I first heard Sarah Vowell's deceptively young voice during an episode of This American Life and was immediately creeped out by the way this 12 year old was talking. Once I realized she was, in fact, a grown, adult woman, I enjoyed her essays much more.
Vowell, a regular fixture on public radio is enthralling whether she's reading a story on NPR, sharing an amusing anecdote on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, or providing the voice of shy super hero Violet Parr in The Incredibles.
Take the Cannoli is collection of essays that saw earlier life in newspaper and magazine columns, or as radio pieces. It's a quick and entertaining read that explores Sarah Vowell as she explores the country.
Most of the time when I read a book, I hear the characters' or authors' voices in my head. Since I have never heard most of them, the voice is almost always the same (a sad variant of my own). Reading Take the Cannoli, however, I hear Vowels's voice as she reads every quirky line.
Vowell's essays are mostly about her. Not in a self centered way, but in a personal discovery way. Whether she's writing about her father's cannon, her explorations of Sicily, the Goth culture, mix tapes, or the Cherokee Trail of Tears, Vowell seems to be learning that the world is more complicated that she thought, and that she herself is full of surprises.
In the first essay, Vowell talks about her father and his love of guns. She was never a fan of the weapons and describes her first experience firing a gun like this:
The sound it made was as big as God. It kicked little me back to the ground like a bully, like a foe. It hurt. I don't know if I dropped it of just handed it back over to my Dad, but I do know that I never wanted to touch another one again. And because I believed in the devil, I did what my mother told me to do every time I felt an evil presence. I looked at the smoke and said under my breath, "Satan, I rebuke thee."
Her father would go on to make a cannon. She joined him on a trip into the mountains to fire the beast:
Dad shoots the cannon again so they can see how it works. The other hiker says, "That's quite a machine you've got there." But he isn't talking about the cannon. He's talking about my tape recorded and my microphone -- which is called a shotgun mike. I stare back at him, then look over at my father's canon, then down at my microphone, and I think, Oh. My. God. My dad and I are the same person. We're both smart-alecky loners with goofy projects and weird equipment. And since this whole target practice outing was my idea, I was not longer his adversary. I was his accomplice. What's worse, I was liking it.
In one of her later essays, she tries to overcome insomnia. She tries a variety of methods, but in the end, comes to the conclusion that the night has its own value:
Being up in the middle of the night is kind of nice, actually. It's quiet and dark and the phone doesn’t ring. You can listen to records and weirder movies are on TV. I've never known another life and now I'm not sure I want to.
In my senior year of High School, I made described something in a report by reference the longing for the green light from The Great Gatsby. I though I was mighty clever at the time. And I even got a few points from the teacher for making the reference.
That's why I particularly enjoyed Vowell making the same literary reference in her description of a Frank Sinatra picture.
It pictures a young, frail Frank Sinatra sitting cross-legged on the boardwalk in Hoboken. The boys gaunt face wears a mask of resolve. He leans forward, just slightly, as if he is on the verge of standing up, as if his gangly arms and legs are willing themselves to that place where his heart already is. It is difficult, after you see that haunting portrait, to imagine that young Frank Sinatra as anything other than Gatsby, staring at the green light at the end of the pier.As a professional, writer Vowell does not limit her English class references to just literature. She discusses the psychological implications of a person's preferred form of punctuation.
Dave is trying to decide whether he wants there to be a space before or after the ellipsis. He's unsure. Is the ellipsis approach powerful because of what is not said after the dot dot dot, or is it a cheap excuse for not being able to verbalize? Conversely, do we parentheticals want to communicate by cramming more in between what we are, officially, saying? Or is it because we can't decide?Personally, I prefer the semi-colon; I like to tie my thought together, I suppose.
Vowell does not appear to be a fan of the comma. Most of them are missing from the text. I didn't notice this at first. When I read the book and heard Vowell's voice in my head, the pauses and breaks all seemed natural. I didn't realize so many commas were missing until I started typing out the passages I quote in this post. I kept having to back space and delete commas that I thought should be there but weren't.
Vowell talks about her atheism, her experience in retracing the Trail of Tears, her anger at seeing President Jackson on the $20 bill, and more. The material is often heart-felt if not light hearted.
Not all the material is filled with deep self reflection and personal transformation. Essays like, "Chelsea Girl," "Michigan and Wacker," and "Your Dream, My Nightmare" didn't suck my in quite like the others, but they are still great reads. They are just a little more detached.
Rather than do a detailed analysis of each of the 16 essays in this book, I'll just say it has my recommendation. It's a fairly quick read and Vowell held my attention through out. I picked up this book knowing I would enjoy it, and I was not disappointed. Take the Cannoli is sarcastic, funny, entertaining, thought provoking, and touching.
You can find more of my book reviews here.
Here are some of my other favorite passages:
I was a good daughter, a good sister, a good girlfriend, a good student, a good citizen, a responsible employee. I was also antsy, resentful, overworked, and hemmed in.
I wonder how the teachers who were doing Huckleberry Finn the week of Littleton, handled the joking beginning, in which Tom starts his own gang and informs Huck and the other boys that their reason for being is "nothing but robbery and murder." Children's books can't say that anymore, even in jest. Which is too bad, because even though the two books' boy-talk brags about killing, when Tom and Huck witness an actual murder, it terrifies them, and Injun Joe the murdered is the object of their disgust and fear. Tom Sawyer articulates the difference between the language of child's play and the consequence of evil.
Still, in post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America odds are that the more you shoot for Frank Capra, the more likely you are to end up with David Lynch. Once I notice that the town diner where we're having breakfast is about to celebrate something as corny as National Chocolate Ice Cream Day I start looking for lopped-off earlobes in my hash browns.
The advantage is that twins share responsibilities. There is little or no pressure to become a whole person, which creates a very clear, very liberating division of labor. I did the indoor things, she did the outdoor ones. She learned to ride a bike before I did. I learned to read before she did. She owns at least three pairs of skis. I own at least three brands of bourbon. Driving was her jurisdiction. Criticizing her driving was mine.
Before anyone breaks out the eyeliner, we all sit in a circle and go through my homework. The whole thing reminds me of graduate school seminars, except these people are smart and funny and have something interesting to say.