Thanks for the Memorex

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Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World,
<>By Sarah Vowell
Simon & Schuster, 244 pages, $23

My rock 'n' roll fantasy is that occasionally, every now and then, a song I like comes on the radio," writes Sarah Vowell in the essay "Your Dream, My Nightmare," in which our intrepid reporter visits a rock 'n' roll fantasy camp where fans learn guitar tricks from the likes of Rick "Rock 'n' Roll Hoochie Koo" Derringer. "I've rarely dreamed of befriending my rock idols," Vowell writes. "Like I really want to toast in the new year with Jerry Lee Lewis or go shoe shopping with Courtney Love or build sand castles with a peach like Lou Reed. Just because I have them in my heart doesn't mean I want them in my life."

Indeed, pop music is a big part of the writer's life, and it shows in her new collection Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World. Jonathan Richman and Sleater-Kinney are name-checked, Frank Sinatra merits not one but two essays, and in "Thanks for the Memorex" she recounts her "long distance love affair by cassette tape," a relationship separated by many miles but bridged by "Memorex mash notes." "I liked picturing him in his little house, flipping through records -- timing out the cassette so he could fill it up as much as possible but still avoid those immoral endings in which the sound gets cut off in the middle," she writes. Just one problem: "While we cared for each other, we cared very little for each other's taste in music. I sent him lovey-dovey lullabies like Blondie's 'In the Flesh' and he sent me back what could have been field recordings of amplified ant farms by bands like Aphex Twin and Jarboe."

Take the Cannoli could also be called Sarah Vowell's Greatest Hits -- most of the essays are reworked versions of stories from This American Life (Vowell is a contributing editor to the Public Radio International show) and Salon, the online magazine which features her arts and entertainment column every other Wednesday. A This American Life favorite shows up in the form of "Music Lessons," an analysis of accidental life lessons the author gained from her band-geek days, such as how the Darwinian implications of high school cliques carries over to the real world. "Orchestra kids wear tuxedos. Band kids wear tuxedo T-shirts. The one thing the band kids and the orchestra kids had in common was a unified disgust for the chorus kids who were, to us, merely drama geeks with access to four-part harmony."

The real world is the exclusive focus of Vowell's work, and when she takes on her conflicted family connection to the Trail of Tears via a road trip with her twin sister (which includes a confrontation with a hapless volunteer at Andrew Jackson's Old Hickory estate), or when she remembers her secret collegiate obsession with the Godfather movies, or when she paints an unromantic portrait of the ghosts of the Chelsea Hotel, it is at least as passionate, as creative, as clever, and as enjoyable as anything anyone could ever make up.

Shelly Ridenour writes about books for City Paper, where this feature originally
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