Book review: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Carrie Brownstein is a personal hero of mine. She is just…so cool. At least, she seems like it, from a distance. How could the guitarist/vocalist of Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag and the writer/actress from Portlandia not be cool? In that self-deprecating, sense-of-humor as well as sense-of-style way the truly cool have. I mean, what a bad-ass title for a book!

So when I got her memoir for Christmas (thanks, honey!), I sat down and read most of it while the kids ran around with their new loud toys until I realized I needed to shower and get dinner going before our guests arrived.

It’s that good.

It’s like reading a really smart and funny friend’s letters, in the days when such things existed (letters, not friends). She writes about growing up in a confusing family, with her mom hospitalized for anorexia and her dad coming out as gay when she’s in college. She manages to convey a young girl’s confusion and anxiety, while also analyzing her own past from a somewhat dispassionate adult perspective. She never grows maudlin and doesn’t want the reader’s pity; rather, the section about her childhood serves as a launching pad for her drive and ambition to focus on something else–which for Carrie was her guitar, getting out of her small town, and belonging to something bigger than herself.

I could relate. And that’s what makes this book so great. It’s completely relatable. I grew up in the same era, under completely different circumstances (although I also had a shitty old Honda as my first car and pink hair at one point), but I found solace in the hollers and screams of punk, particularly of punk girls, and I couldn’t wait to get out of my small town and into something bigger than me.

For Carrie, that was Olympia, and eventually Sleater-Kinney, and the section of the book describing its formation and early days is fascinating. It all seems so accidental in some ways, luck and a sense of just doing what everyone in Olympia in their twenties was doing: making music. But it also seems preordained, and we know–by what she’s already told us about herself, as well as by reading between the lines–that Carrie works her ass off. And when someone finds herself by being onstage, it’s going to be damn hard to get her off of it.

Her voice is both analytical and poetic, making sure that the facts are presented clearly and accurately, with her own interpretations and lovely turns of phrase. She never gets stuck in navel-gazing. In fact, such self-absorption seems anathema to her, which later in the book becomes a source of trouble when the band tours repeatedly and she develops health problems from the stress of touring, and troubles among the band members, and relationships that keep falling apart. Some parts seem almost glossed over–especially relationship details–but it seems in keeping with Carrie’s style. She’s not going to exploit anyone’s privacy (awww…collective disappointment from the peanut gallery) and that includes her own.

By the end of the book, I felt like I knew who she was, but I also knew that she wasn’t baring everything. She gave as much as she felt was worth giving, digging into her personal history, her own psyche, and her work, but letting the reader know that she is still a private person who is not open for dissection. A healthy division between performer and fan.

I particularly enjoyed her descriptions and analyses of being a working artist; where she and the band were comfortable, where they pushed themselves, what felt like success to them and what didn’t work (even if it was popular). I don’t play guitar (might learn someday) but I felt what it was like to create with one, and then to wield it with power and intention. I loved what she had to say about feminism, about riot-grrl, and about how labels (such as “selling out”) can be detrimental to creativity because of the boxes they trap artists within.

The book focuses on Sleater-Kinney and ends with its end and subsequent revival several years later. She touches on what it was like to suddenly be without the band, in a funny and touching chapter about becoming volunteer of the year at her local animal shelter. Acting, Portlandia, and her work in other bands is barely mentioned. Perhaps she’ll write a sequel…or maybe she’s just leaving her fans wanting more, like any good rock star.