Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sarah Vowell at the Bagdad Theater

Sarah Vowell, subject of one of my Squidoo lenses, first became known to the American public through her appearances on the National Public Radio program This American Life. She has a voice that's instantly recognizable, one that was carried to many non-NPR listeners in the animated movie The Incredibles where she did the voice of the teenage Violet.

Tonight, Tuesday, March 29, she appeared at the Bagdad Theater (yes, that is how they spell it) on Hawthorne Street in Portland. She's on a book tour for her latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, which is about Hawaii from the time of the arrival of the missionaries in 1820 to its annexation by the United States in 1898. I was a bit undecided on whether to go because in order to get in, you had to buy the book at list price, $25.95. The ebook version is $12.99.

I didn't buy an advance ticket and while I was always leaning toward going, I didn't really commit until after 5 o'clock. Doors opened at 6. I ended up getting there just before 6. The lobby was full and the line was growing out the door. It was a mixture of ticket holders and those who didn't have them yet. As I was waiting, I overheard a woman talking to the couple just ahead of me. She said she was going to be joined by a friend who had an extra ticket. When the friend showed up and spoke about her extra ticket, I immediately said I'd buy it from her. She said she'd sell it to me for $25. The handling fee for buying online, which she had done, was $6.44, so I saved over $7. That paid for a couple of slices of pizza once I got in.

I almost had a problem. I was hungry and concentrating on the food booth ahead. There was a guy who marked off my ticket. What I didn't realize at the time was I should have turned from him on my right to the books on my left. Instead I just went toward the food booth, realized the line was a lot longer and got at the end. I got lucky because a guy came up to the end of the line where I was and said he had a few slices of pizza plus drinks at another little booth and I ended up being his second customer.

It wasn't until I was about halfway through eating my first pizza slice at my seat near the front that I looked around and noticed everyone else had the book. Uh oh. I finished the slice, and went back out to the lobby. I told the woman behind the book display I hadn't picked up the book on my way in. She noticed the guy had marked off my ticket printout, but when I explained I'd walked by, not being used to the setup, she didn't give me any trouble, so I got my book and went back to eat the second pizza slice.

The light wasn't that great, but I did a little reading, which I probably shouldn't have bothered with because when Sarah came out, after a brief bit of introductory talk, she began reading and of course, most of what she read was what I had read only a short while before. Oh well, I always enjoy listening to her.

During the question period following the reading, someone asked her about her formal education. She mentioned going to Montana State and then doing graduate work at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her graduate degree is in Art History. She told of how she really didn't care for the reading assignments and how that influenced the way she writes. She felt most of the people she had to read often were just very obscure and she wanted to write clearly. I think she succeeds in that quite nicely.

She mentioned she'd lived in Portland about 22 years ago and used to work in the coffee shop across the street from the Bagdad at a time in her life when she really wasn't too sure what she wanted to do with her life. She spoke of the lady whose coffee was never hot enough and the college students who were never straight enough. She said it was really nice to be back across the street from where she'd worked, only this time with her name on the marquee outside and she had a podium inside.

Someone asked her to share an anecdote of having dinner with the people from This American Life and that kind of stumped her for a bit because well, these folks, to her, are just coworkers and it wasn't like they got together as a sort of modern-day Algonquin Roundtable. She mentioned how the last time she'd gotten together with Ira Glass they'd ended up talking about The Book of Mormon - not the religious text, but the show. She also mentioned the time she'd gotten a new lamp and just couldn't figure out how to turn it on, so she called up David Sedaris, who came over, looked at the lamp, figured it out, turned it on, said, "See ya!" and left. So much for the glamor of public radio stars.

Sarah said she doesn't think of herself as an historian but rather as more a journalist who happens to write much longer stories. One thing she liked about doing the book about Hawaii was that she felt that the people she was talking to while she was doing the research really felt involved in the history of Hawaii. There are still some native Hawaiians who still resent the takeover of the islands by the United States. She hadn't felt that sense of involvement by ordinary people when she was working on her previous books.

One thing I like to do while reading one of Sarah Vowell's books is to read it with her voice in my head. She has a unique outlook on her subjects to go along with her unique voice and it just wouldn't seem right to read it without hearing her voice. If you need to refresh your memory on the sound of her voice, my Sarah Vowell lens has five videos including the newest one near the top in which she talks about that Hawaiian institution, the plate lunch. And of course, you can order Unfamiliar Fishes or any of her previous books from the lens.

The photo at the top of this entry isn't from tonight. I took my camera, but we were told no flash photography and lighting was dim. So the photo is from when she appeared at Powell's in Beaverton in October 2009.

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