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 They contribute one or two sentences per chapter, representing historical documents written by a variety of likely and unlikely suspects, from Ernest Hemingway to Grover Cleveland.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 lights 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)
For those familiar with, and accepting of, Vowell's voice, the book will be time well spent. However, the idiosyncratic tone can be grating. What I've seen called deadpan irony comes across as self-congratulatory cleverness that would have been muted if the editor used a more professional voice. Too many of her sentences seem to end with an implied rim shot. Moreover, the book's use of celebrity narrators was distracting, though it is a remarkable cast for a mediocre book.By the middle, I lost interest in the narrative itself, with fault to be ascribed equally between the voice, the writing, the subject and my own attention span. I have listened to Vowell's Assasination Vacation, which was more enjoyable, probably because the work covered more familiar and varied ground.
Wow. That's quite a list of narrators! Sarah has done this in her other books as well. The guest narrators don't do extensive pieces, but they each take on a few of the "characters" and read their direct quotes. I will admit, knowing the list was extensive, with fun people I like, I did spend some time thinking "Is this Bill Hader? Who was that?" I think John Slattery had the most distinctive and easy-to-pick-out voice. I like this technique, although it might sound distracting, as sometimes knowing when something is a quote and isn't on an audio, can be difficult as people don't say "quote... close quote" when reading quotations. There's often an opening such as "Theodore Roosevelt then said..." but there's seldom any way to figure out when a quote ends. I also like it, as it's an add-on for us audiobook listeners, who often get shafted and don't get to see funny drawings (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night), or photo inserts (any serious biography) unless the book is the very awesome Bossypants.
Anyway, on to Unfamiliar Fishes. Sarah Vowell is an unconventional historian, probably most similar to Tony Horwitz. She doesn't at all try to remove herself from the story (although it isn't a memoir per se). She talks about her sister and her nephew joining her on her research trips to Hawaii and relates what she learns to herself personally. Most notably in her comparison of the treatment of the Hawaiian native to the Native Americans, as she is part Cherokee, which is an apt comparison. She's funny, a little kooky, loves a random bit of trivia (my favorite!), and tries to both understand the thinking of the people back then and also from our modern-day perspective.
Favorite trivia: Morse, inventor of the telegraph and Morse code, was a painter. Not like he painted on the side or it was a hobby, that was his regular job, day-in and day-out, and he was respected and paid well. But while he was painting some semi-famous guy in New York, his wife became deathly ill back in Connecticut. By the time he found out and was able to race home, she had already died. He invented the telegraph out of frustration with the poor communication of the times. I had always thought he was one of those inventor-guys like Edison and Franklin who probably invented a bunch of other things, but nope.
I know some people find Ms. Vowell's voice abrasive or grating, but I find it very endearing. To me she sounds a lot like a little kid. But several hours of it would be a bit much if it was grating to you, so I recommend her books on audio with the caveat that you should check out her voice first with a quick This American Life story or a Daily Show clip. But if you like her, this book won't disappoint. And I promise, you'll learn some unusual history not covered in class. Aloha.
Book blogger at Bookwi.se
Sarah Vowell is a unique historian. She may be the only historian known as much for her unique speaking voice as she is for her writing. She has been a regular on This American Life, the voice of the daughter on the movie The Increadibles and is the author of six books.
So it is her voice (both actually and literary) that will lead you to love or hate her. To get an idea of her actual voice you can watch the book trailer below. But that will really only matter if you want to listen to the audiobook (which I did.)
The literary voice is another matter. Vowell is a historian for the ADD world. She is thorough, but the book is littered with bunny trails. She writes as much about the process and people she meets while doing research as she does about the topic. So we will hear about the guides on tours and people she meets in libraries. Her nephew Owen pops up frequently in her books because she seems to frequently travel with her sister and nephew. These comments bring a grounding to her work and let the reader really understand her as an author. But if you are more interested in the actual subject than the author, you might not like Sarah Vowell’s books.
In some ways, Unfamiliar Fishes is a sequel her last book. Wordy Shipmates explored the founding of New England and the Pilgrims. Unfamiliar Fishes looks at Hawaii, from its early history to its introduction to the US as a territory. (I actually would have liked to know more about how it became a state.) Much of the colonizing effort in Hawaii was the result of American Missionaries from New England, the children and grandchildren of the subjects of Wordy Shipmates. Vowell has a unique relationship to American Christianity. She is the grandchild of a pastor and while not a practicing Christian, she is fluent in and has great respect for the motivation of Christian and these New Englanders’ in particular. That does not mean she really agrees with them as she will tell you frequently.
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.
Sarah Vowell is an excellent, and very thorough historical researcher who weaves personal antecdotes into the stories of the long past. It is obvious to all readers that she views her subjects, no matter how long dead, as alive and as real as her own friends and family. I enjoyed this book and learned a great deal about Hawaii's history.
That said, Sarah Vowell has the most annoying, nasal voice in the world! It grated on my nerves so much so that I couldn't finish listening to the book. Don't let the long list of famous narrators fool you, either: the big name actors and comedians who Vowell got to contribute phone in their one-line readings of historical dialogue in a way reminiscence of a bored teenager called to read in high school literature class. Not a fun listen for me!
This book is easy to follow if your like me ur wiki-keying names and places as your listening. I like the flow of how she but the fact together. The story is disturbing part of American history but is typical and thats whats sad about it.
Make it more factual
Someone with a less annoying voice
I felt that the author cherry-picked some of the facts and didn't go into enough depth on many of them. Her sarcastic "white-bashing" got very irritating at times.
Loved the book and loved Susan Vowell as the narrator as well as the author. I love how she keeps tying all the loose ends together rather than a timeline approach. A nice tight package. A must for any traveler going to Hawaii. I can't wait to get there!
This book took forever.
The story jumped around too much for me. While the book was based on true accounts, the continuity of the read could have been better.
I actually liked the author's dry, sarcastic humor. But this was not the book for her. It felt like 10th grade social studies all over again.
If you have the patience, it may be worth your time. But if you're looking for something to capture your interests and satisfy your curiosities, pick something else.
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