Thursday, April 06, 2006

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is interested in American history, especially 19th (and early 20th) century presidential history, with a special emphasis on the offbeat, off-the-beaten-path aspects of it. In this book she examines the events surrounding the assassinations of three US presidents: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Her method is to travel to as many places as possible that are related to these events: for example, Ford's Theatre (an obvious choice) and the Oneida Colony, a free-love religious commune which was, for a time, the home of Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau.

Vowell's knowledge of history is deep, and her interest obsessive. The book is loosely divided into three sections, one for each presidential assassination, but within these sections the narrative is structured around her trips to visit places, and see artifacts, so you don't really ever get a complete chronology of the particular assassination itself. Not that this matters. What you do get is a very funny and sharply observed commentary on everything from the architecture of the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, New York (site of the McKinley assassination), to the efforts by the Mudd family to clear the name of their (justly) accused ancestor.

This is a really odd book and I can't believe I finished it. I never would have read it (I said this in an earlier post) but found it delightful to listen to as an audiobook. Vowell reads it herself, and has recruited actors and radio personalities to do various voices of characters. Vowell, a regular on the radio show This American Life, was also the voice of Violet in the movie The Incredibles.

You can listen to an excerpt from it here.
(Book 15, 2006)


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