This summer break, everyone I know was reading memoirs, and every time I caught a tram since its’ release I’ve seen someone reading Lena Dunham’s book. Just before Christmas, Australian writer Benjamin Law encouraged his Instagram followers to upload a photo of their to-read pile for the break using the hashtag #summerreadingstack. It was a fascinating way to sneak inside stranger’s homes to see how book-lovers were planning on spending their holidays. In almost all of these photos (and last time I checked there were close to 200) sits at least one memoir. Some feature Amanda Palmers’ The Art Of Asking, or Lorelei Vashti’s Dress, Memory, but time and time again those luminous pink letters from Not That Kind of Girl or Yes Please kept jumping out those stacks. And I was right there too. So this is a slightly different book-plate from normal, because there are three books in one post. It’s the #summerreadingstack edition, or the Summer of Memoirs. The three memoirs in my summer reading stack were from three women sharing stories: Sian Prior’s Shy - A Memoir, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl; and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.
The first of these books to be pulled from the pile was Sian Prior’s Shy. Let me say from the beginning that the irony of me reading this book on the day we flew into Tasmania in order to have a quieter, less anxiety inducing Christmas, is not lost on me. But it was planned - I thought that in a successful woman who also suffers from shyness I would find a kindred spirit. Someone who might empathise with my urge to scuttle away this year. And to an extent, this was true. Prior weaves her own experiences of shyness with her research into shyness and social anxiety as a way of making sense of what it is to be shy, but also our need to label all the things we find challenging and difficult in our lives.
Prior was able to balance her shyness with her career as a successful journalist, a profession that seemingly requires a lot of confidence and ability to talk with strangers, but behind the scenes things were different. Prior’s research shows us that shyness can be contained to particular areas in our lives, so while a shy person might be able to host radio interviews and publish articles in newspapers, introverts and shy people can often struggle to do particular things in front of strangers. Quoting an interview with a psychology professor:
"A lot of shy people are worried about eating, drinking or writing in front of others” (to the point of having) “physical symptoms, like shaking."
Adding to this tenuous mix, Prior is in a relationship with a famous Australian musician she chooses to call ‘Tom’. Tom’s popularity and notoriety allows Prior to hide in social situations, though it also conversely makes her feel more vulnerable, quiet and alone. It’s a fragile mix, shaken to the core when Tom tells Prior he is leaving. At this point such personal material becomes incredibly difficult to read. Their relationship break-up and the resulting soul-searching still feels incredibly raw: it’s difficult to connect the thread between fame and shyness when the bitterness in which these events are portrayed feel more like a break-up story. While there are certainly some interesting moments in Shy, I felt that this book needed time to breathe. It was written too soon, it is too immediate, and funnily enough, too extroverted, to allow the beauty of shyness and the interesting research Prior compiled to sit on it’s own and gently sink in.
I’ve talked about my love of Lena Dunham before - In Conversation with Judy Blume and with How Should A Person Be? - but as well as her work on Girls, I’ve also been following her writing for the New Yorker. These pieces were perfect pre-cursors to Not That Kind of Girl: short, funny and accessible pieces of writing that also tell very human stories. Dunham tells us that she is sharing these stories in order to help others - it seems self-aggrandising at first, but very soon after starting Not That Kind of Girl, you know it’s true.
Dunham writes with a dry self-awareness and deprecation that is both refreshing and sincere. Her essays about body image and sex border on self-help but rather than being a push to action, they are a push to acceptance. Of being able to tell when people are telling you shit or treating you inappropriately and feeling strong enough to speak up. Her essay about endometriosis - Who Moved My Uterus - is brilliant. As someone who suffers from both endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome, I connected immediately with all the mixed up emotions that come with having a mixed up anatomy. Dunham doesn’t wallow in self pity, she just lays out the facts, the reasoning and the consequences and leaves you with knowledge, rather than opinions. But this is still conveyed in her well-known tone, and excerpts such as this feel like reading a less cringe-worthy Hannah Horvath on the page:
Menstruating is the only part of being female I have ever disliked. Everything else feels like a unique and covetable privilege, but this? When it began, it held a morbid fascination, like a car crash that happened inside my underpants every three weeks. I was happy to be admitted into this exclusive club, to finally regard the tampon machine with the knowledge of the initiated. But it soon became tiresome, like a melodramatic friend or play rehearsals.
It’s in her exploration of being a woman that Dunham is at her best. She is generous in sharing her stories and experiences, but never brash. Her voice is genuine in its desire to make you feel a little less alone in the world. Reading Not That Kind of Girl felt like having coffee with a friend who gives really good advice: free from bullshit, empowering, loving advice. In her essay about making it in television - I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled at Me - Dunham writes powerfully about the gendered games and roles in the industry, exposing her own vulnerability in relaying her experience in order to help others. The essay gives us perfect like gems like this vow to defeat “the sunshine stealers” that threaten to hold Dunham, other women in entertainment, and well, all women everywhere, back from who we wish to be and what we hope to achieve:
And I decided then that I will never be jealous. I will never be vengeful. I won’t be threatened by the old, or by the new. I’ll open wide like a daisy every morning. I will make my work.
Not That Kind of Girl was a real pleasure to read. It was a perfect holiday read - I was able to pick it up at any point and dive straight back in, and Dunham’s tone is gentle, funny and kind. I loved the little snapshots of her life peppered throughout the book, through lists such as ‘What’s In My Bag’ and ’13 Things I’ve Learned Are Not Okay to Say to Friends’, and snippets of emails, chats and texts that are dropped into essays, or become stories in themselves. Dunham’s friendship and mentorship with Nora Ephron is a strong presence in this book. We have sadly lost Ephron, but Dunham’s work on screen and on the page feels like a new generation taking over from Ephron’s much loved work.
Poehler’s book, Yes Please, is the most disappointing of the trio. What I was expecting was the boundless enthusiasm of Poehler on screen, where she is best known for her work on and off screen at Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation. But what I got was a more humble, realistic portrayal. Poehler, unlike Prior and Dunham, is not a writer first and foremost. She can write incredibly well for screen, but acknowledges on the very first page that “this book nearly killed me.” So what we read instead is akin to a scrapbook. There are stories of her family and her path to where she is today. There are glimpses behind the scenes and anecdotes of her life on television. There are little snippets of Leslie Knope like gold, such as “It takes years to find your voice and seize your real estate” and Poehler is incredibly generous in sharing how she is able to be a working mother and how difficult the balance is. But unfortunately the book lacks a strong narrative connecting these story threads together into a cohesive experience for the reader. I found Yes Please quite jarring and difficult to read, not because of the content, but because of this style and, well, lack of direction from her editors. It is also a curiously heavy book. I feel that a book being pushed as a Christmas gift should inherently be a beach read. Because of the number of images printed throughout the book, heavy photo quality paper stock is used, which makes a 300 page paperback feel like an 800 page hardcover tome. This just added to the experience of alienating me as a reader, and unfortunately clouded the book even more.
The thing I took away from all three of these books is a permission to share vulnerability, in whatever form it takes. For Prior, it was her shyness and how it informed her relationships. For Dunham, it was taking ownership of physical vulnerability and making it a strength. For Poehler, being a working mother and always following what feels right. Last week I shared here that I was feeling fragile. That after coming home my body gave me a bit of a warning to stop pushing myself so hard for awhile. People I’ve never met before sent me messages and tweets to thank me for sharing and to wish me a speedy recovery. It was bizarre and wonderful. Thank you. I’m starting to learn that once you start sharing your vulnerability, you become more powerful. With people behind you wishing you well and others by your side who say “yes, that’s the same as me”, you are protected from anyone who is stupid enough to exploit this vulnerability and you become surrounded by a strong and mighty support network. Prior, Dunham and Poehler have led very different lives, and are all at different stages of working through their vulnerabilities. But by telling their stories they each tell us that it’s ok, we all have our weak spots. The trick to making them our strength is by sharing.
When I’m feeling hot, tired, overwhelmed, I make this. It feels like comfort food, but satisfies the cravings I get every year post Christmas indulgence for fresh, light, crunchy food. This Vietnamese style chicken salad has been a regular feature in our house of late, particularly on warm nights where we try to generate as little heat as possible in our tiny upstairs apartment. Based on this recipe by Luke Nguyen, I have stolen the easy bits and left the harder ones. I would love to make master stock chicken and use that in this salad, but I have recently had neither the time or the care to do so. So I buy a free-range rotisserie chicken from the supermarket or the local takeaway and shred the meat from that instead. It’s a much quicker addition to the salad that also means I only need to turn the stove on for a minute or two to have the meal finished. For the two of us, I combine the shredded meat from half a chicken with: a quarter of a cabbage (also shredded), a finely sliced cucumber, a cup of Vietnamese mint leaves, half a cup of mint leaves, a handful of roasted unsalted peanuts and the nuoc cham dressing from Luke Nguyen’s recipe. This is one of those perfect hot weather dinners: without heavy carbohydrates it’s easy to eat a lot of and not feel bloated, and the fresh crunchy vegetables and herbs also keep it refreshing and light. It might just be a salad, but it’s a way to beat heat and exhaustion, to nourish myself and my partner with a healthy dinner, and make us sit down together and share stories from our day.
Rookie is a site for teenage girls. Oh how I wish it had been a thing when I was a teenage girl. But just because I’m in my early thirties, doesn’t mean I dismiss it, because it is amazing. Reading Rookie makes me feel like the well adjusted teenager I never was. This is a site that celebrates sharing, in a supportive, constructive way. There’s the regular ‘Dear Diary’ segment where four girls share journal posts, the ‘Ask A Grown’ questions, and incredible, empowering articles like this recent post: How to Tell Creepy Dudes to Leave You Alone. Rookie is about community and women supporting women, no matter what age. And that’s something worth celebrating.