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Lena Dunham. Random, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9499-5
Filmmaker (Tiny Furniture) and TV creator (Girls) Dunham has been compared to all manner of comic intellectual impresarios, from Woody Allen to Nora Ephron and Tina Fey. This makes it all the more delightful that Dunham mines her first book from an unexpected source: Helen Gurley Brown's Having It All, which she stumbled upon in a thrift store in college. Dunham hopes that her collection of personal essays will do for its intended readers—the young and female—what the one-time Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief's 1982 guide did for her. Having It All is, Dunham admits, full of mostly dated and "bananas" advice—on everything from dieting to man pleasing—but it imparted an important takeaway: meek women can inherit success, love, and self-worth, if not the Earth. Dunham is not unlike these women (or "Mouseburgers," in Brown's words), who can, she explains, "triumph, having lived to tell the tale of being overlooked and underloved." She breaks her book into sections ("Love & Sex," "Body," "Work," etc.) and offers tales of her own experiences being overlooked and underloved. If that sounds corny or overly earnest, the essays that compose the book are neither. They're dark, discomforting, and very funny. Whether discussing her forays into yo-yo dieting (" ‘Diet' Is a Four-Letter Word") or the time she thinks she might have been raped ("Barry"), Dunham is expert at combining despair and humor. Describing a misanthropic ex, she writes: "His critical nature proved suffocating—he hated my skirts, my friends, and my work. He hated rom-coms and just plain coms." The book is filled with amusing phrases like this one, as Dunham delivers sad—and probably, for many readers, sadly familiar—tales of hating her body and trying too hard to make undeserving men love her. Dunham is an oddly polarizing figure in today's culture—maybe because she's too young and successful; maybe because she gets conflated her with Hannah Horvath, her self-involved character on Girls; or maybe simply because her detractors are louder than her fans—but hopefully this won't keep readers away from this collection. It would be a shame, because the book is touching, at times profound, and deeply funny. It also addresses something that other female funny people of Dunham's stature do not. The myth, as Gurley Brown and others have laid it out, is that we can shed our Mouseburger selves to become something better. While Dunham is eager for that something better, she doesn't want to lose sight of the Mouseburger inside. This is one of the things she grapples with throughout these essays: how we become accepted and loved and popular, without casting aside, or trying to hide, the unloved, unpopular people we once were. In fact, Dunham seems to want to revel in the dark spaces—the terrifying and awkward moments in life—which is pretty great. Not only does this provide her wonderful material, but it's an invigorating, refreshing slap in the face to a world that is so unwelcoming to all the amusing, sweet, smart Mouseburgers out there. (Sept. 30)
Rachel Deahl is PW's News Director.