Sarah Vowell: Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World

Sarah Vowell
Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World
Simon & Schuster

SARAH VOWELL HAS a love/hate relationship with America. In this new collection of personal essays, the majority of which were originally aired on public radio's This American Life, she guides us on a tour of our curious "new world," pointing at our national obsessions and monuments with a mix of affection and disgust. Vowell often captures these landmarks through the lens of her personal history: from a childhood spent with a gunsmith father, a beautician mother, and a contrary twin sister in Oklahoma and Montana to more recent fact-finding missions into her own closet of neuroses (fear of driving, insomnia, etc.). The identity she patches together in these 16 essays turns out to resemble that of the people most likely to read this book: a Cold War child, raised on hearty moral fiber, who took a left turn at adolescence and ended up outside the mainstream of consumer democracy--part punk, part geek, part intellectual.

What distinguishes Vowell from the scads of amateur and professional critics haunting our cities, however, is not only her willingness to be nakedly autobiographical, but her daring in finding something to love in this mutant shopping mall we call the USA. In "The End Is Near, Nearer, Nearest," for example, Vowell explores how fear of apocalypse warps the American mindscape, while she also extols its role in forging outsider communities, including her own high school antinuclear group. This outfit, while "wildly ineffective," gave her an early sense of belonging. "Species-on-Species Abuse" finds at least a little reason to celebrate the Disney empire, the perennial straw man of cultural criticism, when Vowell discovers some authentic pioneer spirit behind the new Disney meta-town called Celebration. The final essay checks in with the goth nightclub set. Here, after teasing their histrionic poses, Vowell comes to appreciate their brave, honest "you suffer, then you die" attitude.

Despite these flickers of reverence for Americana, cynics will not be disappointed. At the core of Vowell's voice is a cranky complainer, a bitter wit, proud to have been called a "curmudgeon" by Bitch magazine, prepared to slay anything in her path, from celebrity deaths ("Ixnay on the My Way") to the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp ("Your Dream, My Nightmare"). And whether Vowell is hating or loving our motherland, her tone always pushes the extreme registers. She spits words with a hip, whiplash swiftness that comes off as offensive, pretentious, and smart in turn. Take this bit from "What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill," one of the collection's best essays: "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."

You can almost hear her charming/annoying radio voice rising off the page in passages like this, which move with the timing of a standup comic. Listeners and readers will likely feel the same way about Sarah Vowell as she feels about the United States: You can love her, and you can hate her, but you're hard-pressed to ignore her.

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