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Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Hey Blogulators! Sorry I've been absent for such a long time; I'm sure you've missed my book reviews so much you cry yourself asleep at night, and I appreciate that sort of devotion, so I'm bringing it back with the cabbage patch this week just for you.

My reading patterns have been a bit out of whack for the last month or so. I've been really busy and my reading time has been cut short, plus the books I've been reading just haven't been worth reviewing (see: Naturally Thin by Bethenny Frankel, of Real Housewives of New York fame--I know, I know, but I love Bethenny, I was trapped on a plan for five hours, and I just couldn't resist). That changed this week, though, with Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation, a book I both have something to say about and also think the Blogulator audience would really enjoy.

For those of you unfamiliar with Vowell, she is a writer, radio commentator, and, most unusually, voiceover actor--she provided the pipes for Violet in The Incredibles. She's also a neurotic New Yorker with a shit-ton of phobias; she won't drive or swim, and she's afraid of heights. I mention this only because her writing, as I've gathered from reading Assassination Vacation, is personal even when non-fictional; she doesn't seem to have any interest in writing an objective account of anything, as the subjects of her books rise from her own personal obsessions (in this case, presidential assassinations) and are blanketed by her own experience.

In Assassination Vacation, Vowell enlists the help of friends and family members in visiting almost all historical landmarks associated with the murder of three presidents--Lincoln (Vowell's fave), Garfield, and McKinley. These travels take her everywhere in the continental US, from Alaska to the Dry Tortugas, where the federal prison that housed a supposed Lincoln assassination conspirator still stands (Vowell got terribly seasick on the boat trip over).

Vowell's book is interesting for several reasons. One is the author's true passion for the subject, which is sometimes juicy and full of interesting trivial tidbits (consider this: Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the first murdered president, was present at both Garfield's and McKinley's assassinations, in what Vowell calls his "second career as the presidential angel of death"; not only that, but he was rescued after having fallen on the train tracks in Jersey City by none other than Edwin T. Booth, famous actor and brother to John Wilkes Booth, his own father's killer), but is often not the kind of information one would seek out for oneself voluntarily.

I mean, when asked to name the presidents you know, who besides a dedicated student of history (or fascination with assassinated politicians) would named Garfield or McKinley at all? Well, all right, maybe you'd remember McKinley--after all, he does have a mountain named after him, a very tall one at that--but Garfield? Not a chance. Along with Chester A. Arthur, who succeeded him in office after his death, Rutherford B. Hayes and William Henry Harrison, he's one of the four forgotten presidents, and for good reason--he was only in office for six weeks before he was shot and spent the rest of his short term convalescing from the gunshot wound that would never heal.

Still, Vowell's fondness for most of her subjects (and her vast interest in all of them), as well as her ability to pull fascinating facts (did you know that the Oneida Company, now a manufacturer of dishes, was once a polyamorous sex colony in upstate New York that harbored Charles Guiteau, Garfield's assassin, for many years?) out of incidents and people that seem pretty dry at surface level, makes Assassination Vacation a must-read for history buffs.

Another reason Vowell's book is interesting (and a little annoying at times, let's be honest) is its fixation on connecting the events of the past to the events of the present (first published in 2005, Assassination Vacation was written during George W. Bush's first term, and Vowell, an ardent liberal, makes her anger and disappointment with that administration amply clear). This would've been way cooler had I read the book while W was still in the Oval Office; I could've nodded along furiously at her comparison between the current Iraq War and the Spanish-American War of 1898. Not that the Iraq War is over, but having Obama in the White House now is a bit anticlimactic in terms of feeling, as you get the sense that Vowell was overjoyed by the outcome of 2008's election and, had she written the book now, it would've been considerably less indignant. And, after all, her indignation is the subcurrent of the entire thing.

There is one thing that confuses me about Assassination Vacation, though: it completely disregards, but for a few mentions, JFK's assassination in 1963. Vowell doesn't mention why she chose to ignore what is arguably the most famous presidential assassination in the United States' short history in favor of the considerably less interesting Garfield assassination, for instance.

I've come up with a few theories to explain the omission, none of which are wholly satisfactory. The first is that she was so taken with the idea of Robert Todd Lincoln's unluckiness when it came to presidential assassinations that she chose only to focus on the three he either witnessed or was connected with. That seems a little capricious, though. Another possible explanation is that Vowell's own historical interests are concentrated more on earlier events, from colonial America through the Victorian era, and all three of her subjects, along with their contemporaries, served in the Civil War (Lincoln as Commander in Chief, obvs, and both Garfield and McKinley as officers).

A third reason--maybe the most likely--is that the difference between the three presidents discussed in Assassination Vacation and JFK is that we know beyond the shadow of a doubt who killed Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, and the book is as much about the men who died as the men who shot them. Sure, she could do a bunch of research about Lee Harvey Oswald, and probably has, but with all the doubt surrounding his guilt it might not be as illuminating as she would like, or would devolve into a book-fattening investigation of the mystery surrounding JFK's murder. Best to leave that for another time, perhaps.

In any event, Assassination Vacation is informative and interesting. Vowell peppers the book with enough personal narrative to balance out the history (some of my favorite parts of the book concern the author's nephew, Owen, a comically morbid three-year-old whose idea of good fun is traipsing around graveyards with his aunt and his mother, Vowell's twin sister Amy), and as a lover of tangents and digressions I really appreciated it when Vowell wandered off on her own. My roommate recently told me that, unlike most people, who tell stories chronologically, I tell them based on the things that interest me most, which is exactly what Vowell does, creating a multi-vectored historical exploration that appealed to me. There's also the fact that Vowell is kind of a hoot, especially if your sense of humor leans towards dry, sarcastic wit--in that case, you don't even need to have a special interest in history or assassination to enjoy this book; the kick you get out of Vowell's snappy one-liners may be enough.

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  1. Blogger chris | 6:00 PM |  

    I've always wanted to read one of her books - this one in particular. Probably because of her awkward appearances on Conan, but also because I think she's the only comedian who writes about history.

    I'm glad you're back, OHD!

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