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Vowell, Sarah 1969–

Vowell, Sarah 1969–

PERSONAL: Born December 27, 1969, in Muskogee, OK. Education: Montana State University, B.A., 1993; School of the Art Institute of Chicago, M.A., 1996.

ADDRESSES: HomeNew York, NY.

CAREER: Writer, journalist, broadcaster, commentator, educator, and actor. School of the Art Institute, Chicago, IL and Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, instructor in writing and art; This American Life, Public Radio International (PRI), contributing editor and commentator, 1996–. New York Institute for the Humanities, New York University, fellow. Frequent guest on television programs, including the Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Voice actor for the animated film The Incredibles.

WRITINGS:

Radio On: A Listener's Diary, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.

Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.

Assassination Vacation, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.

Vowellet: An Essay by Sarah Vowell (film documentary), Pixar Animation Studios, 2005.

Contributor to books, including The Rose and the Briar, The Future Dictionary of America, Dial-a-Song: Twenty Years of They Might Be Giants; The Berlin Years, and Waiting for the End of the World. Contributor to periodicals, including Esquire, Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, GQ, Spin, McSweeney's, and the New York Times Book Review. Guest columnist, New York Times, 2005, 2006; former columnist for Salon.com and San Francisco Weekly.

SIDELIGHTS: Born in 1969, Sarah Vowell grew up in rural Oklahoma where, as she recalled in a Time article, there were not many female role models: "In 1976, other than my first-grade teacher, every woman of my small-town acquaintance was a homemaker or a widowed homemaker." Vowell idolized the television series "Charlie's Angels" for depicting women with careers. Her own career would take Vowell to the airwaves of public radio, to the internet, and into publishing and motion pictures. A contributing editor and frequent commentator on the Public Radio International program This American Life Vowell is known for her distinctive voice and unique delivery. She has also served as a voice actress in film, playing the part of Violet Parr in the animated movie The Incredibles and a number of spinoff audio projects. A wry, sometimes sardonic observer of American politics, Western culture, and human nature, Vowell comments from the viewpoint of a persona that New Yorker reviewer Dana Goodyear characterized as that of a "charismatic misanthrope."

In Radio On: A Listener's Diary, Vowell takes on the American airwaves by listening to AM and FM stations around the country, concentrating on the Chicago area. In this book she rails against mean-spirited talk radio as well as the unchallenging and risk-free approach to public radio. Bud Kliment, writing in the Chicago Tribune, saw value in the author's rants: "[Vowell's] diary is more the coming-of-age story of a young critic, soundtrack included." Kliment added that the author "has admirable powers of description, but many of the entries merely recount the programming she has heard…. And while Vowell's snarly outlook is one of the book's strengths, sometimes she just comes across as bratty and sophomoric." Kliment found that Radio On is at its most evocative when "it's offhandedly personal, particularly when the sounds on her radio … unexpectedly intersect with the details of her life." In what Kliment called one of the best segments of the book, Vowell, driving through the Southwest, "contrasts the sounds coming from her tiny radio with the silence of the open spaces." Her "feisty yet earnest personality is convincing," concluded Kliment. "In this book full of disembodied voices, hers comes through loudly and clearly."

Vowell's Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World is a collection of essays drawn from her broadcasts and columns. The title comes from a line of mob-inspired advice in the movie "The Godfather": "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." According to Melanie Rehak, reviewing the collection for Harper's Bazaar, Vowell's book is "all about rules for survival." GraceAnne DeCandido, reviewing Take the Cannoli in Booklist, called the collection a "cranky but always entertaining take on life." Take the Cannoli includes such subjects as a trip to Disney World; a night of insomnia; a trip to the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp, and taking driving lessons at age twenty-eight. Some reviewers had mixed reactions to Vowell's book. Vanessa Friedman noted in Entertainment Weekly that the author "has talent, but … lacks the emotional insight of a veteran storyteller." Similarly, Library Journal reviewer Pam Kingsbury found Take the Cannoli to be lacking in depth, but "still a satisfying read." However, a Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that the essays in the collection "charmingly cohere into a full picture of American life." Kingsbury noted that while Vowell included larger political and historical issues in the book, such as the author's walk down the Trail of Tears as she attempted to reconcile her part-Cherokee heritage, her talent "lies in making small details bright and engaging."

In The Partly Cloudy Patriot Vowell offers nineteen "reflective, often witty essays" derived from her magazine and radio work, noted Timothy Dugan in America. Among Vowell's work in this volume are a gently admonishing memo to President Bill Clinton, in which Vowell chides him for his notorious behavior but still musters up enough weary enthusiasm to defend him and long for the creation of his presidential library. She describes her visit to the David Wills house, where Abraham Lincoln worked and slept, and the impact of occupying the same space once inhabited by the great man himself. Her essay, "The First Thanksgiving," looks at family and food traditions and the attendant stress of hosting a holiday get-together for an extended clan. "California is an Island," in which Vowell describes her unpleasant stint as an intern in art dealer Graham Arader's San Francisco gallery, is "sublime," Dugan remarked. The title piece concerns public spirit and jingoism, and Vowell's resentment at enforced patriotism when a local realtor plants a small American flag on her lawn during Fourth of July celebrations. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the book "refreshing, inspiring, enchanting." Vowell "goes too far, cares too much, and remains a very anxious and extremely funny citizen and shady patriot," observed a writer in Kirkus Reviews. Dugan concluded that The Partly Cloudy Patriot is "citizen Vowell at her entertaining and insightful best."

Taking a hands-on approach to history, Vowell describes her nationwide tour of the nation's presidential assassination sites in Assassination Vacation. Vowell visits the places where Abraham Lincoln, William KcKinley, and James Garfield were assassinated, and other locales relevant to the presidents and their killers, to ruminate on the presidents and their lives, current American politics, and the "oft-appalling ways in which popular culture has spun these politically based murders into tragitainment," commented Elissa Schappell in Vanity Fair. She delves into the history of the presidents and their killers (Lincoln by Booth; Garfield by Charles Giteau; and McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz). She tells of visiting a piece of Booth's thorax, displayed in a Philadelphia museum. She relates how famous chief Geronimo personally paid his respects to the fallen McKinley in Buffalo, NY. She researches the Oneida Colony, a religious commune in upstate New York, to uncover insight on Giteau's motivations. She relates the stories of the Lincoln conspirators from the first inklings of the assassination plot to their eventual capture and execution. She also looks carefully for the unusual piece of information and coincidence, such as the fact that Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham, was either present, or in the same town, when each assassination occurred. The book stands as "an amusing way to learn history, but it is also an unusual look at the interconnectedness of things," observed Susan H. Woodcock in the School Library Journal. Vowell's "narrative is very droll, curmudgeonly and discursive," commented Peter Duffy in America. "But as anyone who has read or heard her knows, Vowell's tone—and she is master of it—is not limited to geeky world-weariness. She is a believer in simple, commonsensical truths, a cornily enthusiastic collector of kitsch experience and an indignant patriot of progressive bent." Duffy called the book a "delightful read, full of wonderful surprises about our nation's history, told without the institutional omniscience of the made-for-CSPAN historian."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

America, October 14, 2002, Timothy Dugan, review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, p. 23; April 4, 2005, Peter Duffy, review of Assassination Vacation, p. 35.

Booklist, March 1, 2000, GraceAnne DeCandido, review of Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World; August, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, p. 1916.

Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1997, Bud Kliment, "Sarah Vowell's Year of Listening Critically," p. 5.

Entertainment Weekly, September 27, 2002, Gregory Kirschling, review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, p. 80; April 1, 2005, Karen Valby, review of Assassination Vacation, p. 74.

Harper's Bazaar, April, 2000, Melanie Rehak, "Voice Recognition," p. 148.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, p. 942.

Latin Trade, July, 2005, review of Assassination Vacation, p. 96.

Library Journal, March 1, 2000, Pam Kingsbury, review of Take the Cannoli, p. 113; August, 2002, Antoinette Brinkman, review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, p. 124; December 1, 2004, Barbara Hoffert, review of Assassination Vacation, p. 92.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 16, 2000, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of Take the Cannoli, p. 23.

New Yorker, September 23, 2002, Dana Goodyear, "Alternate Americas," review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot.

Publishers Weekly, December 9, 1996, review of Radio On, p. 56; February 21, 2000, review of Take the Cannoli, p. 71; June 24, 2002, review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, p. 47; February 2, 2004, audiobook review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, p. 27; May 2, 2005, review of Assassination Vacation, p. 196.

School Library Journal, April, 2003, Susan H. Woodcock, review of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, p. 197; November, 2005, Susan H. Woodcock, review of Assassination Vacation, p. 185.

Time, November 6, 2000, Sarah Vowell, "Those Liberated Angels: How Farrah and Her Friends Made Me a Feminist," p. 18.

Vanity Fair, April, 2005, Elissa Schappell, review of Assassination Vacation, p. 112.

Washington Monthly, April, 2005, Jamie Malanowski, "What a Way to Go: Sarah Vowell's Morbidly Funny Tour of Presidential Assassination Sites," review of Assassination Vacation, p. 58.

ONLINE

Bookslut, http://www.bookslut.com/ (November 12, 2006), Gena Anderson, review of Assassination Vacation.

City Arts & Lectures Web site, http://www.cityarts.net/ (November 12, 2006), biography of Sarah Vowell.

Internet Movie Database Web site, http://www.imdb.com/ (November 12, 2006), filmography of Sarah Vowell.

NNDB, http://www.nndb.com/ (November 12, 2006), biography of Sarah Vowell.

Powells Books Web site, http://www.powells.com/ (November 12, 2006), Dave Weich, "The Incredible, Entertaining Sarah Vowell," interview with Sarah Vowell.

Steven Barclay Agency Web site, http://www.barclayagency.com/ (November 12, 2006), biography of Sarah Vowell.

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