Assassination Vacation – Sarah Vowell

I passed by George Washington’s inauguration site yesterday and had Vowell’s book in my bag. Though Washington wasn’t assassinated, he’s the first president that made way for all the other presidents, so this picture counts for something theme-wise.

Also, side note, read my first Octavia E. Butler novel over the weekend, Mind of My Mind. Going to pursuing more of her books, as that was a fun ride.

This week’s read is Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation.

I’ve been meaning to read something of Vowell’s for a couple of years now and I was super excited to add this one to my travelogue list. I mean, the backflap opens with:

“Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other–a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad of ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage.”

Sounds great, right? An American history road trip!

Well, it wasn’t. A road trip, that is. (According to the internet, point of fact, Vowell doesn’t even have a driver’s license.)

Instead, it was a completely-out-of-chronological-order series of short trips and walks around the mid- and eastern-parts of the country. There was no travel because there was no road trip.

I read it anyway.

Why? I like American history. A lot. And because Vowell has a wry humor that I enjoy. She got several chuckles out of me and a few moments where I laughed out loud at my local coffee shop, causing concern in those around me.

But, technically, the book was an organizational and structural mess.

Section to section (within the same chapter), her location and timeline would change. On the very same page, she’d be at a museum in Ohio in (and I’m just making up this example so don’t go looking for this page) winter talking about President Garfield and there’d be a line break and suddenly she’d be in Alaska, the summer of the previous year, examining totem poles and talking about Robert Todd Lincoln.

There would also be switches between tenses that I just could not keep up with.

And sentences that I would have to read three or four times to understand what she meant by them because the structure was just… off. There were so many sentences like this, where you could read them and get two or three different interpretations from their contents. Which is never good.

But she was funny and full of information about… everything. At all times. At high speeds. Reading this book was like running an assassination information marathon, if that makes any sense.

So… there you go. Funny book, tons of information, a hell of a lot of structural and organizational issues, but well worth reading if you’re into American history or people getting shot.

Some quotes for your perusal.

“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.”

“Being searched and questioned by camo-clad armed soldiers is disquieting enough if you are a small, meek white woman whose bag contains nothing more menacing than a Lemony Snicket novel and cinnamon gum; but if you are the Arabic-speaking cabdriver who drivers her there and you are ordered to get out of the car to open the hood, the sweat starts to spurt off you forehead as if you turban is wound out of a garden hose that just got turned on.” 

“One of John Wilkes Booth’s many faults is that he did not have the decency to die within walking distance of a Metro stop.”

“What I like about the grandfather paradox is that it treats time travel not as some lofty exercise in cultural tourism–looking over Melville’s shoulder as he wrote Moby Dick–but as a petty excuse to bicker with and gun own one’s own relatives.”

“It reminds me of North Elba, New York, where Brown is buried. Looming over Brown’s humble little farm is the mondo ski jump from the Lake Placid Olympics. A person going there to ponder the dour Brown can end up thinking a lot more about how much she misses the voice of sportscaster Howard Cosell.”

“After I polish off my grits I examine the Confederate flag memorabilia for sale–the shot glasses, the baseball caps, ‘Never Surrender’ mugs. I am enthralled with a hideous, huge music box/snow globe of Robert E. Lee that plays ‘Dixie’ when you wind it. I consider adding it to my snow globe collection, but that would involve having it in my house.”

“If I had never gone to Oneida and talked to Joe Valesky, if I had simply read a book about the community and bought my Oneida teapot at Macy’s Herald Square, I might have thought about fornicating utopians as I brewed Earl Grey, but now, when I watch the steam ride from the yellow spout, I like to pretend I’m seeing people breathe.”

“Maybe because I was suffering the effects of allergy eyes brought on the night before by trying to read by the light of the lilac-scented candles about a political murder committed around the time of the Spanish-American War, I snapped at him. ‘Sir,’ I said, ‘except for the people who were there that one day they discovered the polio vaccine, being part of history is rarely a good idea. History is one war after another with a bunch of murders and natural disasters in between.'”

“Edison advocated that the verb be named for his nemesis, that a person who had been electrocuted would have been westinghoused instead. I bet Westinghouse came up with some possible definitions of what it meant to be edisoned himself.”

“[…] from this side of the twentieth century, apres strip malls, fast-food franchises, glass boxes, housing projects, and other architectural gaffes, it’s fun to look back on this dilemma of to-column-or-not-to-column, because honestly, the only question most Americans ask about a new building at this point is basically: Is it a soul-sucking eyesore of cheap-ass despair? It’s not? Whew.”

“A barn is the same thing as a warehouse if you think that a puppet is the same thing as a potholder.”