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Spotlight on: The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
Alternate: Callahan's Key by Spider Robinson

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The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot

You may know Sarah Vowell from NPR's This American Life. Her quirky commentaries are the highlight of the show for me. Her book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, is a wonderful distillation of those qualities into text. She writes in a conversational style--even using "like" now and then--that draws the reader into her world, speaking to us as if we were in the same room. Her essays cover various topics from Gettysburg to Tom Cruise to Tom Landry. Through all this, her particular brand of self-deprecating humor shines in all of them.

A self-proclaimed "civics nerd," this knowledge of politics feeds her world view. The centerpiece of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, "The Nerd Voice," is a twenty-plus-page look at the 2000 election, why Gore didn't win, and how she and her friends--all members of a web forum--felt about it. She states, upon noticing that Bob Dole is attending, that seeing him comforts her in a way, that he "symbolizes a simpler, more innocent time in America when you could lose the presidential election and, like, not actually become president."

She likens the presidential race to the proverbial Jock vs. Nerd battle from schools all over. Gore was seen as too smart, so he must be taken down. She then notes that the reason Bush was not shot during the attack on the Oval Office was because he was not working, but was in the White House gym instead, exercising.

The title piece, "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," starts out as a review of the Mel Gibson film but metamorphoses into a commentary on the use of the word "patriot" following the events of September 11th and concludes with her views on the prevalence of flags, their symbolism, and why she doesn't want one stuck uninvited into her yard.

As a movie buff, I especially identified with the characters who populate "The New German Cinema," those who take their movie-watching too seriously. I have been guilty of such behavior. (Who am I kidding? I still am.) Did Wim Wenders "sell out" when he made Wings of Desire? Who is to say?

But if someone ran up to me, screamed at the top of their voice, then asked "Who am I?" I would definitely answer "Oskar from The Tin Drum."

The Partly Cloudy Patriot is slightly uneven but that has to be expected from a collection whose only discernible theme is America. What is here is a wonderful new view of the world around us; one that is insightful, pointedly funny, and should open your mind to see things in a different way--the Sarah Vowell way. After all, who else would list the numerous people who almost daily compare themselves to civil rights icon Rosa Parks and point out the insanity of it all?

Callahan's Key by Spider Robinson Alternate Recommendation: Spider Robinson, Callahan's Key

And if insanity is your thing, try the group that hang out with Jake Stonebender and whatever bar they haven't destroyed yet. The puns come fast and furious and the friendship is always on tap at the place where the motto is "shared pain is lessened, shared joy increased."

In Callahan's Key, the third entry from the second Callahan series (i.e., the one not starring Mike Callahan, proprietor of Callahan's Place in the first series), Jake Stonebender (the proprietor of Mary's Place until it was destroyed by a small nuclear weapon), his wife Zoey, and their superintelligent toddler Erin, take off with the usual gang of misfits to Key West to find a location for another bar. While in Travis McGee Land, they meet up with a whole new bunch of misfits, including Robert Heinlein's cat, Pixel, star of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

Travel along with them in their two dozen buses on a Keseyesque journey to their new home, wherever that is.

Spider Robinson specializes in this kind of light SF, where the characters matter more than the plot (such that there is). He makes writing look easy as the words just roll off his mind into yours with no need for any real processing. It seems as if he just writes all these books as a hobby and saves the real crafting for his "serious" novels. But as we all know, the funny stuff usually takes more work than the serious stuff. Thus, the talent of Spider Robinson is awed the world over.

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