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 They contribute one or two sentences per chapter, representing historical documents written by a variety of likely and unlikely suspects, from Ernest Hemingway to Grover Cleveland.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)
This book should not have been read by the author. She sounds like she loves the culture of Hawaii but cannot pronounce the names and has a grating voice. She would draw more people to her opinion if the recording were warmer - like the islands.
Unfortunately, I have to agree with some of the other reviewers. The great cast of narraters were only little quotes here and there and for the most part you are listening to the author Sarah Vowell narrate. It was difficult to listen to her because of the tone of her voice and speech impediment and I found myself torn between not wanting to listen and being fascinated with the content so having to push on. I wish I had read the book instead. I would have really enjoyed it.
Anger. Disappointment. I thought there would be multiple narrators, but there appears to be only one. I HATE her voice. The content was interesting, but I had to stop listening. I wish I had listened to a preview.
I have not disliked a narrator and book as much as I did this one in a long time. The author/narrator's voice grated on my nerves the second she started speaking. Her sarcastic negative comments were not amusing. This book did not flow smoothly nor did it hold my interest and I finally gave up about half way through. Waste of time when there are so many more interesting good books out there. Wish I could get my credit back. Possibly having a really great narrator might have saved this book to some degree, but that being said, don't waste your time.
Yes, the first listen-through it would have been better if performed by a professional voice actor. And I don't care. I love the book, and I love the author. I'm glad for the additional intimacy of hearing her words in her own voice. Think of her as an aural political cartoonist; a kinder, gentler Molly Ivins.
First of all the reader is not that great. Her reading style is somewhat of a monotone. The the way the author writes about history is distracting and uninteresting to me. For example she'll be talking about walking around modern day Hawaii in a boring manner one second and the next she tells some of the past in more of a lecture fashion. I will probably avoid the reader and author in the future. Carl
I live in Hawaii and thought that this would be an enjoyable listen. The authors voice and gross mispronunciations makes it very difficult to continue.
This is the second Vowell book that i may not finish. Reminds me of the saying, "insanity is when you do the same thing and expect different results".
Save your money (or points).
I was really excited to read this book - the subject matter and all-star list of narrators really drew me to it.
I feel that the long list of great actors narrating this book is nothing more then a marketing scheme. The author reads in a monotone voice, and although I feel cruel mentioning it, has a minor speech impediment. Every 20 minutes or so, one of the actors will read a short quote that just winds up being a really jerky transition from the author's narration.
The book may get better later on, but I don't think I can make it. I keep zoning out due to the monotoned narration. There is just no substitute for the life an actor gives to an audio book.
In all fairness; I did not finish this 'read'. Not that the material was bad; in fact, I think it could have been very entertaining as well as informative. The narration of this material was the problem; in this case the author read the book. She might possibly be a fantastic lady; but I have never heard a more whiney, nasally, self righteous sounding voice in my life. The rythm of her speech is painful to listen to; and passages that even I could tell should have been amusing; just fell flat. Another issue I couldn't understand was the brief interjection of the other narrators during her reading. I guess I thought each narrator would read sections of the book where their voices might be best applied. Not so. For example, the author would introduce the diary of one of the characters and then one of the narrators would jump in for a very brief reading of one or two lines; and then the author would continue reading. I hate to suggest not listening to something on this website; but I think you will be better off just reading this particular book instead of trying to listen to it.
Sarah Vowell is a smart woman and a wonderful writer. However, she really should not have narrated this book. I believe she has some sort of speech impediment, which makes her difficult to listen to for long stretches. She starts and stops abruptly. I hate to say it, but her reading ruins a wonderful book. Skip the audiobook, but read the real thing.
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