Books

Columnist and contributor to NPR’s This American Life, Sarah Vowell presents a mix of the clever, neurotic and pleasantly hilarious situations for her latest collection of personal essays, The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Vowell shows us the true meaning of being a good American via sharply witty though sometimes sardonic anecdotes plucked from her own experiences of coming of age as an intelligently sarcastic American. Beginning with "What He Said There," Vowell brings into focus the importance of President Lincoln (a favorite figure who appears numerous times throughout the book) in our daily lives, a point she makes through an amusing tale — sprinkled with Van Halen, Brad Pitt and Aerosmith references — of her pilgrimage to Gettysburg to see a Lincoln impersonator reenact the oration of the Gettysburg Address. Once we are reminded of the great leader, Vowell moves on to her experiences growing up as a black-clad German movie enthusiast in Bozeman, Mont., an episode of her life nicely sketched out in "The New German Cinema." From there she easily moves on to issues of politics and individuality with essays such as "Democracy and Things Like That" and "The Nerd Voice." The latter is a telling and sad two-part essay detailing her feelings on the 2000 election, pitting Gore against Bush as Nerd vs. Jock, Republican against Democrat in a Lincolnian sense and, in the end, Gore against his own "innate nerdiness." The essays that particularly shine, however, are those in which Vowell deals with everyday American quirks, like in "Rosa Parks, C’est Moi," detailing the American obsession with comparing our own mostly meaningless activities with those of great figures. And "Cowboys v. Mounties," delves into that other uniquely American obsession: Canada. In all her stories, Vowell effortlessly weaves in pop culture references, her clever take on family life, and past and present politics, making this book a refreshing standout after months of sappy "God Bless America" reads. Yes, Vowell does encourage us to partake in all the patriotism we care too … but not without first understanding its significance.
—Anna Stracey

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