Fans of public radio’s This American Life know Sarah Vowell’s Betty Boop–on–Valium voice and deadpan contrarianism on topics from Thanksgiving with the folks to Carlsbad Caverns’ kitschy Underground Lunchroom. Her third book reprints some of those radio pieces along with other essays, many with civic or political themes.
Vowell is an unabashed Clinton Democrat. “Mr. President, I’m tired,” she begins a memo to the former president. “Who wouldn’t be after a decade of sticking up for you?” She offers advice for his presidential library drawn from those of his predecessors: “Mr. President, play to your strengths. Eisenhower’s greatest achievement was liberating Europe. Your greatest achievement? Balancing the budget. Not as dramatic, I know. They’re probably not going to make a Tom Hanks movie about fiscal policy, no matter how inspired that fiscal policy might be.”
Beneath Vowell’s sarcasm is a passionate—and credible—faith in democracy and a deep respect for those who have established America’s most universal and nonpartisan values: She honors Abraham Lincoln in a hilarious and subtly moving account of the 137th-anniversary reenactment of the Gettysburg Address, and—in one brilliant turn of many—defends civil-rights icon Rosa Parks from those who cheapen her name by invoking it in the most ridiculous of contexts.
The book’s title is a play on a Thomas Paine quote: “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. . . .” Vowell may be the very definition of ambivalence—“My ideal picture of citizenship will always be an argument, not a sing-along,” she writes—but she never shrinks. She’s too fearless for that, and too smart.
Simon & Schuster