This review is going to be a bit short since I’m rather short on time. I have an estimated forty-hours* to say my good-byes to friends and family, tend to some personal business, pack up my books and clothes, have dinner out with the family, pick up groceries, beat this level of Candy Crush Saga, buy a bed online, and then move into my new room four-hours South of my home. Thankfully I’m reviewing a Sarah Vowell book so I don’t really have anything to say other than, “Ms. Vowell, why aren’t we friends and can we be friends and you’re one of the most brilliant people in America and let’s go play arcade games together and be liberal as fuck together.” Also, I’ve got a really shitty cold and my brain is foggy so I’m going to cobble this review together over the next few hours. Will this be posted on the 4th? 5th? 25th? Who knows?
The Partly Cloudy Patriot was first published as a soft-cover in 2003 so if you’re a fan of personal essays, social/political commentary and/or American history then you’re probably already familiar with this truly excellent collection of personal essays. If you’ve somehow missed out on the Patriot, or even on Ms. Vowell!, then you’re in for a treat.
With a sense of humor that jumps from dry to overtly comedic Ms. Vowell uses her own life experiences to discuss some of the big questions in American history, culture and politics. One of my favorite things about her writing is her ability to casually write about big topics without ever entering into that, “I Will Now Talk About The Big Questions That Our Generation Now Faces,” language that some essayists might be tempted to do. Reading over the past two sentences I feel that I’ve done a disservice to Ms. Vowell in my attempt to describe her work. The fact is that I’m in awe of Ms. Vowell’s essays; the manner in which she casually leads from “small”, intimate and personal anecdotes into American history/culture/government is seamless and highly intimidating to someone who is trying to begin writing personal essays himself. For some great examples of what I’m talking about check out “The Nerd Voice”, a rambling but highly coherent essay that manages to connect Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Al Gore with ease, or “Pop-A-Shot”, a mediation on the importance of a great arcade game**.
There is one thing where Ms. Vowell and I run into trouble: her sentence structure, or more specifically, sometimes I get lost during her sentences. I first noticed this when reading Unfamiliar Fishes, her book on the American Christian missionaries in Hawai’i that I highly recommend, but I’ve chalked this up to artistic differences and can deal with the occasional need to re-read a sentence or two. Besides, I’m totally aware that my sentences aren’t always put together in a way that makes sense to most people but I’ve just come to live with it***.
In this collection Ms. Vowell takes on Presidential Libraries, family visiting for the holidays, the mind of a liberal during the Bush presidency and Tom Cruise. Not only does she bring humor to her work, she also brings an observant and analytically adept brain. To have only humor is good, to have only a brain is good, but to have both is wonderful. Basically I love The Partly Cloudy Patriot. It appeals to the side of me that wants a “Don’t Tread On Me”-flag and the side that still gets teary eyed over Al Gore’s 2000 defeat. The neurotic in me appreciates it and the pretentious teenager I like to pretend I’ve left behind even likes it. There’s a place for the side of me that gets civics-boner and would rather drop a kitten into a meat-grinder than miss any of my NPR shows. And the historian up to his elbows in centuries of gore? Oh, he adores it.
A brief side note- As much as I enthuse about this book I really think that Sarah Vowell is at her best when writing histories. There’s Uncommon Fishes about American missionaries in Hawai’i, Assassination Vacation about her exploration of the various Presidential assassinations and The Wordy Shipmates about the American Puritans (all come highly recommended from me).
The Partly Cloudy Patriot; Sarah Vowell; Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, copyright 2003.
*I’m writing this paragraph at 9:49 a.m. on the 3rd of the month. Who the fuck knows when this post will actually be finished and posted.
**The one where you throw little basketballs into a hoop as fast as you can, you know, that one.
***Well sure, I guess I could edit my work but let’s face it, I’m a smidge lazy when it comes to editing…