Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gotta Give Her Credit

Assassination Vacation
by Sarah Vowell

Dang! This is such a busy time, that I have been having a hard time posting on the blog as regularly. Another factor in my tardiness is that both my kids are walking germ factories and keep infecting each other with the latest bug. They both (at different times) have required more nursely attention than usual lately and its hard for me to find time to write when they are in a high maintenance place. Also, I got kind of bogged down reading a pretty slow biography of Lincoln (more about that in a day or so). Anyway, stick with me through the holidays. I will still be posting, although not as often. I'll get back to my usual pace at the beginning of the New Year. I find that when I do not write I miss the discipline of it, not to mention the stimulation of dialogue with many of you, both on and off the blog.

Enough of that...

I have written about Sarah Vowell before. I would really like to meet her, she is such an interesting character. This is the third of her books that I have read, and I think it is by far the best. I tend to thoroughly enjoy her books (The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Take the Cannoli), but not retain much of them because she writes in such a breezy style and throws out a lot of factoids that are fascinating but don't really stick with you. Assassination Vacation's great strength is that there is more of a structure to it than in her other books. We have a sense of what her goal is (however macabre it may be) and can easily hop in and make the trip with her.

What Vowell did was go on a literal pilgrimage/road trip to investigate the sites (and other related places) of the first three presidential assassinations - those of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. She finds the most interesting, random facts and she presents them in such a way that you really feel some insight not only into the characters of the presidents themselves but also their assassins and the historical circumstances of the times.

I liked the material on Lincoln, but it was the most familiar since Lincoln is one of our most revered and discussed presidents. However, I knew next to nothing about Garfield and McKinley. She managed to make two rather ho-hum and unappreciated presidents into interesting people in their own right. She also weaves American history into the biographical information in such a way that the readers get a lot of their American history gaps filled in. I realized that beyond a handful of the big kahunas (Adams, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy), I do not know the background history of too many of our past presidents. Vowell's writing sparks within me a desire to learn more, and I think that is one of the best gifts a writer can give her readers.

I give Vowell credit for two things - One, she knows her stuff. It would be easy to dismiss her as a lightweight because her work is so readable and quirky. Still, she presents a lot of information and synthesizes it so well that it is clear that she has an excellent mind and amazing memory for facts and dates. Secondly, she has motivated me to learn more presidential history - I now have a long term project to read at least one major biography of every president - in order. Some of them I have already hit, so there may be a few re-reads in there, but it will still be quite an endeavor. I'll keep you posted. Please send me any information you have about good bios of former presidents - especially random ones that are going to be hard to find information on (Millard Fillmore? William Henry Harrison? James Polk?).

As always, Vowell is absolutely hilarious. She refers often in Assassination Vacation to the eerie coincidence that Robert Lincoln, Abraham's oldest son, was on the premises at all three of these assassinations (spooky). In her own irreverent style, she calls R. Lincoln "Jinxy McDeath," and imagines a conversation in which McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, offers Robert an ambassadorship to Kathmandu for his (TR's) own safety. Very bizarrely funny, if you go in for that sort of thing.

Reverent Reader


At 12/2/08, 3:19 PM , Blogger Roy said...


I can't say I have anyone biographies to recommend but I can say that I enjoy your writing here and always get ideas for new books to read. I'm glad we have similar interests, including this one.

At 12/3/08, 1:43 PM , Blogger Christie said...


I've been reading your blog for awhile (probably since last Thanksgiving's bonfire at LeAnn's) and always enjoy seeing what you've been reading. I've recently been looking for more fun to read books that teach something about history or famous people along the way. This sounds perfect. Sorry to hear the kiddos have been ill - must be in the air down there since everyone is so healthy here in sunny New York! Ha!

At 12/3/08, 2:31 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Christie - thanks for writing. Yes, I highly recommend Sarah Vowell as someone who brings history to life and makes it really fun to learn. The only problem is retention of all those factoids, but I still feel like she enhances my conception of "the big picture" even if I cannot remember all the specifics.


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