Sarah Vowell, a contributing editor to "This American Life," on National Public Radio, knows that she's not a fair-weather patriot -- at least not the kind Thomas Paine disparaged in the first installment of the "American Crisis" papers, which was written in the fall of 1776, when Washington's troops were retreating. But she can't get behind the idea of citizenship as sing-along that has been prevalent since September 11th. The Partly Cloudy Patriot (Simon & Schuster), her latest book, is a collection of radio segments and magazine pieces. Vowell, a charismatic misanthrope, repeats the mantra "We the people, we the people" to keep from freaking out on the humid, overstuffed subway. She also thinks about the Civil War "all the time, every day," vacations in Salem, and takes walking tours of Thomas Jefferson's Paris years. Fashioning herself as Clinton's "crabby little cheerleader," she admits a guilty pleasure in voting. Of the booth: "I love it in there. I drag it out, leisurely punching the names I want as if sipping whiskey in front of a fire."
Neurotic and witty, this book collects fragments of Vowell's experience as an American. The author has a unique perspective on some of the nation's most celebrated events and the places where they occurred, all filtered through the prism of her occasionally weird upbringing in a family of "homebody claustrophobes" enveloped in an "Impenetrable Shield of Melancholy." The book presents a varied and engaging portrait of the author as a product of more than 200 years of American history. Though she portrays herself as a "crabby cheerleader," Vowell is a great lover of her homeland. Refreshingly devoid of pretense, these pieces will likely provide solace to those fellow citizens who are both proud and deeply embarrassed to be living in America.
Few narrators could sound complimentary when calling Al Gore a "big honking nerd," but Vowell (Take the Cannoli), a self-proclaimed nerd, succeeds in doing just that while reading her collection of thoughtful, humorous essays on politics, patriotism and Tom Cruise (among other topics). Vowell's thin, reedy voice and halting delivery take some getting used to, but she settles into a comfortable groove by the end of the first tape, when she relates what she's learned from visiting places like Gettysburg and Witch City (otherwise known as Salem): no matter what your troubles are, "it could be worse." This is followed by an upbeat tune by They Might Be Giants, who composed the music for this audio. It's hard to resist a catchy, comical verse like, "You asked for baked potato/and they gave you fries/but that's not as sad now/is it/as the day the music died," but it's even more difficult to resist Vowell's obvious passion for history, for Al Gore and for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The full plate of special guests-including Conan O'Brien, Stephen Colbert and Michael Chabon-make token contributions: Colbert does an admirable impersonation of Gore and the oddly chosen O'Brien attempts to fill Abraham Lincoln's shoes. In the end, however, it is Vowell's self-deprecating wit and earnest delivery that will win over listeners. Based on the S&S hardcover (Forecasts, June 24, 2002). (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Part social commentary and part standup comedy routine for the intellectually inclined, this collection of essays from Vowell, a contributing editor to NPR's This American Life, mines history and current events for insights into American life. Topics range from the quirky like an exploration of the value of pointless arcade games and Tom Cruise's "breakthrough" in Magnolia to a revealing example of how Al Gore's "Pinocchio problem" may have been manufactured during the 2000 election and the author's personal reflections on patriotism post- September 11. Interspersed are musings on presidential libraries, U.S./Canadian differences, and being a twin, as well as a history buff's view of why the field is significant. Most of these essays have appeared in print or been broadcast on NPR, but this compilation emphasizes a theme and provides an interesting contrast between pre- and post-attack life perspectives. The author's Gen-X frame of reference is clear, but the book should appeal to a wider audience of armchair historians and others who enjoy irreverent social commentary. The author wrote the similarly brash Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World and Radio On: A Listener's Diary. Highly recommended for large public libraries. Antoinette Brinkman, MLS, Evansville, IN
Adult/High School-These essays and commentaries from Vowell's NPR radio appearances and other sources are curmudgeonly, critical, liberal, and, often, laugh-out-loud funny. The commentator, a self-described history nerd, wanders across the spectrum of American life from the theme-park feeling of Salem, MA, where she purchased a Witch's Crossing shot glass, to the glories of Carlsbad Caverns and the Underground Luncheonette. She belongs to a political listserv that was aghast at the results of the 2000 election, yet, joining several of the members on a road trip to protest the Inauguration, she ended up weeping as she sang the "Star-Spangled Banner." Her commitment to America and her dismay about the current direction of the government, both before and after September 11, are strongly stated, but her wit and slightly quirky outlook make reading her book a pleasure. Teens, regardless of their political leanings, will enjoy the pop-culture connections and even learn some history while smiling at her delivery. This title will work well for assignments on essay writing and even provide material for monologues.-Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Pop-culture commentator Vowell (Take the Cannoli, 2000) offers an engrossing take on suddenly sexy topic of love of country. Patriotism may be newly palatable to the hip masses who make up her audience on NPR’s This American Life, but the author herself is the type of person who happily celebrated her 30th birthday at Grant's Tomb. In this collection of essays, she shares her obsession in a work of humor, nuance, and restrained passion, managing both to discuss America’s flaws and restore readers’ pride in the nation. Kicking it off with a rousing yet remarkably uncloying paean to Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address, Vowell puts the reader on notice that, sure, she's funny, but supporting the quips is a rock-solid knowledge of history. Addressing topics that range from the optimal designs of presidential libraries past and future (she advises Clinton to take a page from Nixon, whose library squarely confronts Watergate) to our tendency to make light of serious history (at Salem, she purchases a shot glass emblazoned with "Witch XING"), the author wanders through historical sites and touchstones of American culture. Vowell is no rah-rah patriot; one of her lengthiest essays is devoted to her realization during George W. Bush's inauguration that she has developed a soft spot for Bob Dole, because "he symbolizes a simpler, more innocent time in America when you could lose the presidential election and, like, not actually become the president." Not all the pieces are political; Vowell also reports on the challenges of family Thanksgivings, the joys of an arcade game called Pop-a-Shot, the appeal of dining in the underground cafeteria at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and her newfoundappreciation of Tom Cruise. Refreshing, inspiring, enchanting.
Hartford Courant [Vowell's] collection of essays explores patriotism and other aspects of contemporary life from the refreshingly contrarian view of a thoughtfully disaffected, wryly outspoken and deeply passionate citizen.
San Francisco Chronicle Even though her pieces make us laugh about every fourth line, we feel as if there's something more significant at work....A writer of fierce observational powers who wears her intelligence and wit as comfortably as an old pair of pajamas.
Entertainment Weekly Droll, intelligent, and persuasive.