The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell


I preceded this non-fiction series by mentioning this book and, mischievously, saved it for last. Waiting this long made it necessary to re-read the book, and in so doing, my opinion of the book changed a bit. Initially my reaction was of a light but clever book on the subject of American history, pop culture, and politics. The second time around the block, however, turned up an unmistakable tone of frustration and bitterness, even anger, regarding much of her subject matter. But this is a commentary on the writer more than the written.
Vowell’s subjects begin with a seemingly nostalgic visit to Gettysburg for a reenactment, particularly Lincoln’s post-battle speech there. What had escaped me previously had been buried in the humor and wit—and this is a constant through most of these NPR-type radio essays—a growing, perhaps seething frustration at the decomp occurring in our body politic and in our culture here in the U.S. of A. One leaves this essay with the feeling that Vowell sees such attempts at reliving momentous wedges of Americana as eventually violating the true spirit of the events, leaving them as jetsam atop the cultural froth.
Other essays use the device of fictitious letters to chastise politicians. The first has its crosshairs on Bill Clinton for his peccadilloes, his attempts to lie his way out of them, her admonition that Americans are mature enough to see presidential failures in a balanced perspective with the positives. Another chastises a local Congressional representative for his non-engagement with voters. Vowell, no slouch with prose, tomatoes this guy’s face with her own voting history, her pride in being able to vote, capping the whole thing off with her epiphany that David Letterman is “a non-voting Republican.” The essay seems to scream, “No!” at such people, also bellowing that they are violating the whole American dream in the process.
As one who would wish better for America, I too feel her frustration. I now sense that Vowell has barely contained her rage at the America that inseminated her with a jaded adulthood. The writing seems political catharsis, an attempt to vent while understanding. She’s covered her emotional tracks well here, but she does find herself admitting in the title piece that she is “no sunshine patriot.”
Such insights into the author’s psyche once again stress the value of second, even third, readings. Despite her grabbling within her emotional self here, the collection is worth the read, if for no other reason than to plumb her well-written prose for such hidden nuggets.

Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem


Some thirty to forty years ago, among the best prose in captivity appeared in newspapers and commercial magazines. It’s still around, but that’s a rarity. Which makes Joan Didion’s collection of masterful journalistic essays worth reading, despite their dated subject matter.
Her subjects here vary widely, from a California woman convicted of staging her husband’s death as a suicide, to teen and sub-teen drug users in a crash pad in San Francisco in the post-hippie days. She also performs a caricature of a California think tank and of John Wayne on the set of a Katie Elder movie. Within this journalistic sandwich are word portraits of an American communist, of Joan Baez, the resilient folk singer, and others.
In each of these, her approach to journalism is the interesting thing. First, she constantly turns well-crafted, descriptive phrases, whether in character snippets or painting the terrain surrounding her mini-dramas. She places this odd assortment of people in settings by describing their surroundings as if these people were invented to be inserted into them. She shows an amazingly facile ability to describe the San Bernardino Valley, for instance, stop on a dime, and delve into character in excruciating, slo-mo detail.
In fact, some of her depictions of situations in these settings are brutally real. The capstone essay, for instance: Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In this Dickensian piece, you see kids on the skids, which is dog bites man, more or less. Then she describes a five year-old child under the influence of LSD. The true horror in this is that the child is no newbie to such. LSD is a regular component of her daily diet.
Didion’s essays imply her presence, as most writing does of the author. She gives facts, clinical descriptions, and cinema-worthy descriptions of scenic settings. But beneath this objective veneer is the inevitable journalistic slant. This is not to criticize journalism, as some right-ish politicians do. It’s simply to say that she doesn’t shy away from her own role as a journalist within these dramas. It’s generally reckoned that to do so would create a greater lie than the given slant.
But Didion goes one step beyond in the final essay, as she writes about her early days as a journalist, captured by romantic notions of New York and life in general. At first, she thrills at her presence in the Big Apple,; later she’s jaded, beginning “to cherish the loneliness of it.”
There’s more, of course, but she’s invariably able to insert a timelessness in her essays. Meaning that, as she surely realizes, the stories are repeated until the people or the times change sufficiently to create new stories.

Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt


At last, I thank my lucky stars for a touching memoir. McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” was well received, and rightly so, an endearing but gritty look at the life of twentieth century Irish immigrants to the U.S. “‘Tis” didn’t go over as well, but Teacher Man proves the first wasn’t a fluke.
In this one, McCourt chronicles his career teaching in the New York City school system. This isn’t a teacher-wows-student-and-students-change-their-wild-ways book. Nor is it a teacher against the system story. McCourt disarms us with those possibilities, of course. But just when you think he’s going to resort to cliché, he slips us a head fake and scores an easy basket.
Teaching never seems easy for McCourt. He worries whether he’s reaching the kids, frets over their taking advantage of his insecurity as a teacher. Still, one thing stands out in his seemingly fumbling attempts to reach kids: his ability to tell a story. At first, as he regales them with his life stories, he worries that the kids’ interest is to divert him from his job of teaching. They push for more and he responds, and somewhere in the process students and teacher reach a provisional equilibrium.
I’m never sure, as McCourt plows through his thirty years, whether the students manage to learn anything of value. We hear little about success stories—except that of the teacher himself.
In his eyes, success means reaching the students long enough and in ways appropriate enough to keep from getting fired. This, then, isn’t an ego-boosting self-aggrandizing book for the author. What endears is his honesty in allowing the reader to plumb his psyche, warts and all, as he learns to teach on the fly.
Eventually, he becomes a success, but it’s a point the reader might easily ignore: he’s recruited to teach in the prestigious Stuyvestant High School. That in itself might prove him a successful teacher, but the story goes on. His classes become wildly popular. True to form, he’s afraid it’s because he isn’t hard enough, doesn’t grade rigorously enough.
But McCourt is sly. He tells us the stories his students hear; thus Teacher Man becomes a string of stories connected by his teaching— stories that constitute a greater story. At the book’s end, his purpose becomes overtly clear: a student calls out, “Hey, Mr. McCourt, you should write a book.” You can almost see him winking in the last chapter, which consists of this single sentence: “I’ll try.”
His honesty in revealing himself in such a humble and vulnerable manner sets his books apart from those in which the authors color their wounded psyches with technical virtuosity. Hence, what’s of value to the writer in Teacher Man: Write simply and honestly and your story will live beyond your wildest dreams. Or, in McCourt’s case, beyond his worst anxiety.

Holy The Firm, by Annie Dillard


Dillard tends to see divine things in the most common. Don’t believe me: read Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, if you want a second opinion. Holy The Firm, another in my series of non-fiction classics, is a quick read—just seventy-five pages. Such short books allow you—require, actually, in this one’s case—to read it twice, perhaps a third time. Doing so will surely move you from preconceived notions regarding the sense of terrible things. But if you persist in the idea that much of our world rests outside such divine sensibility, you may need to hang out with Dillard for a long while. Still, the effort will pay dividends. She writes here in a poetic way, dense with paradoxical meaning sure to move you to your core.
One passage speaks to an experience of hers in the Blue Ridge Mountains near my home, but in Virginia. Moths kept flying into a lit candle, immolating the poor beasts. The horror of a live creature burning isn’t her message, however; the divine is in the details: how she describes the moth in such precise fashion that you cannot come away from the reading without the incident seeming to make sense, to have generated a beauty far from the perverse.
Another passage describes a young girl, her skin burned away in an airplane crash, her father the pilot. Beyond that irony, Dillard sees the girl—still alive and in excruciating pain—as the product of a divine plan that would make Baruch Spinoza proud.
Throughout this short book, Dillard resolutely seeks the divine in the least expected places. And, consistent with her view of life, she finds it.
My thesis has long been that the best of secular literature approaches scripture. Holy the Firm eclipses most, secular or religious.
By the way….I'm toying with adding images, such as the above, when they seem appropriate. Let me know what you think.

My Misspent Youth, by Meghan Daum

In this second in a series of looks at how non-fiction works are carried out by the pros, I’m looking at Meghan Daum’s compilation of essays entitled, “My Misspent Youth.” In these, Daum, a freelance writer and journalist a la Joan Didion, takes on the common but fringe aspects of everyday life in the U.S. As well, she unflinchingly examines herself here. Her method is to place herself in interesting situations in order to figure her way out of them. In doing so, she doesn’t always present the reader with a judgment of the situation, instead compelling the reader to embrace the situation sufficiently to come to his/her own conclusions. Very sneaky, but it works.
Perhaps the most memorable essays here are:
“Inside The Tube,” her examination of the lifestyles of flight attendants, particularly that portion occurring during transcontinental flight. She watches as ill-educated flight attendants go through the motions, dealing with boredom by imagining which passengers they would most like to have sex with.
Her last essay, also quite memorable, is entitled “Variations on Grief,” in which she copes with a young friend’s death due to a mysterious virus. Daum’s reaction approaches anger, while the boy’s parents visit a psychic to forestall letting go of him—and to avoid thinking of death.
Others deal with a cult whose members engage in sex with multiple members, romances initiated over the Internet, and, especially, Daum’s own failings as she seeks to live the life of a New York writer and editor on insufficient funds.
In her essays, imagination collides with reality in unexpected ways, and Daum maintains an unrelenting harshness toward herself, her other subjects, and involved persons. She yearns for past times, in which life, from her age and vantage point (Daum was born in the seventies), seems stable, fruitful, satisfying. By comparing modern and not-so-modern times, her essays portray romantic notions of the past, often symbolically, as a counterpoint to the complexities and superficialities of today.
From a writer’s standpoint, her writing here bears examination. It’s always been my assumption that such essays, particularly those written, as Daum’s likely are, by assignment for prestigious magazines, would have only the flimsiest of threads connecting them in such a compilation. Not so for Daum. Her work, despite the diversity of subject matter, is easily connected, as preordained chapters of a novel might be. One must assume that Daum’s vision of life is incredibly coherent.
This book is one you must read if you too ponder modern life and need help navigating a path through it.