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Lafayette in the Somewhat United States Paperback – October 4, 2016
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
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An Amazon Best Book of October 2015: The Marquis de Lafayette, a.k.a. one of George Washington’s best buds, is the subject of Sarah Vowell’s latest offering, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. So, why would a young French aristocrat venture to our shores to join Washington’s army and fight in the Revolutionary War? He came for the glory! He came because he believed in American ideals! He came to escape his in-laws! But, mainly it was for the Enlightenment ideas that were unevenly embraced by many of his fellow comrades—ideas that impacted how the war played out. I have seen eyes glaze over when I talk about this sort of thing, but anyone familiar with Vowell’s oeuvre knows what a knack she has for making the (seemingly) mundane fascinating. She also draws some oddly comforting parallels between that time and our own (turns out that politicians have been butting heads, acting like idiots, and sporting terrible comb-overs since the birth of our great nation). There is rarely a description of Vowell that doesn’t include the term “acerbic,” and her signature snark, strategically employed, is one of the things that makes ‘Lafayette’ a fun (and yes, educational) read. But the other quality that shines through is her optimism. You will be smarter and less cynical after reading it. –Erin Kodicek--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
"[A] freewheeling history of the Revolutionary War... Vowell points out that Lafayette was for a time 'a national obsession.'" —The New Yorker
“Vowell wanders through the history of the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath, using Lafayette’s involvement in the war as a map, and bringing us all along in her perambulations…Her prose sparkles.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[Vowell] takes an open and observant 'Hey, that’s nuts' stance toward past and present, which results in a book that’s informative, funny and insightful.” —TIME
“Gilded with snark, buoyant on charm, Vowell's brand of history categorically refuses to take itself — or any of its subjects — too seriously….At once light-footed and light-hearted, her histories are — dare I say it — fun. And Lafayette is no different. Even amid defeats... Vowell emerges from the Revolutionary War with an unabashed smile on her face. I'd be surprised if her reader doesn't, too.” —NPR
"[Vowell] turns the dusty chronicle of American history into a lively mash up and then, playing the history nerd, delivers her stories in her flat funny voice.” —The National Book Review
“Sarah Vowell turns her keen eye and droll wit to the American Revolution in her latest historical venture, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States… Vowell, of course, doesn't just give us the highlights; she offers a portrait of [Lafayette] and his older contemporaries, with whom he found friendship, glory, and endless bickering.” —Cosmopolitan
“You can’t beat Sarah Vowell for quirky chronicles of American history's dark side.”—Chicago Reader
“Vowell takes on American history as only she can, this time with the story of Frenchman theMarquis de Lafayette, a Revolutionary War hero.” —USA Today
“To impress the history buff at the table, read Vowell’s (ever the expert in, really, everything) in-depth and irreverent account of George Washington’s decorated general Lafayette, which also looks to our own political climate for context.”—Marie Claire
“Nobody recounts American history the way Sarah Vowell does, with irreverence and humor and quirky details — history and facts, but also entertainment. [Lafayette in the Somewhat United States] is about the friendship between George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, but in Vowell’s inimitable style it is also firmly grounded in the present.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Here's one historian who is a born storyteller.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
“Vowell’s rollicking, sly humor is the perfect spoonful of sugar to down with her intensive research and historical insight.” —Huffington Post
“If you ever wanted an insightful and entertaining look at the friendship between George Washington and his French aristocrat general Marquis de Lafayette, this book by Sarah Vowell…should be on your list." —Kansas City Star
“Vowell's sort of the Quentin Tarantino of popular history: She weaves pop culture and real life into her narrative, breaking down the barriers that keep history buried in the past." —The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Vowell is especially skilled at making detours seem natural and relevant, including in this case a swing by the boyhood home of Bruce Springsteen, which was in the neighborhood of a battle site and, hey, a historical landmark in its own right (plus, she adds, one of the Boss’s relatives was a Revolutionary soldier)… An intoxicating blend of humor and emotional weight.” —The AV Club
“What so funny about American History? A lot, when it's Sarah Vowell telling the story.” —Omnivoriacious
“Lafayette is lucky he has Sarah Vowell in his court.” —New Republic
"With laugh-out-loud humor and her characteristic snark, Vowell makes this walk through history a walk in the park." —The Washington Post
"A whopping canvas as choreographed as a graphic novel…. Vowell brings a learned, wiseacre hand to this work, full of its own brio and dash, and with that legerdemain that finds you embracing history." —B&N Review
“Sarah Vowell books are equal parts incisive and laugh-out-loud funny.”—Inside Higher Ed
“[Vowell] is wonderful at showing the way history can be a conversation between the past and present.”—Sophisticated Dorkiness
"An engaging reminder that America has never been anything but a (somewhat) dysfunctional country." —Washington Monthly
“Sarah Vowell is that hip high-school history teacher everyone wanted to have… She has a gift for the kind of description that seals an image in the reader’s imagination.”—Columbus Dispatch
“When it comes to weird basic facts, all you have to do is turn on a presidential debate to remind yourself of the irreconcilable paradoxes and contemptuous rifts at the highest levels of American public life. [This] is one of those books that reminds us things have been this way since the beginning.”—The Stranger
“Author Sarah Vowell has a unique voice both in reality and in her reality… Vowell takes a rather wry look at history under any circumstance, applying her modern and political perspectives to her topics.”—Gabbing Geek
“Vowell has mined American history for surprising and amusing insights into the heart of the nation.”—Slate
“Like her previous books, Lafayette strikes witty blows against the stodgy sorts of U.S. history taught in classrooms.”—The Smithsonian
"The enjoyment Vowell seems to derive from poking around in America’s obscure corners is part of what makes her historical narratives vital. In tracing history’s circuitous path, she demonstrates how we got where we are today—and sheds light on where we might be heading next.”—BookPage
"[Vowell is] as good at giving facts as she is at making sure you’ll retain them by telling the story in the most fascinating way possible.”—Paste
From the Hardcover edition.
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Lafayette was born Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette. Mostly, he is known as the Marquis de Lafayette or just Lafayette. “The thing that drew me to Lafayette as a subject—that he was the rare object of agreement in the ironically named United States—kept me coming back to why that made him unique.” His father died when he was only two in the Seven Years’ War and he was born hating the British. When he was 19, he sailed to the United States without the knowledge of his family to offer his services to the Continental Army. His reasons were varied including a “lust for glory, the appeal of escaping his nagging in-laws, boredom with the court shenanigans of Versailles, and a head full of Enlightenment chitchat about liberty and equality.” It didn’t hurt that he was independently wealthy and agreed to serve without pay. At first he was given the rank of major general, but without any duties. But it didn’t take long for George Washington and Lafayette to form a father-son bond and General Washington soon started trusting the young Frenchman with more leadership rolls. Vowell takes us through the Revolutionary War and highlights Lafayette’s contributions in the war effort. She also covers his grand tour of American in 1824-1825, where tens of thousands of Americans came out to see him as he toured all the states then in the US, as well as visiting those friends from Revolutionary War times who were still alive including John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. At the time, Lafayette was the last surviving general from the Revolutionary War.
But what makes Lafayette in the Somewhat United States so good is Vowell’s humor, her impertinence and her ability to compare past to present. She travels to Brandywine, PA to see the sight of the Battle of Brandywine. She times her visit so that she is there for a Battle of Brandywine reenactment and “A Son of Liberty” puppet show about Lafayette. “I needn’t have worried about how the event planners could possibly turn a bummer like Brandywine into a celebration. If Americans can transform Memorial Day, technically a remembrance of all our war dead ever, into the official kickoff of summer, we can handle adapting one demoralizing battle into a wholesome, chipper get-together.” In 1934, FDR gave a speech before congress honoring Lafayette on the 100th anniversary of his death. FDR’s speech acknowledged “that every now and then, a bunch of backbiting blowhards like the United States Congress can temporarily come together with their president to mourn the death of one of the few people, places, or things they and their fidgety constituents have ever agreed on.”
Vowell says it best when she writes that Lafayette “represented neither North nor South, East or West, left or right, Yankees or Red Sox. Lafayette has always belonged to all of us.” In her book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, she puts him back on our national stage and gives him the prominence he deserves.
And, my moderate complaint aside, this was a very compelling Revolutionary history - and it uses the Marquis de Lafayette more as the straw to serve the drink, than as the 100 percent constant subject. Vowell gives the reader a solid historical overview of the Revolution and focuses on a few battles (Monmouth, Brandywine, etc) that don't get much attention. The Revolution was much more than Lexington, Concord and Yorktown, and we forget that.
And, we certainly have forgotten (or were never aware) of the rivalries and discontents. With a few changes of allegiance, maybe we celebrate the birthday of Horatio Gates, and our capital is in Gates, D.C. George Washington was not everybody's hero all the time.
Lafayette is a teenage dilettante who earns his way to respect through action and humility. I 'knew' about him from history class, but had little clue of his actions or behavior at the time. And I was amazed by Vowell's description of his 1824 'reunion tour' of the United States, when he visited every state of the time.
That trip - when 80,000 people turned out to see him in New York City - makes me consider that we're in a "post-historical" society. I can't think of a figure from the nation's past that could achieve any sort of bi-partisan good feeling...and I'm not sure there will ever be a person like that again. Mandela or the Dali Lama inspired admiration, but in a different way. But politicians, generals, scholars - I can't think of any that wouldn't be compared/contrasted/protested and ultimately co-opted by partisan demands. And the whole idea of the Revolution is impossible to convey, of course. Just thinking of a time when men like John Adams, Jefferson, Lafayette lived among us might as well compare to talking about Game of Thrones like it's a real place.
So the book's success is humanizing the men (mostly all men, except a little of Abigail Adams and Adrienne Lafayette) who fought the Revolution - and all the epic scope and unknown risks that word entailed. It's all taken for granted now, and we don't appreciate those risks (and deservedly, the slave-trading aspects of men like Washington, etc., have taken the bloom off the rose) and we've forgotten our history.
Maybe that's why we're flailing around as a country is that we always seem to want our history right NOW, but we don't want to earn any perspective. We want Obama's election to change the world instead of working to make it change anything, or act like the 'Tea Party' is a real movement instead of a bunch of selfish racists rationalizing their bitterness - there's no history to anything, just a desire for instant gratification in the moment.
The 80,000 people in NYC, or the crowds who met Lafayette all across the country in 1824 recognized their history - they knew the men of Revolution had won those battles 35 years before. What do we have that happened 35 years ago? MTV?
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I never laughed so hard learning stuff about Lafayette. Who knew history was so funny.