Category Archives: Sarah Vowell

Books by Sarah Vowell.

Review 165: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is awesome. At first glance, you might not think so – she’s a short, squeaky-voiced New Yorker who has a driving phobia, gets motion sickness and is allergic to damn near everything. She fits into the category of “nerd” with remarkable appropriateness. So if you’re the kind of person who dismisses the Nerd as someone without consequence or someone you should just disregard, then, well, you’re missing out.

Vowell used to write rock music reviews, loves Abe Lincoln, and thinks that it’s the height of fun to go to Places of Historical Interest on her vacations. She’s an unapologetic nerd, deeply cynical and not afraid to assume that other people are as interested in esoteric matters of history as she is. She’s a self-confessed history nerd, and she makes you want to become one with her.

There's nothing about this man that doesn't say, "I'm nuts enough to shoot a President."

I read another of her works a while ago, Assassination Vacation, about her journey to learn more about our assassinated Presidents and the men who’d done them in. It was a fascinating trip through three out of the four major assassinations that happened in this country, and far more interesting than one would think. Especially with regards to the lesser-cared about presidents Garfield and McKinley.

This book is a little different – it’s a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. It starts, of course, with Lincoln, but goes off in all kinds of directions from there. For example, she talks about her time working for one of the world’s foremost antique map collectors, Graham Arader, and the persistent myth, up until about the middle of the 18th century, that California was an island. As part of this job, she was able to look at how the way we saw the world changed over time, and how maps become a part of the historical record of a civilization.

In the essay, “Pop-A-Shot,” she talks about her uncanny ability to shoot baskets in the Pop-A-Shot arcade game. While most of us would scoff at someone taking pride in a game where all you have to do is shoot balls into a hoop for forty seconds, Vowell shows us why this peculiar talent means something important to her, ties her to a sense of greater meaning and accomplishment and, more importantly, gives her something to lord over her male friends.

She talks about why she thinks she’s secretly a Canadian, given how generally polite and non-confrontational she is. And then there’s how much she and her sister have in common with Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twins who were the child leaders of God’s Army in Thailand. She talks about the incredibly painful feeling in her gut while she attended the inauguration of George W. Bush and the irritation she feels whenever someone compares someone else to Rosa Parks. And then there’s the advice to Bill Clinton on how to handle his Presidential library.

"Look, I'm not being a nerd here, it's just that there is NO way Han didn't shoot first. None. Seriously."

It’s a rather covert style of writing. She is funny enough and light enough that you don’t really think you’re in it for any useful information or heavy thought. But before you know it, you’re wondering to yourself, “Yeah, what is the media’s responsibility to the truth, and why do we let them charactature our leaders?” Not something you would normally think about, but the longer essay “The Nerd Voice” takes a look at the way Gore was misquoted and misrepresented during the 2000 campaign because the media had decided that he was the arrogant nerd and Bush was the homespun dummy. What’s more, she suggests that Gore might have had more success had he embraced his inner nerd and, like Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, made the jokes about himself before anyone else could.

Vowell is a thinker, and most definitely a nerd, and she lets her thoughts go off into strange and interesting places. She has a kind of temporal persistence of vision, where she looks at how the past and the present intersect. “I can’t even use a cotton ball,” she says, “without spacing out about slavery’s favorite cash crop.” And, above all, she’s funny, which is a rarity in those who write about history. Check her out.

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“I wish that in order to secure his party’s nomination, a presidential candidate would be required to point at the sky and name all the stars; have the periodic table of the elements memorized; rattle off the kings and queens of Spain; define the significance of the Gatling gun; joke around in Latin; interpret the symbolism in seventeenth-century Dutch painting; explain photosynthesis to a six-year-old; recite Emily Dickinson; bake a perfect popover; build a shortwave radio out of a coconut; and know all the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Two Sleepy People,’ Johnny Cash’s ‘Five Feet High and Rising,’ and ‘You Got the Silver’ by the Rolling Stones.”
– Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot
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Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Amazon.com

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Filed under american history, autobiography, culture, history, humor, memoir, nonfiction, Sarah Vowell

Review 60: Assassination Vacation


Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I first saw Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show and I was intrigued by her. This slight, dry, kind of sleepy-looking woman was not who you might expect when you run the words “presidential historian” through your mind (in my mind, “presidential historian” is usually an older man of leisure who’s managed to be lucky enough to turn a passion into a job), but there she was. The fact that she was also really funny impressed me even further. And so, since I have a long-running fascination with presidential history myself, I set out to Mooch this book. And it was well worth it.

Being interested in Presidents means a lot of things. For some, it’s the semi-regular top/bottom ten Presidents lists, or comparing one to another in terms of their accomplishments and scandals. Some people develop a fascination with the more obscure Presidents, hoping to rescue their names and deeds from the dustbin of history. Others look to see what kind of social or cultural changes they made in their times. In short, if you want to learn about the Presidents, there are a lot of ways you can go about it.

Ms. Vowell here explores the more morbid side of Presidential history, especially the inevitable morbidness of being in history-love with Abraham Lincoln. In the special features section of The Incredibles DVD (she played Violet), you can see that she compares Lincoln to a superhero, and has multiple instances of Lincoln idolatry around her home. She admires Lincoln’s steadfastness and resolve, his determination to hold the Union together, and the humanity that connected him to the rest of the common people. Lincoln, in life, has a great deal to appreciate.

Study Lincoln long enough, however, and you eventually get to the sad part – his assassination by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

Sitting in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, she was struck by the same thought many people have when they go there – “Wow. This was the place.” She sat in the Chinese restaurant that was built on the site of the boarding house where Booth and his co-conspirators made their plans and thought the same thing. And before she knew it, she was on a pilgrimage, a holy quest to visit all the places involved in the death of Abraham Lincoln. And there are a lot of places to visit, in New York, Illinois, and even off the Florida Keys, to say nothing of the area immediately around DC. Lincoln’s assassination echoed from that box seat in Ford’s Theatre and shook the nation.

Of the four Presidents that have been assassinated, most people only really know about two: Lincoln and Kennedy. But there were two others brought down by the assassin’s gun – Garfield and McKinley. So Vowell expanded her pilgrimage to include them as well, giving them the same treatment and respect that she gives to her hero, Mr. Lincoln. Why she decided not to do Kennedy is not explained. Perhaps because it hasn’t been long enough since the event, or because there’s so much controversy surrounding it already….

The book is a nice tour through the lives of one President we all know, and two that we don’t. And it’s all fun to read, which is usually hard to do with history, much less the history of James Garfield. She reveals that each assassination came about by a complex series of events, and was triggered by many things – frustration, anger, despair, madness – and that each one was a tragedy, even if we don’t appreciate them all that much.

Along the way, we get a refresher on American history, and a little contemporary comparison as well. For example, the Spanish-American war, over which McKinley presided, bears a shocking resemblance to the current war in Iraq. Both were wars of choice, fought for material gain, and initiated by dubious claims of aggression, just for starters. “Then, as now,” she says, “optional wars are fought because there are people in the government who really, really want to fight them.”

One of Vowell’s great talents in this field is being able to link things together, so that the decision made by, say, John Wilkes Booth has effects that can be traced to Emma Goldman, and then to Leon Czolgosz. Or how the utopian free love community of Oneida, New York accidentally spawned the bizarre madman Charles Guiteau, and then went on to make rather nice teapots.

This is a technique that history teachers need to learn if they’re going to give the world more people like Sarah Vowell – an understanding that history is not a series of isolated events, where you can look at a name, a place and a date and say, “Well, that’s that.” History is an ongoing process, with cause and effect coming one after another, often in strange and unexpected ways. Perhaps if people could see how a single event in the past directly influences the way they live in the present, they’d take more interest.

It’s a fun read. If you weren’t interested in history before you read this book, you’ll at least be a little warmer to it afterwards. Also, she won my heart right in the beginning by saying that part of the impetus to write this book was watching Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, which I know nearly by heart even now, so many years after it was put on stage back at Siena. Every now and then she’d sprinkle a bit from the musical into the book – Charles Guiteau was a hoot – and I’d smile knowingly. Must listen to that again….

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“There are people who look forward to spending their sunset years in the sunshine; it is my own retirement dream to await my death indoors, dragging strangers up dusty staircases while coughing up one of the most thrilling phrases in the English language: ‘It was on this spot…'”
– Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
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Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia
Assassination Vacation on Wikipedia
Assassination Vacation on Amazon.com
Sarah Vowell at the Barclay Agency

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, assassinations, history, James Garfield, presidential history, Sarah Vowell, travel, William McKinley