Books I have been reading…

In November, S took me along with her on an after-school outing with some fellow teachers.  The outing was to a pub near where we live and it seems to be a regular Friday hang out for many of the teachers in S’s school.  It was a good time, nice, clean pub, good beers on tap, good company.  I got engaged in conversation with a math teacher who is a big fan of humor writers.  You know, like David Sedaris.  But also comedians who turn their sets into short books, like John Stewart and Ellen Degeneres. 

Now, I enjoy David Sedaris, but I am not a fan of the comedian books.  And the thing is, I don’t so much enjoy reading David Sedaris so much as I love to hear him read his stuff.  Every year on NPR they have Sedaris on reading excerpts from his brilliant Holidays on Ice.  Right before Christmas I found the audio of the book at Half Price Books and S and I listened to it three or four times during our holiday traveling.  I must warn you, in case you don’t already know, the Macy’s Elf chapters are so funny that they caused me to choke several times and almost crash the car.  Be careful out there.

Anyway, back in the day I used to listen to NPR all of the time.  I used to think talk radio was just the three hours that Rush Limbaugh was on, so I had to fill the rest of my day with Morning Edition, Fresh Air and, my favorite, This American Life.  That is how I first discovered Sarah Vowell, even though I didn’t realize I was discovering her.  I just knew that I liked her little stories and I liked her quirky voice.  A few years ago I was watching C-Span’s Book TV and there was a little woman talking about a book she had written about the presidents who had been assassinated.  It sounded interesting because I am fascinated with the presidents and assassinations and then, after a few minutes of listening to her voice, I realized it was the chick from This American Life, Sarah Vowell. 

I took note of the book but not the name of the author at the time.  I figured I would read it someday and I would just recall the information if I found myself in a bookstore where it was on sale.  Well, I sort of forgot about it.  I knew it was out there in the back of my mind, but I had stopped listening to NPR so much and there were just so many other books to read.  Which brings me back to teacher’s pub night.

The math teacher and I were talking Sedaris and then she asked me if I “totally loved” Sarah Vowell.  The name rang a bell but I confessed that I couldn’t quite place her.  That is when math teacher reminded me of the presidential assassination book.  I got excited, like hearing about a long, lost friend.  Turned out that math teacher “totally loved” Sarah Vowell and had most, if not all of her books.  She offered to loan them to me since she was long finished reading them.  I thought it was a nice offer and took her up on it.

I don’t like borrowing books because it makes me a hypocrite when I hate to loan out my books.  I don’t even like it when S takes one of my books off the shelves to read because she leaves them on the floor or on the back of the toilet or spills coffee on them.  I have loaned out books in the past and never gotten them back.  Or loaned them out and gotten them back years later with the cover ripped off.  But I knew I wasn’t going to go out and buy these Sarah Vowell books because I hadn’t in previous years and they were being offered up to my by math teacher, so I accepted.

When math teacher handed me to books I placed them on the passenger seat of the car.  S then got into the passenger seat and put the books on the floor of the car.  See?  That’s what she does.  I forgot to take the books into the house when we got home because the weather was crappy and I was just trying to get us in the door without getting frozen or soaked.  Two days later I grabbed the books off of the floor of the car, out from under one of S’s travel mugs.  Do you know where I am going with this?  One of the books, a paperback, was stained black with coffee and it’s pages were warped.  It was the book on top of the pile and the others had been spared.  I went into panic mode knowing that I would one day have to return the books and one of them was wrecked.  Only partially my fault, at that.

I immediately jumped into Assassination Vacation because it was the one that most interested me.  The gist of the book is Sarah Vowell going all over the country visiting mementos from the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.  Odd mementos, like the bullets and bone fragments in museums, the place where the assassins were found, or hanged, the burial sites, and so on.  It is, as weird as this sounds, quite fun reading.  Quirky to be sure, but good fun.  I also learned something I had not known before reading the book: Robert Lincoln, Abe’s oldest son, was with his father when he died, with Garfield when he was shot and showed up in Buffalo to meet up with McKinley just minutes after McKinley was shot.  I love trivia like that. 

I thought Assassination Vacation was brilliant even if I found her fetish of Lincoln undeserved.  She loves the Lincoln that is taught to you in fourth grade history, not the real Lincoln and his blatant violations of the Constitution.  She builds Lincoln up and when she switches focus to Garfield and McKinley, she makes them out to be such lame men that one wonders why anyone would bother killing them.  Vowell describes herself as an atheist who hs replaced God with government making Lincoln her Jesus and the Lincoln Memorial her church.  I suppose that is fine for her, but it is a little childish to me. 

Anyway, I am happy to have finally read Assassination Vacation.  It was well worth the paper it is printed on.  I cannot say the same for The Partly Cloudy Patriot, the second Sarah Vowell book I read.  I suppose it is not fair the order in which I read the books.  I read the great one first even though the other two came first.  Someone else reading Vowell start to finish would have gotten to watch her grow as an author.  I watched her regress.  The Partly Cloudy Patriot is 19 essays, most of which focus on government or history or presidents and a couple that are about Tom Cruise , Tom Landry or popular culture.  In one essay she visits a couple of presidential libraries and then writes advice to President Clinton on what he should do with his library.  She hero worships Clinton although not quite like she does Lincoln.  If Lincoln is her Jesus, then Clinton is just her televangelist who has taken her life savings but she’s still willing to give him more.

With Assassination Vacation, I relayed bits of the book to my mother in phone conversations.  I can still see my favorites parts on the pages and I still get a chuckle over a humorous turn of a phrase.  But with The Partly Cloudy Patriot, the impression I have is fogged.  I know I read it, but it didn’t leave much of an impression.  There were some funny parts but a lot of it was grating and I cannot, for the life of me,  tell you why.  The only essay that stands out in memory is the Tom Cruise one because she came right out and called him creepy… and this was before the Oprah couch stuff.  If you find yourself wanting to read some Sarah Vowell, skip this one.  It is disappointing.

Last but not least, the coffee stained copy of Take the Cannoli.  I never took this book up to my bedside table.  It wasn’t overtly about politics, which meant it wasn’t must read and only muct read books are on my bedside table.  You see, even if I am slipped a heavy dose of NyQuil, I am going to read at least four chapters before I turn out the lights at night.  My bed is my must read place to be.  Take the Cannoli is not must read.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is Don’t Read.  In Assassination Vacation and her work on This American Life, Sarah Vowell is quirky and the quirky works for her.  In Take the Cannoli, Sarah Vowell is trying so very hard to be quirky.  She writes about her “secret” addiction to the first Godfather film and seems to think she is the one who discovered how cool the movie is.  So cool she even titled her book after her favorite line in the movie.

Seriously, The Godfather is a classic for a reason.  Everyone knows how cool it is.  Sarah Vowell is not quirky because she has watched it a tousand times.  She is not quirky because she loves the criminals in it.  She is dorky for thinking that this “secret” love is quirky.  She also has some essays about how embarassing her parents are.  She is cool because she is worldly and lives all cosmopolitan and her dad makes guns and lives in Montanna.  She is obviously so much better and smarter than her dad.  Quirky.  Not so much.  What twenty-something** doesn’t think they are smarter and more worldly than their parents?  The whole book reads like exceptional high school girl writing.  Yes, exceptional for  high school girl, but not an adult in the world of published books.  You know how sometimes you hear some popular singer who is crap and you wonder how in the Hell they ever got a recording contract?  That is how I feel about Take the Canoli.  Who in the Hell read the draft and green-lighted its publishing?    Bad, bad book.  I still feel bad that it is coffee stained, but I feel worse because now I have to go buy a new copy of the crappy book because I cannot return the damaged book back to the math teacher.

Over Christmas I saw that there is a new Sarah Vowell book for sale.  I will, of course, have to read it, just to see if she has progressed or actually regressed.  But I will wait until I find it at Half Price Books or is loaned to me.  I will actually purchase a copy of Assassination Vacation to add to my presidential library though.


**Sadly, I just realized she was probably in her early thirties when she wrote this book, which makes it even worse.


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