Today I was going to write about the Adele concert that I went to on Monday. But then I opened up my icloud photos…and nothing after 7:30pm. There’s a photo of the sign for the new restaurant that is taking Poste‘s place that I sent to the Boy, and then just white. Ugh. So you get no photos or videos, and I have to rearrange my posting schedule. Instead, I’ll be writing about one of my favorite authors and her latest book.
Sarah Vowell is someone you have potentially heard even if you’re not quite sure who she is. She is tiny and acerbic, and was a contributor to This American Life and also voice actor for The Incredibles. She’s written 7 books – her first being about radio, 2 books of essays that were adapted from her radio work (Take the Cannoli and The Partly Cloudy Patriot) and 4 books about history on various topics – Assassination Vacation, The Wordy Shipmates, Unfamiliar Fishes and her newest book Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. I fell in love with Sarah back when I was in college and my friend B gave me her books to read. I was entranced with her bitingly humorous take on history and her personal life. Basically, I think she’s terrific.
The problem comes in her choice of topic occasionally. The essay books are great, and Assassination Vacation is an amazing look at the three US Presidential assassinations and many of the subjects surrounding them. But the next book – The Wordy Shipmates…oof. That was a hard one to get into. The problem being that Sarah is so obviously deep into the nuances of the stories that she can see personalities and humor that are difficult to convey to a reader in short humorous soundbites. I’m sure the Puritans are way more fascinating that I got from reading that book, but it wasn’t the easiest one to get through. I was so disappointed in it that when Unfamiliar Fishes came out…I didn’t immediately jump to buy or borrow it. I was hopeful that it might be better, but my friend B says it wasn’t. It’s hard to convey awesome when you’re deep in the weeds.
But with her latest book, Vowell hit the topical motherlode. Her book on the Marquis de Lafayette, French ally during the American Revolution, came out mere months after the smash hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” debuted.
So I went into this book listening extra hard for mention of Alexander Hamilton. There’s not a lot. So in case you were wondering if this would be good companion reading for the musical…yes and no. Obviously the musical (from what I understand, having not see it … yet!) focuses on Hamilton, but because he was close with Lafayette as one of George Washington’s highest ranking aides he is mentioned in the book a few times. But he’s not a main character. This is really the story of Lafayette, and how the American Revolution was not just fought by the soon-to-be Americans.
So – I know you’re wondering – was it good? Let’s go with yes. Especially if you’re listening to the audiobook. Vowell has the cache to somehow get the most amazing casts to read her audiobooks. I mean, go back up to the top featured image and look at that cast list. That is CRAZY GOOD. I could listen to Nick Offerman as George Washington all day long. And it’s a fun game of “whose voice is that?” to play as you’re listening. If you’re the kind of person who can get Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Catherine Keener, Peter Dinklage and many more to lend their voices to your work, you know it’s going to be fun and interesting. So don’t worry about the production value. That’s all top notch.
The book itself is pretty good. It’s not as great as her best stuff (that being Assassination Vacation), but it’s still more interesting and engaging than The Wordy Shipmates. It helps that while I have a basic understanding of the American Revolution, there’s a lot I still didn’t know. I think my knowledge extends from the Boston Tea Party (1770) through Valley Forge (1778), and then it drops off, which is embarrassing. Even now, having read this book recently, I’m not sure I could tell you what happened off the top of my head, but it turns out that my knowledge is of the first phase, and then things get more complicated with battles taking place farther up north, or else being sea battles between the English and the French (and others!) on the nascent American government’s behalf. So finding out more (and remembering it for a very little while) made me feel better about my general knowledge of the history of our country’s breaking apart from Great Britain and it’s founding as a Democratic nation.
Additionally it was neat to hear about when Lafayette returned to the United States nearly 40 years after the end of the revolution. He was one of the few living high-ranking veterans of that war, and was treated as a returning hero. He visited the every state in the union at that time, and even went to visit former Presidents (and revolutionaries) Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and to visit the grave of George Washington at Mount Vernon.
It’s all important to know. And perhaps that’s what struck me the most about this book – I have a good general grasp of history, but the details and the intimate stories behind everything have just been lost to me. Perhaps if I’d paid better attention in high school (especially during my AP US History class), this wouldn’t be so surprising. But it’s nice to know that there are engaging, humorous, wonderfully human recollections of our American history out there like this one, waiting for me to read them.
Details: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. First published 2015 by Riverhead Books.