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Assassination Vacation [Paperback]

Sarah Vowell
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 6 2006
New York Times bestselling author of The Word Shipmates and contributor to NPR’s “This American Life” Sarah Vowell embarks on a road trip to sites of political violence, from Washington DC to Alaska, to better understand our nation’s ever-evolving political system and history.

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. What do you get when a woman who's obsessed with death and U.S. history goes on vacation? This wacky, weirdly enthralling exploration of the first three presidential assassinations. Vowell (The Partly Cloudy Patriot), a contributor to NPR's This American Life and the voice of teenage superhero Violet Parr in The Incredibles, takes readers on a pilgrimage of sorts to the sites and monuments that pay homage to Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, visiting everything from grave sites and simple plaques (like the one in Buffalo that marks the place where McKinley was shot) to places like the National Museum of Health and Medicine, where fragments of Lincoln's skull are on display. An expert tour guide, Vowell brings into sharp focus not only the figures involved in the assassinations, but the social and political circumstances that led to each-and she does so in the witty, sometimes irreverent manner that her fans have come to expect. Thus, readers learn not only about how Garfield found himself caught between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, bitterly divided factions of the Republican party, but how his assassin, Charles Guiteau, a supporter of the Stalwarts and an occasional member of the Oneida Community, "was the one guy in a free love commune who could not get laid." Vowell also draws frequent connections between past events and the present, noting similarities between McKinley's preemptive war against Cuba and the Philippines and the current war in Iraq. This is history at its most morbid and most fascinating and, fortunately, one needn't share Vowell's interest in the macabre to thoroughly enjoy this unusual tour.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–Vowell has a perspective on American history that is definitely funny. She visits museums, historic sites, statues, libraries, anything remotely relevant to successful presidential assassins, and a few of those not so successful. This is an amusing way to learn history, but it is also an unusual look at the interconnectedness of things. Robert Todd Lincoln, a.k.a. Jinxy McDeath, was present, or nearly so, at three assassinations–his father's, Garfield's, and McKinley's. To understand Garfield's assassin, the author spends time at the Oneida Colony in upstate New York, a religious commune that preached a combination of free love and the second coming, and connects it with Jonathan Edwards. She tracks the Lincoln conspirators through the process of plot and escape to hanging and imprisonment, even describing Dr. Mudd's enormous contribution when the plague hit the prison island of Dry Tortuga. Garfield's assassin was deeply involved in the redirection of the Republican Party after the Civil War, and McKinley's was an anarchist following, he thought, the tenets of Emma Goldman. There are family anecdotes and real scholarship in this quirky road trip. Teens will get an interesting view of one aspect of American history while picking up odd bits of information about a whole lot more. There is much to enjoy in this discursive yet somehow cohesive book.–Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read on many counts. June 2 2009
Vowell's book is part travel literature, part history, and no small part macabre fascination on the part of the author. It is very very very reflexive, so Vowell rarely extricates her voice from her research. Happily, her voice is extremely funny and dry, which is perhaps just the right voice with which to be writing this book.

Her research takes her on direct and digressive travels in America, to all and sundry people, places, and things related to three Presidential assasinations; those of Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield. As a Canadian, I'd never really known anything at all about these men's deaths, except quite perfunctory Lincoln history. There was no NEED for me to know, either, I suppose.

A little disclosure: my Master's thesis focused on secular pilgrimage. That is: spiritual journeys that aren't necessarily attached to an organized religion. So, like Jim Morrison's grave, or Graceland.

I wish Vowell's book had been published before I wrote my thesis! I would have used it as a great source!

Still, I was entertained and educated about many things besides the assasinations. And, to satisfy my academic bent, there were discussions of relics, sites, and pilgrims.
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5.0 out of 5 stars love her! Aug. 29 2013
By Jen
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I think this is the best out of the three I've read. Such a sarcastic and entertaining way to share history!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Gonzo History Oct. 15 2011
By Mark Nenadov TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Quirky, weird, informative, sort of amusing. Probably best summed up as "gonzo travel history".

Sarah lives up to her reputation as the "maddonna of americana" as she explores the character and environment of both the assassins and the American presidents they killed. Sarah has an almost eerie fascination with the subject matter. And she's really opiniated. It's Bill Bryson meets Hunter S. Thompson meets David McCullough meets Jon Stewart. You'll likely learn some stuff you haven't heard of before, like: the connection between the weird community in Oneida and the assassin of James Garfield; and the fact that Lincoln's son, known as "the presidential angel of death", was also around for a whopping two more presidential assassinations! Sarah gives a rich, textured look at the events and characters in question.

Sarah retains the freedom to roam quite a bit and explore certain things at length. It will probably either drive you crazy or increase your interest in history. I'm not fully convinced I really "like" this book persay, but it certainly caught my attention and I'll at least admit that it was amusing and was worth the time.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  302 reviews
140 of 159 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If only Vowell wrote the texts.... March 28 2005
By Grant Barber - Published on
I've never really gotten the whole idea behind "American Studies" in universities. I really did not enjoy history as a student. If only Sarah Vowell had written the texts or been the teacher. She is a history nerd, geek, whatever--she is brilliant, laugh out loud funny, and earnest all at the same time. Her take is on three presidents who were assasinated (the majority of the book describing Lincoln's life, assasination, and the lives of his assasins). This book is something of a departure from her previous two collections of esssays, which ranged over a wide variety of topics. This book is more focused, but Vowell's voice and wit are intact, even more entertaining than in previous volumes. I hope Vowell's next book tells us about Hollywood, animation, and her other passions on the heels of her performing a voice in The Incredibles. There has to be so much fodder for her droll observations there. Sedaris might be getting a little stale these days; Vowell certainly is not.
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History, humanity, and humor Aug. 19 2005
By Mike - Published on
I have read "Take the Cannoli" and am halfway through "The Partly Cloudy Patriot", I read these books because Assassination Vacation was the best book I've read by an uncelebrated author in my life. Sarah Vowell is witty and independent, she makes one feel a connection to her and a profound enlightened guilt at the loss of history.

The assassinations of Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield are the book's topic. But the true value of Vowell's Vacation is the wonderment of where we came from, and how men who shaped the world are remembered only by small bronze plaques that are at once unremarkable and intriguing. For any kid that was in AP or Honors US History this book will make you grin remembering the stories layed out on chalkboards that seemed so dull then, but Vowell gives them meaning and life.

She is neurotic, patriotic, intelligent, witty, and alluring; in other words she is a perfect political writer. There is no paragraph that seems a waste of time. No story that isn't fascinating. You become a small child staring up at the Lincoln Memorial again, jaw on the floor, eyes wide staring at the man who saved the Union. And you feel a quiet drumming in your chest to do something about it, to make people remember what matters.
127 of 154 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'll buy a Vowell, Pat. March 29 2005
By James Hiller - Published on
Actually, two. Or maybe three. Or as many as I want! Sarah Vowell has produced a delightfully charming, witty, and introspective look at, of all topics, presidential assassination, in her new witty and evocative book "Assassination Vacation".

Those of us who know Vowell from her numerous and witty appearances on the highly respected "This American Life" series know exactly what to expect when picking up a Vowell book: something interesting, funny, with pieces of introspection thrown in. She delivers her promise in her new tome. Vowell, a self-avowed history nut, decides to drag certain hapless aquaintances around the places associated with three presidential assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.

Along the way, she shares information she has researched or learned, which makes this book one of her more scholarly, if that word could ever be applied here. She actually makes history more palpable, more real for people to digest in an entertaining way. How many of us would desire reading a book about the famed assassin Leon Cgolgosz? Put Vowell's name on the cover, slap a salty title on the book, and bang, we're lining up book-in-hand to purchase it. (Oh, and by the way, Vowell finally deciphers the mystery of pronouncing Cgolgosz, which is.... is... hmmm, I suddenly can't remember).

Whenever you read a piece by Vowell, invariably, you never read it in your own voice, but her Sarah's voice ringing through, or was it Violet Parr from the Incredibles... oh wait, it's the SAME person). I guess that's the mark of a good writer, that she has developed her own style strong enough for us to hear her reading it to us. At any rate, this history nut who also goes ballistic whenever he comes across a plaque, gives this book five stars for a truly enjoyable read from a truly enjoyqable writer.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars She makes history entertaining Aug. 20 2005
By Jeffrey A. Thompson - Published on
The book is fascinating not only for the historical trivia it provides, but the author's introspective look at herself. She knows she's weird, but she also can't understand why everyone is not as fascinated as she is with presidential assasinations. Her precocious and morbid nephew is fascinating as well.

She has a fond affection for Garfield and McKinley. She worships Lincoln. She totally hates G. W. Bush. She humanizes the assassins without excusing them. She likes to tie the assassinations together by showing the historical thread.

It is a very remarkable book. I disagree with her on several points, but I am fully entertained at all times. The depth of scholarship is amazing and her journey to different historical sites provides a list of potential vacation sites for history buffs that will last for years.
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A conflict over perception.... Dec 28 2009
By Mortimer - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Well, now, it seems we have some rather distinct differences about Sarah Vowell's writing style. Though I have not read all of the reviews, those that I have read do not criticize the veracity of her factual statements. It is clear from her anecdotal descriptions of various events in her past that she has a passion for history and historic detail.

I also think that some of her interpretations of historical events may get her into hot, but not scalding water. After all, this is the stuff of historians, who argue over interpretations of detail all the time. Most of these debates are never resolved, and it is understanding the differing viewpoints that reveals the history for what it really is--real life. In this sense, I find Vowell's descriptions of events to be incredibly refreshing. She does tend to bring the realities of events into a clearer focus by delving into the failures and even the dark sides of individuals who we know mostly through 2-dimensional mythologies. Her sense of irony is impeccable. It seems to me that it is primarily her lively descriptions of these realities that captures the approval of the majority of those who have commented.

Alas, Sarah is also incapable of leaving her political views out of the scenarios. The few criticisms she attracts seem to dwell upon this aspect of her writing. If you find this too distracting, especially if you have conservative leanings, then I fear you will be unable to look past it. While I do find these comments to mar her fundamentally sound approach to history, I am not so myopic as to let it avert my interest from a truly interesting and penetrating view of historical events. I think that the vast majority of readers will find they have the same (forgiving) reaction.
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