One-Minute Book Reviews

October 16, 2007

Katha Pollitt Steers Into the Skids of Female Experience in Her Elegant Collection of Essays, ‘Learning to Drive’

As if loving a womanizer wasn’t enough, there was the bad food at literary parties

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

By Janice Harayda

Suppose that the entire female sex were put on trial for all the sins that women are regularly accused of – from taking maternity leaves at inconvenient times to failing to get the right kind of bikini wax (“a discreet triangle, not a landing strip,” Tatler magazine warns). Whom would you want as the defense attorney?

Susan Faludi is focusing on the effects of terrorism. Anna Quindlen has become a novelist and Gloria Steinem the author of a book on self-esteem. Barbara Ehrenreich might turn the trial into a referendum on capitalism, and Maureen Dowd might get cute and refer to women as “Ws.” Ellen Goodman has defended women admirably for years, but her only child left home two decades ago, and she might lack a ready fund of anecdotes on, say, the latest insults inflicted on mothers in Snuglis.

So I’d go with Katha Pollitt, the poet and political columnist for The Nation. Her new Learning to Drive is an elegant and often witty collection of 10 personal essays that, in many ways, resembles Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. Some of the pieces in both books first appeared in The New Yorker. And Pollitt’s book, like Ephron’s, is about her experiences in her varied roles — wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer.

But Learning to Drive has more bite and depth than I Feel Bad About My Neck, which showed the influence of the magazines and newspapers in which its essays appeared. You had the sense that Ephron, good as she is, was saying only as much as her editors would allow. Pollitt has held onto more of herself. She’s writing to her own standards, not those of an editor, and the result is a more unified book.

Each of Pollitt’s essays deals with a personal experience – her efforts to learn to drive, the birth of her daughter, the death of her father or mother, the realization that the man she lived with had been cheating for almost the whole time. But her writing is never just about her. Her essays always comment on an aspect of female or human experience. When she realizes that her lover has been unfaithful, she reflects:

“They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry. But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.”

Pollitt structures her essays carefully as short stories, and some people appear in more than one. So Learning to Drive resembles resembles a cycle of stories more than an essay collection. Given the slapdash quality of so many such books, this alone might make the book noteworthy.

But Pollitt, at her best, is also extremely witty. She shows a perverse optimism in the bleakest of situations (which might explain, better than anything in her book, why she stayed with that womanizer). One memorable scene describes a party for a friend who had written a book lionized by critics — an event that should have been joyful. Instead it was edged with gloom. The novelists and short-story writers commiserated about the declining audience for fiction – “even calling readers ‘the audience’ tells you there’s a problem” – and were fed a miserly ration of nuts and cherry tomatoes.

“Soon writers will be consoling themselves that at least they’re not classical musicians,” she writes. “Those people are really screwed.”

Best line: Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe being over 50: “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad and pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

Worst line: On the differences between the sexes: “Women just have more sense, and they are made of more enduring materials, too. More than half the male members of the Donner Party died of cold and starvation, but three quarters of the females survived, saved by that extra layer of fat we spend our lives trying to get rid of.” Leaving aside the we’re-just-better logic, the inexact math of this was confusing: Wouldn’t it make sense to compare the percentage of men who died with the percentage of women who died? Did roughly 51 or 52 percent of the men die and exactly 25 percent of the women? Looking for the precise figures, I went to the Donner Party site for the Oregon-California Trails Association and found that its numbers disagreed with Pollitt’s. “Two-thirds of the women survived; two-thirds of the men died,” the site says.

Reading group guide: If you’re reading this on the home page of One-Minute Book Reviews, scroll down one post to find a Totally Authorized Reading Group Guide to Learning to Drive. If you’re reading this on another page on the site or on the Web, click on this link to find the guide:

Editor: Daniel Menaker

Cover story: A review of the cover of Learning to Drive will appear tomorrow. I was going to include it here, but my comments would have made this post too long. Sean Lindsay at the terrific site 101 Reasons to Stop Writing sent me easy directions for inserting images, so starting tomorrow, you’ll also see some full color here instead of just duotone.

Published: September 2007 and

Furthermore: Pollitt wrote Virginity or Death! and other books. She has won two National Magazine Awards for essays and criticism and a National Book Critics Circle Award for her poetry collection, Antarctic Traveller.

Janice Harayda has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critic Circle. She was not involved in the NBCC award received by Pollitt.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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