Sarah Vowell: Take The Cannoli: Stories From The New World

Sarah Vowell: Take The Cannoli: Stories From The New World

It used to be that a memoir was written at the end of a particularly interesting life. These days, more and more people are cranking them out hardly halfway through their time on Earth. The trend is partly an extension of the solipsism and selfishness that comes with youth: "I'm important and unique, and my story needs to be told." Rock critic Ann Powers' intermittently engaging and obvious Weird Like Us is a memoir disguised as neo-academic social study—or vice versa. The book uses her personal experiences to define how youth culture (what she calls bohemianism) has changed over the years (though she lingers mostly on the '80s), documenting her experiments with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll with periodic candor and frankness, but mostly with over-romanticized self-importance. Of course, this strategy mainly shows how Powers and her own circle of slacker friends have changed over the decades, which may have been a useful exercise for the author but isn't inherently interesting to the reader. But the biggest problem with Weird Like Us is that Powers seems to have missed her cultural window: This book could have been released as is 10 years ago, and it would have meant more then than it does now. Besides, Powers' story is by no means unique, and by the time she begins to equate quitting The New York Times for an equally respectable full-time job at The Village Voice with rebellion, Weird Like Us has already overstayed its welcome. There's nothing necessarily wrong with narcissistic navel-gazing, but as soon as you cite your own life as a cultural paradigm, you've crossed the line into pretension. Just as Powers did, Sarah Vowell has discovered that writing about music is just a way of writing about the world, and, though younger than her counterpart, she's already moved beyond rock criticism and into the realm of confessional essays. But Vowell's new collection Take The Cannoli is far less self-important than Powers' vague and frustrating treatise. Maybe that's because she got the "my-life-is-a-fascinating-microcosm-of-modern-culture" impulse out of her system with her last book, Radio On. Vowell's stint on NPR also seems to have cleared some cobwebs and cut out some bullshit: Her voice as a writer is simple, funny, and, most importantly, real. From her gun-making father to her obsession with The Godfather, Disney World, The Chelsea Hotel, and Goths, Take The Cannoli is full of personal anecdotes that rarely try to insert themselves into the pop-culture continuum. Instead, they're part of the pop-culture continuum, like mental snapshots taken on a tour of the country. Vowell understands that even the world's most mundane elements can be and often are interesting, making Take The Cannoli a surprisingly successful assessment of American life free from the trappings of grandiosity.

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