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Book review: A macabre yet entertaining journey

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By Tabitha Welch

“Assassination Vacation” brings the reader tales of the past and present through stinging, shocking, and completely irreverent humor, not to mention a wealth of knowledge and criticism.
Sarah Vowell shares her travel experiences as she explores the history, outrageous politics, and personal stories behind the murders of three United States presidents — Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley. One chapter is devoted to each president, with equal attention given to victim and assassin.
Interspersed, Vowell provides copious numbers of modern-day anecdotes and accounts of the famous (and obscure) memorials raised to honor the dead past, from the Lincoln Memorial to a remote prison in the Dry Tortugas.
She has traveled all over the country and beyond to visit John Wilkes Booth’s final resting place, scale the mountain where Theodore Roosevelt received news of McKinley’s demise, and contemplate the ocean where Garfield spent his final days.
Of course, she also had to see Lincoln’s blood spattered on a very old pillowcase. Along the way, questions of morality, uncanny coincidences, and unseen connections all lie in wait. For example, the unfortunate Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s first son, was ill-fated enough to witness all three of these presidential assassinations.
According to Vowell, he is also known by the name of “Jinxy McDeath.” Hilarity aside, though, many of these stories still provide food for thought today, well over 100 years after their time.
With Vowell’s wide variety of topics comes an equally wide variety of moods. Sentimentality, wit, sarcasm, and even morbidity have a place here.
The end result is a striking and unique combination, a frank writing style that is both absorbing and wildly entertaining.
Anyone who wishes to watch history come alive can enjoy Assassination Vacation, but beware, these tales are not for the easily offended.