Pros: Great voice cast, interesting stories, great balance between poignancy, history, and humor.
Cons: Sometimes veers off into Bush-era politics.
When Sarah Vowell's "The Wordy Shipmates" came out last year, I realized that, even though I knew her from her frequent appearances on NPR and as the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles, I hadn't ever read any of her books. She's become well-known for her drily humorous take on various aspects of American History, and as a history teacher, I've quickly fallen in love. I decided to start at the beginning of her bookshelf, with The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Assassination Vacation is the second of Vowell's books I've picked up on CD.
"Assassination Vacation" is basically the story of Vowell's fascination with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, and a series of anecdotes from road trips that take her on a sort of morbid pilgrimage to sites associated with these presidents and their murderers. It's at times reverent, often tongue-in-cheek, and awfully introspective for someone who declares that history is her religion, and historic sites her palaces of devotion.
Like most Americans, I knew most about Lincoln's assassination out of the three profiled here, and yet Vowell enriches what I already knew with more background on both the Lincoln and Booth families, and what exactly would drive John Wilkes to kill one of our most beloved presidents. One of the things Vowell does best with this story in particular is to remind us that half of the country hated Lincoln, and that he wasn't yet the marble-enshrined man on the back of the penny...he was responsible for crushing the South.
The stories of Garfield and McKinley and their assassins are made just as interesting through Vowell's personal experiences with them. They may be even more interesting, because we're less likely to have heard their stories. The stories of Charles Guiteau getting the boot from the sex-obsessed Oneida community, or how Leon Czolgosz was inspired by Emma Goldman (who thought he didn’t kill the right guy), are fascinating and revelatory.
The only place that Vowell sometimes falls flat is when she’ll detour into analyses of recent (2005) politics. She definitely has an axe to grind, and while it can make for an interesting comparison to historic issues, it felt out of place and distracting in this book.
She's a good writer, but much of the enjoyment of these books is listening to them. Vowell herself has such a beautifully distinctive voice, and a fantastic deadpan delivery. There's also a bonus, because she invites her friends to help her read various roles in the book, so quotes from Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, et al are fleshed out by Stephen King, Conan O'Brien, Catherine Keener, Tony Kushner and others. Sometimes these work, and sometimes they don't. My personal favorite is director Brad Bird as anarchist Emma Goldman--it's funny that one of the non-actors in the group delivers the most over-the-top performances on the six-disc volume.
If you’re interested in these stories, check out the book on CD—you’ll be glad you did.