Not long ago, I made the mistake of thinking there was something new-ish under the sun. The occasion was the protracted, nearly concurrent death watches for Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II, during which the news media felt compelled to highlight every detail of physical decay, no matter how intimate. Terri Schiavo has just received a morphine suppository! The Pope is being fed through his nose! I don't mean to sound lofty or scornful; I was glued to the tube, too. But for the dying, this gruesome play-by-play seemed a horrible violation, and also a uniquely contemporary one -- yet another symptom of a culture with serious boundary issues.
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The voice of Sarah Vowell is unmistakable. Heard for years on the radio program "This American Life," and recently as a cartoon teenage superheroine on "The Incredibles," it is the sound of a plaintive year-old with an adult's brain and anxieties.
Her whining would be annoying if it weren't so wised up and silly. On the page her idiosyncrasies can be less attractive. She is often too eager to show off how quirkily her mind works, and her prose tends to overdo the ironic curlicues.
Vowell's latest book certainly has an unusual premise. After seeing a performance of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Assassins," and wanting to tamp down her own rage at the current president, she designs a zigzagging trip around the country as a self-administered tutorial on the history of Americans' violence against their own leaders.
This pilgrimage to study psychotics and three of their presidential targets Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley is supposed to somehow cure her own political malaise. The itinerary of stops at historic homes and monuments takes her from New Hampshire to Alaska.
Not owning a driver's license because of an unspecified phobia, she relies on public transportation or cooperative friends who share in her funky discoveries.
She enjoys dispensing all kinds of historical trivia. She particularly develops a soft spot for the often historically maligned Garfield, who sought any excuse to slip away from government chores and spend a few hours in his library.
As she writes: "If there is a recurring theme in Garfield's diaries it's this: I'd rather be reading. Some of the book's best moments describe the various sleepy institutions around the country devoted to keeping alive the memory of men about whom few have memories anymore.
She clearly likes the underpaid custodians of these shrines and is nothing if not a smart, charming guide herself. Vowell understands the strange dynamic of passions that create martyrs and icons. In the McKinley section she addresses the growth of American imperialism and draws farfetched parallels with Iraq.
But her lighthearted tone is often at odds with the material, and by confining herself to these three assassinations she avoids addressing most of the emotionally wrenching effects of national violence. A stop in Dallas, I'm guessing, would have spoiled the mood of the book. Some people just shouldn't play with guns. Books 'Assassination Vacation' by Sarah Vowell.
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'Assassination Vacation' by Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation , she takes us on a road trip like no other -- a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage. From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism. We learn about the jinx that was Robert Todd Lincoln present at the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley and witness the politicking that went into the making of the Lincoln Memorial.
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'Assassination Vacation': Dead Presidents