It would be uncool to begrudge indie-rock star Carrie Brownstein her coolness. But it is hard to write a satisfying memoir when your life’s narrative arc is, “I was born cool, I got cooler, I was rewarded handsomely for my coolness, and I kept on being cool.” That’s essentially the story in Brownstein’s “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.”
Still, it’s impossible not to like Brownstein, at least as she portrays herself here. The Sleater-Kinney guitarist and “Portlandia” star is funny, feminist and frank. She tells unflattering stories about herself and seems appropriately abashed by them; she also seems to hold no grudges. She blames herself for the breakup of Sleater-Kinney in 2006, after a bad case of shingles on a European tour pushed her so far that she punched herself in the face backstage. (The band reunited last year for a successful tour and a new album.)
Throughout, Brownstein is refreshingly un-rock-and-roll. At times, that thoroughgoing decency might frustrate readers. With a gay father and a near-absentee mother, for example, Brownstein’s childhood is ripe for reflection. Brownstein tells that story beautifully, but she isn’t in the mood to dig too deeply, and her parents fade into the background as the story progresses. In fact, she hovers at a remove from large swaths of her own story, which can make for a flat reading experience.
“Hunger” opens with Brownstein’s childhood in the suburbs of Seattle. She was a popular kid, and she latched onto alternative culture early. She was a touring musician by the time she was barely out of her teens, and her rise was relatively quick and bump-free. In 2001, when Brownstein was 27, the critic Greil Marcus called Sleater-Kinney the greatest rock band in America. By the second half of the book, we get sentences like this: “The next day, Janet, Corin, and I went to the designer Marc Jacobs’s apartment to help Kim Gordon out with a Sonic Youth video.”
While Brownstein may shy from introspection, she excels at capturing the era that fostered her rise to stardom. In her telling, the music subculture of the Pacific Northwest in the ’90s was at once gritty and friendly, edgy and earnest. More significantly, she captures a kind of antiquated Gen-X attitude. “Punk was about making choices that didn’t bend to consumptive and consumerist inclinations and ideologies, that didn’t commodify the music or ourselves,” Brownstein writes. “We didn’t want to be associated with a brand. Mostly, we didn’t want to be a brand.” In an era in which even office drones are expected to shape their own brand online, this reads as adorably quaint.
Engaging and witty, “Hunger” is nonetheless a book best appreciated by devoted Sleater-Kinney fans. Admirers who came to Brownstein through her work on “Portlandia” will find almost nothing for them here. Instead, readers are treated to a minutely detailed account of Brownstein’s pet dogs and cats over the years, and how they interacted with each other. There’s more on her cat Lyle’s gastritis than on the making of a hit TV show. That’s Brownstein’s prerogative, of course, but it will leave some readers of “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl” hungry for more.
Ruth Graham is a contributing writer for the Atlantic and the Boston Globe.
By Carrie Brownstein
Riverhead. 244 pp. $27.95