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'Not That Kind of Girl' review: Lena Dunham's growing-up-weird essays speak to her generation

Lena Dunham, author of

Lena Dunham, author of "Not That Kind of Girl" (Random House, September 2014). Photo Credit: Autumn de Wilde

NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned," by Lena Dunham. Random House, 265 pp., $28.

"My mother invented the selfie," explains Lena Dunham in "Not That Kind of Girl," her debut collection of essays. "Sure there were self-portraits before her, but she perfected the art of the vulnerable candid with unclear purpose."

Both of Dunham's parents are artists; elsewhere, she explains that her dad paints "huge pictures of penises for a job." In fact, Carroll Dunham is more renowned for his images of female reproductive equipment.

So if you've been wondering how a young woman with a regular old body like Lena Dunham has the nerve to appear naked on her HBO hit, "Girls," here's your answer: She's in the family business! Her warm portraits of her mother and father, including lists of "Things I've Learned" from each of them, are the highlight of this book.

Like Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling before her, Dunham offers an account of how growing up neurotic, awkward and smart can lead to a career in comedy. The book pays tribute to an earlier forerunner -- Helen Gurley Brown, whose advice book "Having It All" Dunham encountered in her 20s. Though she was horrified by some of Brown's pre-feminist positions (sex with married men -- really?), she was inspired by "the way Helen shares her own embarrassing, acne-ridden history in an attempt to say, Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone."

Dunham's no-holds-barred shtick feels less original in print than it does on TV -- perhaps it is the absence of her specific face and body that makes these essays about bad sex, weight-loss regimens and mental health lapses feel a bit familiar. On the other hand, she offers a version of the growing-up-weird story that is particular to her generation.

While Gary Shteyngart's memories of his early '90s experience at Oberlin in his memoir, "Little Failure," center on a giant bong, Dunham's class of 2008 included a "Ren Faire loving Philadelphian who [was] the lust object of every LARPer and black-metal aficionado on campus" and kept her NuvaRing in the minifridge. A baby boomer myself, I had to look up three of the terms in that sentence.

Random House reportedly paid more than $3 million for this book, and wants it taken seriously -- every event on Dunham's book tour features a conversation with someone like Zadie Smith, Mary Karr or Curtis Sittenfeld. If "Not That Kind of Girl" doesn't put her in their league, she is still in her 20s, already an award-winning actress, screenwriter and director. Surely, as with all her shortcomings, Dunham would be the first to admit this one. Several times in the book, she considers looking back at her current efforts later in life, expressing the hope that "future me will be proud of present me for trying to wrap my head around the big ideas and also for trying to make you feel like we're all in this together."

I think the future her definitely will.

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