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April 26, 2005
Book Report: Assassination Vacation

Bias warning: I totally have a little crush on Sarah Vowell. I once saw her read at the New York Public Library, and after I asked her if she knew that Gansevoort Street (she had mentioned walking there in her talk) in Chelsea was named after Herman Melville's grandfather. She did. Cool, huh?


Assassination Vacation is great! Really, really great.

You want more?


Assassination Vacation follows Vowell's journey across the country -- from a speck of an island in the Gulf of Mexico to a Klingitt village in Alaska -- tracing the stories of the assassinations of three presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. In telling these big (Lincoln) and small (Garfield) stories, Vowell manages to take in quite a swath of American History, all told with a distinctive humor and style. This is the way history should be taught. It's about the stories, people. Enough already with the dates and mind-numbing chronologies. Vowell tells these histories as if she knows the people involved, which gives the reader the distinct impression that it's possible to know them.

A great thing about reading books written by people you hear on the radio is that you can hear their voices in your head. Their particular rhythm and tone -- in Vowell's case a kind of nasal auditory sneer, but in a good way -- adds a nice familiarity and warmth to the text. Of course, this is reinforced by the fact that this book is as much about Vowell as it is about Lincoln. It's memoir mixed with history mixed with satire, and I like it.

Did I mention that I liked it?

Here's what I didn't like: I didn't like feeling like I wish I had written it. I didn't like noting that Liz and I had been to many of the same places on our Travelin' Van trip (even the Dry Tortugas, and nobody's been there), but we didn't write a book, though we meant to. I didn't like my job while I was reading this book.

See, this review is as much about me as it is about the book. See the parallels? Eerie.

While Assassination Vacation is about the past, Vowell's storytelling is rooted firmly in the present. She constantly throws in little jabs at the current administration, noting that she has to avert her eyes from the White House while touring Washington and pointing out the scary similarities between the imperialist fervor of the McKinley administration with our current world-domination agenda. What's not to love?

The best thing about Vowell, though, is that at bottom, she genuinely loves this country. That couldn't sound cheesier, but it's true. She is an honest patriot, not a jingoistic flag-waving nutball, but someone who can see all the cracks and flaws in our facade, but whose passion for the great experiment in democracy is not diminished. She knows this country was built, and continues to be built, on a giant pile of dead bodies, but that's history for you. It is, as she says, "one war after another with a bunch of murders and natural disasters in between." But that's no reason not to be optimistic. Or at least fondly reminiscent.

I did find one typo, so it's not all raves.


Previous Comments

I saw her speak of the book on 'The Incredibles' DVD extras. She's really got thing for Abraham Lincoln.

She's a puzzling kind of cute, like Scoobydoo's Velma without the glasses (though Velma in the film was much hotter), and she's probably perfect relationship material, mostly because it seems like she's an excellent conversationalist.

I hear she can't drive though. When you're that politically enthused you don't have to? or ..hmm. Oh, she also does the talkshow circuit. Hosts really seem to like her; though it seems Jay Leno still finds penelope cruise much more exciting.

Vowell just seems like your average intellectual okay-looking hip-chick who'd make a very interesting friend.