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Unfamiliar Fishes | [Sarah Vowell]

Unfamiliar Fishes

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.
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Audible Editor Reviews

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 They contribute one or two sentences per chapter, representing historical documents written by a variety of likely and unlikely suspects, from Ernest Hemingway to Grover Cleveland.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

Publisher's Summary

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

What the Critics Say

"Vowell makes an excellent travelling companion, what with her rare combination of erudition and cheek." (The New York Times Book Review)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

3.9 (898 )
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4.1 (540 )
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Performance
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  •  
    Kat ANNANDALE, NJ, United States 03-23-11
    Kat ANNANDALE, NJ, United States 03-23-11 Member Since 2010
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    "Sarah Vowell does it again!"

    Sarah Vowell's never fails to make me fall in love with her all over again!

    Unfamiliar Fishes is the story of the Americanization of Hawaii, and Vowell uses her storytelling - complete with historical facts, stories and personal anecdotes of her travels - to make the tale interesting and memorable. I can't imagine hearing this story read by anyone other than the author - her unique voice, along with the interjections from other celebs, makes a great book a truly spectacular listen.

    39 of 40 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Bonnie Colorado Sptings, CO, United States 04-30-11
    Bonnie Colorado Sptings, CO, United States 04-30-11
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    "Dont listen to the critics"

    Sarah Vowell hits the mark with this audiobook that blends history with personal reaction and historigraphy. I have enjoyed all of her books and this one is great too. . . it isnt the masterpiece Assasination Vacation was, and this audiobook is not as entertaining as that one was, but it is also more colorful and less wordy than the Wordy Shipmates. For those who sneer at the narration, half the joy of these books is listening to Vowell's dry wit and human vocality. She is not pronouncing things incorrectly, and her expression adds to the whole audiobook experience. These people would probably dislike Angela's Ashes because "they should have got a narrator without such a thick Irish accent." Sarah Vowell's naration is wonderful.

    6 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    L. S. Weinstein Beaverton, OR USA 03-26-11
    L. S. Weinstein Beaverton, OR USA 03-26-11 Member Since 2010
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    "Charming read!"

    If you love Hawaii and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," here's your book. I didn't know much about Hawaii's history, and Vowell combines her wonderful research with a modern twist. Fun experiment having other voices read the quotes, which enlivens the book.

    18 of 21 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Lisa Whiting, IN, United States 04-04-11
    Lisa Whiting, IN, United States 04-04-11 Member Since 2002
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    "History as story..."

    Sarah Vowell will eventually be listed among this generations finest historians. Because she is a fine historian. This book is deeply researched. Ms. Vowell understands the times and places she writes about so well that she is able to weave a compelling tale making the historical characters fully realized. I consumed this book over a weekend.

    Ms. Vowell's voice is an acquired taste. I've been listening to Sarah Vowell since her days on NPR and This American Life. If your politics are right of center, or if you believe that the US is always right in all it does, you will not enjoy this book. But you cannot fault the accuracy of the research Ms. Vowell has done to create this masterful story.

    12 of 14 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joshua Kim Etna, NH, United States 06-10-12
    Joshua Kim Etna, NH, United States 06-10-12 Member Since 2005

    mostly nonfiction listener

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    "'Unfamiliar Fishes' and Professor Vowell?"

    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.
    Our loss.

    Any other Sarah Vowell fans out there?

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Dave Whittier, CA, United States 05-01-12
    Dave Whittier, CA, United States 05-01-12 Member Since 2010

    I'm a big fan of SF/F/Horror (all the better if they're mashed up together, my dears!), and enjoy other literature as well.

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    "Not for Tourists"

    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.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Dave Whittier, CA 05-01-12
    Dave Whittier, CA 05-01-12 Member Since 2010

    I'm a big fan of SF/F/Horror, and all things in between and out.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Not for Tourists"

    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.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Darrin Ridgefield, WA, United States 05-02-11
    Darrin Ridgefield, WA, United States 05-02-11 Member Since 2009
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    "Enjoyable, but celeb narrations are distracting"

    At first, I found the author's voice a bit distracting, but over time, I came to enjoy her voice, especially when she was doing dead pan irony. What became painful as the book progressed were the celeb readings of a sentence to a paragraph. There would be a lead up to a quote, a lengthy pause and then a quote read by a celeb. Sometimes the pause seemed to go on and on with a tiny section (7 words or so) read by the celeb. These became so distracting, and were often times difficult to hear due to difference in volume, that I just tuned them out. The use of celebs to read quotes seemed to be too gimmicky.

    All in all, I enjoyed the book and the author's voice. I have stopped listening to a small number of books because of painful narration. The negative reviews seem too harsh especially the ones that complain of "America is always the bad guy." Looking back at this period through modern perspective makes it hard to justify our prior actions. One just needs to accept the difference in perspectives and move on.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    James dadeville, AL, United States 04-02-11
    James dadeville, AL, United States 04-02-11 Member Since 2007
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    "best yet!"

    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!

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jeremiah Duncan San Francisco, CA 09-09-12
    Jeremiah Duncan San Francisco, CA 09-09-12 Member Since 2011

    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.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Too Many Voice Actors, Not Enough Story"

    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.

    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  • Showing: 1-10 of 59 results PREVIOUS126NEXT
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  • S. Matthewman
    UK
    7/9/13
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Not Vowell's finest, but still fun and informative"
    Would you try another book written by Sarah Vowell or narrated by the narrators?

    I'd previously enjoyed The Partly Cloudy Patriot, and so had been looking forward to this one. It didn't engage me as much as my first Vowell audiobook, but I love her writing style and sense of humour, so will be listening to more.


    What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?

    The history of Hawaii is told in an engaging way that makes you wonder what life on the islands was like before the settlers from Britain and America came to dominate.


    Did the narration match the pace of the story?

    Absoutely. Sarah Vowell's delivery can start off sounding like a robotic monotone at first, but once your brain falls in step with the pace and rhythm of her voice, you realise it matches her disarming brand of self deprecation and sarcastic charm completely.


    Did Unfamiliar Fishes inspire you to do anything?

    One day, I'll visit Hawaii for myself. One day.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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