Not That Kind of Girl

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

I read Lena Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl last week and thought it was an enjoyable, quick read—but ultimately not how I wanted to kick off a new year of books.

It clearly compelled me enough to keep turning the pages—I finished it in just a few days. But I felt neither better nor worse off for having read it. I can point to a few reasons why.

I came across Dunham’s award-winning series Girls like I do with most popular shows: late. In catch-up mode, I watched a few episodes back-to-back but couldn’t get into it. Given the show’s popularity, I felt like I was just missing something, until I started seeing criticism of the show piling up. As for the critics’ accusations (it’s racist, vapid) I couldn’t rightfully agree or disagree having only watched a few episodes, but the flak Dunham received for being naked on-screen all the time seemed rife with sexism and double-standards.

Beyond the talk surrounding Girls, I didn’t know much about Lena Dunham until her book came out. By then, I’d read several articles about her, including an interview by Roxane Gay that intrigued me. Clearly she was smart, well-spoken and a feminist. Even if I don’t “get” her work, she seemed like someone whose sensibilities I could get behind.

Not That Kind of Girl was entertaining. It was honest, open, introspective, controversial and funny at times, and I went into it with an open mind, or so I thought, until I found myself criticizing certain passages. And then I’d catch myself: Wait, am I being critical because I really think that, or because I’ve read so much criticism of Lena Dunham? 

Dunham said in her interview with Roxane Gay that she wished she would be seen for her craft and not just for her personal attributes. Not That Kind of Girl, of course, puts her personal attributes directly under the microscope (it is a memoir, after all), but it’s still possible and right to be objective about the craft. And I think technically, she does a good job. It wasn’t the stand-up routine in book form she feared she’d be forced into, though it was formulaic. I think it’s probably hard not to be, though, when you set out to write your personal story in which Manhattan serves as the primary backdrop. Still, lines like this Carrie Bradshaw voiceover-esque line stood out to me: “I didn’t know the word for it, but I was happy.” (The word she’s looking for is happy.)

The main criticism of Not That Kind of Girl I’ve seen is that Dunham doesn’t come across as very relatable, and I felt this as well. We shouldn’t be so quick to criticize Dunham for her upper middle-class upbringing without considering how many of our beloved artists came from similar backgrounds. There have been plenty of other rich—and richer—authors before Dunham, and there will be more after her. But the question is: Will her work still be held up next to theirs decades from now? Girls, I don’t know—maybe. Not That Kind of Girl—I doubt it.

I had a hard time writing this review because I don’t feel very comfortable with being a critic. Maybe I was disappointed because I read this and thought I could write something just as good knowing it would never be a bestseller. Maybe that disappointment morphed into irritation because I haven’t.

In any case, here’s an excerpt from a chapter in the “Work” section that I did really enjoy:

“I’ll recount all the interactions where I went from having an engaging conversation on craft with a man to hearing about his sexual dissatisfaction with his wife, who used to be passionate and is currently on fertility drugs. Suddenly, we’re talking about the way his college girlfriend left her boots on when she fucked and how marriage is ‘a lot of hard work.’

What this translates to is: my wife doesn’t turn me on and you aren’t a model but you sure are young and probably some bold new sexual moves have emerged since the last time I was single in 1992 so let’s try it and then you can go back to being married to your work and I’ll go back to being married to an ‘eco-friendly interior decorator’ and I’ll never watch any of your films again.

I’ll talk about how I never fucked any of them. I fucked guys who lived in vans, guys who shared illegal lofts with their ex-girlfriends who were away at Coachella, guys who were into indigenous plant live, and guys who watched PBS.

But I never fucked them.

I’ll talk about the way these relationships fell apart as soon as they realized I wasn’t going to be anyone’s protegee, pet, private fan club, or eager plus-one.”

 Have you read Not That Kind of Girl? What did you think?

Must Reads: For anyone who learned about love the hard way

Uses for Boys

I’ve always loved YA fiction. It is smart, it is complex, and it is heartbreaking. Uses for Boys is all three.

This page-turner took me less than two days to read, and in that time, I found myself hoping the protagonist, Anna, wouldn’t keep making the same mistakes over and over. But like a real human being, she does. With no father to speak of and a once-loving mom who now makes herself scarce, Anna is forced to navigate much of her childhood and teen years on her own. She seeks comfort in all the wrong places, mistaking sex for love and being punished for it as a result. Uses for Boys is a raw and real book that deals with abandonment and abuse, and it highlights the story of the kind of person society tends to shame by victim-blaming.

I did a Q&A with author Erica Lorraine Scheidt about some of the most important themes and moments from the book.

And her responses were so thoughtful that I’m really excited to share them with you now. Check out our Q&A below.

Erica Lorraine Scheidt

Uses for Boys author Erica Lorraine Scheidt (Photo by Marnie Webb)

WTH: Anna’s a tragic character who can’t seem to help but make the same mistakes over and over. Why was her story so important for you to tell?

ELS: I was writing into the question of how we make our way in the world. I started thinking about a teenage girl for whom sex was a salve to loneliness. And I was curious—why is it so easy for a girl to get sexual attention, but so difficult to get other kinds of attention? I thought, and I still think, that Anna’s story is important, because we are all lonely, we all have to learn how to be in the world. Anna just had to learn out loud, with little support or direction.

Some of the sex scenes are pretty detailed for a YA novel. How did you tread the line between being realistic and not romanticizing it too much?

I started out interested in what it meant that Anna learned about sex in the moment, from her partners, and not from frank, respectful conversations with caring adults. I was specifically interested in all the mistakes she made—and even when intimacy was surprising or tender or fun for Anna, it never occurred to me that it was romanticized. I think because because her experiences were also awkward or hurtful or confusing at times.

I did know, even when writing the earliest drafts, that the book was more explicit than many YA novels. But I feel strongly that we have to have safe ways to talk about sex and sexual situations—and fiction is one of those safe ways. We need to have more than fade to black and everything works out—because how do young men and women learn to navigate consent and pleasure without having some models for what works and what doesn’t work?

One thing I found interesting and refreshing about your book is how it depicts the abortion. While it is a fragile and challenging situation, the abortion is not nearly as dramatic or traumatic as it’s so often made out to be. It was a big moment in Anna’s life, but it wasn’t a defining moment. Did you take this approach on purpose, and if so, why?

I saw the abortion as one of the few times in Anna’s young life that adults were looking out for her physical and emotional wellbeing. And I loved the idea that Anna noticed these strong, caring women in the clinic and wondered what they had, why they were different than the other women in her life. I worked in an abortion clinic when I was 18, and I was so impressed by the women who worked there—kind, strong, generous, knowledgable women who were committed to serving others. It made a profound impression on me.

Anna’s mom’s absence throughout the book is such a presence, ironically. The whole time I was reading, I wanted to know how she justified spending so much time away from her daughter. What don’t readers know about her that you do?

I’m fascinated by villains. And the idea that the villain of your story can always justify his or her actions. Anna’s mom thought she was providing for her daughter by seeking financial security. I also suspect that Anna’s mom didn’t know how to make a different kind of home for Anna. I have a lot of hope for Anna, but I also have hope that her mom will change and grow.

Your website says you’re working on a new novel. Is there anything you can share about that?

Yes, only to say that it’s been difficult. And I won’t know until it’s finished, but the project seems to be taking a new turn and I’m very excited about it.

 

Thanks to Erica for sharing her thoughts and insight. Pick up a copy of Uses for Boys here or at your local bookstore. Follow Erica Lorraine Scheidt on Twitter here.

Must Reads: For anyone who thinks they can have it all

Tanya Selvaratnam

Photo by Naomi White

Last month, I read what has easily become my new favorite non-fiction book.

The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock by Tanya Selvaratnam is the perfect combination of smarts and heart. What business does someone like me, who still shudders at the thought of having a child any time soon, have reading a book about motherhood? Ah, well, lots, actually. The information and message in this book pertain to anyone who might want to become a parent some day.

The book addresses the harmful myth that we can “have it all” and make babies when it’s most convenient—like say, after we’ve established a career and settled comfortably into adulthood. Selvaratnam packs a lot of stats and research about fertility into her book. Did you know 10 percent of the world’s population experiences fertility issues, which affect all people (rich/poor, black/white, male/female) equally? And that the initial drop in fertility among women happens as early as 25 to 29 years old? Which is not to say you should be freaking out if you are 30 or older—but you should be empowering yourself with the knowledge of such facts.

The Big Lie is not all statistics and percentages, though.

What surprised me most about it is how much Selvaratnam’s personal story with three miscarriages and a cancer discovery humanized everything I was learning throughout the book. She really gets vulnerable here, and I found myself teary-eyed and cheering Selvaratnam on along the way. That’s what really set this book apart for me.

Though I haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In yet, I think anyone who has read it (whether they agreed with it or not) is likely to enjoy The Big Lie. It touches on similar issues, but comes from a generally more relatable perspective—as in, the COO of Facebook didn’t write it.

The Big Lie

I had the chance to do a Q&A with Selvaratnam over at Neon Tommy, and she shared some wise and thoughtful words. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

“When someone says feminism is no longer necessary, I think, Tell that to the mother raising five kids who can’t get paid as much as a man to do the same job; tell that to the woman who is treated as the aggressor when she is raped; tell that to the girl who isn’t allowed to learn how to read. It’s a Big Lie that we don’t need feminism.”

We also talked about Millennials having a harder time than earlier generations to afford children, as well as the importance of having conversations with our partners and doctors about our eventual plans for children. Tanya also had some fantastic book recommendations for anyone interested in these topics. You can read our conversation (and find out what the “big lie” is) here.

The Big Lie has already gotten a lot of attention from the press, and I hope it becomes one of those books you see popping up all over the blogosphere. Check it out for yourself, and let me know what you think!

Must Reads: For anyone who isn’t afraid of death

The Book Thief

The Book Thief is one of those novels that sits you down with one irrefutable command: “Read.”

It also happens to be one of those novels that makes you want to write your own.

The narrator is a morbidly fitting one for a book that takes place in Nazi Germany—Death. Death, surprisingly, does have a heart. And he is as complex and tragic—with a dark sense of humor—as any of the characters whose stories he tells.

Author Markus Zusak on Death as a narrator:

“I thought, ‘Here’s a book set during war. Everyone says war and death are best friends.’ Death is ever-present during war, so here was the perfect choice to narrate The Book Thief. At first, though, Death was too mean. He was supercilious, and enjoying his work too much. He’d say extremely creepy things and delight in all the souls he was picking up… and the book wasn’t working.

So I went to a first-person narration, a simple third-person narration… and six months later I came back to death—but this time, Death was to be exhausted from his eternal existence and his job. He was to be afraid of humans—because, after all, he was there to see the obliteration we’ve perpetrated on each other throughout the ages—and he would now be telling this story to prove to himself that humans are actually worth it.”

The Book Thief

Death’s muse, the book thief herself, is an 11-year-old German girl named Liesel whose brushes and encounters with Death propel the plot. This isn’t solely a plot-driven novel, though. Liesel’s relationship with words, as she feverishly learns to read and write them, plays a big role in this book.

“She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half. Then a chapter. Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or worldly tricks to make us feel better. What good were the words?

She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. ‘What good are the words?’”

The Book Thief was my first read of 2014, and if you haven’t already, I recommend you read it, too.

Have you read The Book Thief? If so—without giving anything away to others—what were your thoughts on it?


Must Reads 
is a new column I intend to make a monthly installment here on WTH. What books—fiction or non—would you recommend I read and review for the series?