Sarah Vowell has one of the most distinctive voices in American radio. As a contributor for National Public Radio’s This American Life, Vowell penetrates the airwaves with a nasally semi-whine that should be grating, yet manages somehow to be completely disarming.
Without that aural accompaniment, her stories and essays lose a little something. But Vowell is such a talented, funny, intelligent writer that she’s still entertaining in print. Her last book Take the Cannoli, was a collection of essays – most of them humorous – on such divergent topics as her gunsmith father, her obsession with the movie The Godfather, and making the perfect mix tape.
Her new collection, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, is slightly more serious in tone, dealing almost exclusively with history and politics. There’s the expected meditations on Sept. 11 and the 2000 presidential election, but, more interestingly, Vowell also dedicates pieces to less prominent (at least these days) subjects such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the Salem witch trials and presidential museums. As she remarks, she has a thing for visiting the scenes of bloody battle, such as Gettysburg and Salem, and her take on the carnage-litter history of these sites is poignant, intelligent and, in the case of her Salem story, dryly funny.
It’s possible to glean something from Vowell's writing, even if you don’t share her politics. In her essay “Democracy and Other Things,” Vowell speaks about the fateful speech then-Vice President Al Gore made to a bunch of high school students during his presidential campaign, in which he was quoted in the New York Times as taking credit for discovering Love Canal. But the students claim that paper changed a word of his speech, which changed the entire meaning of the talk. Even if those who detest Gore and find him an insufferable braggart will find the testimony of the high school kids compelling. However, Vowell’s piece also shows sympathy for the reporter who allegedly misquoted him. Her clear-eyed approach to the situation is both compelling and refreshing.
Fans of Vowell’s meditations on popular culture and her family will also find much to love in the book as well, including a hilarious story about her Montana-based family celebrating Thanksgiving dinner at her New York apartment. In that essay she compares current Thanksgivings to holiday’s origins thusly:
“It is curious that we Americans have a holiday – Thanksgiving -- that’s all about people who left their homes for a life of their own choosing a life that was different from their parents’ lives. And how do we celebrate it? By hanging out with our parent! It’s as if on the Fourth of July we honored our independence from the British by barbecuing crumpets.”
The Partly Cloudy Patriot does contain the occasional misstep, such as a bizarre short essay that reads like one of those Larry King columns Norm MacDonald used to spoof on Saturday Night Live. Yet Vowell is still a priceless voice in American culture – even when you can’t actually hear her voice.
© 2002 by Amanda Cuda for Curled Up With a Good Book