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Book Review: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

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This is the oddest good book I’ve read in many a day. Reading it, I have the impression that Sarah Vowell and Mary Roach would get along like a house on fire…

Assassination Vacation is Vowell’s exploration into the twisted annals of, well, Presidential assassinations, specifically Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Vowell’s odd fetish drives her on a pilgrimage, visiting innumerable assassination-linked locales, including the obvious ones like Ford’s Theater and the more obscure such as Fort Jefferson prison on Dry Tortugas Island (where Dr. Samuel Mudd was held for his role in the Lincoln assassination), the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the Oneida Community of New York, the back roads of Maryland (and the assassination linkages found in a roadside diner’s placemat and the Maryland state anthem) and even venturing up to the wilds of Buffalo (where McKinley met his demise).

Vowell’s writing is tight, droll and astute, catching both the gravitas and the absurdity of both politics and history, one moment musing on the magnificence of the Lincoln Memorial and the next noting that the addition of the reflecting pool screwed up the lighting in the memorial &#8212 making Lincoln look as though someone was shining a flashlight up his nose. Of particular note is Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln who, like some dreadful jinxed Presidential Nemesis, found himself present at all three of the assassinations. Also new to me was the odd fact that Charles Guiteau (Garfield’s mentally disturbed killer) blamed the doctors at the trial for Garfield’s death, claiming that he had merely shot the man, the doctors were the ones that killed him (which, strangely enough, was probably true, through probing Garfield’s wound with non-sterile fingers and instruments).

This odd literary pilgrimage delves into almost every conceivable “relic” of the assassinations, tracing torn bits of clothes, Presidential skull fragments, Booth’s escape route and many, many side-trips into trivia, politics and culture, making a superlative, highly readable and fascinating blend.

Assassination Vacation is a page-turner, simply because you want to find out where Vowell will be dragging her readers next.

For more information on Abraham Lincoln, check out Lincoln Online, visit Ford’s Theater, or check out John Wilkes Booth here. There are a number of Lincoln assassination sites on the web such as The Abraham Lincoln Assassination Page (which includes&#8212for CSI fans out there&#8212info on Booth’s autopsy), and a site with a collection of the legal trial documents. For more on Garfield (shamelessly ignored online compared to Lincoln), visit Wikipedia, check out Georgetown University’s Special Collections for Guiteau’s letters and learn about Alexander Graham Bell’s link to the assassination here. For McKinley, check out History.Net, this site, and the National Park Service site. And by way of interest, here’s a list of the 18 attempts that failed….

Interestingly, in addition to being an excellent (if obsessive) writer, Sarah Vowell is also the voice of this young lady… Strange girl.

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  • Doug Smith

    You should check out the audiobook versions of her books. They are very well produced, have some great guest stars like Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart, and her own wacky voice really adds a lot to her words.

  • I love Vowell and wrote about my crush on her


    The audio version of this book is particularly good and is an exception to my usual preference for print.

  • This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places as Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • Congrats!

  • Odd you’d mention Vowell and Roach together, as I covered both in my series on Geeking Out reviews. Definitely enjoyed Roach more – but the first half of Vowell’s book was entertaining as hell.