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 They contribute one or two sentences per chapter, representing historical documents written by a variety of likely and unlikely suspects, from Ernest Hemingway to Grover Cleveland.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)
This was a well-researched, well-written piece of history on the Hawaiian Islands that details its slow and laborious conquest by white Europeans and Americans. There is a lot in here that is pretty shameful and saddening to hear, but it is important to know and be aware of America's history as colonizers.
Adding in extra narrators to read the historical quotes from the actual players in this tale was a nice touch. It helps you keep track of who is who and connect the person's voice from chapter to chapter.
If you like history with a little snark and sarcasm you should listen to Sara Vowell.
This is not her best book. With that said...if you are a fan of Sara Vowell you will like this look.
If you are new to Sara Vowell, start with Assassination Vacation.
I enjoyed this less than I wanted to. I wanted to love it like I loved her other books. I've listened to them multiple times. This was good. It was an obscure bit of American history that I've never heard before - namely Hawaiian history. I only knew the basics. There is much more to the story. I am sorry to say that I didn't finish it. I'm not sure why. I think that at some point - 3/4 of the way through - I just didn't feel compelled to keep listening. Her other books are brilliant. I'll give this one another try.
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.
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.
As a singing teacher I was originally horrified that someone with Sarah Vowell's voice quality would be put on the radio, but now I can't live without her. She's made me a convert to vocal diversity on the radio. I adore her narration and her pithy scholarship. This is editorial history at it's finest. Thank you for this book.
Sarah Vowel reads her own books, a plus for many, a negative for a few. I love her distinctive voice and wouldn't have it any other way. She knows when the words are intended to be ironic, facetious, sarcastic, etc. and I think that influences her inflection. I can't imagine actually reading one of her print books if it's available here. Her approach to history is entertaining, informative and eclectic.
I really liked the book and the "guest" narrators with famous names and good voices. I am sure the author liked reading her creation, but her voice is not her best asset. Not to sound harsh, but a professional narrator would enhance the experience. The author sounds like a very young woman and hard to take seriously
Andrew the Cook
I'm a bit in love with Sarah Vowell. Her squeaky voice. Her penchant for linking the triviality of today with earth-shaking events of yesterday. And, like many of her other fans, I first found her on This American Life, and was delighted to discover that her books were nearly as wonderful as her TAL stories.
Tthe reason I enjoy Vowell's books so much is that they enable me to be a lazy historian. Which is to say, I like the idea of being historically informed, but it's just so much darn work. Vowell breaks down the slog of history into fun, bite-sized and easily digestible morsels. She does it again in Unfamiliar Fishes, though perhaps with a bit less mastery than she has in the past.
The knowledge that Unfamiliar Fishes presents is fantastic. If, like me, you are largely ignorant of the history of the Hawaiian Islands, Unfamiliar Fishes will give you a treasure-trove of context for your next visit to paradise.
The way that knowledge is presented is, perhaps, not Vowell's best effort. While each individual chapter has a compelling narrative - when its stretched out over the course of the entire book, that narrative loses focus. Perhaps it's Vowell's decision to not commit to a rigid chronological structure, or perhaps the history of America's interaction with Hawaii is simply too varied to fit within a single narrative.
Whatever the cause, about half way through my listen, I realized that I wasn't looking forward to getting in my car and turning on my iPod anymore. The thing that I love Vowell for the most - the clever cloaking of history within entertainment - had gone missing.
Still, I was able to cowboy-up and finish the thing. You'll be rewarded if you do the same. Just be aware that at some points during Unfamiliar Fishes, you might feel a bit like your'e back in school, which, for some of us, is a terrible feeling.
Being born and raised in Hawai'i, I do agree that the narrator could have been a bit better, both in pronunciation and tone. However, the story is compelling, and very well researched. Hearing the bits and pieces that I learned in my Hawaiian Studies class in high school put into a very clear and complete structure was great. The writing style felt very personal, and it was nice hearing the stories of old Hawai'i together with the new as well as her own experiences. At the end of the book I got "chicken skin" or goose bumps as she talked about modern day Hawai'i. Very well written and highly recommended.
Report Inappropriate Content