Wednesday, February 11, 2009

#44 - "Assassination Vacation" by Sarah Vowell

Assassination Vacation (2005) is another one of those books that I first heard of through the many other Cannonball Readers who have reviewed it. I like history and Sarah Vowell sounded like a unique writer, so I was happy to throw it in my queue.

Vowell is a liberal, young, history buff and in Assassination Vacation she discusses the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley as she travels around the country visiting all of the historical memorials and museums that hold any evidence of the killings. Her books are chock full of interesting anecdotes and stories and was an entertaining read. Vowell's obvious love of history is evident and she quickly and thoroughly convinced me of how little I know about our past American presidents.

I don't want the rest of this review to sound too negative because I really did like this book, but something kept me from really connecting with it. The main problem I had with this book is that it seemed, on the whole, superficial. Historically speaking, there were a lot of interesting stories, such as how Robert Todd Lincoln was at or near the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, but there wasn't much depth to them. And especially in the Lincoln section, I felt like she was jumping around a lot. When I read history, I like to imagine things in my head. I am most interested in people, their personalities, the differences in the society of the past, and how people lived back then. I like to delve into these past worlds in great detail and get a really good idea of what things were like. I think that's why I enjoy reading biographies so much. I like getting the entire, personal story. But in reading Assassination Vacation, I was constantly frustrated because I felt like I was missing something and I was always looking for more information. Granted, the fact that Robert Todd Lincoln was nearby for all three assassinations is an interesting little factoid, but by itself it tells me almost nothing about the people or the history of the time.

This same problem also bothered me throughout other aspects of Vowell's book. Assassination Vacation is not a dry and objective rendering of what occurred in the past, but a personal trip that Vowell takes as she travels around the country, but I never felt like I got enough information to be able to truly relate to her. She spouts out partisan Democrat soundbites (which didn't particularly bother me since I generally agree with her), but she doesn't give herself enough time to explain or defend her positions. And if she is going to make a connection between the Imperialism of the early 1900's to our "War on Terror" today, I wish she'd really dig in and make a comparison instead of just mentioning it in a paragraph. But I guess if you look at it another way, this book was utterly successful in piquing my interest in history. I now have a new fascination with the history of the secret service (Vowell never discusses presidential protection or the lack thereof) and all those American presidents I can barely remember or never learned about in school.

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