Wednesday, June 01, 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


pattinase (abbott) said...

That is one of my husband's favorite books but I have seen review that take her to task for various issues such as the ones you suggested. She may be too glib for her own good. Or ours.

Keri Mikulski said...

Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the insight. Happy Wednesday!

Sarahlynn said...

I generally like Vowell's conversational writing style, but I suppose it's very much a matter of taste. Especially with her politics sprinkled throughout.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Glad you enjoyed the book for the most part. I always enjoy watching Sarah Vowell's appearances on The Daily Show and I really should read one of her books. Excellent review.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I don't get to listen to NPR as often as I'd like, but I (almost) always find the topics and interpretation interesting and entertaining.

I don't read history either, but I bet I'd like this. Thanks for the review!

Sarahlynn said...

History books tend to be a bit, well, dry and factual. Vowell teaches history the way I like it - conversational and full of interesting anecdotes. Her historical characters are people with narratives, and that's how I like to come at the facts. (I never cared about baseball until I started watching with a friend who knew the players' life stories.)

Barrie said...

Thanks for sharing both the strong and not so strong sides to this book. And, as always, thank you for joining in, Sarahlynn!

Stacy said...

Sounds interesting, and I do love history.

Belated congratulations on your new baby!

Ellen Booraem said...

Sounds interesting and fun, but I consider myself warned. I have a lot of trouble with stream-of-consciousness. Thanks!

Lucy said...

I love the perspective you put on this - noting that Lincoln's son was still alive when your grandparents were adults. Put that way, it doesn't seem all that long ago. Like others have said, I don't necessarily enjoy reading history but you've certainly piqued my interest with this one. :)