Melissa Banks: The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing (1999)

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing

I mistook The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing for superficial “chick lit”. At the time when it came out I wouldn’t have picked it up but a week ago I stumbled over a review which made me curious and when I saw that there were some dirt cheap used copies on amazon, I ordered one. I’m so glad I gave in. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this witty book. It’s funny and moving, sad and true, all at the same time. However, I would hesitate to call this a novel. It’s a series of short stories, mostly about the same character – Jane. Some of the stories, like the title story have been published by renowned magazines like Zoetrope. Two have been combined and made into a movie called Suburban Girl, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alec Baldwin. While reading the book I remembered I’ve seen this film. It’s not a must-see. Luckily the stories are much better.

When it came out a few critics wrote harsh reviews, saying Jane was no real character and the book contained nothing but witty one liners. I agree that the book contains a lot of witty repartee and quotable lines but I thought it was anything but flat.

The story I liked best is the first in the collection. It’s called Advanced Beginners. Jane is a very young girl still and love and dating are confusing. Emotions are confusing and she understands how difficult it is to put certain feelings into words. They are too delicate; talking about them could destroy them. The following quote, which I found online, will give you a taste of Bank’s style.

My brother’s first serious girlfriend was eight years older—twenty-eight to his twenty. Her name was Julia Cathcart, and Henry introduced her to us in early June. They drove from Manhattan down to our cottage in Loveladies, on the New Jersey shore. When his little convertible, his pet, pulled into the driveway, she was behind the wheel. My mother and I were watching from the kitchen window. I said, “He lets her drive his car.”

My brother and his girlfriend were dressed alike, baggy white shirts tucked into jeans, except she had a black cashmere sweater over her shoulders.

She had dark eyes, high cheekbones, and beautiful skin, pale, with high coloring in her cheeks like a child with a fever. Her hair was back in a loose ponytail, tied with a piece of lace, and she wore tiny pearl earrings.

I thought maybe she’d look older than Henry, but it was Henry who looked older than Henry. Standing there, he looked like a man. He’d grown a beard, for starters, and had on new wire-rim sunglasses that made him appear more like a bon vivant than a philosophy major between colleges. His hair was longer, and, not yet lightened by the sun, it was the reddish-brown color of an Irish setter.

He gave me a kiss on the cheek, as though he always had.

Then he roughed around with our Airedale, Atlas, while his girlfriend and mother shook hands. They were clasping fingertips, ladylike, smiling as though they were already fond of each other and just waiting for details to fill in why.

Julia turned to me and said, “You must be Janie.”

“Most people call me Jane now,” I said, making myself sound even younger.

“Jane,” she said, possibly in the manner of an adult trying to take a child seriously.

Henry unpacked the car and loaded himself up with everything they’d brought, little bags and big ones, a string tote, and a knapsack.

As he started up the driveway, his girlfriend said, “Do you have the wine, Hank?”

Whoever Hank was, he had it.

I also enjoyed the two stories which were made into a movie, My Old Man and The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine. The narrator is a young editor who dates an older, very famous editor who tries to hide his alcohol problem. It’s just as witty as the first story, but more bitter-sweet.

The title story pokes fun at all those self-help books that promise women will find Mr. Right if they only stick to certain rules. The narrator follows such a rule book and at first the result is funny but then it becomes tragic and she turns into a parody of herself.

I can’t help it but I like a book with quotable lines. I enjoyed most of the stories and to me it even felt like a novel because we see Jane at various stages of her dating life. When it came out it was compared to Bridget Jones but that doesn’t do it any justice. It’s totally different, because tone and voice are so different. Jane sounds mostly laconic. I’d also say The Girl’s Guide … is more literary style wise but with less social/cultural commentary. One should really not compare them. It just goes to show that Bridget Jones was the 90s Gone Girl.

35 thoughts on “Melissa Banks: The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing (1999)

  1. Hi, Caroline. Personally, I also love witty one-liners in a novel, and it’s been my experience that the critics who most often pan them are self-serious male critics who like their books all doom, gloom, and philosophical murkiness. Jane Austen is great for a reason, though, and in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lectures on Literature,” he calls her moments of witty irony her “dimples.” It’s a fact that he was so pompous that he didn’t at first want to have any women writers in the subjects of his course, and a friend had to persuade him to consider Austen. He was, of course, otherwise condescending about some of her qualities, but he did give her a chance. It often seems to me that women writers feel as a group (though of course this is a gross overgeneralization) “If I didn’t laugh about it, I’d have to cry,” and women have conventionally been accused of writing cryfests as it is. It’s always refreshing to find a book that has pointed remarks to make by way of characterization and theme. “The Girls’ Guide” sounds very much like something I’d like to read. Thanks for your wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Victoria.
      I enjoyed it and it’s funny you should mention Austen as the first story made me think of Austen.
      There is often jealousy involved as well when critics are that harsh. What she’s doing seems so effortless but it’s actually nicely tight writing, no superficial words.
      Sure, you could debate whether it should be called a novel or not but other than that I didn’t find that much fault.
      I’d be curious to hear how you like it.

  2. I am not sure what lead to me picking this up… I was iffy about it, too… Probably a review somewhere! Unfortunately, it was not very memorable for me. I would have to reread it to really remember anything! It was good at the time, though.

    • It still became a bestsellr but you could say – in spite of the title and the cover. It was marketed like a chick lit novel but it’s a series of rather literary short stories.

  3. I agree completely, Caroline. This is no Bridget Jones’ Diary. I read this book years ago and enjoyed it a lot, but was disconcerted at first because I didn’t realize the “chapters” were actually short stories. If I remember correctly, there’s nothing on the book jacket to indicate that either. Perhaps it was to make the book more appealing?
    Didn’t realize some films were made from it, but they do sound forgettable.

    • The movies are utterly forgettable. I bought a collection of romantic comedies – five of which I wanted to see and the sixth was the Suburban Girl. It was not terrible but far from good.
      The book cover says “novel” and I don’t understand that at all. I’m glad to hear you felt the same.
      Some of the stories are very literary – nothing like Bridget Jones – although I did think that was very funny.

  4. Wonderful review, Caroline! Glad to know that you liked the book. The title does make it sound like a light read and glad to know that it was not really that and it had beautiful sentences and passages and scenes. It is interesting that this book is a series of interconnected short stories – sometimes when they are put together they do look like a novel, but at other times they look like interconnected short stories and that is fascinating to read. Thanks for that excerpt. I enjoyed reading it. I loved this sentence – “I thought maybe she’d look older than Henry, but it was Henry who looked older than Henry” 🙂 It is interesting to know that two of the stories were made into movies, though it is sad that the movies weren’t as good. It is also unfortunate that some critics have panned the book.

    I loved reading Victoria’s (shadowoperator) thoughts on fiction written by women writers and critics’ opinion on it. Very fascinating and I mostly agree with her. It has been one of my major rants against critics. Many times I see critics compiling great books of alltime and they have mostly books written by male writers with one or two exceptions like Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf and maybe Emily Dickinson. (What about Ingeborg Bachmann? What about Anna Akhmatova? What about Marguerite Duras? How can these amazing writers not be on any alltime great list? Are these critics even well read?) I recently checked out Harold Bloom’s list of great books in his book ‘The Western Canon’ and it was the same old thing – male writers with Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf thrown in. I love Bloom’s writings and the opinionated way he states things and puts his cards on the table, but in the selection he put together, though the inclusions were great, the omissions were glaring. It was also interesting to read about Nabokov in Victoria’s comment – I always thought that he was pompous and it was nice to see her confirming it 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy and thanks for this interesting comment.
      If you pop over to Pechorin’s Journal, Max’s blog – a blog Emma, Guy and I like a lot, you’ll see he’s written exactly about this reception of female writers. His post has been freshly pressed – or will be today or tomorrow.
      There’s a very interesting discussion going on.
      Here’s the link
      Yes, it’s a shame that women writers still don’t get the same recognition. There are so many reasons. This book is a good example of what max mentions as well. That title and cover often contribute to this.
      But the readers and critics do so as well.
      I hope you’ll visit the blog and read it.
      Comparing a book to another one can be fatal as well. It certainly was in this case. Not because it’s better or worse than Bridget Jones, but because it’s solo different.
      I loved the part of the quote in which she says Henry looked older than Henry. And the he ends up being called “hank”. It’s hilarious.

      • That is an interesting post, Caroline. Thanks for sharing the link. I found it quite fascinating. And all the blogging regulars have commented on it, which was quite nice 🙂 The conversations in the comments was as interesting as the post itself. I admire Max for being brave and mentioning that only 14% of the books he has are by women writers. I think mine will be closer to 50%, but I am an oddball among male readers. When I checked with some of my friends (men) sometime back on how many books by women writers they read, the answer was typically around 10%. It was also interesting to read in Max’ post itself and the comments on how some of the books by women writers have girly covers and that put off male readers from picking them. I have a different point of view on that. I don’t have a problem with books which have girly covers – sometimes I like those covers and sometimes I don’t, because they are like any other cover. Some plots and storylines appeal to us as readers and others don’t. After all, books by male writers may not have covers which appeal to women readers and so why should a book by a woman writer have a cover which appeals to male readers? Why is the male reader’s taste regarded as the default one here? I have a big issue with that. There is one thing that Max’ post doesn’t talk about though. In the past one and a half decades or so, since the advent of J.K.Rowling and Stephanie Meyer and Suzanne Collins and Sarah Dessen and others after them, since YA literature exploded into the literary landscape, I find more male writers writing YA books in which the main character is the heroine and the male characters play lesser roles when compared to her and these writers are clearly trying to appeal to a female readership. I don’t think that has happened in other genres. Possibly not. In YA, women readers hold all the power and if a male writer wants to succeed in that literary space he has to write stories which appeal to those readers. On the other hand there is a complaint in the YA space also that boys in general don’t read YA books because most of the books have women characters and are written by women writers.

        • I’m glad you found it interesting. Max was puzzled by his own findings, I think. I would say Guy and Tony (from Tony’s Book World) are the only male bloggers I know, apart from you, whose average is close to 50%.
          I’d say mine is somewhere there. I know many female bloggers though who clearly read far more books by women.
          It’s very true what you say about the young YA market. I think it’s similar with crime and – of course romance. There are a few male romance writers who are very successful but write under female names.
          I really like what you say about the male reader’s taste as the default one. Sometimes I just find the cover is badly chosen but I don’t think in terms of it being a male/female cover.
          In any case, it’s an interesting topic – and the discussion is in full swing.

        • The funny thing is, I think, that there are a few varieties of “female on the front cover” books which a lot of men do buy and read, and those are the lurid detective-type novels in which a woman is falling out of her dress and wearing stiletto heels and pouting her lips, etc. Granted, this form of novel was much more common during Dashiell Hammett’s day, but there are still a few examples here and there. Funnily enough, the female equivalent (the lurid romance novel) either usually has a male-female couple BOTH nearly out of their clothes and in a close embrace on the front cover, or a woman in a long dress by herself looking at the landscape. But then, these things are not really in the realm of serious literature, so perhaps my point isn’t valid after all.

          • There’s a new wave of covers like this. I saw some classisc edited exactly with this type of noir cover.
            Funny enough I have no problem with the sexist noir covers but have a huge problem with its romance counter part. Weird.

            • Maybe your preference is because the noir covers have a more “respectable” reference point than the romance ones–after all, Dashiell Hammett is someone even litterateurs read these days for the “kick” of it–and maybe you are just more generous than some, and don’t like to see both sexes objectified, even if it’s equal treatment (you know, the woman with the gym perfect body and the guy with muscles exposed like an all-in wrestler standing together looking into each other’s eyes, etc). I grew up in a family who sold books and magazines, so I got used to picking novels by their covers unless I had heard of them from a teacher or class, and I have to say that the system has been fairly consistent for years. An average good trade-size paperback novel is easily picked out by its cover, as is a cheap romance. I suppose it would be worse if we didn’t have the covers being so consistent to the interior, because as I understand it, part of what you’re saying about “The Girl’s Guide” is that the cover is misleading. I know I certainly found it so, because in general I don’t read a lot of YA fiction, and I thought that was what it was, so I ignored it. Now, I really want to read it, even if the protagonist proves to be a little younger than what i’m used to.

              • No, don’t worry, she’s only a girl in the first story, she then quickly becomes a 20something, 30 something …
                Most noir novels are actually quite prude, unlike some romance novels and I think it’s too much alreayd to have one gender half-naked, no need for another one.
                The world view is so different as well. The noir detective is a loner and often sarcastic, while in romnace novels they are so conventional. As steamy as the covers are, all they are after is marriage and children. Not that the cover says that but still.

                • Dear Caroline, I agree with you wholeheartedly about the romance novel, it’s a dud in its most common form. I felt this so strongly (after having read a gazillion of them as a young teen, which is actually the apparent mental level they’re aimed at) that a few years ago I wrote a spoofy one replete with plenty of comedy and satire aimed at the romance novel conventions. I had a great time! Of course, I couldn’t be as sour as I sort of felt like being and end it quizzically or other than “happily,” so I went ahead and gave a more or less traditional conventional ending, because it’s also in the comedic convention that young lovers get married. But the difference, I think, between a marriage or two at the end of the conventional comic form in drama and novels and that in romance novels is that while the romance novels are laughable, they have no actual sense of humor, and treat their characters totally self-seriously. I called my novel “The Long and the Short of It, Root and Branch,” which I felt should warn any one not to be unwary about what i was doing (my brother commented sarcastically on the phallic connotations of my title, apparently thinking I wasn’t aware of them). It’s on my site for free if you’re interested, if not I hope you don’t view this as shameless self-promotion. I tried a sort of Jane-Austen model summing up at the end, though of course I can’t really compare myself in quality to great “aunt” Jane. And as to what you say about the noir novel being somewhat prudish, I think the detective is intended to be the “bad boy” who yet never or rarely ever gets taken in by the putative “bad girl” or girls who try to throw him off the track of his crime-sniffing. Maybe that’s the reason for the strong double standard in the noir novels, they have to appeal to male readers more than to female, so they locate the “naughty” initiative in the detective. That’s my guess, anyway. Thanks for the additional info about Banks’s book. As soon as I get through the roughly six books I’m rotating right now, I want to read it, and maybe at that point I’ll have something more interesting to contribute, though I realize your discussion is happening now. The other books are on library loan, though, so I have to try to get through them soon.

                  • I just hope you won’t be disappointed.
                    I think Fay Weldon did something similar with the her Life and Loves of a She-Devil. A major theme was the rmance novel and poking fun at it. I always meant to read it.
                    I’ll have a look at you novel but can’t promise anything. I’m not always good with parody, but it sounds fun.

    • Just to chime in on Bloom’s Cannon. I agree that women are underrepresented and that there are puzzling omissions, However, he really throws a few (good) surprises that are out of the box and clearly not just token examples of women writers. For instance: Zora Neale Hurston, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Christine de Pizan just to name a few.

    • Dear Vishy, Thanks for giving me some more homework to do, in the way of Ingeborg Bachman and Anna Akhmatova (I have heard of A. A. before, but have never read either of these two writers). In the last year or so, I did cover on my site some “precursor women writers” to our own century, like Aphra Behn and Mrs. Radcliffe, and I think one book by George Sand and perhaps I eventually got around to doing one by Mrs. Gaskell. That’s all older stuff, of course. Also, I did a post some time back on Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover,” which I thought was fine, thought sad. Right now, I’m reading George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” which I’d never read before, believe it or not (she’s another one that some of those retrograde male critics will condescend to mention). Some more lists (just in case you’re in need of homework too, ha!ha!) might include Jayne Anne Phillips, Alice Munro (I can’t vouch for quality, but there’s also Evie Wyld and Julie Murphy), Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. There’s just so much to read, and so little time! About Nabokov, he was born an aristocrat in Russia, and though his father was a political liberal who fought against the Czar, he clearly responds to a sense he has of entitlement, despite living years in relative poverty as an emigre. This sense of entitlement goes with him wherever he goes, into literature and sexual politics as well, so that he did condescend to Jane Austen a bit, which would have riled me if it hadn’t been such a stylized attack, rather like watching an ichneumon fly attempt to land on a caterpillar three times its size. I’ve just gotten finished reading his autobiography “Speak, Memory,” and he’s clearly one of the “grand old gentlemen” of the literary world, and he knows it.
      He’s not unlikeable, but he comes up with odd, idiosyncratic instructions when he’s lecturing to his classes in “Lectures on Literature,” such as the advice to “learn to read with your back,” and etc. Bloom is another grand old gentleman, and they can be very likeable and persuasive, and say things that stand out, but I think you’re right to be a bit leery and cautious of someone who has things so much his own way in the critical world. Thanks, by the way, for the kind words of approval; I often see your comments to Caroline, and wonder at the sheer number of books the two of you manage to read and discuss far over and above the number I can do; I’m a very slow reader, but I do enjoy your discussions and comments, even if I’m not always in a position to comment back on what the two of you have read and are discussing.

      • Maybe I can forgive someone like Nabokov but I can’t forgive Naipaul and his condescending words about women writers and have, since he’s made those comments not read anything by him and am pretty sure won’t do it in the future either.
        One think we can say for The End of the Novel of Love is that it made us pick up books. Danial Deronda is another one she parses, right? I hope that’s not another “Unlit Lamp”. Oh I’m being cryptic for anyone else but you I’m afraid.

        • Whoops! I guess I need to watch out for Naipaul now. Really, why is it so hard for men to share the limelight (always excepting those who are generous)? And yes, I think that “The End of the Novel of Love” is an excellent resource-comment sort of book which directs us to the things we need to be looking at. My quibbles with it were more with other issues, which I won’t belabor. You know, I’m doing something right now which I think you might find illuminating in this discussion of male vs. female, if I’m not flattering myself unnecessarily. I’m reading Sir Richard Burton’s edition of “The Arabian Nights” (an abridgement of “The Thousand and One Nights”, which I’d rather be reading) at the same time as I’m reading a new book out (I think the author’s name is Fatima Mernissi, though I might have the last name slightly wrong) called “Scheherazade Goes West.” The latter is by a woman who was born in a harem, and who “inherited” from an older female relative a more “heretical” view of the world than that in which she was brought up. She comments on the stories that this relative told her, and why and how men and women relate on the issues of textual and other freedoms, and so far she’s very intriguing. I haven’t finished the book of course, but I like her style so far. She has some very funny things to say about how even Western men (her interviewers) were affected by the truth that she was born in a harem. Sorry if I’ve dragged us way off course from our original discussion, but I just thought you might find this Eastern perspective on the storyteller’s sexism or lack thereof interesting.

          • I actually do own books by Fatima Mernissi as I took a course once on cultural anthropology and gender and some of it was looking into the world of the harem. It was entirely fascinating and I wanted to pick it up again. Maybe I get tome and we can discuss, should you review her book.
            I agree “The End of . . . ” leads to some interesting discoveries.

      • Thanks for your kind comment, Victoria. Hope you enjoy exploring the works of Ingeborg Bachmann and Anna Akhmatova. If you do get a chance, do try reading Marlen Haushofer too. Her book ‘The Wall’ is a masterpiece. (Both Ingeborg Bachmann and Marlen Haushofer were recommended to me by Caroline. She always recommends amazing books and writers.) I loved Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’, mostly for the beautiful descriptions and the strong heroine. I haven’t heard of Jayne Anne Philips before. I will add her to the list of ‘Authors to be explored’. Thanks for mentioning her. Nice to know that you liked Marguerite Duras’ ‘The Lover’. She is a really wonderful writer. Nice to know that you are reading George Eliot’s ‘Daniel Deronda’ now. I feel that Eliot is one of the 19th century novelists who is not read as much as she should be. She is not as well read today in the same way that Jane Austen or Charles Dickens is. I read Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ a few years back and I loved it. It was interesting to read your thoughts on Nabokov. I have a couple of his books (‘Speak, Memory’ and ‘Lectures in Literature’) but haven’t got around to reading them. It is sad that he is condescending towards Austen. I also agree with Caroline on Naipaul. I have stopped reading his books now because of the frequent not-so-good comments that he makes against women and women writers. Reading slowly is the best of way of reading, I think 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts on women writers, Nabokov and other interesting topics.

  5. I like witticisms too so this does sound fun. In regards to the very interesting discussion in the comments section, I like both the cover and the title of this one. In terms of the cover I do not think that it has a particularly feminine feel. Agreed that women writers do not get the credit that they deserve.

    • It really is a funny book. I think the combination of title and cover is maybe not that lucky. And as soon as you have a woman on the cover – it seems that it keeps male readers from picking it up.
      I can see why a lot of editors stick to stricktly graphic covers.

  6. It’s been many years since I read this one, but I remember thinking that it was breaking new ground in format (a series of linked short stories — though I wish that had been made clearer on the book jacket) and in the treatment of the topic (a woman’s coming-of-age story). I agree that this was very different than the typical “chick lit” genre — it feels as if it’s reaching higher. It’s no wonder that it was largely panned. Most of the critics for the major periodicals were men.

    • I’m so glad to hear you felt the same.
      It doesn’t look as if she’s written much else. Maybe the criticism got to her. I think it’s witty and with some imagination you can see her evolve in the different characters, although it’s not always her.

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