Humorist and This American Life fixture Sarah Vowell tackles the intertwined worlds of politics, popular culture, and her own life with a compulsively readable blend of wit, candor, and heart. Both a professional cynic and an unabashed idealist, Vowell, like fellow This American Life all-stars David Sedaris and David Rakoff, roots her work in the quirks and eccentricities of her own upbringing, but blissfully lacks the self-indulgence endemic to most autobiographical writing. Vowell's new essay collection, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, touches on subjects ranging from the enigma of Tom Cruise to the unique pleasures and frustrations of being a twin, but is primarily concerned with what it means to be a patriot and an American in complicated times. The book's title suggests her position, but as anyone familiar with her work can guess, her brand of patriotism is far removed from the love-it-or-leave-it variety that spread following the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead, Vowell's patriotism is challenging and ambiguous, encouraging skepticism and critical thought rather than branding it as dissent. Part Native American, part self-described Okie, Vowell has a unique perspective on the glory and shame of American history, and Patriot cuts to the heart of what it means to love a freedom-worshipping country built on slavery and genocide. Vowell writes engagingly and eloquently about the contradictions and paradoxes of America, touching on everything from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to the Nixon Presidential Library to Al Gore, who has never seemed more heroically geeky than when viewed through Vowell's admiring eyes. In writing about Gore, Vowell actually makes the famously wooden would-be president appear charismatic and inspiring. Elsewhere, she makes other seemingly dry nooks and crannies of American history lively and fascinating, with humor and perception that make her an engaging and enjoyable writer. Her idealism and deceptive depth make her an important one, as well.