I love Sarah Vowell's books. She is an absolute master at examining a historical subject, relating it to the world we live in, and inserting her personal foibles to it, all in a narrative that moves so smoothly and quickly that you're sometimes surprised that you've read the whole book at a sitting. That's what she attempts to do here, but she doesn't quite pull it off this time.
Don't misunderstand me; this isn't at all a bad book. In fact, it's fascinating. It is jam-packed with fascinating information about the Massachusetts Puritans and the religious, social, and historical context of their settlement. Vowell weaves comments about her family background, education, travels, and hopes and fears into the narrative, just as she usually does.
When Vowell's writing works best, it's driven by her quirkiness and her ability to veer off on what seems to be a tangent, then bring everything together in the end. She does that here, but just not as well as in her other books. Perhaps the subject just isn't as susceptible to the Vowell treatment as the subjects of her other books.
I actually enjoyed this book, and I recommend it highly. However, it's just not as good as her other books made me expect it to be. Well worth reading, though.
on October 2, 2008
There's nothing like a Sarah Vowell book to provide a new slant on a historical period. In "The Wordy Shipmates," she tackles a rather odd era, and one for which most people have definite opinions: the settlement of Massachusetts by the Puritans. Vowell does not reveal that the Puritans were *not* the American version of the Taliban. Certainly, they were fanatical, even by the standards of their own time, and harsh and guilt-ridden to boot. Their endless arguments about the meaning of biblical verses and their extreme hatred and fear of "Papists" put them two steps away from the loony bin. Yet they possessed attitudes (and paranoias) that put them squarely at the root of what would become the American nation character. Having arrived on these shores, by the grace of God, they were ferociously jealous of their freedom from the intrigues and violent interference of the English court and church. Worried sick about takeover by their own government, they were careful to give at least the appearance of subservience to the powerful crown. Vowell's hero is John Winthrop, the first governor of the collection of rude shacks that became the city of Boston. Winthrop is an oxymoron -- a Puritan with a streak of practical morality -- who rules with a weird combination of Christian compassion and tyrannical ruthlessness. Over a fractious and easily offended populace, Winthrop bobs and weaves like a prize fighter, somehow managing to keep his society from fragmenting. Winthrop nearly meets his match with Roger Williams though. Williams, far from being the free-speech champion that we liberals thought him to be, is even more of a Puritan than the Puritans. He finds that his austere compatriots to be insufficiently willing to separate from the ungodly, raising the hackles of "moderates" like Winthrop, and eventually earning himself banishment from the community. Yet Vowell finds the silver lining in Williams, who, arguing for a wall to keep the government out of the *church*, set the stage for future debate that bore fruit over a century and a half later in the Bill of Rights.
"The Wordy Shipmates" is a fascinating read, peppered throughout with Vowell's entertaining and snarky similes and parallels. Her discussion of the way that most Americans (including herself) get their history from popular shows like "Happy Days" and "The Brady Bunch" is illuminating and a little scary. To counter this, Vowell provides plenty of primary material -- mostly from Winthrop's journals -- and provides explanations that give context and cut through the turgid 17th-century prose. Most aspects of tehstory move briskly,. Though her telling of the genocidal Pequot "War" drags a bit. She does do a great job of seeing how Winthrop's' "City on a Hill" image has been used and misused throughout history, especially by those who missed the point that at its base, the City was intended to describe a society whose members were bound to one another through Christian charity. For a closer look at a society which we tend to judge and dismiss, "The Wordy Shipmates" book is a gem.
Upon reading this book, I struggled for a few days on how many stars to give this. At times, I really liked Vowell's very personal-essay-like history of the Pilgrims at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Vowell is very knowledgeable and, at times, is a very good and passionate writer. At times, however, I was also either bored by redundancy, waiting for a seemingly episodic collection of essays to "come together" and read like a book, or annoyed by Vowell's constant employment of sarcasm.
Alas, I chose to give this book 3 of 5 stars. I figure that the best way to explain is to go through a list of pros and cons.
Vowell's book on the Pilgrims is obviously a very personal one, and her enthusiasm and passion for the subject shows very well. She recounts not only the tortuous adventure the Pilgrims took from Britian to America and their struggle to build a city, but also tours she has been on, journals she has pored through, and what the Pilgrims mean to her.
The Wordy Shipmates works best - works quite well - when it is read as a collection of themed essays, rather than a flowing book. Once I began to read it in this way, I was better able to admire Vowell's frequent and lengthy asides (where an essay on x quickly becomes an essay on y). Each essay explores some facet about the Pilgrims - their religiosity, their caring nature, their admiration of hard work - but each essay stands on its own more than connects with other essays.
As something of a collection of essays, Vowell can be (quite) redundant. When exploring the Pilgrims, she often goes back to the same points (every other essay seems to come back to how the "City on a HIll" metaphor led to US exceptionalism; true, but no more true the hundredth time than the first.) Many essays focus on the same topics over and over through slightly different "angles." Good for a 20 minute NPR piece, but not for a book.
For a book on such a meaty subject, I really found Vowell's frequent sarcasm and attempts at humor a little out of place and repetitive. I suppose that towards the end of the book, I felt the way I did after seeing Juno; the quips are interesting at first and annoying half way through.
FOR THOSE CONTEMPLATING THE AUDIOBOOK: I fully agree with another reviewer who advised that this book may be better read than listened to. While some might find Vowell's "Lisa Simpson with a lisp" voice endearing, I find that her akward delivery made the listening...well...akward. Nor did I like the fact that EVERY SINGLE quote in the book is read by a guest reader (which is fine when they are reading a passage, but tedious when they are reading one or two words).
I wholly reccomemnd this book for those wanting to read a decent collection of historical essays they don't want to have to think too deeply about.
The point Sarah Vowell hopes to make with her book is condensed in its three opening sentences: "The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed." In many ways the book aims to be a modern social commentary that tells us about all the terrible things that happened to and in the United States and the world because some Puritans hopped on a boat and came here.
We elected Bush? That's Anne Hutchinson's fault. And not just because Bush is a descendant of hers either. Had it not been for Anne's ideas, most American Protestants would not now believe in "immediate personal revelation" (p. 209)--the idea (radical at the time) that individuals have a personal relationship with God and that, as a result, only the individual is responsible for his or her own salvation. In other words, had it not been for Anne, there would have been no born-again Christians and, hence, no George Bush.
Our (often disastrous) interventions around the world? Blame Winthrop of "City on a Hill" fame. Had he not drummed into us that we're a city on a hill, a model to the world, we might be less eager to spread our model from one corner of the globe to the next. And, in any event, we might not have had Ronald Reagan as president. (I suspect Sarah Vowell might be a Democrat by the way.)
The Indian massacres? That too is the Puritans' fault. But here Sarah Vowell does not have to rely on genealogy or one man or woman's belief system to prove her point. The Puritans, after all, massacred many Indians. Like the Pequot, whose children, women, and men they literally burned alive. This book is thus worth reading if all you want are the details of what happened after Thanksgiving.
But this book is also worth reading because as Sarah Vowell ruefully admits, "I wish I did not identify with [the Puritans'] essential questions" (p. 29). But she does. She does not say it outright but she seems to feel that at least part of the belief system that made those Puritans sail to America was a sense of social justice. The Puritans resurrected (in the Christian world) the Hebrew ideas of: isomania (we should all be equal before the law), literacy (we should all be able to read the law--or the Bible), free speech (we should be able to denounce authority), and manual labor (we should all earn our bread by the sweat of our brows). And this belief gave us not just Bush, Reagan and the massacres of Native Americans but also Martin Luther King, Jr.
And because she recognizes the good that came (with the much-detailed) bad, Sarah Vowell gives us a thoughtful and detailed translation of what the Puritans were up to. She makes the language and the politics of the 1600s understandable to the reader of 2008. And not only understandable but fun to read. And so we enjoy learning about the disagreements the Puritans had with the Pope, the Anglicans and with each other; we get the political implications the Bible had for them; we understand the importance Winthrop's "Christian Charity" sermon had for his contemporaries (and Sarah Vowell admits, for her). We (or at least I) learned a lot reading this book and what is more I enjoyed learning it.
The final verdict then? As social commentary, this book is not much different from many others like it (say Michael Moore); as history of the Puritan era though it is a resounding success. I recommend it.
on September 25, 2008
I got this book last night and I devoured it. I probably should have savored it though. There is so much substance to it that I probably missed so much. That is the beauty of Sarah Vowell. Her books are well researched and there is so much subtle humor and not so subtle humor that is makes learning about something that sounds boring like the puritans (hey she admits this in the book! When she tells people that she was working on a book about Puritans and how people reactions were usually -- well not so enthused) actually interesting. I am not a big non-fiction reader, and when I do read non fiction it usually is not political or American history so enjoying a book like this is a big deal.
The fun thing about reading a Sarah Vowell book is how she will take history and make it relevant to what is happening now or at least put it in a context that you could understand. Who knew there were actually differences between the puritan colonists and comparing them to the differences between the godfather movies would make sense? I actually laughed out loud when she went on to explain her early education about puritans existed solely based on the Brady Bunch and Happy Days episodes. I actually remembered those episodes! She cleverly weaves in these reminisces of Marsha's broken nose with speeches given by Ronald Regan and other great leaders that use words dating back to Winthorp one of these founding Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Amazing. What is more amazing is how the ideals/motivations of the Puritans to come to American are still what are shaping our foreign policy today.
Although I devoured this book, enjoyed, and would recommend it -- I wouldn't say this is her best book. I found that Wordy Shipmates at points got bogged down in the history and the amazing research that Sarah puts into her work. The book dragged at points where there were less personal anecdotes or less Sarah Vowell and more just passages of historical fact. Her strength is interspersing her quirkiness into books and although there was a lot of that in the book maybe there just wasn't enough for me! I still highly recommend this book and any other Sarah vowel book. Good stuff.
Sarah Vowell specializes in what might be called "jokey popular history." She's serious about her subject but she tries to wrap it up in a -- well duh! style of writing interspersed with many personal asides, some relevant, some not.
Here, she writes about the founding of the colonies of Massachusetts and Rhode Island and the colorful characters who inspired them. This quickly draws her into abstruse theological differences that today seem highly irrelevant. But she succeeds in demonstrating that the ideas of men like John Winthrop and Roger Williams did much to form the kind of country the United States eventually became -- and continue to live on today, although much altered by history.
Though she admires both men, she also judges them by 21st century moral standards and finds both wanting. Of course, the ultimate blot on the record of these fine-speaking avatars of Christian morality was the appaling massacre of Native Americans at Mystic Fort when women and children were burned alive.
I found the material interesting but the author's radiophonic "This American Life" interruptions were often intrusive. She tends to ramble. One and a half thumbs up for this one.
Having grown up in New England with ancestry both from the Mayflower and native American, I was really interested in Sarah Vowell's c
coverage of the puritans who settled the Boston area. Who were these people?
One of the interesting things she pointed out is that most of us get our entire concept of the pilgrims from the sitcoms we watched as children. In retrospect - I agree. We also place a tremendous amount of importance upon Plymouth Colony (because of Thanksgiving) when the Boston colony was actually much more influential upon history.
Lucky for us, the shipmates "wordiness" refers to the facts that they were a highly literate bunch who wrote all the time. A little investigation tells us a lot about them. From their written diary entries, letters, and sermons, we can get a good sense of how they thought. It's also important to place them into the context of what was happening in England at the time.
Vowell does a great job of displaying just how the beliefs of these Puritans shaped the US,up to and including the politics of today. It is important to note that these people were Calvinists, anti-democracy, intolerant to any beliefs but their own. While this sounds un-American on the surface, just blow the fine dust off current events to see these values still in action.
She posits that some countries are despotic and don't pretend they are not, while America frequently acts in despotic ways - but pretends that it holds the moral standard for the rest of the world. In a similar way the Pilgrims believed that the saved were already chosen, but they should go around and act like they were saved anyway - just in case.
This is a very interesting and witty read. Vowell's writing is clear, sharp, and extremely well researched.
Sarah Vowell is my type of gal: writer extraordinaire, political guru, and complete and total history nerd. Coming off the success of the off-beat and incredibly likeable Assassination Vacation, Vowell brings to us the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is her delightful new book, "The Wordy Shipmates".
People familiar with Vowell's work will be charmed with the musings of her new tome. Taking on colonial America and only she can see, Vowell paints a portrait of rugged stoicism, harshness, and reflective political discourse. She introduces us to John Winthrop, a middle class businessman and Puritan lucky enough to sail to the new land on the Arbella (why no fondly mention of this ship in our history books?). Winthrop's contribution to Americana has not been forgotton, mostly in the form of Reagan's classic speech which he evoked "the shining city on a hill" as a symbol for America. Turns out, as Vowell muses, Reagan's shining city on the hill had lots of trash, homelessness (by choice!), and people dying of AIDS, unacknowledged by the conservatives in Washington.
In fact, that's what Vowell is best at in this book. She gives us palatable doses of American history (so as not to scare off those people who are fact-phobic) and then writes a chain of observations of that theme (much like the radio show she often narrates for, This American Life) that are sometimes witty, and sometimes touching. In reading the aforementioned "Christian Charity" sermon, penned by Winthrope, Vowell takes us on a brief but incredibly touching journey through post 9/11 New York City, proving that yes, despite differences, we Americans DO come together and DO watch out for each other. Even in NYC.
I guess I love Vowell's writing because it appeals to the inner-history geek in me; the one that loves to imagine what it was like hundreds of years ago, braving an angry ocean, ship sicknesses, and coming to a new land; filled with people from an entirely different culture, and trying to make a new life. Vowell's writing is a perfect balance of fact and op ed musings that make spending time with her books the most worthwhile.
If you're reviewing an audiobook, one of the things you have to address is, well, the audio. So I may as well get this out now. I'm not a fan of Sarah Vowell's voice. I know, I know, she's on radio all the time. And she's the voice of Viola in The Incredibles, one of my favorites movies too. But on NPR her voice comes at you in small packets of sound. The same is even more true of her voice work in The Incredibles, where she only gives us a line or two in a row. But to be honest, it's a tough voice to listen to for hours, even broken up as it is by other readers doing some of the sections (reading bits of diary or various proclamations for instance).
If you can get by the voice (and as I said, it's hard to do over an extended time so I suggest listening in short segments), then how is the content? Mixed. The strongest part is Vowell's examination of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, starting with them setting sail and continuing into their settling and maintenance of the Colony for about the first ten years or so. She's clearly done her research (in fact, she tells us of her research several times) and makes good use of primary documents--diaries, logs, speeches, etc. These are the lesser known Pilgrims and certainly worthy of our attention, especially for their enduring influence on America, which is really Vowell's major point. She delves into their reasons for leaving, their internal differences, their relations with the native americans, their "break-ups" with Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Sometimes, as she readily admits, the minor theological points can be a bit tedious, but she is a good enough writer that she knows how far to carry it before spinning off into a relieving change of topic, either still in the historical vein or breaking us utterly free with a reference to the Brady Bunch as the great educational program of a generation.
That humorous mix of the present and the past, where Vowell sticks to a sharp-eyed and equally sharp-toned look at popular culture (use that last word loosely here she seems to say) is the book's second-best attribute. Not all such reference work, but many, and probably most do and they often provoke both laughter and thought.
The least successful aspect of the book is when she tries to tie in modern-day politics/economics. Here, too often, her connections seem a bit of a stretch, her conclusions more pre-ordained than discovered through her research. And I say this as someone who shares her politics. My guess is those who don't will find these moves even more annoying.
Without them, and if the book were read rather than listened to, I'd probably have rated it a strong four. The weakly drawn connections to modern-day knock it down to a strong 3 and the voice down to a solid 3. I'd recommend the Wordy Shipmates, but as a book to hold in your hand and read rather than one to listen to.
on October 26, 2008
Sarah Vowell's audio performances never fail to entertain, whether on This American Life or in the audio version of one of her own books, such as Assassination Vacation. I can't say as much for her work in its written form. While Vowell packs her books with interesting information, they tend to lack the voice that Vowell might fill in with, well, her actual voice. Snark does abound in The Wordy Shipmates, a book that recounts the first years of the Massachussetts Bay Colony; however, archival records dominate the text. Quotations, often in block form, take up at least half of every page, leaving me feel as if I might as well have gone directly to the primary source and read the papers of Roger Williams and John Winthrop for myself.
The book has made me more informed about the goings-on of 17th-century America. Vowell acts as a knowledgeable tour guide who has the salacious details. She's been on enough museum tours to know how it should be done. But, on page, at least, this tour seems, well, wordy. I'm not sure what Vowell wants to impart unto her readers. The book could be a primer on Puritan New England, but it doesn't ask to be taken seriously as an academic text. And, while Vowell keeps her tour funny, she spends too much time in facts to classify The Wordy Shipmates as humor. Meanwhile, she indicates several parallels between Puritan New England and modern America, but does not explore them enough to make a cohesive thesis. Altogether, The Wordy Shipmates offers pleasant-enough chitchat about an area of American history that often gets glossed-over, but I wish I'd sprung for the audiobook.