Observing and Eavesdropping

By Nora Krug
Sunday, November 9, 2008

LEARNING TO DRIVE And Other Life Stories By Katha Pollitt | Random House. 207 pp. $14

"Observation is my weakness," writes Katha Pollitt in the title essay of her collection Learning to Drive. It is also her strength. In these 11 essays, several of them published previously in the New Yorker, Pollitt turns her keen eye, sharp wit and elegant prose style to a subject she knows well: herself. Though the essays cover a wide range of subjects -- driving school, Webstalking, motherhood -- they are fundamentally about Pollitt and her milieu, the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

That isn't a criticism. It is a delight to accompany Pollitt to her Marxist study group ("The endless drone of male voices made the sessions simultaneously intense and soporific, like the reading itself, which I had usually not finished and sometimes barely begun," she writes); on a driving lesson, as she zips "up West End Avenue, enjoying the fresh green of the old plane trees and the early-morning quiet"; and to Zabar's as she searches for kitchen items to replace the ones her ex-boyfriend took ("What kind of person walks out the door after seven years with a wooden spoon, a spatula, a whisk?" she asks). Pollitt, a columnist for the Nation, may write as the denizen of a small world, but her wry humor is universal: "Maybe what we think of as our self is just nature's way of making sure our cats have someone to open their cans."

HOUSE OF HAPPY ENDINGS A Memoir By Leslie Garis | Farrar Straus Giroux. 339 pp. $14

Spoiler alert: House of Happy Endings is an ironic title for a memoir whose ending is anything but. Set mostly in a house called the Dell, a sprawling 19th-century mansion in Amherst, Mass., where Leslie Garis spent much of her childhood, the book chronicles her darkly romantic upbringing.

Among the residents of the Dell was Garis's grandfather, Howard Garis, who wrote the Uncle Wiggily series, and with his wife, under various pseudonyms, numerous volumes of the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift series. Leslie Garis was more Nancy Drew than Bobbsey Twins, however, and spent many hours perched in the dumbwaiter at the Dell, "moving up and down behind the walls" so she could "eavesdrop to my heart's content." There was much to hear: intense family bickering and, eventually, signs of her father's mental collapse. Roger Garis, a sporadically successful playwright who favored "ascots in cool weather and finely cut clothes even for gardening," committed suicide in 1967. Leslie Garis, now in her 60s, recalls her youth with uncanny wisdom, ascribing adult psychological insights to her child self ("Though I was barely six, I'd begun to have the uneasy sense that my mother was feeling inadequate to the demands of her own life," she writes). Such overly precocious observations detract from what is otherwise a captivating tale about a gifted but distraught literary family.

From Our Previous Reviews

· Set on the last day of business at a Red Lobster in Connecticut, Stewart O'Nan's novel Last Night at the Lobster (Penguin, $13) "serves up the kind of delicate sadness that too often gets ruined by the slimy superiority that masquerades as sympathy for working-class people," Ron Charles commented.

· Jonathan Yardley called The Bad Girl (Picador, $14), by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a "story of romantic and sexual obsession" that is "irresistibly entertaining and, like all of its author's work, formidably smart."

· A Year Without Made in China (Wiley, $14.95) by Sara Bongiorni, a chronicle of one family's efforts to fulfill the promise of its title, "wonderfully articulates the ambivalence that many Americans feel toward China's modernization," according to Susan L. Shirk.

· The Bush Tragedy (Random House, $16) by Jacob Weisberg is "a relentless indictment not just of the president but of his surrogate family members as well," wrote Michael Getler.

· Winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, Stanley (Yale Univ., $18), by Tim Jeal, is an "eminently readable" account of the life of "journalist, explorer and continental opportunist Sir Henry Morton Stanley," according to Jason Roberts.

Nora Krug is Book World's paperbacks columnist.

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