Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Review Club: August

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@Barrie Summy

Okay, this one's a little friendlier to the beach reader than my last one was. It's a hoot, plus it's old enough to be out in paperback. Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews!

The Wordy Shipmates
By Sarah Vowell
Riverhead Books, 2008

When we think somebody’s a totally repressed killjoy, we call him a Puritan. Sarah Vowell would like this to stop.

Not that the Puritans were a barrel of laughs—especially those who came to New England in the early 1600s. (You couldn’t be a comedian and still lead a religiously triggered invasion of somebody’s homeland.) But they were a lot more complicated than popular history leads us to believe.

For a start, they didn’t call themselves Puritans—other people did, mostly decades or centuries past their seventeenth century heyday. They often called themselves “the godly”—as distinct from their arch-enemies, the Catholics and, for some, the Church of England.

Also, they weren’t a homogeneous group. Some of them still belonged to the C of E but wanted to purify it. Others thought anyone who stuck with the C of E was the spawn of Satan. (Or, possibly, of satin.)

Also, they didn’t mind sex, as long as it was sanctified by marriage vows.

Sarah Vowell has made a career out of reinterpreting history through the eyes of a non-historian. A former, long-time contributing editor for the public radio show “This American Life,” she has written six books that dance from history to social commentary to travelogue. This was her fifth, and the only one I’ve read. I’ll probably let some time pass before I read another, but I’m very glad I found this one.

Vowell’s tale this time is of the Puritan colonization of New England between 1630, when the Massachusetts Bay colonists arrived, and 1692, when Salem got crazy about witches. Her chief characters are John Winthrop, the colony’s first governor, and the colony’s first major outcasts, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson.

Williams believed in religious freedom and thought the English king had no right to give away Indian land, but unfortunately was such a wack-job that his views had no effect. His only recourse was to leave and found Rhode Island. Hutchinson, banished for making a theological left turn while female, moved her family to Rhode Island en route to New Netherland, where she and most of her family ended up dying in an Indian war.

There are no chapters in this book—it’s essentially a long essay with pauses—and Vowell regularly leaps over the centuries to link the colonists’ behavior with ours. She brings in Abu Ghraib, Ronald Reagan, even “The Brady Bunch.” Anecdotes from her own life (her Pentacostal upbringing for example) illuminate the Puritans’ story, particularly when she describes her tours of the Puritans’ stamping ground.

Just after reading about the English settlers’ truly brutal attack on a Peguot fort in 1637, we watch Vowell’s horrified seven-year-old nephew contend with a museum documentary on the subject. He has to close his eyes. “When do they have Thanksgiving?” he wants to know. This is one of many points during the book when Vowell gets emotional—sometimes admiring, usually angry. The book is strongest at those points.

This is a gutsy and illuminating approach to history, offered in a wry tone that often had me laughing out loud. I lost the sequence of events at times, but you can get that elsewhere.

That tone, however, is troublesome. Vowell can’t resist a one-liner, and her snarkiness started to get old for me halfway through the book. Since I’m usually a push-over for snark and one-liners (see the “satin” comment above), I couldn’t decide whether she was trying too hard or just needed one more close edit.

That’s why I’ll take a rest before moving on to her latest, UNFAMILIAR FISHES. It’s about the Americans in Hawaii, and I bet it’s a corker.

Dear FCC: I took this book out of the library.


Anonymous said...

I love the history of everything, including words. And I think there should be more awareness. Kids today can't even get the cliches right - they're too removed from the history of it all. And the Americans in Hawaii sounds interesting. I remember reading James Michener's Hawaii...

Ellen Booraem said...

I know, I was thinking of Michener's HAWAII, too--it's the sum total of what I know about those islands. It would be interesting to compare the facts.

Stacy said...

Oh, I love colonial history, and this sounds great. If I can get past the lack of chapters, which is a pet peeve of mine. :)

Thanks for the review.

Ellen Booraem said...

I actually didn't notice the lack of chapters at first. There's white space between sections to ease the onslaught of words. I only picked up on it when I said to myself, "OK, I can read to the end of this chapter and then I have to go to bed." And I leafed ahead to discover there WAS no end!

Sarah Laurence said...

Sounds funny but maybe a bit forced - great review!

Barrie said...

I really like this time period. and I recently saw a production of The Crucible. So, this sounds like an interesting read. Thanks, Ellen!

Linda McLaughlin said...

Great review. I love snark, too, and I always enjoy Sarah's interviews on The Daily Show, but no chapters? Horrors!

The missionaries in Hawaii ought to be interesting. I remember hearing that they there to do good and did very well (foe themselves).

Ellen Booraem said...

I was attracted to this book partly because of a Daily Show interview I saw...she does seem like someone you'd want to hang out with.

I love this time period, too, Barrie--here and in England. I think I may be setting another book back then, at least partly, so lots of excuses to read!

Elisabeth said...

You have a terrific way of describing this book, Ellen. You took me into guts of it.

I enjoy essays such as the one you describe here by Vowells. I enjoy a blend of the personal, the historical and sometimes even the theoretical. It's good to learn more about those so-called Puritans.
Puritanical is a word that creeps into our daily vernacular here and it's not a pretty term. To be called puritanical is such an insult, at least it is in my book.

I'm new to your blog, Ellen, from Australia via Sarah Laurence's blog and pleased to meet you here. I look forward to reading more.

Ellen Booraem said...

Welcome, Elisabeth! I'm not the most prolific blogger in the world...these days it's usually once a week, sometimes twice. But I have fun with it when I get to it, so I hope you do, too. Thanks for reading!