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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


Books by Debra Hamel:

THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


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paperback | hardcover (UK)

SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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Vowell, Sarah: Assassination Vacation

  Amazon  

3.5 stars

Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation is a sort of historical road trip, a digressive account, with a personal spin, of the events and personalities, the places, memorials, and memorabilia connected with the first three presidential assassinations in the United States--the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Vowell devotes a chapter to each president--Lincoln, not surprisingly, gets the most ink--and closes the book with a brief fourth chapter on, primarily, the Lincoln Memorial. In her presidential chapters Vowell discusses the antecedents to and political context of the assassins' crimes, including the sort of homely details that bring her subjects' stories to life. And she describes with an infectious delight the locations at which historically important events occurred, the sorts of places, often plaque-bearing, that one can easily pass on the street without recognizing their significance. She visits the usual suspects on her tour, the Ford Theater, say, but there are many unexpected stops as well--the site of the shop at which Charles Giteau purchased the gun he would use to kill President Garfield, the island prison where Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth's broken leg, was incarcerated in the 1860s.

Vowell imparts a lot of information in the book. Some of it comes in large chunks which she makes more palatable in an interesting way: she frequently writes about her conversations with third parties, some friend she's pressed into driving her around, or a tour group guide, and rather than weighing down her paragraphs with monotonously related facts and figures, she rattles them off at what seems to be high speed to these poor souls while her readers look on. It turns out to be an effective device. That Vowell abuses her friends by boring them with historical lectures is also a part of her self-presentation in the book: she paints herself as a sort of uber-nerd whose quirks, including her fascination with dead presidents, her friends tolerate only with difficulty. ("That is the kind of person I have become," she writes of her sister's Christmas present to her of a single hair from the head of abolitionist John Brown, "the kind of person who rips open a package in snowman wrapping paper to discover that her only sister has bought her an executed slavery hater's hair.") It's cute, though it sometimes seems that she's trying a little too hard to be quirky.

Vowell writes very well, and she's often funny. ("Once I knew my dead presidents and I had become insufferable, I started to censor myself. There were a lot of get-togethers with friends where I didn't hear half of what was being said because I was sitting there, silently chiding myself, Don't bring up McKinley. Don't bring up McKinley.") Much of what Vowell has to say, moreover, is downright fascinating, the kind of stuff you'll be mentioning to your friends: Did you know, for example, that Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth's brother, once saved the life of Robert Todd Lincoln? Or that the younger Lincoln was in close proximity to all three of these assassinations? (Vowell clearly loves this detail: she refers to Lincoln early in the book as "some kind of jinxed Zelig of doom" and later on as, well, "Jinxy McDeath.") Or did you know that Henry Rathbone, the guy who was in the box with Lincoln at Ford's Theater, subsequently moved to Germany, went crazy, and shot and killed his  wife? This is great material.

But Vowell's book, unfortunately, is uneven: cute and funny and fascinating in parts, it is also sometimes slow and weighed down by the author's less successful attempts at being folksy. Like the aforementioned "Jinxy McDeath," or the too lengthy discussions of her macabre three-year-old nephew Owen, or a bizarre digression on the Fox television show The O.C. and it's star's fertile eyebrows. References like the last are unfortunate also because they will date the book, as will her frequent diatribes against President Bush, which she shoehorns into the text whenever possible. Despite its faults, however, Assassination Vacation has enough going for it that it remains very much worth the read.

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