The Short Version: Lena Dunham, writer and actress and director and twentysomething provocatrix, tells you a little bit about what she’s “learned” in essays and lists and stories that are heartfelt, funny, sad, moving, enraging, and pretty much every other range of emotions.
The Review: You’re not reading this book if you don’t have some appreciation for Lena Dunham. I mean, let’s just put that out there, straightaway: she’s a polarizing figure in our culture and there are plenty of people who don’t like her.
Which is a damn shame, because she’s really fucking smart and could probably (at the very least) help a lot of young women feel a little bit better about this wacked-out world we call the 21st Century.
I’ll admit to being one of the many (many) people who rolled their eyes when this book was announced. It was all caught up in the backlash to the hype machine of Girls and, seeing as I’m not that much younger than Ms. Dunham, I was skeptical that anyone roughly our age could have anything really worthwhile to say in a memoir/advice sort of setting. But Dunham takes those quotes on the front cover seriously: she is quite well aware that her insights, while totally valid, are limited by age and circumstance and all that.
But also, refreshingly (and this is what I love about her even when I don’t love her work), she doesn’t give a shit. She’s lived through the most traumatic parts of a person’s life and she still remembers them vividly: your childhood/adolescent/learning years. Which definitely encompass your 20s these days – you’ll get no argument from me. So while she strikes a vintage pose (metaphorically, with this throwback-y cover, and somewhat literally, with the author photo on the back), she’s grounded in the present. And grounded feels like a particularly potent term – this girl has her head on straight.
The book is split up into five general categories – Friendship, Work, Body, Love & Sex, “Big Picture” – although they all blur together a little bit, as you might expect. Each of these categories contains a handful of essays that can seem to shake out with remarkable similarity: one or two brilliant moments, lots of really great moments, a couple ‘eh’ moments, and a couple duds. Overall, a pretty stellar batting average. The topics, even as she delves into specifics, tend to err on the side of general: here’s an awkward story about ____ that you can then associate with because you probably also have an awkward story about _____. That sort of thing. The thing that makes the book succeed is not that it is telling something new, but rather that it’s telling it in terms new kids understand.
Of course, the book is not without its controversies. The pajama people predictably went into a tizzy over certain sections of the book, including perhaps most memorably a short section where Lena describes exploring her sister’s vagina when they were both, respectively, young and really young. But what the pajama people missed, in their ‘much ado about nothing’ furor (ten points if you get that double entendre), is that later in the collection, there is a beautiful essay devoted to Grace and how awesome she is. Everyone’s all ready to leap down someone’s throat for something a little weird instead of celebrating the good stuff – like the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever read a more loving portrait of a sibling than the one Lena writes for Grace on page 156 of the hardcover edition. Like, I try to write that shit about my sister and words fail – whereas Dunham, again, knows just what to say. She didn’t molest her sister any more than I assaulted mine that time (alright, those many times) I leapt out from behind bureaus, doors, cabinets, beds, trees, and other assorted objects to give her a fright.
But to step off the soapbox and get back to the point at hand…
And this is the beauty of this collection: Dunham writes these things that make you just say “Yeah!” These essays make you want to hug your friends, kiss your lovers, flip your enemies the bird, and go make whatever is you’re planning to make. After reading this, I look back on some of the ridiculous choices I’ve made (most admittedly less crazy than hers, but not all) and I realize that all make good stories – and that those stories are what make up me, who I am right now. Lena Dunham has been the posterchild for us twentysomethings, for better or worse, and she’s dealt with it as a celebrity. Sure, she doesn’t know much – but, as she says at the beginning, “if I can take everything I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine will have been worthwhile.” And I think she succeeds in this admirable goal, with panache and wit and heart. Rating: 4 out of 5. The only real knocks against the book are that, yeah, sometimes the age thing does feel a little obvious. Funny as they were, the BuzzFeed-esque lists are a little page-filler. And sometimes the book feels just a little expected. But man, when she really lets loose and just writes what’s on her mind or what she’s done and offers it up not for you to judge but instead just for you to learn from and enjoy or not, who gives a fuck? Well, that’s awesome. This book made me want to be her friend – because somebody like this is a brilliant mind to be with, both as a creator and as a person. Even if you aren’t crazy about the work, Dunham’s got the goods.