Miss Understood


Sarah Vowell is the young liberal professional’s answer to Andy Rooney. The difference is that while the 60 Minutes codger drives you to reach for the clicker, Vowell’s distinct, high-pitched grade-school voice—familiar to many from NPR’s This American Life—soon softens in your ear.

In Take the Cannoli, which includes 16 essays culled from her radio commentary as well as from GQ and Salon, Vowell explores acceptance and withdrawal in society. She drives along the “Trail of Tears” to search for her Cherokee roots; she comes to terms with her father’s fascination with guns; she seeks out advice on how to conquer sleep deprivation; and she pays homage to Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.

Vowell herself can be cranky and a bit of an elitist. In “Music Lessons,” she disdains her high school classmates, especially Jon Wilson, a popular, friendly kid who writes Lionel Richie-inspired songs and performs them on the piano to swooning girls. As an antidote to the sap, Vowell—a member of the band and orchestra—composes a piece inspired by her own hero, Philip Glass. Taking Glass one step further, Vowell reasons, “Why waste all that time developing an idea over an extended period of time when you could encapsulate the entire concept in one big, loud, twelve-second piece!”

Later in life, Vowell subjects herself—for the sole reason that it will annoy her—to “five whole days cooped up attending guitar workshops taught by moldy rock big shots” in Miami. She sits through a class with rock and roll wannabes listening to Rick Derringer (“Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo”) give instructions on how to clean a guitar; and she attends a lecture by Mike Love (Beach Boys), who drones on about the time he told Paul McCartney how to include better songs on his records. But as much as Vowell wants to rag on her classmates, who are mostly white, middle-class men, she finds herself unable to for the single fact that “they were so gosh darn nice.”

Elsewhere, Vowell turns her gaze inward and frankly assesses society’s appraisal of her. When the Glass-ophile retreats to her soundproof room to pound out her composition, she accepts her high school situation: “I was convinced that real artists were the kind that nobody understood, much less liked, which was pretty reassuring since nobody liked me. Or my music.” In the end, the woman who’s “stuck with this round, sweetie-pie face” endears.