Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

Summary: Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'├ętat of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all. -- Riverhead Books

I can say without any reservation that UNFAMILIAR FISHES by Sarah Vowell is not a book that I'd usually go out of my way to read. It's pretty much a history book (which I don't tend to "do") about Hawaii (somewhere I've never even visited.) But I have heard so many great things about Sarah Vowell that I wanted to give one of her books a try. I figured I might as well start with her most recent, and I think I'm glad I did.

I actually was surprised by how much I enjoyed UNFAMILIAR FISHES because first, and foremost, it was a history book; and I usually prefer to get my history lessons from historical fiction. However, I have to say that if I'm going to read a non-fiction book, then UNFAMILIAR FISHES definitely appealed to me. I certainly liked the way that Sarah Vowell presented the information with her brutal honesty and caustic wit. I'd go so far as to say that this book was almost an irreverent account of Hawaii's history (and definitely not one you'd get in any textbook), but at the same time, I'm sure it's true (and much more interesting!)

UNFAMILIAR FISHES tells the story of the Americanization of Hawaii. While I knew next to nothing about Hawaii's entrance into the United States prior to reading this book, I can't say that I was entirely shocked with how we "acquired" the territory -- although I can say that I was saddened. The book covers some of Hawaii's history and background. It also tells about when New England missionaries came to teach the natives about Christianity and how their ancestors eventually overthrew the queen. Much of this story is fascinating, as are the characters involved (in fact, I would have loved more information about the Hawaiian queen because she sounded like an amazing woman); and I definitely found parts of this book to be pretty darn incredible.

UNFAMILIAR FISHES is a relatively short book (around 230 pages), but it does give a nice overview of Hawaii's history and its annexation into the United States. While I did appreciate learning so much about Hawaii as well as the United States' attempts to impose their beliefs of self-government on Hawaii (and many other countries), I think I most enjoyed Sarah Vowell's voice. She has a unique way of "telling it like it is" and I thought her insight was so refreshing. (Why couldn't I have had a history teacher like this when I was in school?) My only regret with this book is that there weren't more of her reflections and wise-cracking comments on Hawaii's history!

Sarah Vowell made learning fun for me, and as a result, I definitely want to check out more of her books. I'm thinking that an audio one might even be interesting. For those of you who've read her books, which title do you recommend for me? And, should I give an audio one a try?

Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy of this book.


bermudaonion said...

Everyone seems to love Sarah Vowell's work! I really know nothing about Hawaii either - I don't ever remember learning it in school.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I was thinking the same thing...I wish I would have had her for a history teacher. I might have actually liked my history classes! I love her sense of humor, and her delivery in her audios are just SPOT ON. I've listened to both The Wordy Shipmates (about the Puritans coming to US) and Assassination Vacation (everything you ever wanted to know about assassinated presidents and their killers). I would recommend both. I wish my library would hurry up already and get the rest of her work on audio!!!!

Julie @ Read Handed said...

This book sounds great! History books are right up my alley. I'll have to check this one out. If you like your history books more narrative, I would also suggest the author Les Standiford. He's primarily a novelist, so when he writes nonfiction it has that attention-grabbing flow to it. My favorite is Last Train to Paradise - it's about my home state of Florida. I highly recommend it!

I'm a new reader and I'm enjoying your posts!

Julie @ Read Handed (

Swapna said...

I loved Assassination Vacation, and I listened to it in audio. I definitely recommend you give the audio a try - I read The Wordy Shipmates in print and got bored with it at times!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have this but can't get to it yet. But I have heard many good things about the author also. I'm surprised you didn't give this one to Booking PapPap to do! :--)

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

I can't wait to read this!

Anonymous said...

I love Sarah and really love to listen to her read. She's one of the only reasons I'll stay up late to watch David Letterman when she's on, she's just so funny. I can't wait to read (or should I say listen) to this on.