18 June 2011

In praise of Sarah Vowell

Vowell has a masters in art history. She started her career as a rock critic, became a public radio commentator, then turned to writing populist history books written from a highly personal point of view. She's quirky with a singular sense of humour. Always great if you can learn and have fun at the same time. The Wordy Shipmates is about the puritans in America. What struck me despite the puritan's genuine Bible literacy and sometimes literacy full stop, is how batshit crazy they were, just like many right-wing Americans today. There's a real continuum there. 

Unfamiliar Fishes is about western contact with Hawaii starting with Cook and all the way to the eventual annexation in 1898. In all her books, Vowell writes about visiting historical sites and talking to curators and guides and uses this as a technique to weave the past with the present and her reactions to what she sees. The personal technique is in lieu of academically rigour but it does give a good idea of how history survives in every day life.

Assassination Vacation is the oldest of the three books and my favourite. Vowell travels around the US looking for historical sites linked to the assassinations of three American presidents, Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Like me, she keeps going back to the Lincoln Memorial, "the closest thing I have to a church". Three American presidents killed within thirty six years gives you an idea of how volatile the country has always been. She also rehabilitates Garfield, a forgotten president who escaped political corruption and might have made been a great president had he served for more the a few months. Garfield was a bookworm who would much have preferred staying in his library for the rest of his life. 

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