Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Every time I hear or see Sarah Vowell - as a contributor on NPR's This American Life or as a guest on The Daily Show - I want to read one of her books. But picking up a nonfiction book about American history is not my first inclination when I'm looking for a fun read.

This month I took the plunge into Vowell's Assassination Vacation. What better book for the beginning of vacation season? The book follows Vowell's road trips to sites associated with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.

Despite my reluctance to read history, I fully expected to love this book.

And I did enjoy it quite a bit.

The two reasons I didn't love the book as much as I expected to: in the prologue Vowell (quoting a friend) used the word "retarded" twice as a pejorative having nothing to do with people with intellectual disabilities. Yes, I'm hypersensitive about this issue. But it jarred me out of the (otherwise hilarious) narrative and got us off on the wrong foot.

A deeper "problem" with the book is Vowell's disjointed, stream-of-consciousness style. I love it and my brain often works the same way. But I found the plot (such as it is) hard to follow sometimes. Tangent split off from tangent and I dutifully followed Vowell's breadcrumb trail but in my sleep deprived state - I have a newborn baby! - I had a hard time finding my way back to the main narrative. (Are you picturing the birds of sleeplessness devouring bread crumbs? Because I am.)

Not being intimately familiar with all the characters (the assassins, their families, people near the Presidents at the time of the attacks, etc.) I occasionally had to stop and reorient myself. Wait. Who are we talking about again? And how does this relate?

But I am so so glad I read the book. I learned a ton - painlessly - and I took away something even more valuable. As an ignorant American (alas) I have little sense of historical time. I know that our nation's history is relatively short but thinking, "The Civil War was 150 years ago," didn't really mean much to me. That is, until I saw it this way:

Robert Todd Lincoln - the President's son - was an adult with an established career when his father was murdered. He was still practicing law when my grandparents were born. In fact he didn't die until they were adults. Wow, these are all current events when I think about it that way. And I didn't realize how recently we held public hangings in this country.

To sum up: Sarah Vowell is hilarious and it's worth the time to read or listen to her work whereever you find it. This is a good, interesting, and educational read. Vowell is passionate about American History - she considers it her religion - and she shares her excitement in a way that's quite infectious.

One additional caveat. Vowell wrote this book during the Iraq War and President G.W. Bush's second term. Assassination Vacation is very much a product of its own place in history; Vowell ties in current events and politics with the historical narratives, and she is very much a liberal.

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@Barrie Summy