So much humor, though.
On the one hand, I think Vowell would be an awesome friend to hang with, laughing at ChooChoo and working it into every comment because of the way it sounds ("spleen" is a personal fave) on the other, she would someday drag me along on the least appealing road trip ever. Hotspots of the Teapot Dome scandal? Tippecanoe? Some other phrase I only dimly recall from American history, but can't actually place in time or space? She's already done The Hall of Presidents, so I'd be clear of that one. Yet no matter how little the idea would appeal to me, she'd make it fascinating: full of humor and humanity. Maybe we can just get her and Kate Beaton and Bill Bryson to filter all of history for us?
Library copy Great, funny essays (I do love essays). Sarah Vowell takes you with her on a series of adventures, challenges and bizarre dares. She is a modern day Huck Finn with a glass of scotch in her right hand and a biography of Andrew Jackson in the left. From shooting off cannons, learning to make a non sentimental mix tapes, to the bizarre not so wonderful world of Disney, learning to drive with Ira Glass, to going Goth for a night, to her obsession with The Godfather, she doesn't hold back and I love her for it.
The chapter "What I See When I Look at the Face on the 20 Dollar Bill" was one of my favorites, in which she follows the Trail of Tears of the Cherokee Nation. A story of American genocide and unrequited bravery, it is truly suspenseful and heartbreaking. When Sarah visits the Nashville home of Andrew Jackson who went against his word and caused so many to die so long ago, Sarah cannot forgive him. She reads a quote by President Jackson aloud to the guide who gives her the tour of his grave and tries to find understanding and peace. I love that Vowell, while laying hard into the evils and arrogance of a country that took away the land of the Cherokees, acknowledges her part in the America that caused so many to die.
Vowell never lets you forget for a moment that she loves/hates America and explains why every step of the way. She is so frighteningly smart and selfdeprecatingly hilarious, it is no wonder she can count David Sedaris and Nick Hornby among her list of friends.
To me this book is like a late night conversation with a good friend after too much red wine and too little sleep. It is a delicious mix of booze and coffee and Elvis and wisdom and pain and acceptance, Italy, and understanding, insomnia, religion, Sinatra, confusion, band uniforms, death, Burger King, and love. She takes the Cannoli. I really enjoyed this collection of essays from Sarah Vowell's travels and experiences. Her way of writing nonfiction is very entertaining but still manages to be educational. It's a fun mix. :)
This book was divided into four sections: Home Movies seemed to be mostly Sarah's recollections of her own American life in her growing up years through to Y2K. So...interesting, but not necessarily educational. (It was educational, though, if you're the type who is interested in seeing how others live through similar times.)
Post Cards gave me a line I really identified with in the essay entitled "Vindictively American." Sarah was studying abroad and in one of her orientation seminars, her group was asked, " 'What would you do if you were abroad and some foreigners came up to you and expressed antiAmerican sentiment?' 'Agree with them,' [Sarah] said."
I felt the same when I lived in Russia once upon a time (in the mid90s). The last thing I wanted to be identified as was an American. Americans were seen as loud, obnoxious, wealthy (and, sadly, the American tourists I saw in "my" town sure fit this stereotype)... I enjoy being American when I'm in America. When I was in Siberia, I wanted to be Russian and then later when I was in Prague, I wanted to be Czech (however, as this exchange happened after my time in Russia, I never really achieved "Czechness;" I was a pretty convincing Russian, though!). I immersed myself in the cultures of the places I found myself and most all of those things that were American about me fell by the wayside.
Anyway, moving on...
Post Cards also gave us our first truly educational history essays. I enjoyed reading and learning about the Chelsea Hotel (and its denizens) in New York in "Chelsea Girl" and "Michigan and Wacker" was a super interesting essay about the history of Chicago.
The next section, Obituaries, was rather heartbreaking because it included an essay about the Trail of Tears and Sarah's modern journey across it with her twin sister ("What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill"). This is the essay that made me cry. "Just as our blood will never be pure, the Trail of Tears will never make sense." :'( "Ixnay on the My Way" followeda short essay about Frank Sinatra's death and songs.
Then the final section, Mix Tapes, mostly seemed to me to again be about Sarah's experiences with certain aspects of American culture (like driving and goths).
As I'm a fan of Sarah Vowell's writing, there were several lines in this book that made me laugh. They can be found in the first, second, and final sections. I'll share just one from each section (the underlined bits are my emphasis to show what made me laugh about each of the long quotes):
Sarah was in an antinuclear group when she was in high school: "My biggest contribution was probably representing the group in a roundtable discussion on the local public television channel; the adults said a few mundane things about a saner nuclear policy before I started screaming, 'You got to grow up! Do you know what it's like to think you're not going to grow up? Do you?' Why the station manager didn't immediately grasp my broadcasting potential then and there based on my nuanced, articulate approach and offer me my own show remains a mystery." (From page 45 in "The End is Near, Nearer, Nearest.") lol ;)
In "These Little Town Blues," Sarah is in Hoboken, New Jersey, absorbing the culture to be found in Frank Sinatra's birthplace. On pages 7273, we have these lines about New Jersey: "This is the state Paterson native Ginsberg called 'nowhere Zen New Jersey'; the place Freehold homeboy Springsteen referred to as a 'dump'; the place South Jerseyan Smith described in her song 'Piss Factory'; the place, it is said, that even Sinatra has called a 'sewer.' Or, as my guidebook puts it, the state 'has a superb interstate highway system for a reason.' " lol!!! :)
"Drive Through, Please" is about Sarah finally learning to drive at the age of about 28: "When someone asks me why I don't drive, I usually say that my sister drives. Which sounds a little loony. But my sister, Amy, and I are twins. . . . The advantage is that twins share responsibilities. There is little or no pressure to become a whole person, which creates a very clear, very liberating division of labor. I did the indoor things, she did the outdoor ones. She learned to ride a bike before I did. I learned to read before she did. She owns at least three pairs of skis. I own at least three brands of bourbon. Driving was her jurisdiction. Criticizing her driving was mine." lol!!! :)
In closing, I really enjoyed this book. I'm not sure I'm taking away anything from the educational bits, but it did make me reaffirm my love for Sarah Vowell's writing style and rekindled my interest in reading others of her works. :) I realized reading this that I am familiar with this author from NPR's This American Life
Some of the essays captured my imagination, some did not. All in all it was a diverting read from the all that is occupying my time around her otherwise.
FROM THE PUBLISHER
Take the Cannoli is a moving and wickedly funny collection of personal stories stretching across the immense landscape of the American scene. Vowell tackles subjects such as identity, politics, religion, art, and history with a biting humor. She 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 fatherdaughter outing, and maps her family's haunted history on a road trip down the Trail of Tears. Vowell has an irresistible voicecaustic and sympathetic, insightful and doubleedgedthat has attracted a loyal following for her magazine writing and radio monologues on This American Life.
Take The Cannoli Is A Moving And Wickedly Funny Collection Of Personal Stories Stretching Across The Immense Landscape Of The American Scene Vowell Tackles Subjects Such As Identity, Politics, Religion, Art, And History With A Biting Humor She 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 Fatherdaughter Outing, And Maps Her Family's Haunted History On A Road Trip Down The Trail Of Tears Vowell Has An Irresistible Voice—caustic And Sympathetic, Insightful And Doubleedged—that Has Attracted A Loyal Following For Her Magazine Writing And Radio Monologues On This American Life Sarah Vowell is both smart and smart assif you've seen Jon Stewart interview her on The Daily Show, you know she does more than hold her own. She's a curious amalgam: she writes for NPR and yet revels in her "white trash" background.
All in all, Take the Cannoli is a very uneven collection of stories, which comes with the territory with a writer like Vowell. To grossly oversimplify, her style is to take whatever happens to be going on in her life or her mind at the moment and then whip it into a story. It's not quite stream of consciousness so much as stream of life. Sometimes that's interesting, sometimes not.
Some of her stories: She goes to Disney World with her gay New Yorker friend. She learns to drive (with Ira Glass). She steps out of her introvert comfort zone to go through a goth makeover to check out the club scene in San Francisco. Which leads to what may be one of her best lines in this book: "By the time they're done cinching up the corset and stabilizing my bustle, I'm in so many layers of black lace scarves and fringe and fishnet stockings that I could play strip poker for three weeks without baring my belly button". Counterbalancing stories like that are those about Frank Sinatrashe includes TWO stories about him in this collection. Frank Sinatra???
One of the most moving of her stories is "Take the Cannoli" (from which the book also takes its title) where she talks about her guilty, compulsive watching of The Godfather in her college years, as she struggles with her loss of religious faith and seeks comfort in the moral certainties of Sicilian mafia family values. (Religion can really mess you up). The line is from the Godfather, where the gunman says to a fellow mafioso after killing someone: "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." I think that's supposed to encapsulate a philosophy of life.
In "The End is Near, Nearer, Nearest", she talks about growing up with religion, Oklahomastyle: fire and brimstone, Armageddon and sin. So, naturally, near the end of the 1990's, she just had to go to a Y2K seminar, the Apocalyptic message of which was all too familiar to her from her fundamentalist upbringing. The difference was that by now she was no longer a child and could actually consciously reject that nonsense and understand why she was doing so. In that story is my favorite passage of the whole book:
"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".
As long as you skip the Sinatra stories and anything else that doesn't grab you in the first couple of pages, you'll enjoy this book. It's kind of narcissistic, but if you like the author's point of view, that's OK.
I have heard wonderful things about Sarah Vowell, and I thought she would be great because she was funny on Gigantic, that documentary about They Might Be Giants. I’ve never heard her on This American Life, but Ira Glass and This American Life are great, so I bet she is, too. But I didn’t like her book. I must admit, toward the end I left huge chunks unread. I’d, like, get to a boring chapter and think “aw, hell no. Next!” and I’d start reading the next one and pretty much be equally disappointed.
I was excited for about ten seconds when I saw the chapter that started “I am standing on Disney World’s Main Street, U.S.A…” but ended up just getting pissed. Of course, she must explain how it’s a TOTAL ACCIDENT that she ended up there (because she is actually above Disney World), makes fun of pretty much everything (like, the fact that the waiters dressed in Revolutionary WarEra clothes have to wear black sneakers? Who gives a shit?) Honestly, I have witnessed it all. There is plenty to make fun of in Disney World, but Vowell instead seemed appalled by the least controversial things. She also claims that on Tom Sawyer’s Island someone scrawled “Fuck Off Nazis” on one of the walls and I feel like flying there right now to prove her wrong. They unleash an army of janitors the moment the park closes every night to unstick discarded gum, and scrub and pick up trash from every square inch of the park. There is absolutely no way there is graffiti of any kind. I have never seen it. She ends by taking a trip to Celebration, Florida and making fun of that. Too easy. Who goes to Celebration for fun, anyway? (Despite its name, it is not a party town and everyone who is there knows it’s not trying to be entertaining. It’s basically a retirement community.)
All I could think of is “thank God I don’t have to go to Disney world with you, or anywhere for that matter.” In fact, Vowell came off as pretty pretentious and unfun throughout the entire book. She is predictably nerdy – it is almost painful how stereotypical it all is. I read a lot of reviews that praised the book after I gave up reading it, so I picked it up and said “okay, Lauren, let’s try again!” But honestly, it was too excruciating and I thought why am I doing this and I started reading a new book, that I am really actually enjoying.
Maybe I should have tried harder, and maybe, as a Disney nerd, I was farrrrrrr too offended about the unjustifiable Disney stabs. That might have ruined the entire book for me. So please, someone who has read it that is NOT a Disney nerd: is she right, is this book okay? Did the Disney stuff (and all the other stuff) entertain you?
Reading Sarah Vowell for the first time was like finding a long lost friend that I never met before. There was an immediate familiaritythe sense of deja'vu: as though we shared these conversations at the cafe about the awkward teenage years, sibling rivalry, quirky family relationships and more.
I immediately recognized something of myself in her writing, as well as something inspirational. I can't gush too much: there's a few pieces in here that are dry. However, I think you have to be a little more invested in the subject matter, whether you live in a big city or love Frank Sinatra (I do neither), but her style is strong enough to keep me entertained, if not interested. This is the first Vowell book I have read and I anxiously look forward to more!