Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cannonball Read #1: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Greetings!

I have decided (since my life has become a stagnant spiral of crime shows and bad VH1 reality television) to attempt this. I feel like perhaps if I were reading more books, my brain would stop feeling quite so mushy and I might be able to pronounce entire coherent sentences or keep a thought in my head for more than 30 seconds. It's worth a shot, anyway.

For my first book, I read Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. I'd been hearing about her work from various trusted sources for a while (while I do not personally listen to NPR because it makes me sleepy, I have some very intelligent and cultured insomniac friends who do) so I decided to give her a spin, although I am not always fond of essayists. And oh, what a spin it was.

The basic premise of Assassination Vacation is that Vowell is a militant history buff who is particularly attracted to locations and memorabilia related to presidential assassinations, specifically Lincoln, Arthur, and McKinley. This immediately struck a chord with me because as a child, I was totally OBSESSED with the Lincoln assassination for years. (Sidenote: In retrospect, I was a rather disturbingly morbid but strangely focused child. I would become fixated on some icky event/era in history--civil war prison camps, the Holocaust, the Lincoln assassination, Benedict Arnold, the black plague, serial killers--and then read everything I could get my hands on about the subject until my interest waned. I suppose my parents figured an interest in disturbing history was better than no interest at all.) I actually dragged my parents to some of the locations Vowell drags her bemused family and friends, so I knew more intimately than most what she was talking about. I too have sweated through the narrow hallways of "The House Where Lincoln Died." It immediately made me feel a certain kinship with the author, since she too knew the strange looks one receives after insisting that you just HAVE to go seek out an out of the way, dusty museum room because they have LINCOLN SKULL PIECES!

The book is divided into three sections (Lincoln, Arthur, McKinley) and deals with the idea of obsession, of minutiae, and of how current popular culture both entwines and crashes up against the past. Vowell has obviously done an amazing amount of research and easily weaves together her journey to find the facts and the facts themselves. She has a strong voice--she is upfront with her intense nerdiness, truthful about how much joy she gets out of history. That "historic" joy is contagious--as soon as I finished this I wanted to run out find a plaque to read somewhere. It's also a very informative book--I mean, how much do YOU really know about William McKinley?--but her humorous tone keeps the reader from getting totally bogged down in fact after fact, which in a format like this is certainly possible. I enjoyed Vowell's winding tangents, although if you're a person who is bothered by tangents I'd recommend you skip right by this book.

On the whole, this was both entertaining and informative, and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys humor and history.