Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Katha Pollitt, _Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories_

I have loved Katha Pollitt's writing ever since her bi-weekly column in The Nation began running, however many years ago that was -- back in the Clinton Administration, I think -- and I loved this book even more than I love her columns.  Like her columns, the essays in Learning to Drive are smart, funny, original, and obviously written by someone who loves words, loves the possibilities of syntax, and knows what she is about with both.

The title essay, "Learning to Drive," and a companion piece, "Webstalking," are set during what seems a fairly awful and protracted recovery period after breaking up with a partner who was spectacularly unfaithful and then abandoned her.  I gather from some reviews that there has been some controversy over whether it is OK or not-really-OK that Pollitt is as revealing of her weaknesses as she is in these pieces.  What I gathered from no review, but wish someone had pointed out, is that both essays, especially "Learning to Drive," are masterpieces.  

"In the Study Group" is another masterpiece, almost a novel in miniature: a group of radicals has so completely refined their critique of the historical dialectic that they find themselves with no need to organize, proselytize, or hit the streets at all.  They need only keep reading, write occasionally, and above all, continue to talk.  Anyone could have satirized this group, and Pollitt can make visible their folly as well as Mary McCarthy or Elizabeth Hardwick could have, but she can make you ache for their idealism as well.

The essays about her father ("Good-Bye, Lenin"), her mother ("Mrs. Razzmatazz"), and her daughter ("Beautiful Screamer")... masterpieces all.  The essay on her daughter brought back the days of my own daughters' infancies more vividly than our photo albums do.

I'm not at all surprised that Pollitt is as effective in the mile-runs of her longer essays as she is in the sprints of her columns, but what a delight that she turns out to be even better.

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