“Assassination Vacation” By Sarah Vowell (2005); 255 pages
Started reading around November 24, finished reading December 8.
So, I had never read Sarah Vowell before, but I’ve listened to essays on “This American Life” and heard her as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. If you know her voice, and her inflections, then you can’t help but imagine her doing out-loud readings from this book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but combined with the rest of her shtick, it starts to get old. It didn’t help that a third of the way into it, I read Virginia Heffernan’s review of Vowell’s new “The Wordy Shipmates” in the NYT Book Review. Heffernan was mostly annoyed by the book, and while I hate to let outside reviewers influence my opinions, I can sort of see what she means.
Vowell is really smart, really nerdy, and loves relaying historical anecdotes. So this book is kind of a memoir of her own “assassination vacations” (visiting the hot spots associated with three presidential assassinations – those of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley). I know what you may be thinking- a book about assassinations sure sounds grim. Indeed, it does. It helps, kind of, that the most recent one she is describing happened 107 years ago. (But still, all the talk of these various villains plotting against the sitting president started to be pretty upsetting, for obvious reasons. I really hope that the Secret Service is more competent nowadays–pooh pooh pooh). But despite the topic, the book is upbeat, and Vowell is a good tour guide. I’d be really tired of her by the end of that vacation, though.
You should also know that for this week, I got a slow start. I wanted to read a book about Lincoln, so I started one called “Land of Lincoln” by Andrew Ferguson (also about historical tourism, but slighty more history-book-ish). I liked it, but was reading a grand total of three pages a night before falling alseep. Not going to be helpful towards the overall goal. I told Josh the book didn’t have enough zip, and he said if I wanted zip + Lincoln, Sarah Vowell was the way to go. And historian that he is, he was correct! So I liked reading all about Lincoln, and truth be told, anything I had ever learned about Garfield or McKinley in high school did not stick, so all that was fun too, despite the overall theme of the book. Vowell characterizes the presidents, their cohorts, and their assassins and fills us in on the news of the day, circa late 19th century. (Her descriptions of the assassins in particular can be very funny. In case you were wondering, but don’t get around to reading the book: John Wilkes Booth was a handsome, charming racist; Charles Guiteau was cheerful, although delusional and stalker-y; Leon Czolgosz was a complete sad sack, with a crush on anarchist Emma Goldman). She ties it all together nicely, and manages to work in some of the history of how the Republican Party started to evolve into what it is today. It’s not bad at all, and not as slow a read as my 2-week-reading time should lead you to believe… but I was ready to be done with it. Mostly because I had a couple of fun novels waiting for me (stay tuned for the next posts, and soon!!) than because of Sarah Vowell, but you get the idea. Good book, and a nice change of pace, but definitely not my favorite.