This Week's Reads

Sarah Vowell, Steve Almond, and Ian McEwan.

Assassination Vacation

By Sarah Vowell (Simon & Schuster, $21) Sarah Vowell (rhymes with "growl" if you say it fast) is a mistress of all media. A recovering SF Weekly rock critic partial to Seattle grunge, she shot to stardom with her oddball commentary on public radio's This American Life, where she held her adenoidal own against fellow sardonic skyrockets like David Sedaris. She's a ranking member of the McSweeney's magazine hipoisie, and voiced a character clearly inflected by her personality, invisible Violet in The Incredibles. In person in Seattle (where, by her own account, she "kills," as she no doubt will this Friday), Vowell is in her comic element. But on the best-seller list, she's had more success than actual literary achievement. Her books have mostly been disconnected essays cobbled together from her audio act. She's hit plenty of singles, and now, taking a swing at one unified subject— a road trip to the sites made historic by murderers of American presidents—she's hoping for a home run. She's like an astoundingly discursive history teacher with a sweet tooth for the macabre touch and the poignant anecdote. As a historian, Vowell's main influence is the 1966 hit record History Repeats Itself, which cataloged the coincidences in Lincoln's and JFK's deaths. She gets butterflies seeing President McKinley's Cuban and Philippines war adventures repeated by Bush II, and chills from the weird coincidences her pilgrimage revealed: Lincoln killer John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin "saving [Abe's son] Robert Todd Lincoln's life, Ford's Theatre collapsing during Edwin's funeral, and of course the seriously hexed Robert T's assassination cameo three-peat"—Robert Todd Lincoln happened to be on hand for all three of the presidential fatalities: his dad's, James Garfield's, and McKinley's. Vowell is all about eccentric connections and curious facts. Martin Luther King Jr. died right after having a giddy motel pillow fight. Lincoln died cackling—actor Booth timed his shot for the big laugh after one character calls a woman "you sockdologizing [manipulative] old man-trap!" When Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City, he wore an anti-Lincoln T-shirt bought from the racist Confederate magazine Southern Partisan, which is extolled by John Ashcroft. Digression is Vowell's middle name. Describing the wacko sex cult, the Oneida Community, that produced Garfield's killer, Charles Guiteau, she notes that cultists called it "the O.C.," which makes her think of the TV show, which makes her feel "conspiracy theoretically bound to mention" that what broke up the cult was the elders' habit of "bogarting the teenage virgins," so that defectors led by James Towner "left in a huff for none other than Orange County, California, where Towner helped organize the Orange County government [and] picked the spot where the Santa Ana courthouse would be built, a courthouse where, it is reasonable to assume, Peter Gallagher's attorney character on The OC might defend his clients." Vowell has a gift for making places devoted to death come alive: museums with blood, brains, and bones; the Caribbean island prison where alleged Booth co-conspirator Samuel Mudd was sent to rot; and various graveyards, which her skeleton-loving 3-year-old nephew and frequent traveling companion calls "Halloween parks." For all the book's considerable color, comedy, and style, her editor must've been on vacation for Assassination. Vowell is allowed to retell the Robert Todd Lincoln story too many times and to misquote President Lincoln's famous line "If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong." The book would be much better read aloud by her than silently by you, which is perhaps reason enough to line up early for SRO space at her reading. Still, it's funny and fascinating, and a major leap in Vowell's literary career. TIM APPELO Sarah Vowell will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Fri., April 29. The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories

By Steve Almond (Algonquin, $21.95) The world would be a duller place if everyone were sexually satisfied. There's no such balance in this collection of 12 stories, which are full of betrayed women, inconstant men, inappropriate touching, and transgressive sex. The stories are less cohesive as a group than Steve Almond's prior My Life in Heavy Metal, which was basically about randy twentysomethings groping for something beyond one-night stands. Here, some characters have aged into midlife and university jobs; women take over the narration occasionally; alien abductions occur; and there's even a gay historical fantasia involving Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The pleasure and the quality are decidedly mixed. Almond also has a tendency to intellectually overload the endings of his stories, perhaps a symptom of maturity and education (he teaches at Boston College), not evidenced in Heavy Metal. In the title story, a magazine editor finds her lover is not what he seems, then wanders Boston's docks, musing at the harvest moon: "There is so much time in life for grief. So many men lying in wait." True, but sometimes a woman needs a good, stiff drink under such circumstances. In "The Soul Molecule," a guy tries to humor his friend about the aliens supposedly watching over them, then finds himself stumbling into "some kind of clairvoyant moment" beneath sun-lanced clouds. Almond's more concrete in "Appropriate Sex," where a soon-to-be-fired college instructor shares a toke with a student who inadvertently saved him from real disgrace. Not every crisis deserves big-picture rumination. Sometimes simple description is enough. Almond certainly hasn't lost the ability to be straightforward and funny, as in "A Happy Dream," where a guy, unlucky in love, describes himself as "Not risk averse. Anti heartbreak. There's a difference." And he's consistently sympathetic toward his characters and their follies and obsessions. As campus hipsters debate in "The Idea of Michael Jackson's Dick," there's a touching reminder that everyone, even poor Jacko, was once a child seeking defense against the cruelties of the world. At his best here, in "Wired for Life" and "Skull," sexual neediness—which skirts on the perverse—can't be separated from tenderness and human vulnerability. In the former story, frustrated by her boyfriend's unwillingness to sleep with her, a woman falls for her computer repairman, who's got the magic touch with her laptop. In the latter, physical disability invites bedroom experimentation that's both appalling and, thanks to Almond's craft, understandable and even loving. His characters may have mellowed a bit from his Heavy Metal–heads, and their hair may be shorter, but they're still trying to make sense of their unruly impulses. BRIAN MILLER Steve Almond will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Tues., May 3. Saturday

By Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese, $26) In the wake of 9/11, Jonathan Lethem aptly pointed out that we just witnessed a spectacle so large it trumped imagination. The question for novelists remained not what would they do to top it but how would they write about it. Saturday, Ian McEwan's latest timepiece of a novel, is one answer. With deceptive boldness, the novel writes itself right into the present tense, unfolding over the course of a single February day in 2003, as England prepares for war in Iraq and wealthy neurologist Henry Perowne gets ready for his squash game. That juxtaposition says a lot about where this novel is about to go; it's a book of everyday menace. Perowne has a bit too much going for him: He drives a Mercedes and lives in a design-magazine fantasy home; he has a good wife and a happy family; his taste in food is fantastic. But something is off. In the middle of the night, Perowne thinks he sees a plane making a fiery crash landing at Heathrow Airport. This strange moment casts a pall over the coming day's routine—breakfast, squash, visits with family—and drenches Perowne with anxiety. Like Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway— another character trying to enjoy life's routine pleasures on the eve of a war—that feeling of global dread echoes back to him. An antiwar demonstration rages on, blocking traffic and steering Perowne into a fender bender that nearly leads to a hostile altercation with a mentally unstable man. Saturday is, at the heart of it, a tale of two brains, both of them struggling to absorb the anxiety of our new world. One of the brains belongs to the violent fender bender guy—whom Perowne can diagnose (being a neurologist) but not control. The other brain belongs to Perowne's mother, whose brain illness has robbed her of her memory. Throughout the day, Perowne recalls the books his daughter, Daisy, a budding poet, has instructed him to read: Madame Bovary and a biography of Darwin. He doesn't. To the surgeon Perowne, literature doesn't give him entrée to the heads of other people. For that, he has his knife. After all this cerebral reckoning, three-quarters of the way into the novel, Perowne abruptly winds up in a situation of true danger. It's as if by merely thinking of them, Perowne can conjure his worst fears. That's partly the point of Saturday, a brilliantly structured, beautifully arranged novel about the way nightmares spring from our mind—and filter back into it. How does Perowne deal with this? Here, literature has its revenge, and this strict materialist is forced to reconsider the access art provides to consciousness. Saturday isn't just a book about a man watching himself think; it's the story of a man also watching himself feel. Amazingly, the novel convinces us the two can be one and the same. JOHN FREEMAN

 
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