Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 2011
Read by: Sarah Vowell
The Short Version:
The history of Hawaii as seen and heard through Sarah Vowell’s unique viewpoint and voice.
Why I Read It:
We had listened to two of Sarah Vowell’s earlier audiobooks on road trips and purposely planned ahead to be able to listen to this newest one on our vacation trip this month.
I’m going to go with the publisher’s description of this book because it’s hard for me to explain.
Many think of 1776 as the most defining year of American history, the year 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 crucial to our nation’s identity, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded Cuba, and then the Philippines, becoming a meddling, self-serving, militaristic international superpower practically overnight.
Of all the countries the United States invaded or colonized in 1898, Vowell considers the story of the Americanization of Hawaii to be the most intriguing. From the arrival of the New England missionaries in 1820, who came to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’État led by the missionaries’ sons in 1893, overthrowing the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling if often appalling or tragic characters. Whalers who will fire 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, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaii-born president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade
Once I’d heard that Sarah Vowell’s latest was about Hawaii I pretty much made The Hubster read James Michener’s epic novel Hawaii before we listened to Unfamiliar Fishes. I’m very glad I did. I think that going into this book without some background of the history of the islands and the people who settled them would make listening to Unfamiliar Fishes a bit confusing.
While the unique style of the author’s writing and reading are very much as much a part of this book as her others, I hesitate to recommend this one. While we enjoyed it, The Hubster and I agreed that if this had been our first Sarah Vowell audiobook we would not have been eager to seek out her others.
It was fun in places. It was interesting. It was thoroughly researched and entertainingly presented. It was not her best. If you’re looking for a fun road trip or just entertaining combination of history, humor and oddball bits of information, I’d recommend Vowell’s earlier books Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates, but I would not recommend this one as an introduction to her work.
It was harder to follow the history in this book than in the others. There seemed to be much more jumping around in time and asides that stretched into major detours than in the earlier books.
We enjoyed it, but without some previous knowledge of the subject matter I’m not sure we would have enjoyed it as much as we did.