A wickedly funny collection of personal essays from popular NPR personality Sarah Vowell. Hailed by Newsweek as a "cranky stylist with talent to burn," Vowell has an irresistible voice -- caustic and sympathetic, insightful and double-edged -- that has attracted a loyal following for her magazine writing and radio monologues on This American Life. While tackling subjects such as identity, politics, religion, art, and history, these autobiographical tales are written with a biting humor, placing Vowell solidly in the tradition of Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker. Vowell searches the streets of Hoboken for traces of the town's favorite son, Frank Sinatra. She goes under cover of heavy makeup in an investigation of goth culture, blasts cannonballs into a hillside on a father-daughter outing, and maps her family's haunted history on a road trip down the Trail of Tears. Take the Cannoli is an eclectic tour of the New World, a collection of alternately hilarious and heartbreaking essays and autobiographical yarns.
Unlike David Sedaris, who made it big on NPR with a similar brand of intellectual, self-deprecating humor, Sarah Vowel writes stories that wrap her quirky childhood and more recent experiences in an informed perspective on American history. She has an astute eye for detail and an ear for a quick and comic turn of phrase. Her diction is distinctive, a finely tuned mix of high and low. As she says in the story "The End is Near, Nearer, Nearest," she has "a passion for unlikely words."
Having previously heard her read "Music Lessons" from this collection on the radio, though, I found I couldn't get her (likewise distinctive) voice out of my head. Vowell writes in a style better suited to speech, punctuating for dramatic pauses. While it's fun to listen to her stories read aloud, the book suffers from this stage-direction-like approach.
From The End is Near, Nearer, Nearest
Heaven, such as it is, is right here on earth. Behold: my revelation: I stand at the door in the morning, and lo, there is a newspaper, in sight like unto an emerald. And holy, holy, holy is the coffee, which was, and is, and is to come. And hark, I hear the voice of an angel round about the radio, saying, "Since my baby left me I found a new place to dwell." And lo, after this I beheld a great multitude, which no man could number, of shoes. And after these things I will hasten unto a taxicab and to a theater, where a ticket will be given unto me, and lo, it will be a matinee, and a film that doeth great wonders. And when it is finished, the heavens will open, and out will cometh a rain fragrant as myrrh, and yea, I have an umbrella.
From What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill
And once again it's striking how the two American tendencies exist side by side--to remember our past, and to completely ignore it and have fun. Look at how we treat all our national holidays. Don't we mourn the dead on Memorial Day with volleyball and sunscreen? Don't We the People commemorate the Fourth of July by setting meat and bottle rockets on fire? Which makes a lot of sense when you remember that a phrase as weird and whimsical as "the pursuit of happiness" sits right there--in the second sentence of the founding document of the country.
And from the same essay:
When I think about my relationship with America, I feel like a battered wife: Yeah, he knocks me around a lot, but boy, he sure can dance.
I didn't find this quite as consistently engaging as Assassination Vacation or The Wordy Shipmates -- I think I may just like Vowell better when she's writing at greater length -- but it's still full of offbeat charm, often very funny, and occasionally insightful.