I kind of have a crush on Sarah Vowell. In addition to being terribly cute and having a great voice, she possesses a resume that lesser mortals can only dream of: four books under her belt, regular contributions to This American Life and McSweeney’s, playing a superhero in The Incredibles, and so on. Even the acknowledgments page of her latest book, Assassination Vacation, reads like a Who’s Who list of People That Are Cooler Than Me. The reason my admiration of her is of the crush variety rather than the more mundane green-with-envy variety is that she makes every topic she approaches about her; not “about her” in a self-centered, egomaniacal way, but in a way that creates connections between her subject and herself, and in the process creates connections between herself and the reader. How can you not fall a little bit in love with that?

In Assassination Vacation, Vowell plays a cross-country “Six Degrees of Separation” game with the first three presidents to leave office by unnatural causes: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Her buckshot travelogue is not simply a guide to historical tourist attractions, nor is it a straight-up history with some thoughtful anecdotes tossed in to lead into and out of chapters. As she drags a series of patient friends and relatives to a series of historical sites both celebrated (the Lincoln Memorial) and not (the median of a residential street in Buffalo) in search of stories and souvenirs, Vowell weaves the presidential together with the personal.

People, places, and things that merit little more than a footnote in the grand narrative of history — Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken ankle as he fled Ford’s Theatre; Arcata, a college town in California that prominently features a statue of William McKinley for what it turns out is no particular reason at all; James Garfield himself, who did little more in his abbreviated term than try (and fail) to avoid getting swept up in intra-party factionalism — are given more than their fair share of space in Vowell’s book, not because they’re especially important to us, but because in the process of researching and visiting and writing about them, they clearly become important to her. A statue of an actor in New York, parallels between the wars of 1898 and 2005, a president who’d rather read Austen than give speeches — all these things serve to humanize history, to make it specific rather than general.

Vowell writes about a speech Frederick Douglass made at the Freedman’s Memorial in Washington, D.C.:

Douglass is actually trying to remember Lincoln, what he did, what he said, how he changed. The problem with the fog of history, with the way the taboo against speaking ill of the dead tends to edit memorials down to saying nothing more than the deceased subject’s name, is that all the specifics get washed away, leaving behind some universal nobody.

There are two ways of breaking through this “fog of history.” One is the detailed biography, the exhaustive listing of everything a person said or did. The other, more accessible way, is Vowell’s way, the tracing of connections between past and present, between them and us, between James Garfield and Sarah Vowell and Josh Lee. The rather awkward side effect of this is that the reader gets to know Vowell as well as (or better than) he or she gets to know Garfield. The even more awkward side effect of the side effect is that the reader is at great risk of developing a little crush on the author.