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The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

The Partly Cloudy Patriot (2002)

by Sarah Vowell

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As with her other books, Sarah Vowell brings her fresh perspective to key historical figures and events. Unlike her other books, she does not focus on just one point in history but covers the gamut of it. She discusses the Salem Witch Trials to the 2000 presidential election and everything in-between. Written in 2001, it is rather amusing to hear some of her opinions on the more modern moments because some of the insights are a bit dated. I would love to see her revisit some of the themes and moments using the power of hindsight and an additional fifteen years of observation. However, no matter what she had to say back in 2001, she does it with a love of the country and an enthusiasm for the processes on which our country runs that is difficult to surpass.

One of the best things about Sarah’s observations is that she takes no prisoners. She mocks everything and everyone, including herself. Yet, she does so with respect and love. She also knows how to temper her enthusiasm about a subject. For example, there are several essays about the cluster that was the 2000 presidential election; she is an unabashed Gore fan and has no problems telling everyone about it. However, she knows and understands why he struggled during the election, why the pundits mocked his earnestness, etc. and she even goes on to do some of her own mocking. Because of her admiration of Gore, she could have railed against the unfairness of that particular election. Instead, she presents the election and the aftermath fairly, with only a little of her bias showing.

If anything, Sarah makes it okay to talk about and care about all things political and all things historical. Not only that but she illustrates how important caring about such things really is. She makes some fascinating points about changes at national parks, commercialism at historical sites, presidential idiosyncrasies, and more, and her enthusiasm is infectious. In this year of one of the strangest, most divisive elections we have ever had, a time when patriotism should run rampant as everyone gets a chance to exercise their constitutional right to vote, The Partly Cloudy Patriot is a great reminder of our proud, and not-so-proud, moments and people in history.

Through her essays in The Partly Cloudy Patriot, I now have a girl crush on Sarah. Scratch that. I want to find her and tell her that we should be best friends. It would be a match made in heaven. Her historical nerd cred is off the charts, which I adore, plus, she calls Buffy the Vampire Slayer one of the smartest, funniest and best shows on television. She then goes on to explain the show in detail. See? I may even love her a bit after that.

For those who have never experienced any of Sarah’s works, The Partly Cloudy Patriot with its short essays on a very eclectic variety of subjects is a great place to start. Not everything she has to say is about historical events or people. She also touches on her childhood, her love of a certain arcade game, and more. Still, her love of the United States is palpable and refreshing in its directness. We all should be so enthusiastic about our collective past, present, and future.
  jmchshannon | May 10, 2016 |
Funny little essays, mostly about US history and politics. I really liked Vowell in her Daily Show interview, but these fell flat for me. She's obviously funny and thoughtful and well-informed--but not much. I never giggled out loud, or realized something new, or learned a neat tidbit about history. I learned a bit about Sarah Vowell, and she seems cool--but that's not enough to power an entire collection. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
I always thought maybe Sarah Vowell wouldn't suit me, but I quite enjoyed this audiobook of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, a series of essays about politics, history, pop culture, and the points where the three intersect. At first I found Vowell's delivery of her own work a little annoying, but eventually I got into the swing of it and thought the way she read it really added something to the material. She made me laugh out loud repeatedly. I have a Vowell around somewhere in print form, and I don't think it's this title, so I should have some more of her stuff to look forward to. ( )
  lycomayflower | Apr 21, 2015 |
A series of witty essays from 2000 and 2001. One one or so past 9/11 makes for a sort of eerie foreshadowing of then-upcoming events. Most deal with patriotism and America's place in history, as she sees it. I really enjoy her writing. ( )
  stuart10er | Sep 27, 2013 |
There's something about Sarah Vowell's writing that makes me happy. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that she's constantly writing about history that perhaps a certain amount of folk would think weird or morbid, but which another portion of folk are extremely interested in. I would be in that second group, and someone who enjoys wandering around old cemeteries and pondering history, and hopes no one's going to ask for a more rational reason for my purpose there because then I'll really want to go on about stone masonry and statuary production in past eras compared to now - well, you get the idea.

Also Vowell appreciates pop culture. She'll cite history and then television shows, and then poetry or a novel - all in the same paragraph. More importantly, she does it not in a way to show off her knowledge - it's all about following the way her mind bounces from the various subjects and ties them all together. This game of follow-my-thoughts is particularly fun. (Well, for me, anyway.)

The Partly Cloudy Patriot contains nineteen separate articles, some of them previously published but none of which I'd read before. (There was a kindle sale, so I snapped it up.) Most of the more political articles are from enough years past (year 2000ish) that it's interesting to look back and remember, especially as those years disappear more into what we'll call history. Since I can remember having some similar feelings about the politics of the time, I can relate. (Rabidly political folk who don't want to hear how others felt about Bush and the election of 2000, or people who wish to shun all discussion of Clinton and Gore - this probably isn't for you. Unless you can happily skip over those chapters, in which case, dive right in.) More than one chapter makes mention of 9-11, which is interesting in that Vowell doesn't go on about it much, just assumes we're on board with what's involved in that nationally and personally (as we all were back in 2000 - no one really needed 9-11 explained).

I'm wobbling on 3 1/2 to 4 stars here. In fact the only reason this got less than 4 was because I've read Assassination Vacation and really enjoyed it. But then, it also has a theme to tie it together, and these are all separate article/essays - so that's possibly a bit of an unfair comparison.

Randomly this ebook had a duplicate chapter (I think?), so my % page numbers are probably off. I didn't mind, but it did make me blink and wake up a bit, thinking I was failing at page turning - until I realized what was going on. (It's either a duplicate chapter or something in the book having problems with the illustrations - paging forward and paging backward does odd things.)


What He Said There - Lincoln at Gettysburg. Vowell really good at pointing out details which humanize him, and which show how much she cares about this kind of history.
The First Thanksgiving - Vowell's parents and sister all visit her for Thanksgiving in NYC, and all are somehow miserable. Reading it was not a miserable experience, but did remind me how everyone seems to ritually make themselves miserable like this during the fall/winter holidays.
Ike Was a Handsome Man - memo to president Clinton about how his presidential library (then in the planning stages) should display his history. Vowell visits other presidential libraries, and contemplates how they tell the story of those presidencies. Made me want to actually visit the LBJ library in Austin, which is something I'd never thought I'd say.
God Will Give You Blood To Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass - visiting Paris and the French Revolution, then the town of Salem - Vowell ponders about tourism of places that should horrify us with their history of violence, torture, etc.
The New German Cinema - how Vowell became a film student via weekly film festivals at the college while in high school in Bozeman, Montana.
Democracy and Things Like That - great article about how the media gets something wrong about a speech Gore gives to high school students, and how the students themselves feel that the media as a whole completely miss the importance of the subject (young people being involved in and changing politics) in their rush to cover the candidate and what they assume is his mistake. (Media took high school students out of the story and made it all about Gore taking credit for Love Canal hearings.) Great use of interviews with the students and their teacher.
Pop-A-Shot - a game of basketball only found in arcades or fairs, which oddly I can't find a link to on wikipedia. Here's a vendor site - take a glance and you'll immediately say "oh right, that game."
California As an Island - my favorite chapter. About Vowell working in the gallery of Graham Arader which specializes in old maps, and about her personal feelings about the content of some maps and art. I would love to read a book just about her work for this shop. And I now want one of those old maps that shows California as an island - but I'll take a reproduction, thanks.
Dear Dead Congressman - a letter to a politician Mike Synar in which Vowell tells about meeting him as a child, handing out pamphlets for him when she was 8 yrs old, and wishing she could vote. About caring about politics and her thoughts on voting.
The Nerd Voice - Attending the presidential inauguration 2000. On being a nerd, and following politics online, amongst fellow nerds in an email group. Vowell looks into Gore's run for president and how his being a nerd (or considered one) affected the outcome. Cites Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Revenge of the Nerds (original and movie III).
Rosa Parks, Cest Moi - essay on people comparing themselves to Parks (for minor struggles in comparison to hers) and how they REALLY need to stop that. This essay made me want to cheer aloud, because Parks' situation isn't someone that should be used in casual comparison.
Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous - at this point Cruise creeps me out. Vowell seems to like him more than I ever did, but sees him more through the lens of a film student than I can. (I've seen too much of him playing himself on tv and in articles at this point.)
Underground Lunchroom - made me want to quickly visit the Carlsbad Caverns before the lunchroom goes away, if it ever does.
Wonder Twins - Vowell (with wry humor as always) compares herself and her fraternal twin Amy with twins Johnny and Luther Htoo. Which immediately made me google for recent news on them - they apparently now live in a refugee camp, with family.
Cowboys v. Mounties - comparison of America and Canada
The Partly Cloudy Patriot - among other this, this is pondering life after 9/11 (note that she lives in NYC), Taliban's outlawing of music, her atheism, moments of unity, etc. I always enjoy reading her thoughts on Lincoln - it's made me appreciate him as a writer more than I had in the past.
State of the Union - odd, short sentences, sort of a list - and not much more. Example: "In Chicago, McDonald's puts ketchup and mustard on the little hamburgers. But in New York City, there's no mustard, only ketchup."
Tom Landry, Existentialist, Dead at 75 - Vowell the football fan discusses Landry, the Cowboys, and philosophy/religion
The Strenuous Life - Theodore Roosevelt, North Dakota, snakes, and stories about Vowell's sister, living out in the country and hunting. All bits happily combined into one essay. Vowell is able to do this - how to describe it - sort of like having a conversation melded with peeking into someone's stream of thoughts.
Acknowledgements - only slightly bummed that Vowell didn't add a reading list of books she'd consulted or read, because she's one author that I would be delighted to read about what she enjoyed reading.

Random Quotes to Ponder

18% in, God Will Give You Blood To Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass:"...My airport reading material - a novelization of Gettysburg here, a Lyndon Johnson biography there - always receives an approving glance from whatever middle-aged man on my flight is perusing the new Stephen Ambrose book, because every domestic flight requires a middle-aged man with a Stephen Ambrose book in his carry-on luggage - it's an FAA regulation."

23% in, God Will Give You Blood To Drink in a Souvenir Shot Glass:The more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories. Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolate caffe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the new World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle's Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bitter-sweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism serviced with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much."

41% in, California As an Island, a quote that reminds me that I have that Defoe book in my kindle's To Read folder:...Though two of the great Dutch publishers, Jodocus Hondius and Willem Blaeu, refused to buy into the fad, the error was reprinted in many European maps well into the next century. California is an island, for example, on the map illustrating Daniel Defoe's sequel to Robinson Crusoe in 1719. It was a Jesuit, Father Eusebio Kino, who set out to put an end to the rumor, which makes sense considering the missionaries were the biggest victims of the false information, dragging boats they didn't need halfway to Cleveland. Kino made a map in 1701 confirming that California was attached to the mainland, and the mistake was fixed for good in 1747, when Ferdinand VI of Spain issued a royal decree proclaiming, "California is not an island."

51%, The Nerd Voice:"Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know. For me, the spark that turns an acquaintance into a friend has usually been kindled by some shared enthusiasm like detective novels or Ulysses S. Grant."

67% in, Rosa Parks, Cest Moi, just after a great quote of a scene from Sports Night where a character has made an equally stupid comparison of his "struggle" (apology network makes him give over a pro-legalizing of marijuana article character had written, when he doesn't feel he should apologize) with Rosa Parks: "Analogies give order to the world - and solidarity. Pointing out how one person is like another is reassuring, less lonely. Maybe those who would compare their personal inconveniences to the epic struggles of history are just looking for company, and who wouldn't want to be in the company of Rosa Parks? On the other hand, perhaps people who compare themselves to Rosa Parks are simply pampered nincompoops with delusions of grandeur who couldn't tell the difference between a paper cut and a decapitation."

81% in, The Partly Cloudy Patriot: "...American history is a quagmire, and the more one knows, the quaggier the mire gets."

84% in, The Partly Cloudy Patriot - and besides liking the quote it also occurs to me that many people now have no idea what it's like to do the remove-rubber-band-from-newspaper-they-subscribe-to routine: "During another war, across the river, in Newark, a writer turned soldier named Thomas Paine sat down by a campfire in September 1776 and wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." In September and October, I liked to read that before I pulled the rubber band off the newspaper to find out what was being done to my country and what my country was doing back. I like the black and white of Paine's words. I know I'm no sunshine patriot. I wasn't shrinking, though, honestly; the most important service we mere mortal citizens were called upon to perform was to spend money, so I dutifully paid for Korean dinners and a new living room lamp."

87% in, The Partly Cloudy Patriot:"...The Emancipation Proclamation is a perfect American artifact to me - a good deed that made a lot of other Americans mad enough to kill. I think that's why the Civil War is my favorite American metaphor. I'm so much more comfortable when we're bickering with each other than when we have to link arms and fight a common enemy."

89% in, The Partly Cloudy Patriot:"Once, headed uptown on the 9 train, I noticed a sign posted by the Metropolitan Transit Authority advising subway riders who might become ill in the train. The sign asked that the suddenly infirm inform another passenger or get out at the next stop and approach the Stationmaster. Do not, repeat, do not pull the emergency brake, the sign said, as this will only delay aid. Which was all very logical, but for the following proclamation at the bottom of the sign, something along the lines of "If you are sick, you will not be left alone." This strikes me as not only kind, not only comforting, but the very epitome of civilization, good government, i.e, the crux of the societal impulse. Banding together, pooling our taxes, not just making trains, not just making trains that move underground, not just making trains that move underground with surprising efficiency at a fair price - but posting on said trains a notification of such surprising compassion and thoughtfulness, I found myself scanning the faces of my fellow passengers, hoping for fainting, obvious fevers, at the very least a sneeze so that I might offer a tissue."

92% in, The Strenuous Life:As a little girl, I was jealous of Teddy Roosevelt. I did not envy his presidency or his valor on the battlefield. What I wanted was his asthma. Theodore Roosevelt is one of my father's heroes. So when my sister and I were children, Dad would tell us stories about TR's buffalo hunts and the Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill. He would tell us how this brave, tough hunter and soldier was born a wheezing New York City four-eyes.

"All little Teddy Roosevelt could do," my dad would say of the asthmatic rich boy, "was stay in bed and read."

"Ew," said my sister.

Sigh, said I. Getting to stay in bed and read all day was what I was shooting for."

( )
  bookishbat | Sep 25, 2013 |
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After every great battle, a great storm. Even civic events, the same. On Saturday last, a forenoon like whirling demons, dark, with slanting rain, full of rage; and then the afternoon, so calm, so bathed with flooding splendor from heaven's most excellent sun, with atmosphere of sweetness; so clear, it show'd the stars, long, long before they were due. As the President came out on the Capitol portico, a curious little white cloud, the only one in that part of the sky, appear'd like a hovering bird, right over him.
-Walt Whitman, witnessing Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, Memoranda During the War
To Amy
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There are children playing soccer on a field at Gettysburg where the Union Army lost the first day's fight.
When you have a baby around, the baby is the movie. We occupy an entire entertaining hour just on drool, nonnarrative drool.
On the other hand, there are few creepier moments in cultural tourism than when a site tries to rewrite its past.
The more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories.
I was such a young fogy that growing up involved becoming less mature.
California is about the good life. So a bad life there seems so much worse than a bad life anywhere else. Quality is an obsession there— good food, good wine, good movies, music, weather, cars. Those sound like the right things to shoot for, but the never-ending quality quest is a lot of pressure when you’re uncertain and disorganized and, not least, broker than broke. Some afternoons a person just wants to rent Die Hard, close the curtains, and have Cheerios for lunch.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743243803, Paperback)

Sarah Vowell travels through the American past and, in doing so, investigates the dusty, bumpy roads of her own life. In this insightful and funny collection of personal stories Vowell -- widely hailed for her inimitable stories on public radio's This American Life -- ponders a number of curious questions: Why is she happiest when visiting the sites of bloody struggles like Salem or Gettysburg? Why do people always inappropriately compare themselves to Rosa Parks? Why is a bad life in sunny California so much worse than a bad life anywhere else? What is it about the Zen of foul shots? And, in the title piece, why must doubt and internal arguments haunt the sleepless nights of the true patriot?

Her essays confront a wide range of subjects, themes, icons, and historical moments: Ike, Teddy Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton; Canadian Mounties and German filmmakers; Tom Cruise and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; twins and nerds; the Gettysburg Address, the State of the Union, and George W. Bush's inauguration.

The result is a teeming and engrossing book, capturing Vowell's memorable wit and her keen social commentary.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:02 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Presents essays and social commentary on a wide range of subjects, themes, icons, and historical moments, such as Teddy Roosevelt, Canadian Mounties, Buffy and the Vampire Slayer, the Gettysburg Adress, and George W. Bush's inauguration.

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