Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
Riverhead Books, 2015, 244
Before I get to the actual review, I need to tell a little story. It might be upsetting and involves my brother’s death, so if you prefer to skip this bit, I understand. I was reading Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl the day I found out my brother died. In the morning, I read on the Metro train. I arrived at work and, while delivering newspapers, kind of lamented that my life wasn’t more tragic. I didn’t mean it seriously, of course, and internally chastised myself for even having the thought in the first place, but there it was. Great artists, it seems, have tragic lives. Carrie Brownstein didn’t have it easy, yet became a phenomenal musician, writer, and performer. And so it was that I thought, “Maybe if there was more tragedy in my life, I’d be the artist I want to be.” Three hours later I got a call from my parents: my brother was dead. I’m not sure what it is that makes us romanticize the starving/struggling/mentally ill genius/artist. Is it because it’s true? Is it because the examples that are true stick out to us more-so than the “healthy, well-adjusted” artist because they are so out of the norm? I don’t blame myself for my brother’s death — in fact, by the time I had the thought, he’d been gone for a few hours. Eventually, I finished the book, but it has greatly shaped how I experienced the remainder of it and how I remember the beginning.
/End Sob Story
Brownstein begins her memoir with her earliest memories. With a sister and two parents growing up in suburbia as many of us do, Brownstein yearned for a life felt more intensely. She numbly moves through her childhood while dealing with her mother’s eating disorder, then the coming-out of her father later in life, which alters the way Brownstein understands her childhood and the relationships around her. She gets into the riot grrrl scene and starts her own band, Sleater-Kinney. They tour. She gets violent. They stop touring. She deals with her own mental illness, perhaps in a way that conquers leftover feelings from her mother’s illness. And so we have Brownstein’s story.
The book reads a bit like a therapeutic journey for Brownstein, as if it were something a therapist prescribed her to do and it was well-written enough that it became worth publishing. There’s no doubt Brownstein tackles some uncomfortable demons and she never shies away from admitting being wrong in a given action or story. Many times, she views her past self objectively rather than posing herself as some kind of embodied perfection. This has an interesting affect on a book that is decidedly feminist: with this deep level of honesty, Brownstein is unable to directly feminize herself. Instead, Brownstein is simply a human being with feelings, opinions, a past, and hurt. She rejects the idea that there is such a thing in her discussion of interviews in which she was asked what it was like to be a woman in rock music or a rock band of all women. This emphasizes Brownstein not as a woman (whereas many women authors focus on what it means to be a woman in their field/society — which is certainly an important perspective) but as a human being, by turn heightening her humanity and, in some ways, proving by example that women can do or be anything and be just as valid as men. Of course, this is all in the context of the gender binary, which we now know to be false, but fits in this particular work.
The prose style of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is spectacular. Brownstein writes with full impact, employing unusual metaphors that are always painfully accurate and vibrant. She varies her sentence structure and length to greater effect than I’ve seen done most elsewhere. She falls short in content, however, with a division of events that feels disproportionate (focusing largely on her few years touring as opposed to parts of her life that made up greater pieces of time) and an uneven hand on explanations. This is most evident in discussing riot grrrl culture. As someone generally unfamiliar with it, I found myself lost fairly frequently. One moment, Brownstein offered excellent context and description, the next, there was nothing to cling to and build upon as she told her story. Be sure to have a phone or computer nearby to look up bands, songs, places, and more that come up: it makes all the difference in understanding.
Though Brownstein bypasses the thing that arguably made her most famous — her work on Portlandia — there’s a sense that this memoir won’t be the final one. The open-endedness, of course, comes from the fact that Brownstein is still young and has a lot of life left to live. Certainly she’ll have more stories to tell, politics to share, and feelings to parse out. I, for one, will be watching for that next memoir if it does indeed materialize. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Brownstein’s musical and/or comedic work, her memoir speaks to the woman or artist or mentally ill or lost in each of us. Give a read (or try the audiobook, which I hear is even better!).
❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤