Saturday, February 19, 2011

Assassination Vacation

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
Simon & Schuster, 2005
Trade Paperback, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780743260046
highly recommended

Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other--a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage.
From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism. We learn about the jinx that was Robert Todd Lincoln (present at the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) and witness the politicking that went into the making of the Lincoln Memorial. The resulting narrative is much more than an entertaining and informative travelogue--it is the disturbing and fascinating story of how American death has been manipulated by popular culture, including literature, architecture, sculpture, and--the author's favorite--historical tourism.

My Thoughts:

In Assassination Vacation Sarah Vowell discusses in an entertaining style the assassinations of three presidents: Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau, and William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz. Vowell discusses her visits to various museums, historical sites, statues, and other locations connected to the presidents and their assassins.

It is a jumbled mix of history, personal information about Vowell, and current social criticism. Where she shines is in telling the story, the history, and all the little asides that interconnect as she visits various sites related to the assassinations and I enjoyed Assassination Vacation quite a bit when Vowell was talking about history and visiting related sites or telling interconnected stories about the presidents and their assassins. She's funny, irreverent, informative and entertaining while passing along the stories.

When she veered off into her current political views, my enjoyment lessened exponentially. I get it, but that wasn't the purpose of the book. Her current political views could have been edited out and the book would have been stronger. It was also surprising that Vowell did not include a bibliography. I think the inclusion of a simple bibliography of sources readers could turn to for more information would have been an excellent addition to the book.
Highly Recommended, if you can ignore personal current political views from an author.


One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes. There they were - John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz - in tune and in the flesh. The men who murdered Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were elbow to elbow with Lee Harvey Oswald and the klutzy girls who botched their hits on klutzy Gerald Ford, harmonizing on a toe-tapper called "Everybody's Got the Right to Be Happy," a song I cheerfully hummed walking back to the bed-and-breakfast where I was staying. opening

But when I'm around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I'm dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my silence and then, boom, it's 1980. pg. 4

I am only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins, the inflated self-esteem it requires to kill a president, than I am astonished by the men who run for president. These are people who have the gall to believe they can fix us - us and our deficit, our fossil fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools. The egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts. Presidents and presidential assassins are like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City that way. Even though one city is all about sin and the other is all about salvation, they are identical, one-dimensional company towns built up out of the desert by the sheer will of true believers. The assassins and the presidents invite the same basic question: Just who do you think you are? pg. 7

"Assassinations are your Kevin Bacon. No matter what we're talking about, you will always bring the conversation back to a president getting shot." pg. 13

Technically, it's a family restaurant, but it will only remind you of your family if your mom chain-smoked menthols. pg. 55

If there is one recurring theme in Garfield's diaries it's this: I'd rather be reading. That might sound dull and perfunctory, but Garfield's book fever was a sickness. pg. 134

History is one war after another with a bunch of murders and natural disasters in between. pg. 208

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