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Music Destroys And Music Heals In 'Modern Girl'

"My whole life / Was like a picture of a sunny day," Carrie Brownstein sings in Sleater-Kinney's "Modern Girl." It's one of the band's happier-sounding songs, with a catchy, almost sweet melody belied by the deeply ironic, cutting lyrics. She follows up those lines with the ones that inspire the title of her new book: "My baby loves me, I'm so hungry / Hunger makes me a modern girl."

As she reveals in her excellent new memoir, Brownstein's life wasn't all sunshine. The riot grrrl legend and Portlandia comedian endured more pain before she was 30 than many people ever will. But there's no trace of complaint or self-pity in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl; it's a memoir that's both candid and brave, and a powerful tribute to the power of music to heal, to connect, to break you down and then make you whole again.

Brownstein's book begins with a brief prologue that sees Sleater-Kinney about to play a show in Belgium in 2006. Brownstein has shingles, and is contemplating breaking her own fingers so she'll be able to end the tour and go home. "Sleater-Kinney was my family ... it had saved my life countless times ... And I was about to destroy Sleater-Kinney." Sure enough, the band broke up that year, only to reform eight years later.

A page later, Brownstein hits rewind, and we're introduced to her as a child growing up in the Seattle suburbs. She was an early entertainer, always eager to be the center of attention, but she was mostly a fan, devoted to Madonna and George Michael: "This is what it is to be a fan: curious, open, desiring for connection, to feel like art has chosen you, claimed you as its witness."

If her early childhood was happy, it didn't last long. She fought bitterly with her mother, the two throwing things at each other in particularly tense moments ("Everything was a projectile, an indoor hailstorm"); later, her mother would seek treatment for severe anorexia, and eventually leave her family. Brownstein's father, she would later learn, had been living in the closet; he came out as gay when he was 55.

It wasn't until high school, when Brownstein began making music in earnest, that she started to find her place in the world. "So much of my intention with songs is to voice a continual dissatisfaction," she writes, "or at least to claw my way out of it." When she went to college in Olympia, Wash., she found something like a kindred spirit in Corin Tucker, whom she briefly dated, and with whom she formed Sleater-Kinney.

Brownstein's descriptions of the influential Olympia indie rock scene — which took off in the 1980s with the establishment of the label K Records — are fascinating. "It felt like everyone was queer," writes Brownstein, who identifies as bisexual, "that our sexuality and desires had less to do with our physical selves and more to do with music and art."

She also proves, unsurprisingly, to be an acute critic of her band's work, and her accounts of Sleater-Kinney's recording processes and tours are indispensable for anyone who loves their music. The band's first three records, she writes, were "a crude aural bloodletting"; The Hot Rock, released in 1999, was "labyrinthine ... sad, fractious, not a victory lap but speaking to uncertainty."

Brownstein's music has always helped people feel like they really do belong somewhere, and her wonderful memoir does the same thing.

It's also unsurprising that Brownstein is a very funny writer, self-deprecating, but never self-hating. She reveals that Sleater-Kinney never had groupies, but she wishes that they had, so she could write "Yes, of course we had groupies! Endless, countless numbers of groupies. A cornucopia of groupies ..." It's the kind of self-aware humor that has made Brownstein one of the funniest comic actresses around, as anyone who's seen Portlandia can confirm.

But Brownstein only mentions Portlandia once in the book — her main subject here is Sleater-Kinney, the band that saved her life, and it's a fitting and beautiful tribute to one of the most unforgettable rock groups ever. It's also a tribute to anyone who's felt lost, or as she puts it, "unclaimed:" "This is a story of the ways I created a territory," she writes, "something more than just an archipelago of identities, something that could steady me, somewhere that I belonged." Brownstein's music has always helped people feel like they really do belong somewhere, and her wonderful memoir does the same thing.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.