10 April 2014
Sarah Vowell: The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Unfamiliar Fishes
Sarah Vowell travels through the American past and, in doing so, investigates the dusty, bumpy roads of her own life. In this insightful and funny collection of personal stories Vowell -- widely hailed for her inimitable stories on public radio's This American Life -- ponders a number of curious questions: Why is she happiest when visiting the sites of bloody struggles like Salem or Gettysburg? Why do people always inappropriately compare themselves to Rosa Parks? Why is a bad life in sunny California so much worse than a bad life anywhere else? What is it about the Zen of foul shots? And, in the title piece, why must doubt and internal arguments haunt the sleepless nights of the true patriot?
Her essays confront a wide range of subjects, themes, icons, and historical moments: Ike, Teddy Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton; Canadian Mounties and German filmmakers; Tom Cruise and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; twins and nerds; the Gettysburg Address, the State of the Union, and George W. Bush's inauguration.
The result is a teeming and engrossing book, capturing Vowell's memorable wit and her keen social commentary.
Summary from Goodreads:
Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.
Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.
With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.
As part of my vacation reading I packed the two Sarah Vowell books I owned but hadn't read yet: The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Unfamiliar Fishes. Light, fun (oh, and I'd brought along the audio edition of Assassination Vacation to make my parents listen to while I was driving - it worked, Dad downloaded the ebook to read since we hadn't got the audio finished).
I loved both of these books but didn't find either to usurp Assassination Vacation as my favorite. The Partly Cloudy Patriot is a collection of essays on different subjects more in the vein of her appearances on This American Life than a single-subject work of non-fiction. It was good but it felt a bit all over the place. My favorite essay was the last piece about Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Unfamiliar Fishes is much more akin to Assassination Vacation in format but very serious in tone. It's hard to be wry and witty when detailing the questionable tactics used by both missionaries and the US government that led to the annexation of Hawaii. I did learn a lot about the history of Hawaii that I didn't know, particularly about the Hawaiian royal family and how their version of monarchy operated. Very much a book that needs to be read by many people.
Dear FTC: I purchased my copies of these books.