Review: New Book Is "Hilarious, Elegant"

John Freeman's review in the Newark Star-Ledger:

Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories
By Katha Pollitt
Random House, 207 pp., $22.95

One cannot open a publication these days without stumbling upon a personal essay. Unfortunately, the awkward confessions outnumber the moving ones—and the finely written are rare indeed.

In this jungle of self-revelation, however, there is a bird which manages to embody all three qualities. And in the past couple of years, many have sprung from the aerie of Katha Pollitt's imagination.

"Learning to Drive," Pollitt's hilarious, elegant new book of personal essays, collects these pieces into one volume. If a book could contain awkward silences, this one could fill a cathedral with them.

Herein Pollitt admits to Web-stalking her ex-boyfriend, of continuously failing her driver's test, of attending a Marxist study group only to spend most of her time procrastinating for the weekly reading.

Pollitt, an award-winning poet and columnist for the Nation, knows she can't simply dump this information onto the page and expect a reader's natural sympathy to do the rest. Each story is a fine, crafted piece of comic writing, with expert turns of phrase.

"Information was what I wanted from her boyfriend's ex-lovers," she writes in a piece about befriending one of his ex-lovers: "the underside of the carpet I thought I had been standing on." A piece on feminism has this description of Iris Murdoch: "she looks a bit like an intelligent potato."

This kind of wit is hard to come by, harder still in a writer so thoughtful. One almost wishes Pollitt didn't have to go through such travails to deliver it to us—but, selfishly, most readers should take this book and run.