Monday, November 25, 2013

One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes

Earlier this year Alice introduced me to Sarah Vowell. I knew of her but it wasn't until Alice sent me a copy of The Wordy Shipmates that I actually read anything by her.* Then I saw Assassination Vacation was on sale and snatched it up. Wordy Shipmates, you were fun, but Assassination Vacation wins.

AV is about presidential assassinations, specifically Lincoln's, Garfield's, and McKinley's. She discusses the history of the U.S. during the time right before and after the murders. I realize this sounds like a downer of a topic, but if you're already familiar with Vowell you know this is not the case. If you're not already familiar with her, know that she refers to Robert Todd Lincoln as Jinxy McDeath, as he was present in some capacity at all three assassinations.

I think my favorite way to learn is to be tricked into it. Bill Bryson does a good job with this. So does Vowell, who I would consider very similar to Bryson, albeit in different topics and she cites more sources.** AV focused more on her travels around the country to visit the various sites of the assassinations, see the relics leftover, etc. I think this is why I enjoyed this one more than WS, because her talking about her travels are the funniest parts. Besides, this means her young nephew Owen gets to be a character, and he's adorable. I mean, he calls cemeteries "Halloween parks" because adorable. Also because he's a small child whose aunt keeps bringing him to "Halloween parks" so she can visit the graves of various famous historical figures. Plus we get lots of awkward stories about her traveling like when she's at a B&B sitting at breakfast with a bunch of strangers and suddenly starts going on about presidential assassins and the musical she recently saw. As she describes:

Now, a person with sharper social skills than I might have noticed that as these folks ate their freshly baked blueberry muffins and admired the bed-and-breakfast's teapot collection, they probably didn't want to think about presidential gunshot wounds. But when I'm around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I'm dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my silence and then, boom, it's 1980. Once I erupt, they'll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota.

It's her humor that gets me through a topic I can't imagine I would read about otherwise. Not unless forced anyway. I feel like just typing that pains certain friends of mine, but American history is not exactly my favorite subject. Hence needing tricked into learning. Vowell brings a human element to a subject that I've mostly experienced through textbooks. She describes how Booth timed his shot during a joke in the play, so at least "the bullet hit Lincoln mid-guffaw". She describes the man who tended to Booth's ankle, broken when he jumped down to the stage after shooting Lincoln, Mudd and even goes to visit the Caribbean prison he was kept in for his part in the assassination. See, now that's dedication.

She spends the most time on Lincoln, but of course there's the most information there. Garfield and McKinley weren't really considered martyrs at their deaths the way Lincoln was at his. Of course it could also be the matter that I know more of Lincoln anyway, so I'm just remembering there being more of that. However I do like the knowledge that Garfield was sort of a slacker, or at least preferred reading to most other things, including running the country. Maybe not the greatest trait in a president, but still.

When I look back over all the sections I highlighted, I realize the majority of them aren't about the presidents. A few are about Owen (cos adorable) and the others are mostly things like "You know you've reached a new plateau of group mediocrity when even a Canadian is alarmed by your lack of individuality." OK, so maybe I didn't learn all that much. I'm sure I'd still fail a test on the topic, but that's fine. It would just give me an excuse to read this again.

I'll need to give Unfamiliar Fishes a try now.

*And I just looked at that post and realized I said pretty much the same thing about knowing of Sarah Vowell because I am repetitive. Let's consider it a quirk instead of a fault so I don't have to go back and rewrite those first sentences.

**Yeah, yeah, I said this in the last review too. Quirk, remember?

Title quote from page 1, location 100