Katha Pollitt is best known for her feminist essays in The Nation, so it's unsurprising that her memoirish essays collected in "Learning to Drive" are more politically conscious than [Anne] Kreamer's writing.
What is surprising is that Pollitt's essays are also, in some ways, more personal. Readers already familiar with her as a wordsmith, a wit and a critic will be interested in her great talent in articulating difficult, intimate emotions. Pollitt coats these tellings with just the right amount of self-irony to make them palatable for the reader to digest, and, we assume, for Pollitt to publicly explore.
Although the majority of the pieces in Pollitt's book have not been published before, the title essay, "Learning to Drive," first appeared in The New Yorker. In it, Pollitt describes her driving lessons when she was 52 and links her somewhat-comic difficulties in being observant on the road with the story of a painful end to a long partnership with a philandering boyfriend.
He didn't just philander, it turns out, but as well targeted friends and acquaintances of theirs for his affairs and then made sure to invite them to professional and social events he and Pollitt were to attend, even ones at their home. Pollitt was oblivious about these trysts until the end of their relationship. She has made up for that blind spot though with research on his lovers, which she reports on in the essay, and by detailing her boyfriend's behavior. Pollitt tells the whole embarrassing tale with deft writing that, while not flattering to her, makes him look like exactly the kind of Baby Boomer the rest of us long to evict from our generation, the kind that justifies solipsistic and even sadistic behavior with those words we used to love in the '70s: freedom, sensuality, spontaneity. Ycch, the reader thinks. And: Writing well really is the best revenge.
Other stories of Pollitt's go beyond revenge. In them she discusses her parents' deaths, death itself, aging and beauty issues, directions and misdirections of her fellow leftists, environmental issues, remarriage, raising her daughter and female friendships. It's quite a sweep. I loved the book, and even with all that ground covered was sorry to see it end. Pollitt's writing is quite moving at times and laugh-out-loud funny at others. Pollitt's is the kind of book you want to look up from at points so you can read aloud certain passages to a friend or lover. Or share them with people reading your book review. Here's one of my favorites, Pollitt's witty twist on carpe diem, somehow encouraging even in its very dark wryness:
"The important thing is to live, to be yourself, this moment, now. To be the captain of your soul, and know that sooner or later the captain goes down with the ship."
"Writing Well Really Is the Best Revenge": Chicago Tribune Review
Maud Lavin writes in the Chicago Tribune: