Thursday, March 09, 2006

Assassination Vacation

I've been busy with the rest of my life that got pushed aside for the knitting olympics: cleaning, paperwork, and reading, mostly. And it seems as though my "I'm not cooking when I need to be knitting" philosophy lead to some pretty intense vitamin deficiencies during those two weeks. Recently, I went to the grocery store and bought this: a pound of brussel sprouts, a bag of spinach, green beans, sugar snap peas, snow peas, and bok choy. I apparently needed GREEN.

Despite my post-Games catching up, I did spend significant knitting time this past weekend working on my first ever glove (which I also designed). There are some details I want to work out still on it and I'll be writing down the pattern this time as I knit the second one, but I'm glad to say it has five fingers and it actually fits. Hooray! I'd like to submit it to Knitty for the summer collection, but April 1st is looking rather ambitious since I'd want to knit several more to get the pattern worked out perfectly and would also need snappy cool photos of the finished gloves. Good thing glove patterns aren't likely to go the way of ponchos. They're a classic pattern.

I've decided to name the pattern Cute. And I have some optional embellishments planned that would make the gloves Cuter. (Are you rolling your eyes yet? Good.... That's what I'm going for. :)

And for the part of my today's entry about which I am most excited, I am introducing a new element to the blog -- book reviews. As my good friends will attest, I am a library enthusiast and am constantly checking out books - fiction, books about science and metaphysics, yoga, knitting, cooking, and politics. So, in order to better document my reading, and to share some of my excitement over the books I'm enjoying, I am going to begin reviewing the books. I'll also post what the next book is going to be so that, by off chance, if you care to read along with me, you'll know where I'm headed next. I'd love your feedback and suggestions for future selections.

Assassination Vacation
, by Sarah Vowell

I was originally intrigued by this book because of an interview Sarah Vowell did on the Conan O'Brien show awhile back. She seemed smarter than your average late-night talk show guest. And she was funny (I was going through a comedy stage then). So I reserved her book and have just now, now that the socks are done, had the chance to read it.

Assassination Vacation, a travel essay, reads like a friend recounting her most recent trip. You’re sitting in a cafĂ© together downtown and, over coffee, she’s describing the places and people she’s seen in her travels. And just as an eloquent but easily distracted friend might do, she takes her stories on tangents, making delightful connections between events and coincidences. As an obvious enthusiast for American history, Vowell studied the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley and dedicated herself to visiting the physical evidence, obvious and obscure, of these events. While there is a pretext of connection between their deaths, that Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln, was nearby at the moment of each of their murders, this fact struck me more as another one of Vowell’s coincidences rather than a thread holding her story together. Indeed, as she traipsed around a Florida Keys prison island (now a national park) to see where Lincoln’s assassin’s possible accomplice, Dr. Samuel Mudd, served his sentence, I sometimes wondered what the descriptions of the 1867 yellow fever outbreak had to do with President Lincoln’s death. While rereading that section, I could find no detail describing how long Dr. Mudd was imprisoned. I know I read it somewhere, but Vowell’s style, though an engaging history lesson, does not lend itself so much to the fact-checking. I would argue, however, that Vowell’s entertaining but rambling prose always has a direction and even when the story seems to be veering way off subject it is more likely that the reader just doesn’t understand yet where she’s headed. For example, in perhaps my favorite passage, she ties Maryland’s state motto to John Wilkes Booth to Timothy McVeigh to a fringe magazine called Southern Partisan to John Ashcroft. And it works.

You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy this book, and you don’t have to know anything about politics or presidential assassinations. Vowell’s knowledge of her subject is comprehensive and by tracking down every single landmark, museum, plaque on a building, and artifact related to these men’s stories, Vowell reconstitutes the complexity of their lives at the time of their deaths. Her intense curiosity reveals not only details like bullets on display at Ford’s Theater where Lincoln was shot, but also involves climbing the mountain President Roosevelt (then the VP) was hiking when he discovered that McKinley had been shot. Perhaps most refreshing, and this book’s most endearing quality, is Vowell’s patriotism. It fills the corners of this book and kept me reading through some of the passages that seemed a bit too tangential. There are references to current political events, comparing policies and word choice and outcomes, with a context we rarely get when reading news articles. I’ve certainly never encountered references to McKinley’s imperialistic policies in relation in recent news articles.

I probably enjoyed this book most because I am the sort of person who stops at historical markers and, in general, likes to know the significance of things. Vowell stops at all of the historical markers and gives the back story as well. Would I ever go visit the places she described now that I know their story? Probably not intentionally, but if I come to a plaque that mentions Leon Czolgosz, I’ll remember his claim to fame as McKinley’s murderer and appreciate the plaque even more. In the meantime, Assassination Vacation was an entertaining, mostly light-hearted read and I would, with enthusiasm, encourage you to check it out.

Next book: The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. You can read about it here.