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Assassination Vacation

Length: 7 hrs and 19 mins
Categories: History, American
4 out of 5 stars (3,278 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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. The resulting narrative is much more than an entertaining and informative travelogue, it is the disturbing and fascinating story of how American death has been manipulated by popular culture, including literature, architecture, sculpture, and, the author's favorite, historical tourism.

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 lighter diversions into the lives of the three presidents and their assassins, including mummies, show tunes, mean-spirited totem poles, and a 19th-century biblical sex cult.

In Order of Appearance:
Conan O'Brien...Robert Todd Lincoln
Eric Bogosian...John Wilkes Booth
Stephen King...President Abraham Lincoln
Dave Eggers...Mike Ryan
Catherine Keener...Gretchen Worden
Jon Stewart...President James A. Garfield
Tony Kushner...John Humphrey Noyes
Brad Bird...Charles Guiteau & Emma Goldman
Daniel Handler...President William McKinley
Greg Giraldo...President Theodore Roosevelt
David Rakoff...Leon Czolgosz

©2005 Sarah Vowell (P)2005 Simon & Schuster Inc. AUDIOWORKS is an imprint of Simon & Schuster Audio Division, Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Critic Reviews

  • 2005 Audie Award Nominee, Multi-Voiced Performance
  • 2005 Publishers Weekly Listen Up Award, Humor

"Vowell has a perspective on American history that is definitely funny." (School Library Journal)
"Wacky, weirdly enthralling....This is history at its most morbid and most fascinating and, fortunately, one needn't share Vowell's interest in the macabre to thoroughly enjoy this unusual tour." (Publishers Weekly)
"An engaging tour....Audiobook listeners get serious bang for their buck, including guest appearances by Stephen King (as Lincoln), Jon Stewart, Conan O'Brien, and Eric Bogosian, among others." (AudioFile)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings


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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Rachel
  • Baldwin City, KS, USA
  • 08-17-05

extremely entertaining and informative

There's a moment in this book where Sarah Vowell is being told about the history of the Dry Tortugas National Park by a park ranger with such infectious enthusiasm for his subject that Ms. Vowell relates that she felt giddy listening to him, as if visiting the Dry Tortugas was one of the very luckiest things that could happen to a girl. That's what listening to "Assassination Vacation" was like for me. The material is extremely interesting--this book covers the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, including related details about the strange sexual ideology of the Oneida community, John Wilkes Booth's brother's illustrious career as a Shakespearean actor, and Vowell's 3-year-old nephew's obsession with graveyards. More importantly, Vowell's enthusiasm for her subject conveyed by her Lisa Simpson-soprano is so infectious that I wanted to book a trip to the Dry Tortugas to see where John Wilkes Booth's doctor was imprisoned myself.

This is a really fun listen replete with gee-whiz factoids I can't stop relating to my friends. The connections between the three different assassinations discussed here are expecially fascinating.

Vowell's patriotism is also inspiring. The devotion to country that lead Ms. Vowell to complete this homage to fallen presidents gives "Assassination Vacation" a genuine sweetness completely different from the my-country-right-or-wrong saccharine so popular in today's political climate. Ms. Vowell's sort of patriotism--the kind that visits the Dry Tortugas to learn more about our nation's history, the kind that recognizes our country's failings rather than whitewashing them, the kind that loves America both for what it stands for and for what it really is--this is the kind of love for country we need more of, not the facile nationalism that confuses what is and what ought to be.

35 of 37 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Quirky and Enchanting

I can see how Sarah Vowell's voice may seem grating, but I suppose years of hearing her pieces on "This American Life" has conditioned me to expect greatness whenever I hear it.

This book isn't any different. It reminds me a great deal of some of those bits on "TAL" dealing with historic figures (Lafayette was a recent one). Her obsession with Presidential assassinations is cleverly portrayed in her well-crafted writing style, and her narration is dead-on.

Any complaints about Vowell's "Bush-bashing" should be taken very lightly. She takes a few jabs at our current President, but only to make a few points about the arrogance of assassins... people who deign to make the decision for the country on whether or not a given person is suitable to lead us. I think she raises a very valid point by bringing up Dubya.

A pleasure to listen to, thanks in no small part to Vowell's group of buddies lending narrative variety to our country's cast of characters. Particular kudos to Brad Bird for his funny-but-creepy readings of Charles Guiteau's gallows-poetry.

28 of 31 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • BFeld
  • Scottsdale, AZ
  • 12-10-08


If only all history could be read (heard) in this format. Vowell has made an art out of putting history, places, and stories together into an entertaining thriller of a book. I was a history major in college but I never had any history delivered to me with such style and skill. She should continue to do more works just like this and we will all be wiser!

13 of 15 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

History is a personal thing

An engrossing book! Sarah Vowell presents history in the same way that I often learn it. It's not linear, and it is linked to personal experiences. She took me on a journey -- with the Lincoln Memorial as an enduring place for our return. I hated to have to occasionally interrupt the journey!
She makes no pretense of being without bias. Her lens is personal. And isn't that the way it is with all of us?

10 of 12 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Martin
  • Yuen Long NT, Hong Kong
  • 04-21-05


This is superb: funny, scholarly and fascinating. Ms. Vowell?s journey in the footsteps of presidential assassins is one of the best books I?ve downloaded from Audible.

35 of 44 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Delightful - funny and interesting

This book was a lot of fun. Sarah Vowell's research, insights, and sense of humor make this a great book. One would probably either really enjoy or really hate her little-girl voice. I, for one, thought that it added to experience of the book. Her left-leaning political views will put some off, but most will enjoy the ride.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Classic sarcastic Sarah Vowell

I happen to like Sarah's voice, but if you've never heard it, you need to listen to the sample, as some peole find it jarring.

This is less a comedy than a very well researched, thoughtful history of three assasins of presidents. I really enjoyed it, and it had some humor to it.

I wish I could do 4.5 starts, because I reserve 5 for the absolute best.

11 of 15 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Lisa
  • Vernon, British Columbia, Canada
  • 07-07-05

Quirky but highly informative

Both my husband and I listened to this book, as did our children when they were forced to in the car. Agreed, her delivery is a bit odd, and her voice takes a bit of getting used to, but I learned more US history (which says a lot, since that was my minor in university) from the 5 hours of this book than I learned in an entire university course. The depth of her knowledge on this topic is extensive, and her patriotism -- being defined as a true love for her country, not the flag-waving, blind devotion to AMERICA that the Right seems to define as the only "true" patriotism -- is undeniable. Her quirky humour kept me laughing, and the historical trivia kept me riveted through four or five straight days of commuting. I would recommend this to anyone who wants a different perspective on American history -- should be a hit with fans of Jon Stewart!

13 of 18 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Chris
  • Apex, NC, USA
  • 07-29-06

Couldn't get past the reader's voice!

It seems witty enough - the premise looked interesting - but I'm afraid if I want to experience this I'll have to go out and buy the hardcopy.

It's definitely my fault - I almost always listen to the previews before buying, but this one time I didn't preview it and just added it to my Next Listen.

The author/reader's voice is so grating that I can't continue. The "up-talking" at the end of sentences on top of the general tonality of her voice sent me over the edge after 15 minutes.

If you're picky about your readers please preview this first.

8 of 11 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Michael
  • Westland, MI, USA
  • 01-18-06


I was shocked -- I usually find Sarah Vowell's voice as soothing as nails on a chalkboard but, not only did I survive listening to hours of her, but I enjoyed the experience. This book has stayed with me for months now and may be the first DL that I listen to for a second time. Interesting and fun.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 08-03-14

A lovely story about assassination and family

What did you like most about Assassination Vacation?

The little details.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Assassination Vacation?

Robert Todd Lincoln rejuvenating the life of the brother of the murderer of the his father.

Which scene did you most enjoy?

See above

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

Robert Todd Lincoln's fear of presidential death

Any additional comments?

These are lovely books telling a story we only hear mentioned.

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars
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  • G. Evans
  • 06-12-11

Hard to follow...

I really bought this for the grim but light hearted look on the history of presidential assasinations that this book promised as well as the fact that it has many famous narrators. Unfortunately the main narrator has a very distinctive voice which after a while, and bearing in mind this might just be me, but it does begin to grate a little. In fact after a about 5 hours i found that i could not concentrate on the audio because of how her voice comes across. Also, unless your listening really hard you do miss most of the other voices of the other people - theres no announcement they just come in say there bit and then disappear. I also felt that many of the wacky anecdotes seemed to be crushed together with no split or pause between them and i never knew which president she was referring to and at what time. I may have to give this another listen as I was fairly interested in the topic but for now my rating remains at a low one star :(

1 of 4 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Vanessa Young
  • 04-26-16

Brilliant book.

Loved this book, Sarah is so enthusiastic and her attention to detail is flawless. a unique writer and narrator, if you need to know EXACTLY what happened after Lincoln's assasination, Sarah Vowell is the writer for you. I particularly enjoyed Owen's tiny role in the book, it is great to read about a real child.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Anonymous User
  • 08-07-19

One of my favourite books of the year!

I was incredibly pleasantly surprised by this book! I went in expecting a somewhat dry history book, which I would have been fine with that’s kind of what I signed up for, but this book managed to blend interesting history facts with super compelling personal stories and interesting observations. I never thought a book could make me care about James A. Garfield but I found myself really liking the man and getting a better understanding of him as a person, but just a historical figure. This book made me care about these people not just as historical figures but as real people with lives and families, asking with educating me about a lot of history I wasn’t aware of. This combined with Vowell’s excellent inner monologue style of writing and incredibly good narrating made this book quickly shoot up my list of favourite books of the year, if not ever! I would (and do) recommend this book to everyone and I eagerly look forward to Vowell’s future books.