I'm finally taking a moment to begin catching up on my reviews from the 24 Hour Read-a-Thon. I was already halfway through it when I started reading on Saturday, but I couldn't keep away from The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell. Salon sums the book up this way, and I wish I'd thought of it:
A "This American Life" commentator celebrates nerds and explains how to love your country without turning into a boorish, jingoistic, kitsch-crazed lout.
This wee tiny blurb and the book as a whole make me want to be Sarah Vowell. She's brilliant, funny, fantastic, and this first foray into her world earns her a place on my favorite commentator/memoirist list! It's ridiculously difficult to explain why this book is SO GREAT. Great with a capital "G." The greatest of greatness. So I'll try to show you instead.
The first essay in the book, and one of my favorites is "What He Said There," a chronicle of one of Vowell's many vacations to historical sites, in this case, to Gettysburg. She spends time ruminating on the Gettysburg Address, something most of us do not do, but Vowell does it in such a charming, poignant, and clever way that I just can't help but love it and be touched by it. There are pages dogeared left and right throughout this particular essay that indicate my favorite passages. It's brilliant for its nuanced observations, its hilarity, and it's honesty. It's a great example to illustrate the tone of the collection. Here's one small part I dogeared:
The Gettysburg Address is more than a eulogy. It's a soybean, a versatile little problem solver that can be processed into seemingly infinite, ingenious products. In his speech, besides cleaning up the founding fathers' slavery mess by calling for a 'new birth of freedom,' Lincoln comforted grieving mothers who would never bounce grandchildren on their knees and ran for reelection at the same time. Lest we forget, he came to Washington from Illinois. Even though we think of him as the American Jesus, he had a little Mayor Daley in him too. Lincoln the politician needed the win at Gettysburg and, on the cusp of an election year, he wanted to remind the people explicitly that they could win the war if they just held on, while implicitly reminding them to use their next presidential ballot to write their commander in chief a thank-you note.
I guess what makes me feel so at home with Vowell's essays, despite our common political leanings, is a tendency to question. Question authority, question leaders, question the morality of political and social choices, even when our respective ideologies may fall out of line with the majority. In the book's title essay, "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," she writes in part about her emotions as a New Yorker following September 11th.
Immediately after the attack, seeing the flag all over the place was moving, endearing. So when the newspaper I subscribe to published a full-page, full-color flag to clip out and hang in the window, how come I couldn't? It took me a while to figure out why I guiltily slid the flag into the recycling bin instead of taping it up. The meaning had changed; or let's say it changed back. In the first day or two the flags were plastered everywhere, seeing them was heartening because they indicated that we're all in this sorrow together. The flags were purely emotional. Once we went to war, once the president announced that we were going to retaliate against the "evildoers," then the flag again represented what it usually represents, the government. I think that's when the flags started making me nervous. The true American patriot is by definition skeptical of the government. Skepticism of the government was actually one of the platforms the current figurehead of the government ran on. How many times in the campaign did President Bush proclaim of his opponent, the then vice president, "He trusts the federal government and I trust the people"? This deep suspicion of Washington is one of the most American emotions an American can have. So by the beginning of October, the ubiquity of the flag came to feel like peer pressure to always stand behind policies one might not necessarily agree with. And, like any normal citizen, I prefer to make up my mind about the issues of the day on a case by case basis at 3:00 A.M. when I wake up from my Nightline-inspired nightmares.
This is a political book, a historical book, and a Sedaris-quality book of personal anecdotes. You should hear her extol the virtues of being a nerd. Pure brilliance. Ultimately, Vowell's politicism is tempered by humor, and I think almost anyone would love her for her thoughtfulness and her rationale even if they don't side with her on politics. For me, it's almost like having a well-spoken sister to explain my feelings when I would only screw it up if I tried to do it myself.
Note: Sorry for any spatial weirdness in this post. Just more of Blogger's format screwuppery.