Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book Bottom, Part I

As Humpty Dumpty said in Through the Looking Glass, the question is which is to be master.

And the answer is not me. There are situations over which I have absolutely no control.

Because even when I'm frantically trying to finish a manuscript and don't have enough time for it -- when a book by one of my absolute favorite writers comes out, it tells me in a clear, calm, masterful voice that I must drop everything and read it now.

And so I do, meekly and obediently, like a well-behaved bottom in an S/M story Molly Weatherfield might have written. And which is how I read Katha Pollitt's spectacular memoir/essay collection, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories.

Which would no doubt surprise Pollitt, even if she did once write a scorchingly wonderful modest-proposal-type essay suggesting that welfare mothers would do a lot better becoming dominatrixes (dominatrices, I guess) for self-righteous Washington types who like to bash women and poor people.

I read all Pollitt's poems and essays -- if not really obediently then certainly faithfully, and with immense delight and wonder. I read her feminist political stuff in The Nation magazine because it gives me facts to back up my beliefs and logic to make my case and because she challenges me to think more boldly. I read her poems because they're skillful and lovely and smart.

And I raced through the personal essays in Learning to Drive (twice, back to back) because they're about everything I'm interested in. About being a daughter, a mother, a lover, a frustrated but stalwart progressive; a feminist, a romantic, a lover of words and not getting any younger either.

There's a line in one of her poems about writing "feverishly/in all five notebooks at once." Learning to Drive felt that way to me. And the writing makes me laugh and almost weep with envy.

Reviewers have of course paid the most attention to the four essays in the front of the book, which are grouped around the story of Pollitt's seven-year live-in relationship with a man who neglected to tell her he was also sleeping with most of the upper west side of Manhattan (or actually -- and as he'd doubtless insist -- just a certain sensitive, romantic, intellectual female subset of it). Which stories Pollitt manages to make human, instructive, rueful, memorable, occasionally hilarious, and sometimes unforgettable. I don't envy her that it happened, but I'd give a great deal to be able to write something as glancingly wry, as wincingly apt as this little bit about G. (the horrible boyfriend) and one of those lovers:

One night I woke up suddenly in bed, like William Hurt in his prison cell at the end of Body Heat, when it comes to him in a flash how Kathleen Turner had double-crossed him. I saw Judith and G. laughing and bustling around the stove, a few months before he left; they were making paella for our Marxist study group. She had brought her own special pan and her own special recipe.... she had made herself at home in my kitchen! Not that I ever used it much, but still. The whole evening came back to me; I had drunk wine in the living room with the rest of the group while the two of them crashed about gaily among the cabinets, bustling and laughing and calling each other "Professor," and I had felt like I was swimming underwater in a glass box.

Bustling and laughing and calling each other "Professor." I'd probably never have recovered, not to speak of live to write so wonderfully about it. But if the G. essays -- about men and women, sex, honesty and infidelity (not to speak of touchingly, ridiculously pure leftie politics) -- are the Big Bang that gets everybody's attention, the rest of the book is a wonderful little expanding universe of intelligent, rueful speculation about what we do and don't know about each other and how we do and don't live up to our images of what should be.

"I love how she put it together," one of the women friends I gave this book to said (if you're expecting a present from me this year, you now know what you're getting). I loved it too. I loved the way everything had to do with everything -- all five notebooks at once. And (I guess because it has a lot to do with everything for me) I especially loved the essay about the job she had after graduating from college proofreading pornography. Just the humor of having to correct the stuff for grammar and syntax is riotous but also meaningful:
Jack snaked his hand toward Tawny's invitingly swelling nipple, it's pink aureole glistening with delicate feminine sweat, her tongue darting among her teeth like a string of pearls. OK, make that "its" "areola," "between" instead of "among," but uh-oh, should that be two strings of pearls, one for upper teeth and one for lower? And wasn't Tawny called Linda a few pages ago?

But there's more to it than the hilarity of her made-up hideous porn writing. There's remembering that age of '70s porn, when everything was written by and for men, with the assumption that if it gets a guy off the woman's got to be loving it too. Which got me to thinking about our own little world of erotic romance and how we got from there to here and what's changed and what hasn't. Which (perhaps with the help of Pollitt's insights) will be my next post, hopefully after I wipe the delicate feminine sweat from my brow and finish the erotic romance I'm writing and clean up the dangling strings of pearls and other modifiers.

Question: is there any writer you read absolutely faithfully?


Kate Pearce said...

I'd have to say Jodi Picoult. I just can't put her books down!

Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm really anxious to check out her work, Kate. Thanks for the recommendation. I've got such a huge, tottering TBR pile waiting for me when I send in this draft. Plus I'll be out the door to see the Todd Haynes Bob Dylan movie first thing. For someone who doesn't do Christmas, am I ever gonna be rolling in presents.

Jane said...

I love Julia Ross and Julie Garwood. Julia Ross won't be coming out with a book for at least another and I'm a little devastated at that, but I know she'll be back. Julie Garwood has been writing romantic suspense recently. She'll be releasing a historical soon. It's her first in over ten years.

Celia May Hart said...

I was in the process of replying to this yesterday when my computer restarted.

So, yes, I have must-read authors. Currently, they are Sarah Monette and Lois McMaster Bujold. There are others who are auto-buys (like Elizabeth Bear), but I am a little behind in reading them.

Jane Lockwood said...

My must reads--Terry Pratchett, Sue Grafton, and Sara Waters. Interestingly, these are all writers who pace themselves--a book every year (altho I think Pratchett also does some kids' books)--and I think many genre writers are inconsistent in quality because they have to produce, produce, produce.