Review: The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell

The Wordy Shipmates is about the Puritans, John Winthrop and his lot, who came to America, and all the stuff they did.  Vowell admires their courage and intelligence without giving them a pass on all the things we don’t like about Puritans – the intransigence, the praying for American Indians to die of plague, etc.  It’s more of an essay collection than a history book, with Vowell speaking to her own life and how she has found strength in the writings of the Puritans, plus some fairly predictable party-line remarks on American politics.  Plus all the stuff about the Puritans.

Disclaimer: There were no chapter breaks.  I may have been put in a bad mood about this book by the dearth of chapter breaks.  I depend on chapter breaks.  Not because my attention span is short – it may be, but this doesn’t prove it – but because I need chapter breaks to have a stopping point at which to go to bed.

That disclaimer made, I didn’t like this book.  I found it cutesy, condescending, and unreflectively simplistic at the beginning, so much so that even when it got more interesting I couldn’t be bothered with it.  I inspected Amazon to see if anyone agreed with me, and the people who agreed with me mostly seem to feel that Sarah Vowell is anti-Christian and anti-American and advancing a liberal agenda in order to brainwash our kids.  I don’t think any of those things.  Just that, whether you share her politics or not (and I expect I often do), The Wordy Shipmates is not very funny, and not very original.

(S. Krishna, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, and Sandy Nawrot seem to have liked it better than I did, by the way, so listen to them really.)

Never mind all that!  Here is a picture that I feel perfectly expresses my mum’s family.  We did this one time at Thanksgiving.  Every time I walked by the table, someone had made additions.  I feel the pitchforks were particularly inspired.

  • Sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy this – I was keeping an eye out for it after seeing Sandy’s review. I do like to find out which side of the fence I’ll be on polarising books though, so I’ll still look out for a copy and hope I don’t get annoyed by the lack of chapter breaks!

    • Do! I’m always curious to hear what British people have to say about American history – I took an American Lit class while I was over there & enjoyed it thoroughly. 🙂

      • And are those pickle forks they’re wielding?

      • I’m ashamed to say I have no idea what those forks are. They were lying around unused by us, and made very good pitchforks.

  • Katy

    I thought it was her least successful book. I really love Assassination Vacation, partly because I have an unaccountable affection for President Garfield, and partly because it’s just very funny. The Wordy Shipmates seemed fairly boring and formless to me – and I agree about the chapter breaks.

    • An affection for President Garfield – I am fascinated. I know NOTHING about President Garfield to make me feel affectionate or otherwise towards him. Okay, then, I’ll give Sarah Vowell another chance.

  • Aliens & Pilgrims – I love it!

    • I did too! The alien was my little cousin Nate’s toy, and the Pilgrims (I don’t know if you can tell from the picture) are salt & pepper shakers. This picture still makes me giggle every time I see it.

  • Eva

    I get pissy when the chapters are too long in nonfiction-I can’t imagine a book with no chapter breaks at all. lol @ the Amazon reviewers-there are some crazies out there. 😉 I don’t think just because someone thinks the Puritans did some bad things means they’re anti-American or anti-Christian. Just anti-colonising arseholes. hehe

    • Actually I think they were mad at her for saying she wanted to dance on Reagan’s grave when he died. I think she was joking, but even I (as unfond of Reagan as anyone) thought it was an ugly joke to make.

  • lol! Love the picture. I haven’t read this book, or any Vowell really, but she’s been on my list ever since she wrote the intro to one of Nick Hornby’s essay collections. I guess I’ll start elsewhere?

    • The consensus seems to be that others of her books are better. Jon Stewart, whom I love and respect, seemed to think she was great, so with that and other people’s recommendations of her other books, I think I will try again after a while.

  • I love the picture, and I agree about chapter breaks – they really are essential!

    • Yes! What is a book without chapter breaks? Short chapters are best for me, because I read in little bursts while I am doing tasks that take only a short time, like brushing my teeth and cleaning my contact lenses; but even long chapters are better than nothing!

  • A book without chapters would put me off, too.

    Everything about that picture is great. It looks like the pilgrims are plotting against the aliens, but what they don’t know is that Mr. Alien has a stun gun behind his back, which is no match for their pitchforks.

    • Ooo, I wish we’d had a toy stun-gun. If only my cousin had had the foresight to bring one with him. We could have done a series of pictures and told a little story.

  • That picture amuses me to no end.

    I picked this up in the evening of the read-a-thon a year ago, and since I’d been reading pretty fluffy stuff all day, I really appreciated the change of pace to non-fiction… which probably bumped my overall rating higher than it would have been otherwise. Also, I know very, very little about history, so any book that can make it palatable is always appreciated. It’s definitely not as good as Vowell’s other books, though.

    • I think what bugged me the most – apart from the chapter headings – was the smugness. Like the author had all the answers the Pilgrims (and present-day conservatives) were too silly to see. But it made me laugh sometimes, so I will try another of hers. 🙂

      • I can totally see that. I guess because I’m pretty ignorant about the Pilgrims, I had no reason to believe that she *didn’t* have all of the answers. 🙂

        I really enjoyed Assassination Vacation and Partly Cloudly Patriot… plus they both had chapter breaks!

  • Kim

    I listened to this on audiobook and was annoyed there were now chapters, but I thought that was just a fault of it being on audio. How weird to not have chapter breaks!

    That said, I like this book. I thought it was quite funny, and I loved Vowell’s analysis of some of the speeches and writing. And I think the Amazon reviewers are a little off on the book. I don’t think Vowell is anti-American at all, she just has a sort of bemused way of looking back on the Puritans who were a little bit odd and had some problematic views of the world.

    Interesting review though — I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book!

    • I don’t think she’s anti-American at all either. Some of her points were great – I was so pleased that she spoke to the Puritans’ great learning and love of scholarship, for one thing. As she points out, we’re liable to forget that about the Puritans and only think about all the joy-hating they got up to. 😛

  • I too use chapter breaks as a point of guidance as I go along. That would probably bug me too.

    • Hahaha, I am really appreciating this popular reaction in favor of chapter breaks! Chapter breaks for the win. 🙂

  • I have had this book sitting on my nightstand bookshelf ever since it first came out, and I’ve yet to read it! (OK, that’s a bit of a lie, since I think I did read through the first few pages before putting it aside.) I guess it’s telling that I didn’t continue reading it, but since it’s still on the nightstand I still hold out hope that I’ll read it eventually. Sorry it didn’t work for you!

    Love the salt shaker pitchforks, by the way. Too cute!

    • I hope you enjoy it more than I did! At least you’ll be forewarned about the chapter breaks issue.

  • I thought the audiobook was fun because it has the author’s voice and conveys her snarky tone. Did you know she voiced the girl in The Incredibles?

    • No! Really? Well done her! Violet was my favorite character! Nifty.