Dead Presidents

I just finished Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell's memoir of visiting the many, many markers, tributes, statues, plaques, houses, museums, dead body parts, parks, etc. etc. dedicated to three assassinated presidents: Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Vowell plays the voice of Violet on The Incredibles, and her writing has the same deadpan humor as, well, her voice. If you have The Incredibles, there is an interview with Vowell on the DVD, which is actually where I put together the book title and the author for the first time.

It is well-worth reading, with a slight caveat. Depending on your perspective, you may find Vowell's political comments amusing or annoying. I fall somewhere between the two. She has a political perspective that I usually associate with very, very young liberals, a kind of dot-to-dot thinking that places all "good" behavior on a political continuum. I've met (youngish) liberals, for instance, who associate liking Harry Potter, as an example, with being liberal, non-religious and disagreeing with creationists. Because of course ALL Republicans hate Harry Potter, attend church on a daily basis and despise Stephen Jay Gould. Seriously, there's a lot of people out there who make those kinds of categorizations. I've met a number of them in the academic environment. They scare me a bit. I find it a difficult to understand how a grown person wouldn't have lived long enough to know that it is possible to find, on this earth, a liberal, pro-life, anti-capital punishment, environmentalist person who voted for Reagan, hunts, hates Harry Potter, loves Van Gogh and Peter, Paul & Mary, adores the Yankees, never watches television, supports the war in Iraq and shops at Walmart. Oh, yes, that person does exist! (It isn't me; I adore television.)

Vowell comes across as falling in the my-entire-life-falls-along-a-political-continuum category. But she's rather endearing, mostly because she has "transparency." That's my latest favorite political word. I'll probably end up getting as sick of it as I am of "ideological" and "imperialistic," but right now, I really like "transparency." Transparency means that the writer (or politician or whoever) shows you all their cards, tells you where they are coming from and where they are going and what devices they will be employing. Like a statistician who explains the methodology behind her statistics before she presents them.

In this case, it means that Vowell knows she's making political quips all over the place. And she's very unfront about where she's coming from. And she's a good writer. Which always excuses a great deal. She uses a particular kind of writing style that I've always been rather jealous of. She gives you the background to each of the assassinations and to the assassins themselves in-between visiting various sites, but she doesn't necessarily do it in any particular order. It's an informal approach to the subject that looks effortless--oh, yes, this person is just gabbing away--but in fact takes a great deal of ability. A sort of well-crafted formlessness.

And Vowell does give the reader a good understanding not only of what happened and why but why this particular person at this particular time. What was going on in Booth's head? Guiteau's? Czolgosz's? It isn't so much Criminal Minds' profiling stuff as it is contexualization. Where they were and what they may have felt and who else was around them. She also does an excellent job introducing the reader to the strange culture of artifact conservation (basically, people will conserve anything and everything) and explaining why we, ourselves, are fascinated. And you learn more about Garfield than I bet you ever learned in high school.

So I recommend it, if you don't mind the partisanship. In general, I read P.J. O'Rourke (and that's it) for my political commentary. If political sidetracks garnish a memoir, history or biography, they had better be excusable, and in this case, they very nearly are. (And people who agree with her will, of course, be enchanted.)


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