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Monday, April 5, 2010

Book Review: A Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

I do love Sarah Vowell. I think I prefer her on audio. I’ve now listened to two of her books on audio, read one in print, and she’s funnier in her own voice (and it doesn’t hurt that she has a funny voice. Before you commit to listening to her on audio I suggest you check her out from This American Life or somewhere because I know some people find her voice very annoying.) Another caveat: I’ve seen complaints about her political leanings when people who read her books weren’t expecting that. Since I agree with her, I don’t care about those, and since I know she’s an NPR-regular, I also wasn’t the least bit surprised that she leans left, but for those otherwise unaware, be forewarned.

That said, she is just about the biggest history buff there is. She’s also a lover of politics, but mostly I suspect because she knows that every event, in just a few minutes, will become history. This isn’t quite as cohesive a collection as Assassination Vacation or The Wordy Shipmates, her other two books that I have read. In particular the chapter about Pop-A-Shot seemed out of place. Also I’m forgiving the Tom Cruise chapter because it was just so funny. I get that the theme of all of these essays was What It Means To Be American, but since the vast majority of them are about history, politics, or personal memoir (with a good dollop of both history and politics thrown in), the occasional digressions into pop culture stick out. I enjoyed them, but they didn’t meld quite as well into a whole as the other books I’ve read.

This one does date a little. It was published in 2003, and both September 11, 2001, and the 2000 presidential election figure strongly. The material hasn’t become outdated or inaccurate, but the strength of her political views seems a little raw and now, 7 years later, with George W. Bush out of office, her outrage just doesn’t resonate. She does have some excellent points about Al Gore. She has a handful of guest stars read quotes in her book, such as Steven Colbert, Seth Green, Conan O’Brien, Norman Lear, and David Cross. I did not catch exactly who did which voices, but I appreciate very much that the men who did both George W. Bush and Al Gore did do subtle imitations of their diction and cadence, but they did not in any regard move into caricature. I think it was a good idea for her to use guest voices. Sarah’s voice is so unique, that to hear her quoting these politicians with whom we’re all so familiar, would be really weird. It doesn’t bother me when she quotes some students in New Hampshire, but I do think it would be weird to hear those well-known people’s words coming out of her mouth. I also appreciate her taking advantage of the medium of the audiobook. So many authors (or publishers via paid narrators) simply read the book, and that’s it. They seem to ignore the fact that this is in fact a different medium than a printed book. It has disadvantages (no pictures) and advantages (you can have guest voices!) over print books, and one should use the advantages since we have to live with the disadvantages.

Speaking of, Sarah Vowell also got They Might Be Giants to compose a couple of songs for the book as well as play the background music between segments. I loved it! I recently saw them in concert for the second time, and had I known I could have been the only person ever to yell out a song request for “It Could Be Worse”, from an anecdote where Sarah sometimes reminds herself of things like how a bad day for her is still better than the day Kennedy was shot (for Kennedy). Her irreverence for history is actually an offshoot of her reverence for it. Because she respects history so much, she’s not willing to accept at face value things we learned from stuffy high school history teachers wearing mostly brown (her characterization, not mine), and instead wants to explore on her own, and thinks we can only fully appreciate what happened when we know the whole story – the bad along with the good. She respects the Nixon library for having a Watergate display (even if it is a dimly lit small room) and she reminds us that Lincoln had a high, squeaky voice. I know I keep focusing on the parts of the book related to history as opposed to the amusing bits about her cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time and visiting with her sister and nephew, but that’s largely because Sarah does it herself – she drags her sister and nephew off to North Dakota and finds a large state park exhibit addressing Theodore Roosevelt’s time spent there. She talks about her first real job in California – working for a seller of antiquarian maps. History is such an integral part of Ms. Vowell’s being that it infuses every part of her.

I thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook. As I love, I learned useless trivia, plus it was amusing while it taught which is priceless. While I wasn’t laughing out loud (which is really just fine while out walking in your neighborhood), I did break out in a silly grin from time to time. I will certainly get her older books on audio too, and I am very much looking forward to her next one, which is about Hawai’i.

This book is a part of the Audiosynced roundup of audio book reviews at Stacked. She'll have a post May 1 with the full list.

1 comment:

Booksnyc said...

Thanks for this review - David Sedaris recommended her when I saw him live last year. I haven't read or listened to her work yet - I have one book on my shelf (Wordy Shipmates) which I hope to read during Read-a-Thon this weekend.

Glad to hear she is good on audio - I am always looking for an audiobook that will make me smile on the way to work!