Monday, November 10, 2014


Sarah Vowell is a wacky genius and I adore her. Perhaps others voluntarily vacation on road trips of Presidential death, but I'm betting no one does it with the humor and erudition of Ms. Vowell. In her capable hands, assassination isn't just educational, it's downright entertaining. I would pay good money to be her road trip sidekick.

Assassination Vacation takes readers with Vowell as she (and various trouper friends and family members) takes a fascinating and morbid trip through our country's assassinated and their assassins - Lincoln and Booth, Garfield and Guiteau, McKinley and Czolgosz. While we all likely know much of the Lincoln/Booth story, I (somewhat shamefully) admit I have not read or remembered anything of our other two leaders and their respective endings since high school. (I feel a little better when Vowell herself proclaims, "The most famous thing ever said about President James A. Garfield is about how nobody has any idea who the hell he was.") No matter how well you think you know any of these presidents and/or their deaths, I'm betting you'll learn something new on this trip.

There are many reasons to herald Assassination Vacation (as borne out by the 100+ highlights in my copy), so I'll share just a few that made it a top-notch read for me. The first is that Vowell does not paint the assassins as mere cardboard cutouts of a villain. Instead, she takes us through the killers' journeys, both before and after the assassinations, and even offers some basis for empathy:

Of course talking about the murders of previous presidents is going to open the door to discussing the current president. That’s what I like to call him, “the current president.” I find it difficult to say or type his name, George W. Bush. I like to call him “the current president” because it’s a hopeful phrase, implying that his administration is only temporary...So if I can summon this much bitterness toward a presidential human being, I can sort of, kind of see how this amount of bile or more, teaming up with disappointment, unemployment, delusions of grandeur and mental illness, could prompt a crazier narcissistic creep to buy one of this country’s widely available handguns. Not that I, I repeat, condone that. Like Lincoln, I would like to believe the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Then again, he said that before he got shot. 

Second, Vowell is exhaustive in her travels and knowledge, so we get unusual nuggets of information, told with the enthusiasm of someone who obviously adores her subject matter. The assassinations are discussed, for the most part, in separate sections, and Vowell visits major and tangential locations relevant to the lives of the presidents, their killers, and individuals in their respective peripheries who impacted them during or near the time of the assassinations. Places of death, former residences, getaway routes and locations, travels of the presidential bodies (dead and undead by a hair), monuments big and small, and museums containing various body parts and other "memorabilia," are all stops on the way. I was amazed by some of the creepy things people saved from these "occasions," including pieces of presidential pate (which is a great band name; you're welcome, feel free to use it).

Third, Vowell's own fears, strengths, and fantastically warped humor are infused into the story, and some of best entries are her own thoughts on a topic, or interactions with the interesting and like-minded folk who work at or curate the locations she visits. At times almost painfully shy, Vowell comes alive in these instances:

But when I’m around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I’m dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my silence and then, boom, it’s 1980. Once I erupt, they’ll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota.

Lest you fear Vowell's humor is inappropriate for tales of murder, never fear. While she  can find humor in any topic, however morbid, she also takes her work quite seriously, as evidenced by her retort to an "annoyingly upbeat" tourist who exclaims "Cheer up, everybody, we're part of history!":

'Sir,' I said, 'except for the people who were there that one day they discovered the polio vaccine, being part of history is rarely a good idea. History is one war after another with a bunch of murders and natural disasters in between.' 

So true. But if my choices are to laugh or cry, I choose to laugh along with Sarah Vowell.

STREET SENSE: I highly recommend Assassination Vacation to anyone who loves history, murder, laugh-out-loud reading, and fascinating nuggets of information perfect for an upcoming cocktail party. For example, I had no idea there was a bizarre (coincidental?) connection between Robert Todd Lincoln, Abe's son, and all three assassins/assassinations, as well as Booth's brother. I didn't spoil that story here, but the book is worth the read for that tidbit alone.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Please. I actually giggle when he tries to steel me for seeing the re-created 1920s embalming room, as if I’m not wearing Bela Lugosi hair clips; as if I didn’t just buy a book for my nephew called Frankenstein and Dracula Are Friends; as if I was never nicknamed Wednesday (as in Addams); as if in eighth-grade English class, assigned to act out a scene from a biography, when all the other girls had chosen Queen Elizabeth or Anne Frank, I hadn’t picked Al Capone and staged the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre with toy machine guns and wadded-up red construction paper thrown everywhere to signify blood; as if I’m not here to see the replica of Abraham Lincoln’s casket; as if I’m not the kind of person who would visit the freaking Museum of Funeral Customs in the first place. (Did I mention I love Sarah Vowell?)

COVER NERD SAYS:  The covers of Vowell's books are all of the same theme and look like creepy little dioramas. That being said, there's something about the photographic method employed, small figurines against a relevant, soft-focused background, that is aesthetically pleasing (though still a little creepy).  I've actually grown to really appreciate them, maybe because Vowell is tiny herself and I can't help but picture her barging into the diorama to ask questions and share her humorous insights.  


Chris La Tray said...

I love Sarah's books. She's way overdue a new one too, I might add. Her appearances on The Daily Show are usually gold too.

Lauren said...

I agree she is overdue, Chris. I wonder what wacky shit she's up to. I love watching her appearances, she's so quirky and unique. And hearing her voice in my head as I read only adds to my enjoyment of her books.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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