted a treatise on Hollywood culture. I wanted to read a story about nice women falling in love. Romance is my comfort food. Sometimes it is okay for a bread pudding to be just a sweet treat to enjoy at the end of a long day or a frazzled week. If that is what you are looking for, And Playing the Role of Herself will not disappoint.

Review by Karelia Stetz-Waters