Saturday, September 22, 2007

Learning to Drive: Book Review

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories, by Katha Pollitt.

In the last year, I've read all of Pollitt's essay collections (and blogged here about Virginity or Death! and Reasonable Creatures). I enjoy Pollitt's political perspectives and her humor a great deal, but it's her incredible gift for words that really keeps me reading, even when she's writing about a topic that doesn't particularly interest me. The pace, the particular words she picks, the way it all hangs together, often ending with a surprise punch to your gut - it is all very satisfying. And of course it helps that I agree with most of Pollitt's views - it's always nice to find your opinions vindicated by someone who articulates what you were thinking with such color and style.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying that I was really looking forward to Pollitt's new book, especially when I read that it was mostly material that was not previously published (many of her essays for The Nation can be read online here and since I got hooked, I've been reading the columns and her blog regularly). And not only is this book new stuff, it's more personal than political, which makes it quite different from her previous works.

Some reviewers apparently feel a bit betrayed by this. The most brutal review was by Susan Salter Reynolds in the LA Times, who called the collection "whingeing" and "self-indulgent at best". I don't agree (but do agree when Reynolds says "It must be my problem"); I think that Pollitt's honest and sometimes painful essays about her personal relationships, fears, and aging make for utterly compelling reading.Unlike her previous books, which I picked up and put down, reading an essay every couple of days, I read this one in a day and a half, stealing moments whenever I could find them to read the next piece. It was over all too soon.

Here's a few selections from my favorite parts. On the aftermath of her breakup with a long-term boyfriend, who lived with her for years and apparently slept with numerous other women:

...I would browse the Internet, searching for information about him. Except "browse" is much too placid and leisured a word - a cow browses in a meadow, a reader browses in a library for a novel to take home for the weekend. What I did fell between zeal and monomania. I was like Javert, hunting him through the sewers of cyberspace, moving from link to link in the dark, like Spider-Man flinging himself by a filament over the shadowy chasm between one roof and another. "Are you Webstalking him?" a friend in her twenties asked over coffee. I hadn't known there was a word for what I was doing. (p. 22)

On what people do vs. what they say, and the power and beauty of words:

You think what people say is what matters, an older friend told me long ago. You think it's all about words. Well, that's natural, isn't it? I'm a writer; I can float for hours on a word like "amethyst" or "broom" or the way so many words sound like what they are: "earth" so firm and basic, "air" so light, like a breath. You can't imagine them the other way around: She plunged her hands into the rich brown air. Sometimes I think I would like to be a word - not a big important word, like "love" or "truth," just a small ordinary word, like "orange" or "inkstain" or "so," a word that people use so often and so unthinkingly that its specialness has all been worn away, like the roughness on a pebble in a creek bed, but that has a solid heft when you pick it up, and if you hold it to the light at just the right angle you can glimpse the spark at its core. (p. 31)

As a midwesterner, I loved the insights into New York City and the east coast in general (no strollers in post offices? What are they, crazy?), especially when it came to motherhood and feminism:

And it was feminism that made it an expected, an ordinary, thing for a man and a woman to live together in their own way - they could clean the house together or just let it fall apart. Those were not ideas that you could easily derive from middle-class American family life in the 1950s and 1960s, even a family of Communists like mine. Who owned the means of production - that was nothing, that could change overnight. But who vacuumed, who brought coffee while the other person remained seated, who held forth and who made encouraging murmurs - that seemed set in stone. (p. 171-2)

I hope that people who don't read Pollitt's columns will pick up this memoir - which veers from funny, to touching, to nostalgic, and then back again to funny - and go on to read the rest of her work. As for me, I'll be returning my copy to the library, buying my own hardcover copy, and hoping that Pollitt comes on a book tour to Ann Arbor so I can get her to autograph my book.

Tags: , , ,


flossie said...

Great review. I'm sold.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Hi! Now I'm intrigued, I will have to look for this at the library.