This week I read two books that unexpectedly turn out to have a lot in common. Because I like her blog and columns in the Nation online, I decided to read Katha Pollitt's Learning to Drive. Also, my book club's next selection is Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking. Each book took only one day of reading: they aren't long and though they are emotionally difficult, they aren't challenging to read. My prejudice would lead me to think I'd like Pollitt's book and perhaps not like Didion's book so much. The opposite turns out to be the case.
Pollitt's book uses her very clever writing style for an extended bitch session about her life and life in this era. She liked things better in the 1960s or maybe some other time in her life. Even what she didn't like, she pines for. It's not that she hates getting old: she feels as if the current attitude towards aging is a personal affront to her. She makes fun of everyone and everything that is annoying her because she feels old. Despite lots of insights, I found the book really irritating.
Didion, in contrast, writes about an unbearable loss: the death of her husband of 40 years, and her grief and desperation in trying to find an equilibrium afterwards. Deeply troubling as any reader must find this book, she did a remarkable job of recording what she says is pure irrationality. Quoting a range of writers who give advice or express their own response to grief, she looks for common ground in a wide area. Even the 1922 Emily Post manners book that describes appropriate behavior for those who wish to comfort the bereaved is unbelievably on target.
I didn't exactly enjoy these books, but they make an interesting contrast. I'm glad my bookclub did select the latter, or I would never have read it.