Assassination Vacation -- Sarah Vowell
In a word? Fabulous.
I loved it--Sarah Vowell travelled around the country, visiting all of the places that are connected with three presidential assassinations: those of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.
For some writers, that might just mean going to Ford's Theatre and calling it a day. But Sarah Vowell didn't write this just because she was at a loss for something to write about. She wrote about it because she is obsessed:
The Museum of Funeral Customs is on the edge of Oak Ridge Cemetery, a five-minute walk from the tomb. Supposedly the fellow who swoops over to greet me is the museum director, but he speaks in the hushed low voice of a funeral director. He warns me about "the sensitive nature of our exhibits."
Please. I actually giggle when he tries to steel me for seeing the re-created 1920s embalming room, as if I'm not wearing Bela Lugosi hair clips; as if I didn't just buy a book for my nephew called Frankenstein and Dracula Are Friends; as if I was never nicknamed Wednesday (as in Addams); as if in eighth-grade English class, assigned to act out a scene from a biography, when all the other girls had chosen Queen Elizabeth or Anne Frank, I hadn't picked Al Capone and staged the St. Valentine's Day Massacre with toy machine guns and wadded-up red construction paper thrown everywhere to signify blood; as if I'm not the kind of person who would visit the freaking Museum of Funeral Customs in the first place.
If that doesn't convince you, one of her friends told her: "Assassinations are your Kevin Bacon." (There are a lot of pop-cultural references in the book). Apparently, she can bring any topic of conversation back around to assassination.
This isn't just a walking tour around the D.C. area, either--she went all the way to Alaska to see a couple of totem poles that were related to Lincoln (the story attached to them was unbelievable--why didn't we learn stuff like this in high school?). While visiting places connected with the Garfield assassination, she visited the former home of the Oneida religious cult. (Yes, it's the same Oneida).
It would be nice if history books in school were like this--she's so exuberant that I think it would be impossible NOT to get interested. Her passion is contagious. She also has great empathy for almost everyone that she writes about--especially, oddly, James A. Garfield, whom she calls "Mr. Loner McBookworm". I went into this book knowing next to nothing about the man--well, I knew he was a president--now I'd like to find a good book about him. (It might have something to do with her description of him sneaking away from Congress to read Jane Austen).
Let it be known, though, that if you're looking for a history book without bias, this ain't it. She lets her opinions be known, both about the past government and the present. If you're a big fan of GDubs, and defensive of it, this might not be the book for you. Not personally being a big fan of him, I loved it and highly, highly recommend it.