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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Invigorating And Intimidating

I'm guessing books about the Puritans aren't real high on your "must read" list. But in "The Wordy Shipmates" (2008) author Sarah Vowell's supple mind and smart alecky writing style help her convert the musty legends and linguistic sleight-of-hand of our stuffy forebears into fascinating stories while simultaneously deconstructing a hoary myth or two. Honest.

"At his city-on-the hill best, John Winthrop [first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony] is Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs. Roger Williams [founder of Rhode Island, after his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony] is Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise."  How can anyone resist that kind of wild analogy? I sure can't. Despite the sometimes glib tone, every masterful riff in this book is used in the service of this brainy author's main theme, i.e. the role the Puritans played in helping shape our most tenacious national myth - American exceptionalism. It's invigorating and intimidating in equal measure to read someone who exposes the painful irony of Robert Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first atom bomb lit up the sky at Los Alamos. And then just as quickly shifts into using the Brady Bunch or Elliot Gould's performance in "The Long Goodbye" to support a parallel point. Whew.

Aside from being politically astute and smarter than hell, Vowell is also very funny. "...severed body parts being the 17th century equivalent of a gift basket of mini-muffins." Grotesque? You bet, but also true and hilarious. I have one quibble with "The Wordy Shipmates" - With no chapter breaks or headings of any kind over its 248 pages,  I ended up taking more breaks than normal while reading this book and that may have contributed to me losing the main thread a few times. Don't let that dissuade you. This book is worth your time. Really.

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