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Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by…

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (original 2015; edition 2015)

by Sarah Vowell (Author)

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Title:Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Authors:Sarah Vowell (Author)
Info:Riverhead Books (2015), Edition: 1st, 288 pages

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Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell (2015)


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My blog post about this book is at this link. ( )
  SuziQoregon | Apr 13, 2017 |
8. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (Audio) by Sarah Vowell
reader: the author and several actors for all quotes
published: 2015
format: Overdrive digital audio, 8:07
acquired: Library
read: Feb 3-13
rating: 4

Vowell is the snarky, entertaining, historian with the funny voice. She is also sharp and thorough, although there isn't really all that much to dig up on Lafayette. The French Lafayette is an obscure hero with a somewhat recognizable name. He played a critical role in the American Revolutionary War/War of Independence, but did not do anything we can specifically point to as heroic and helpful. I suspect we tend to know him, but only as some French helper to George Washington in some possibly important but poorly defined way.

Vowell also doesn't do straight narratives. She does walk us through the war, but with many references out of sequence and many side-tracks along the way, and often having little or nothing to do with our subject at hand.

I'll give this one kudos for being short, entertaining, and informative. It was well worth my time and something of a medicine to current events. I always find this revolutionary era inspiring, irregardless of the baggage I carry when I approach it.

The real Lafayette was quite something, a spoiled orphan with an astonishingly charming, pure, and faux-humble personality. He was a French noble of a military family who came to the not-yet-independent-or-united states at the age of 19 to fight the British, and avenge his father's death. A surprisingly fine and suicidal youth, he would spend several years in the American Revolutionary War/War of Independence, becoming more prominent, taking George Washington as something of a surrogate father. He played a very large role in helping to motivate the French government to provide critical and, for them, self-destructive support of the America states. He matured in America. His biggest military accomplish appears to have been his decision not to attack Yorktown - long story there, but he chose to wait, sacrifice his own glory, save a lot of causalities, further endanger a French fleet (who, because of this, fought a little known battle - the Battle of Capes, that saved the states...really), and let the Yorktown advantage play out, ending the war. Lafayette was then 24, and a much more mature military leader. He still had a challenging life ahead. He would return to the now independent and united states in 1824, himself and his family having survived imprisonment and likely execution during the French Revolution. He toured the country, a universal hero celebrated by all Americans.
  dchaikin | Feb 20, 2017 |
This is a historical look both at Lafayette in particular and at the French contributions to the American Revolution in general. As is usual for Vowell, it's sprinkled with amusing and sometimes slightly snarky commentary, and, as is usual for almost every popular history book I've ever read, it contains enough details about the fascinating little quirks of history to make me wonder just how the hell my high school history classes managed to make learning about this stuff so insufferably dull.

I do have one sort-of complaint, which is something I've noticed in all of Vowell's historical books: She tends to jump around a lot, going off on digressions, skipping over some events, and alluding to others out of chronological order. I've discovered that if I have a decent basic grounding in the subject she's talking about, I find this charming and pleasant, but if I don't, it can become a little difficult to follow. And, unfortunately, my entire previous knowledge of Lafayette, courtesy of aforementioned crappy high school history classes, can be summed up as, "He was some French guy who helped out in the Revolutionary War, and I guess he must have been useful somehow." Poor Lafayette. Sarah Vowell has convinced me he deserves better.

Rating: I debated over the rating for this, due to the sometimes-I-didn't-follow-it-so-well thing. But then I asked myself, would I recommend this book to someone interested in the subject matter? And the answer is yes. Yes, I certainly would. So I'm being very slightly generous and giving it a 4/5. ( )
1 vote bragan | Feb 10, 2017 |
You are going to walk out of here knowing more about the American Revolution than you thought there was to know. Now, normally, that would be a bit of a threat. History downloads, no matter how interested you may be in the subject, can quickly become boring. But this is Sarah Vowell. And one thing no one (to my knowledge) has ever accused Sarah Vowell of being is boring.

Sarah has successfully moved from entertaining essayist to skilled researcher. And, in the process, she still keeps that adjective “entertaining.” This is an entertaining and information-filled discussion of the American Revolution, the role of France and Lafayette, and just how dysfunctional this country has been since the very beginning.

The framework around this piece is the story of the Marquis of Lafayette. If you didn’t know, Lafayette is one of the heroes of our (that is, the United States) independence. And one of the points of this book is that, while Lafayette was held in high status for a very long time (look at the things and people – including my maternal grandfather – named after Lafayette), his fame has diminished over time.

But that is just a framework. While there is extensive and interesting information on Lafayette, we also learn about the role the American Revolution played in France’s revolution, the incompetence of the Continental Congress in running a war, the details of the Battle of Yorktown and how close that came to coming out differently, the support the colonies had back in British Parliament, how a ragtag band of misfits, yokels, and farmers were turned into a real fighting force…288 pages, and all this plus more is discussed in pretty good detail.

Now, I’m not going to say this is a historical treatise worthy of a reviewed journal. But it is well researched and tells the story in an entertaining way that kept me reading.

For some, I am sure Sarah Vowell’s approach becomes bothersome and irritating. The sudden juxtapositions of her approach to research and personal incidents may not sit well with some readers. But that is just a part of what attracts me to her writing. She can be knee-deep in a real, historical discussion, and then she suddenly thrusts the real world (her real world) in there. It makes it more entertaining, and it makes it more…real.

This is a worthy addition to the Sarah Vowel canon and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys her writing, is interested in history, or wants to learn much more about the American Revolution. ( )
  figre | Jan 5, 2017 |
I read this because Hamilton has been on repeat in my car for a year or something now, and he *is* my favorite fighting Frenchman after D'Artagnan and before General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. I enjoyed learning about his family of military bigwigs and how desperate he was to get over here and fight.
Lafayette, a descendent of Christian warriors stretching back to the Crusade, cheerfully belly flopped into the bloodbath.
And later, on his farewell tour of the US, it's easy to imagine him in a sort of Dickensian popular tour. Because this is a book about how Vowell feels about things she reads and places she goes and What History Means to Me, there is no pretense of reporting, no effort to be fairhanded. There is humor; there's snark: especially every time he manages to impregnate his wife before running off for several more years. It all works because it makes us think about what history means to us, and some of it is funny and some of it is rage-inducing, and all the best bits were never included in our text books.

Library copy
( )
  Kaethe | Oct 17, 2016 |
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This continent is a vast, unwieldy machine. -John Adams, 1775
We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed. - Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1790
The country is behind you, 50 percent. -Bob Hope, To United States Troops in Vietnam, 1966
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How did the Marquis de Lafayette win over the stingiest, crankiest tax protesters in the history of the world?
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