After being a fan of her stories on NPR’s “This American Life” (and her voice work as Violet in Pixar’s The Incredibles), I’ve finally read Sarah Vowell. The Partly Cloudy Patriot is one of Vowell’s collections of humorous essays; this book is themed around her experiences with quintessential American symbols, from Lincoln to Thanksgiving to elections. The essays are a blend of information and Vowell’s personal history, leaning more towards the personal. They are funny and sharp, but also, in their ways, idealistic and sweet. In the current political climate, I find myself feeling a wide variety of things about my American identity, and this book is exactly what I needed.
Vowell’s voice is both hilarious and wonderfully intelligent. The thing that I found the most impressive in these essays, though, is her balance between cynicism and pure, cheesy, familial love for her country. Even as she mocks, not so gently when need be, no one could accuse Vowell of hating America. This is evidenced partly by the store of knowledge she clearly has about it; at times, these essays read like history lessons as much as anything. But beyond the facts, Vowell is able to speak loftily about her admiration of this country in a lovingly idealistic, Sorkin-esque way. If, like me, you’ve surprised yourself by getting choked up during a West Wing monologue (especially one about the space program–god, I love a good Sorkin monologue about the space program), you’ll find something touching and familiar about Vowell’s perspective.
At times, her love expresses itself in the form of gentle ribbing (“goofing off is one of the central obligations of American citizenship”), but my favorite essay was one entitled “Dear Dead Congressman.” The essay takes the form of a letter to the late Congressman Mike Synar, for whom Vowell campaigned when she was a child. The essay turns into Vowell’s examination of what the act of voting means to her. This sentiment combines with the earnestness with which Vowell addresses the Congressman, who died of a brain tumor when he was 45, to make for a really touching piece.
Vowell’s essays are fairly short, making this book the perfect companion for breaks between work, but their brevity speaks nothing to what you’ll get from them. I laughed out loud several times, learned a lot, and felt a little more connected to the place I’ve called home my whole life. It’s no wonder Vowell has a bit of a cult following (I was actually reading this book in a Noodles & Company when someone came to my table to discuss how much he loved her, as well). I can’t wait to read more of her work, and if you’re a slightly cynical, but secretly sentimental, history-loving dork like me, I think you’ll like her, too.