Archives for posts with tag: Sarah Vowell

Three years ago, today, I decided to start writing my first book. On that April Fool’s Day, I thought I was writing a collection essays, but it turned out to be a memoir. Since then, I’ve written—and re-written—something that I believe finally adds up to a manuscript. Getting it published will be an entirely different story.

However, on this anniversary that I hold dear, I find myself looking back and cataloging the books that have literally altered the course of my life. Starting with the first book that inspired me to write back beyond the margins, here are a few of the books, listed in the year I read them, that beckoned me to the page in the hopes of adding to the cultural conversation of books.

1994: The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

1995: Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel

Asking RWE why at 17

1996: Emerson’s Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson

1997: Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

1998: My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok


1999: Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson

1999: Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson

Starring Bill Bryson during Study Abroad

2000: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman

2001: In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

2002: Middlesex, Jeffery Eugenides


2003: A Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers

2004: Journal, Annabel Clark and Lynn Redgrave

2005: Jesus Land, Julia Scheeres

Commiserating with Jesus Land

2005: Jesus Land, Julia Scheeres

2006: On Writing, Stephen King

2007: Take the Cannoli, Sarah Vowell

2008: Holidays on Ice, David Sedaris

2009: The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick

2010: Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard

2011: The Commitment, Dan Savage

2012: Virgin, Hanne Blank

Learning from the historian, Hanne Blank

Learning from the historian, Hanne Blank

2013: Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy

2014: Don’t Cry, Mary Gaitskill. Or, Cut me Loose, Leah Vincent. I’m in the middle of reading both right now and couldn’t possibly decide.


What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

The Stack

The Stack

It happened. For the first time since I’ve foregone a nightstand with a stack of books for simply a stack of books as a nightstand, I accidentally knocked it over.

“No!” I screamed.

Melinda bolted upright. “What’s wrong?” she asked with immediate and serious concern, as if expecting to hear I’d received a text with tragic news, found a bedbug, or spilled coffee on our all-white bedding.

“My stack!”

The couple dozen books careened and then hit the floor with an awful crash. The titles I’d taken care to sort in a precarious yet specific order were scattered, sprawling indecently, across the hardwood floor in various states of un-read. Pencils that once marked places rolled away. Spines broke. Pages crumpled. Authors who should never touch were spooning. All systems were destroyed.

“Oh no,” Melinda said with a gasp and then ducked behind the iPad. To stifle a smile?? She lives with that 3-foot tall tower of tomes beside my half of the headboard, because she loves me. However, Melinda has ceased expecting it to ever dwindle down to one and then poof! disappear. The moment I finish reading one book; another (or three) instantly replaces it.

Some do linger. I’ve been in the middle of Siberia for months. At Home is just such a nice base. I’ve been waiting for the right moment to reread Stonewall, which came on Monday. Thanks Mr. President! No, wait. Dune (Melinda’s favorite sci-fi story) is next. It is. This time, I promise. But give me a break, some, such as 352-pages of Savage sex advice, just take minute. Yet, others hardly leave my hands long enough to rest upon the top of the teetering pile. And a moment ago, they were all stacked accordingly.

I knelt down to assess the damage. Picking through the wreckage, I discovered a book that I’d intended to give as a gift years ago, but thought I had lost it. How did it end up in my stack? How could I have overlooked it? It was a slim, quiet, beautiful book that could have only been made in Cambodia. Yet, here it was—found—with serendipitous timing. For the first time in ages, I’m seeing the person for whom I’d bought the book on Saturday. What a gift! In so many ways, books surprise me.

Has one surprised you lately?

I went to see Sarah Vowell yesterday at the Brooklyn Public Library, because I was eager to lay eyes on the author of Take the Cannoli for the first time. I know, I know, it was published way back in 2000. But as with most books with titles that don’t start with Old or New and end with Testament, I was woefully behind in reading them. After memorizing line for line, verse by verse, version after version of The Book until I was eighteen, I’ve spent a decade and change trying to catch up on all the rest. Forgive me for just now making it to the V for Vowell section.

I read Take the Cannoli last week. For seven days and seven nights, I dog-eared pages, penciled margins, and smeared the typeface with tears and coffee and soup. I carried the paperback with me as Good Book toting believers do. I drug out the final 219th page, not wanting it to end. I lingered on the last word, “Hon,” unsure of what to do with myself next. I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted the book to go on and on. I sat in limbo until it finally dawned on me that I could probably Like her on Facebook (I was late cracking that book too.) where I sought and found the hoped for afterlife.

From her fan page feed, I discovered that she’d be in Brooklyn on Sunday to discuss her latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, about the annexation of Hawaii. Perhaps it was wishful reading, but I showed up thinking Phillip Lopate—another of my idols—was hosting, instead of Leonard Lopate from WNYC. Vowell and Lopate bantered back and forth like two radio pros somehow managing to make their audience feel included. The San Francisco Chronicle blurb on the back of Vowell’s book totally nailed her: she did wear “her intelligence and wit as comfortably as an old pair of pajamas.” I listened and laughed for the same reasons everyone did. Her wry, canny, cheek, warm-hearted, refreshingly, odd, quirky acuity that all the other blurbs called out. Plus, Lopate punctuated the conversation with word-nerd puns, quipping “Well, Sarah, you must have appreciated the Hawaiian language for all the vowels.”

When they did open up the dialogue, someone in the audience who looked like a mom or elementary school teacher or both asked if Sarah’s Cherokee et al. heritage contributed to her becoming a history buff. She prodded, “Maybe an early education about the Trail of Tears or something influenced you to…”

“The Trail of Tears?” Vowell interrupted her. “I’ve never not known that.” Perhaps sensing that the woman might be asking how she, herself, could instill a sense of history in a child, Vowell went on to acknowledge the Trail’s dramatic reenactment she wrote about in her essay, What I See When I Look at the Face on a $20 Bill, and how it was the first historical event she experienced—well, except for the Testaments—that brought history alive and communicated that the past had something to do with her.

I zoned out and wandered down my own path of things I’ve never not known. Until people started jostling around, standing up, collecting their belongings, and filing through the auditorium’s exit door. It was time to get our books signed, but I wasn’t sure if I needed to go that far. I stood there trying to decide all the way to the front of the line. I overheard the woman ahead of me say, “Just your name Sarah. It won’t be worth anything with mine in there.”

“Yep, only to you,” Sarah responded.

I handed over Unfamiliar Fishes and told her my name. She autographed the $29 hardcover I’d bought expressly for this moment. When I realized what I really wanted. “And if you wouldn’t mind, this one too?” I said, shyly pulling out my crusty Take the Cannoli. “I’ve loved it for a long time,” I lied, wishing it were true and but nonetheless trying to impress my devotion, as recent converts were inclined to do.

She half-smiled and proceeded to personalizethe book to Amy right in the middle of the title page illustration. My name sat next to a box of cannolis that were wrapped up with a bow on top, like a present. Sarah Vowell extended her hand and bestowed upon me the first everlasting gift I’ve ever happily accepted into my heart.

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