Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Interesting coincidence today that just as I was looking to review Sarah Vowell’s latest book, she has a guest column in today’s New York Times. The column points to one key factor in my enjoyment of Vowell’s work: I don’t think she is funny. The column has the typical humor: cynical, snarky, smart ass, but supposedly trying to make an important point. It doesn’t work for me. Is it because our politics are so different? Could be, but for whatever reason it doesn’t make me laugh or even smile.

Which brings us, rather circuitously, to Assasination Vacation (AV). AV is a rambling discussion of the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley as Vowell takes periodic trips to the physical monuments of these events (Presidential homes, historic markers, parks, graveyards, etc.) with various friends and relatives. Kind of Bill Bryson does assassinations but with a New York edge.

Vowell, the author of The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Take the Cannoli, is a regular on Public Radio International’s This American Life and was also the voice of Violet in the animated superhero movie The Incredibles. Clearly, Vowell has talent. She has a way of making her quirky interests in history seem interesting and alive (it doesn’t hurt that I am equally a history nerd). The historical explanations and ruminations are actually quite interesting and thought provoking.

Two things ruined it for me, however, the constant injecting of her opinion on current politics and the presence of her friends in family in the narrative. Obviously the fact that I am a conservative Republican makes it hard for me to enjoy reading Vowell’s lame insults and jibes at Republicans. But it isn’t just the partisan nature of this interjections but their lack of relevancy and insight. The stories she relates about Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley and their assassins are interesting and little known nuggets of history. Her political opinions are boringly conventional liberal cliches. They weakened the story rather than add to it. They make the books seem ephemeral, tied to the present, rather than intelligent glances at our past.

Likewise, I found her willingness to include useless details about who she went on her trips with distracting. It doesn’t add anything to the story to tell us that you roped a friend of yours into going on a lame trip to a obscure historical plaque. I really could care less if her nephew likes spooky things. I suppose these are meant to add a personal, more human touch, to Vowell’s nerdy interest in history and her macabre fascination with death. But to me that just felt out of place. Perhaps this personal essay type style is just not for me.

All in all, Assassination Vacation was an interesting rumination on the weird history of presidential assassinations. But Vowell’s personal opinions and rambling mentions of her friends and family drained much of the enjoyment. If you are fascinated by little known facets of history and you don’t mind highly personalized storytelling along with it, this is a book you should check out.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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