three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
By: 
Sarah Vowell
user_rating: 
0

A-AssassinationVacationSpurred in part by her low opinion of President Bush's policies and an irreverent concern for his security, frequent NPR contributor Sarah Vowell embarks on a morbid pilgrimage to gravesites, monuments, and museums seeking relics of the assassinations of presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. Lincoln’s death occupies the first half of the book. The items and locations that she discovers, including the remains of Lincoln’s skull at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, yield sardonic humor. They also produce ironic reflections when held up to the light of current events and viewed through the prism of popular culture, both bygone and modern.
Simon & Schuster. 272 pages. $21. ISBN: 0743260031

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"At times, Vowell walks the thin line that separates irreverence from bad taste. But just when you think she may be straying from her mission, she always comes back to a fundamental love of history and fascination with its characters, sharing with us her pilgrimage to that past that gives her ‘a small, pleasant buzz to amble around and watch the city come alive with forgotten men.’" Dan Danbom

San Jose Mercury News 4 of 5 Stars
"Her aim is to make us see the past in new ways. And she succeeds: In Vowell’s hands a presidential nonentity like Garfield—‘even a third grader who just got a gold star on her Garfield report would be hard-pressed to pick him out of a lineup’—gains depth and dimension." Charles Matthews

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The book is a hoot—entertaining, bemused, even educational. Vowell deeply loves American history, especially its strange byways and unexpected connections; but never once, while reading this, will it feel like you’ll be tested after class." Adam Woog

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Occasionally her digressions seem forced and glib, but overall she expertly ties them in to her main subject. Cutting through cant with a satirical scalpel, she is the history teacher we all wanted in school: whip-smart, hilariously self-deprecating, and gifted with the power to make the invisible appear vividly before our eyes." Ariel Gonzalez

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Assassination Vacation [is] a learned, engagingly discursive, funny, sometimes even jolly ramble—literally—through the landscape of American presidential assassinations. … It is a serious book, although I’m not sure what Vowell is ultimately trying to say." Bruce Handy

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"At times, though, she’s too much the stand-up comedian, determined to punctuate every fact she exhumes with a verbal elbow in the ribs, even when the material would be better served without such efforts." Greg Beato

Critical Summary

Vowell, a contributor to NPR’s This American Life and the voice of Violet in The Incredibles, has written a funny and engaging history that revels in irony and morbid minutiae. Even when the humor occasionally feels strained or borders on offensive, the author’s delight in her subject wins the reader’s forbearance. If Garfield and McKinley do not quite come into sharp focus, their stories never cease to entertain. Despite her unrelenting keen sense of the ridiculous and absurd, Vowell ultimately finds no real insights into the profound questions of obsession and madness that always lie just beneath her amiable storytelling.