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 ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage. From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism. We learn about the jinx that was Robert Todd Lincoln present at the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley and witness the politicking that went into the making of the Lincoln Memorial. Though the themes of loss and violence are explored and we make detours to see how the Republican Party became the Republican Party, there are all kinds of lighter diversions along the way into the lives of the three presidents and their assassins, including mummies, show tunes, mean-spirited totem poles, and a nineteenth-century biblical sex cult.

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That question has been on my mind quite a lot lately, especially with the recent buzz here in Chicago over the supposed Virgin Mary salt-stain that appeared on an underpass of the Kennedy Expressway.

People came from all over the state to see it, and I even saw the questionable miracle on CNN. Vowell immerses herself in the minutiae of presidential assassinations, focusing specifically on Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, all of whom were shot while in office. Part memoir, part history lesson, Assassination Vacation is a hilarious look at a strange form of patriotism -- presidential death artifacts.

The commentary on her personal feelings about politics and the history of the United States is what pulls the narrative of the book together, uniting the past and present in an attempt to discover what makes the relics of death so interesting to us today. Vowell starts her tour at the Ford Theater, where Lincoln was shot. Lincoln does seem to take up most of the book, but he also has the most drama surrounding his death, which started out as a kidnapping plot and ended as an assassination.

These are people who have the gall to believe they can fix us -- us and our deficit, our fossil fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools. The egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts. In an attempt at interactive book reviewing, and because I find the subject matter so interesting, I decided to drag my reluctant co-worker Adriane on a pilgrimage to the Chicago Historical Society during our lunch break in order to view the actual bed that Lincoln died on.

Unfortunately, the exhibit was closed so the most I can say is that I was in the same building. At least I have a nice set of Lincoln paper dolls I bought from the gift shop, and can console myself by using them to reenact that fateful night.


Assassination Vacation Quotes

It was at the Little Big Horn that Lt. George Custer came to grief, forever making his name a synonym for "bad decision. So we got to the battlefield after 20 straight hours of driving; slept outside the Ranger station waiting for it to open; then took in the battlefield, unwashed and unshaven and without even a cup of coffee. I was giddy with exhaustion? At one point, I drove up to Reno Hill.


Assassination Vacation

Not long ago, I made the mistake of thinking there was something new-ish under the sun. The occasion was the protracted, nearly concurrent death watches for Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II, during which the news media felt compelled to highlight every detail of physical decay, no matter how intimate. Terri Schiavo has just received a morphine suppository! The Pope is being fed through his nose!

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