Public radio darling Sarah Vowell has written five nonfiction books over the past decade or so, and this latest installment in her personalized People’s History-type study of America’s lesser known political foibles is as charming as the previous four books. Undertaking a study of precisely how Hawaii came to be annexed by the United States in 1898, Vowell draws on a wealth of archival research and oral tradition to craft a comprehensive view of the state’s less than democratic incorporation into our union.
The bulk of the book is narrated by Vowell herself. Don’t be fooled by the plethora of well-known wise-crackers also listed as narrators. These other voices are enlisted only for help with quotations. They contribute one or two sentences per chapter, representing historical documents written by a variety of likely and unlikely suspects, from Ernest Hemingway to Grover Cleveland. The big winner here is Maya Rudolph, whose turn as the deposed Queen Lili’uokalani is completely enchanting. Her bits really stand out as a portrait conveying the majesty and optimistic strength of a monarch in decline. Otherwise, all these imminently recognizable voices conjured up to assist Vowell interrupt the flow of text just long enough for a listener to think, “Hey, that’s Bill Hader!” Then the quotation is over and it’s back to the voice of Vowell.
Oh, what a voice it is. Depending on who you ask, Sarah Vowell’s is the voice that either launched a thousand ships, or sank them. A native of Oklahoma with an extremely nasal voice and a soft lisp on her sibilants, Vowell is most definitely an acquired taste, but absolutely beloved by those who have acquired such a taste. She has been in the audio business in some form or another for quite a long while, and is a genuine expert in matters of the well-timed punch-line and the mysterious art of engrossing story-telling. Vowell is such a fountain of dry wit that it’s tempting to call her a savant. As she maps this singular strand of the American imperial impulse, listeners will be relieved to find that the violent politics of Manifest Destiny are tempered with the grain of salt that is Vowell’s limitless power of comedic contextualization.
Devotees of Vowell can expect that this listen is up to the standard of all her others. Those who have never heard Vowell before will find that Unfamiliar Fishes is as good a place to start as any other. This book does an excellent job of filling in a void glossed over by mainstream accounts of American territorial acquisition. From her explanation of how Hawaii developed a written language to her hilarious description of the self-aggrandizing missionary who undertook to establish Mormonism on the islands, Sarah Vowell once again delivers a uniquely fresh and deeply interesting perspective detailing the highly specific ways in which the history of the United States is in fact not very united. Megan Volpert
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, a year 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.
With Vowell's trademark wry insights and reporting, she sets out to discover the odd, emblematic, and exceptional history of the 50th state. In examining the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn, she finds America again, warts and all.
Read by the author a cast that includes Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery. Music by Michael Giacchino with Grant Lee-Phillips. The score contains excerpts from "Hawai'i Pono'i" (words by David Kalakaua and music by Henri Berger) performed by Grant-Lee Phillips.
©2011 Sarah Vowell (P)2011 Simon and Schuster
"Vowell makes an excellent travelling companion, what with her rare combination of erudition and cheek." (The New York Times Book Review)
mostly nonfiction listener
Would Unfamiliar Fishes be assigned to read in a history course?
Would Sarah Vowell by hired as a history professor?
Probably no on both counts, and that makes me a little sad.
Sarah Vowell writes great history books. Unfamiliar Fishes traces the long-term results for the Hawaiian people, and monarchy, of the decision of a few New England evangelists to move to the archipelago in the early 19th century. The end results, including the loss of sovereignty and the eventual annexation by the U.S. may be predictable - but few of us (certainly not myself), know the details of the story. Sarah Vowell, as always, is the perfect person to teach us some history.
Don't get me wrong. Sarah Vowell doesn't really need academia. She is doing just fine on her own. But we need Sarah Vowell, or at least more people like her. Scholars who perhaps do not take themselves so seriously, but can still manage to draw on primary sources to tell new stories.
I imagine Sarah Vowell's lack of terminal credentials, in addition to the first person narrative and frequent insertions of hilarious personal details into her historical narratives, would somewhat disqualify her from the professional historian club.
Any other Sarah Vowell fans out there?
I'm a big fan of SF/F/Horror, and all things in between and out.
From the arrival of Captain Cook, to the missionaries, to the businessmen and politicians who orchestrate the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, Vowell's book is a fascinating and upsetting in-depth look at the Americanization (and eventual annexation) of Hawaii. This is not your typical tourist fare.
I knew what to expect from Vowell's reading, and don't have any issues with her voice (if you're not familiar with Vowell, definitely check out the sample to see if it'll be too much for you).
The supporting cast is generally fine, but Keanu Reeves is shocking great as David Malo. I think I could listen to him read Malo's Hawaiian Antiquities and be content.
Definitely worth checking out if you're at all interested in the history of Hawaii.
I'm a pop culture writer and editor living in San Francisco who commutes about half an hour with audio books five days a week. I go through a lot of audio books.
I adore Sarah Vowell, but this audiobook could have used less A-list talent, and more details. While it sounds awesome to have Fred Armisen, Edward Norton, and Catherine Keener all voicing characters in an audiobook, it's actually jarring.
Vowell tends to favor brief quotes and orphan quotes in her work (that's when part of the sentence is prose, and another part is a quote). That means you often find four or five word quotes in her work that in an audiobook are spoken by a different voice actor. So you go Vowell for half the sentence, John Slattery for five words, then Vowell again. It takes me out of the experience.
"Unfamiliar Fishes" is an awesome starting point for Hawaiian history, but Vowell is arguably too judicious here with the economy of her words and story. We learn about King Kamehameha and his children, but I found myself reading their Wikipedia entries just so I could fully follow along.
Where "Assassination Vacation" felt like it had just the right mix of quick pace, personal detail, and actual history, "Fishes" moves so fast I had a hard time keeping track of the characters, each of which pops up as a brand new voice from Vowell's cadre of famous fans.
ms vowell has written another well researched interesting tome and as always,adds her humorous twists,odd angles,and gentle sarcasm to a steady revelry of ironical prose. a 5 star recommendation!
I am sure there is fascinating Hawaiian history to be found in this book. I just could not hear it between all the bitterness of the author.
The only thing that would have made the book worse, would be the author reading it. Oh wait, she did. Monotone and bitter. I can sum up the story in one sentence. Hawaii was ruined by the Christians.
I am not Christian, but I was so irritated by her constant monotone complaining and blaming, that I could not find the story beneath it. Our whole world develops based on choices people make of beliefs (religion) and politics. It has since the beginning of time.
I would had loved to hear about Hawaii's history, including how the missionaries and the natives choice to follow them affected Hawaii. I'll just need to find a more balanced and less monotone author.
Say something about yourself!
I am one of those who had a bad reaction to her voice. If I could give no stars for performance I would have. It did not "grow" on me. Nasally, then, lispy. What is there to "grow" on the listener? Few, very few authors can read their own writing and get away with it. Stephen King can. So can David Sedaris. Indeed David's voice is part of the charm. Not so here. Not so humorous, not so interesting. A great conceit and arrogance of the author in reading her own stuff. A dud for me.
I have quit on only a handful of over 800 books in my Audible library. This, alas, is one of those books. Overrated and much too self consciously precious for me. Save your credits!
Well, let me restate that. This is a great book if you enjoy bitter atheists. The only thing that would make it worse; if the very monotone, bitter author read it herself. Oh, wait she did.
I am not a Christian, so this is not about me not liking her because of her views. It is simply that there is so much resentment and anger on the top, I could not find the story below.
I am was so disappointed because I love nonfiction and historical nonfiction, in particular.
I wanted to like this, I really did. I enjoy Sarah's work, and from what little I've seen of her on television, she seems funny and smart. The book is just not that engaging. There IS humor, but was I wrong to think it would be mostly humorous? Sure, I appreciate amount the amount of research that must have gone into this, but on the other hand I kept thinking, "girl just wanted a bunch of free trips to Hawaii!" In the end, I feel like I did learn a lot, but none of it was really that sort of stuff that makes you think, "oh wow, so THAT'S how it happened!" I've listened to plenty of [free] podcasts with more tangibly interesting material. Sorry!
Randee and Dan
I think the subject matter of this book might be interesting. However, Sarah Vowell is not a good narrator. Her voice is monotone and it makes it hard for me to listen without getting distracted. This book should be narrated by someone else. I was also disappointed that that other narrators only had cameo appearances that didn't really make sense to me. Sorry Sarah, and your producers, this book just didn't do it for me.
Say something about yourself!
I tried to finish it, but threw in the towel at the 1/3 point. The use of the guest narrators for the quotations is awful and ruins the flow of the book. I am sure somewhere in the book is a good story, but I had hard time finding it as it was buried in the guest narrator's and Sarah's quirky comments.
IMO - there are lots of better history books out there. I am not sure what the fuss is about this one and her other ones. But I can't recommend it and don't plan on trying any of her other books.
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