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Book Review: “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” by Sarah Vowell

A word about my reviews (if you’ve read this before, skip to the review!):

My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews (I can easily find out a synopsis on Amazon or Goodreads) so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.

My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.

If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.

“The Partly Cloudy Patriot”, Sarah Vowell

Well, I have to admit I was partly cloudy as to what essentially this book was supposed to be about. Is it an exploration of a history nerd’s civic pride? Her dabbles in Americana? Memoir? Random thoughts about cultural what-not? Social commentary on the state of government and politics in this country? Yes to all of the above! And this is why I remain fuzzy with regards to whether or not I truly enjoyed reading this book.

Sarah Vowell’s novel of essays gets off to a great start with a piece about America’s most beloved president Abe Lincoln that was truly compelling. Her thoughtful and insightful writing actually made me question my own civic pride. Or more specifically: where did my civic pride go? I was once like Vowell- a history geek with a penchant for all things civics. I was on the Constitutional Civics debate team in high school, and like Vowell, also couldn’t wait to turn 18 so I could vote. She rekindled my curiosity about turning points in our country. Have I even read the Gettysburg Address? Do I really know the details behind The Civil War? Can I quote Thomas Paine? Do I even remember who Thomas Paine is? The answer is mostly likely “Probably Not” to all. But her writing got me interested in actually making the pilgrimage to see the Nixon Library, of which, prior to reading the book, I wasn’t even aware was open to the public. That Vowell manages to be educational, whimsical, charming, and thought provoking all at the same time is a feat for any writer and even though I am familiar with her work from NPR’s “This American Life”, I was still surprised just the same.

However, for every essay that makes me analyze our government and our duty as a patriot, she tempers it with a non sequitur essay about Tom Cruise, or working at a map store, or an ode to a deceased football coach, among others. Her shift from topic to topic actually made it hard for me to fully engage in the book. Again, it became a question of what is this book really about? I guess you could make the argument that all of these essays really have something to say about America in general: our obsession with the good ol’ American boy next-door Tom Cruise, for example, or America’s favorite violent past time, football. But that is not what these essays were about, at least that is not the point of view I got from Vowell. What I sensed was that these essays were filler for a novel that is supposed to be about her adventures in America as a hard core patriot and she lacked enough material to make her case.

Even David Sedaris’s books of essays- another “This American Life” alum and probably the most celebrated- work the best when there is a through-line. Without a central theme, Vowell’s novel feels like a cast off collection of certain essays she couldn’t get published elsewhere. I mean, I’m all for variation and not every essay has to be similar in tone as the previous one. However, following up a particularly intriguing piece about Gore’s presidential campaign and sensational journalism with an essay about her love of pop-a-shot basketball, I found myself scratching my head. It’s ok to bring in comic relief, but even comic relief should have something to say and this essay about basketball. as well as a few others on similar fluffy topics, really didn’t say much. Its placement in the book easily diminished some of the power behind her points of view.

Furthermore, not only do David Sedaris and Sarah Vowel have unique writing styles, they also have have unique speaking voices and many of their pieces are often better understood and appreciated when heard read aloud by the writer. Anyone familiar with Vowell from the radio or interviews will know that she has a strong lisp and a higher pitched voice than most. And I don’t mean to be sexist, but you are almost completely taken aback that such brilliant and hysterical commentary can come from such a voice. Several of the pieces in “Partly Cloudy Patriot” I think I would have enjoyed better had I actually heard her speaking them aloud. Her writing tends to lend itself to aural storytelling and in the case of “Underground Lunchroom” and “The Strenuous Life” (essays from the book), some of the charm is lost because they don’t have her quirky voice to go with them.

What I do love about Sarah Vowell and reading her books or listening to her on the radio is that she is a fantastic observationist. She sees the world from a true citizen’s point of view- caught in the eternal conflict of loving her country and being dissatisfied with her place in it as a citizen. I absolutely adore the following quotes that best reveal who she is, her world view, and what makes her writing so compelling when she’s right on track:

“I’m a sucker for Puritan New England and the Civil War. Because those two subjects feature the central tension of American life, the conflict between freedom and community, between individual will and the public good…I’m two parts loner and one part joiner, so I feel at home delving into the epic struggles for togetherness”.

“The most remarkable thing about the Mounties was their mandate: one law. One law for everyone, Indian or white. The United States makes a big to-do about all men being created equal, but we’re still working out the kinks of turning that idea into actual policy”.

“Walking in New York is a battle of the wills, a balance of aggression and kindness. I’m not saying it’s always easy. The occasional ‘Watch where you’re going, bitch’ can, I admit, put a crimp in one’s day. But I believe all the choreography has made me a better person. The other day, in the subway at 5:30, I was crammed into my sweaty, crabby fellow citizens, and I kept whispering under my breath ‘we the people, we the people’…reminding myself that we’re all in this together and they had as much right- exactly as much right- as I to be in the muggy underground on their way to wherever…”

But aside from the sections of the book about civics and history, which I loved, other essays and portions of the book just felt unfocused and didn’t work for me. When I finished the book and then proceeded to read the copyright information (as I always do for some reason when I am done with a book), I discovered that 11 out of 19 essays had been previously published elsewhere. Considering that I already had a problem following the logic of the book based on its mish-mashed theme, I feel this is almost lazy book selling at its best. Also taking into consideration it’s not a long novel anyway, 11 essays means over a third of the book is not new material. This absolutely irked me, especially since almost half of these 11 previously published essays, including pieces about New German cinema, shooting hoops, Thanksgiving with her family, Tom Cruise, and dead football coach Tom Landry, really had no business being in the book anyway.

Last week or so I saw an interview with Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show, talking about the posthumous release of deceased essayist David Rakoff’s latest novel. She was absolutely whip-smart, funny, and her jabs and zingers even threw well-seasoned comedian John Oliver for a complete loop. I wish the same energy, vibe, and humor had been applied to this book. Granted, “Partly Cloudy Patriot” is over 10 years old, so she has probably had plenty of time to refine her humor, and I hope, write much more focused books.

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