Sarah Quite Contrary

Author and radio host Sarah Vowell has been accused of being smart and a smart-ass, a curmudgeon hiding behind a pen, a radio mike and a sweet face. But, despite her often-sarcastic tone, people who hear or read her work don't just like it. They like her. She's the friend who always knows the right--meaning wrong--thing to say. So it's no surprise people pay to hear Vowell read stories from her latest book, Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World, despite that they've read them (either in the book or in the magazines that many of the articles came from) or heard her read them on Public Radio International's "This American Life." They don't care. This time it's live.

Except that she's not doing them--well, maybe one. "Mainly I do newer stuff lately. You know, like a rock band saying, 'We'll be doing our new material that you don't want to hear.' That's me," Vowell says. The new stories are "self-absorbed travelogues" about historical figures or politics. "It's sort of about that, but everything is about 'fill in the blank and my dumb life,'" she says. "Like 'Abraham Lincoln and my dumb life.' Or 'Theodore Roosevelt and my dumb life.' So I'm interested in dead presidents, but stuff always happens when you're on their trail."

For example, she says, when tracking Roosevelt in the national park named after him with her twin sister, Amy, and her infant nephew, "There's a lot of stuff about Teddy Roosevelt, but also just about traveling with a baby and how I was leaving 40 percent tips all over North Dakota to compensate for the apocalyptic mess we'd leave behind." The topic of dead presidents may seem a little, well, dead, but Vowell has a way of picking out small details most would look past or of making wicked little observations. She can make a simple line from The Godfather--"leave the gun; take the cannoli"--into a code for living. And that's worth sitting through a bit of a history lesson.

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Shannon Sutlief