Sarah Vowell

Radio On: A Listener's Diary - St. Martin's Griffin - 1996 - 230 pages

On New Year's Eve 1994, the 25-year-old, Art-History Teacher Sarah Vowell decided to spend an entire year listening to everything on her radio and keeping a diary of her thoughts.  Although Ms. Vowell was a native of Montana and worked in radio there, most of the book was written in Chicago.  She writes about President Clinton, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh in his prime as the king of hate radio.  She gives equal time to all forms of music and commentary but obviously prefers Nirvana and NPR.  Along the way she proves that she is not fan of Ronald Reagan, Garrison Keillor, The Grateful Dead, Alanis Morissette and especially Limbaugh.  By the end of September, she is writing a long rant about how much she hates radio.  And then, by the end of the year, she is celebrating the fact that she will never have to listen to it again.  Radio On is a rather unusual first book for someone as talented and opinionated as Sarah Vowell.  But, this was only the beginning for someone who has come to be known as a respected historian, author, social commentator and part-time actor.  [JAM 10/3/2019]

Take the Cannoli - Simon & Schuster - 2000 - 219 pages

By 1996, Sarah Vowell was a contributing editor for "This American Life" on Public Radio.  She was also a journalist, historian and an all-around adventure-seeker.  This is her first book of (16) essays mostly retooled from various reports on the public radio show.  There is a great deal of autobiographical information here from a self-described "liberal atheist" who emerged from a conservative and religious home ruled by a father who was a gunsmith and member of NRA.  Sarah is a pure rebel and truth-seeker.  In this volume she professes her love for Chicago ("Michigan and Wacker"), Frank Sinatra ("These Little Town Blues" and "Ixnay on the My Way"), and The Godfather movies.  Her many adventures included: a trip with twin-sister Amy on "The Trail of Tears" from Georgia to Oklahoma; Disney World; the Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp; driving lessons at age 28; and one Goth makeover plus five attempts to defeat chronic insomnia.  These stories are just as relevant today as they were when she first told them 20+ years ago.  One of the great things about The U.S. of A. is that talented people like Sarah have the freedom to explore this culture and report back to us.  [JAM 10/23/2019]

The Partly Cloudy Patriot - Simon & Schuster - 2002 - 197 pages

Sarah Vowell is a history buff.  She has participated in every election since she was eight years old.  She takes walking vacations in historical locations.  Her title essay in this book ("The Partly Cloudy Patriot") is the best essay that I have ever read on the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11/2001.  My mother-in-law (Aileen Shrum) was watching television that morning.  I could see a smoking building but did not know where it was.  And then, the second airplane hit the other building.  But, I had to get dressed and ready for work.  It was an eerie day.  Osama bin Laden had demonstrated the differences between East and West in a manner that could never be forgotten.  However, life goes on.  One of Vowell's paragraphs was especially significant to me:

"Time passed, laws passed and, five student loans later, I made a nice little life for myself.  I can feel it with every passing year, how I'm that much farther away from the sacrifices of the cast-off Indians and Okie farmers I descend from.  As recently as fifty years ago my grandmother was picking cotton with bleeding fingers.  I think about her all the time while I'm getting overpaid to sit at a computer, eat Chinese takeout, and think things up in my pajamas.  The half century separating my fingers, which are moisturized with cucumber lotion and type eighty words per minute, and her bloody digits is an ordinary Land of Opportunity parable, and don't think I don't appreciate it."

My generation (Boomers) in California was the last of which that average students could get a college education without mounds of student debt.  Ronald Reagan changed all of that, for the worse.  Then, he went Washington, D.C. and spread his misguided ideology throughout the country.  I believe that bin Laden was attacking our leaders not our students.  [JAM 12/15/2019]

Assassination Vacation - Simon & Schuster - 2005 - 255 pages

The history lesson continued with Ms. Vowell's fourth book.  The subject of this book is the assassinations of three presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley.  The three presidents died while in office during a short, 36-year period (1865-1901).  The author is fascinated by the details of the times, the locations, the shooters, the plaques, and what history can be found over 100 years later.  Lincoln's son, Robert Todd was in close proximity to all three events.  Garfield's wound should have healed if not for the incompetence of his doctors.  GarfieldT's killer was a poet who wanted to be the ambassador to France.  Sarah has discovered and retold all that can be known about our fallen presidents, including the conspiracies:

"Suppose, the story goes, Booth, in collusion with the Andrew Johnson government, escaped from Virginia and someone else was killed, and thus buried in his place.  He traveled west, assuming the alias John St. Helen, where, in frontier Texas, he confessed his true identity to a local lawyer, Finis L. Bates, who defended him in 1872 against charges of selling whiskey and tobacco without a license ... But, in 1903, Bates spotted a newspaper article reporting that a man named David E. George had committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma.  Before he died, George confessed that he was John Wilkes Booth.  Bates made a beeline for Enid and saw the body, claiming that though twenty-five years had gone by, he recognized George as St. Helen."

This hobby of hers: chasing history while on vacation, led to a confession on page 139.

"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 ...'  My fantasy is to one day become a docent."

Some people complain that they have nothing to do.  But others, like Sarah Vowell, do their research and tell stories.  [JAM 1/27/2020] 

The Wordy Shipmates - Riverhead Books - 2008 - 254 pages

Sarah Vowell has read John Winthrop's diaries so you don't have to do it.  In addition, she has interpreted Winthrop's and other colonial's writings into modern English/slang.  While the 17th century colonial period filled just ten dull pages in your high school text, the author expands that narrative by 25 times into a rather interesting (and strange) period in the New World.  The Pilgrims/Puritans were a stubborn, somewhat adventurous, and extremely religious bunch.  The details of their religious beliefs dominated their daily lives.  Roger Williams was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay colony simply because he believed in freedom of religion and separation of church and state.  What a crazy guy!  Modern myth shows the pilgrims dining and dancing with friendly natives who had shown them how to grow corn.  But that relationship was much more complex as tensions with various tribes led to awful conflicts like the Pequot War.  Ms. Vowell also delves into the war between the sexes when Ms. Anne Hutchinson came to town and proved that she was smarter than John Winthrop and all of the male leaders.  Winthrop surely thought she was the first colonial witch.  The Bostonians sent her packing to Rhode Island as well for being too smart, I suppose.  Our ancestors will the funny hats had much to learn and little tolerance for those who would question their ways.  In the early pages, Ms. Vowell explains that she had immersed herself into all things colonial to combat her despair over the latest of the Bush wars.  The result is this wonderful history book.  [JAM 2/17/2020]

Unfamiliar Fishes - Riverhead Books - 2011 - 238 pages

In this volume author Vowell traces the history of Hawaii (Sandwich Islands) from the first contact by missionaries from New England in the late 18th century, to the annexation of the territory by the U.S. Navy.  For the missionaries the trip by boat took five months traveling south around Cape Horn to get west.  The goal was to Christianize the natives and that eventually resulted in the erasure of a proud tradition.  Hawaii and other island nations got swept into U.S. "policy" of Manifest Destiny.  If you were wondering how Hawaii came to be our 50th state, this is the book for you.  [JAM 4/9/2020]

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States - Author Vowell did a great job of setting the record straight regarding the contributions of Lafayette, France and other countries during the Revolutionary War.  It seems that every text book I ever read had downplayed the role of foreigners.  There is no way that the colonials could have gained their freedom without the massive infusion of cash and support from Europe.  Nobody liked the Brits in the 18th century.  Lafayette was a fearless and dedicated ally who became a major general at the age of 19.  His friendship with George Washington was steadfast and critical for the aid received.  After the war, Lafayette barely escaped the guillotine by skipping off to Austria where he spent five years in prison.  He returned to France after Napolean negotiated his release.  This book starts with the triumphant return of Lafayette to the U.S. in 1824 when he was greeted by 80,000 grateful Americans in New York, and then made a 24-state tour receiving massive crowds at every stop.  Vowell then steps back 50 years and recounts the details of our path to independence.  In addition to the text, there are 17 excellent drawings by Teddy Newton: Lafayette (1824), John Adams, Vergennes, Adrienne Lafayette, Knox, William Howe, Washington, Greene, Franklin, Von Steuban, George Clinton, Richard Howe, Rochambeau, Cornwallis, DeGrasse, Lafayette (1777) and King Louis XVI.  [JAM 5/4/2020]