Book Reviews: Some American History

I always read quite a lot at the beginning of the year, what with vacation and all.  I have also been thinking quite a lot about the reading challenge, and I think I should put up an in-depth review of everything I read for that.  So, to kick that all off… how about 2 non-fiction favorites of mine?  Here you go:

BuckVowell

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (A book by an unfamiliar author)

I had seen the documentaries on The Incredibles and knew that the gal who played the voice of Violet was a strange, history-obsessed woman who was basically my patronus.  Although her delight with gore is a bit more pronounced than mine.  So when a friend on New Year’s said “I’ve been reading Assassination Vacation, and it’s so good,” I said “I have to get that NOW.”  I didn’t know she was a writer.  Vowell’s book is about her various road trips and pilgrimages to sites associated with the first 3 presidential assassinations – Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield.  And it is glorious.

My favorite thing about Vowell is her enthusiasm for outright weird and macabre.  She’s such a cheerleader for the pieces of Lincoln’s skull, for example.  She loves a good plaque.  Her friends and family humorously tolerate her.  But she makes the weirdest connections, too.  Like Robert Todd Lincoln being the harbinger of presidential death, among other things.  It is delightful and easy to read (which is sometimes hard to achieve when writing history).  I laughed, I commiserated, I will now read everything Vowell has ever written.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is next on my list, I think.  Although The Partly Cloudy Patriot or Wordy Shipmates might also be contenders.

I feel so excited to have found Vowell, you have no idea.  I think this is the first time that I’ve sought out books by a certain writer of history and not by subject matter alone.  That’s a strong sign that you’ll probably like her too.  Basically, go read this right now if you have any interest in Lincoln, assassination, history, or hilarity.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck (A book you never got to read in 2015)

Oh man.  I cannot say enough about this book and the way I just fell in love with it.  Head over heels.  I was a binge player of the Oregon Trail game all through my childhood.  Not just the 8-bit one you remember with the slightly pink oxen on the black screen.  I had the deluxe version where you had maps and things, a helpful guidebook, and could pick your destination: California, Oregon, or Salt Lake City.  I am a font of useless knowledge handy pieces of information like your wagon depth is 2 ½ feet, so don’t try and ford the river if it’s more than that.  Rush your people at first with high rations, and then even things out when they start to get sick and/or the food starts to run low (and both will happen).  Always take the Barlow Toll Road, because otherwise you’ll lose all your points (in belongings) when you inevitably capsize on the Columbia river.  If you go to Salt Lake, you get free ferry rides from the Mormons.

This book was nothing like playing the game, but it was still full of that unfettered feeling of newness.  It left me with a profound desire to buy a Schuyler Wagon, a team of mules, and set out on the trail myself.  Which is what Rinker buck and his brother Nick do, along with Nick’s adorable dog Olive Oyl.  But unlike Rinker and Nick, I have no experience driving a team (horses or mules), no carpentry or wagon repair skills, and would be afraid to drive through hell, high water, and thunderstorm to make the trip. They encounter all of the above, plus angsty ranchers, bad wagon-part suppliers, hills higher than they looked, frantic mules, freight trains barreling beside them, and an injury to Olive Oyl.

Mixed into the narrative of their modern trip are pioneer narratives and history of the trail, and also Rinker’s struggle to come to peace with his family legacy.  Not just his relationship Nick, but with his father who was both odd, sometimes distant, and yet still clearly loved them.

Head over heels, I say.  I didn’t want them to ever get to Oregon so I could keep journeying with them forever.  I’ve been in book hangover since finishing it a couple of days ago, unwilling to leave it behind and dive into something else.  It deserves all the praise it’s garnered and is better than the hype.  I’d even call it magical.  You should really go read it.

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