Regular price: $20.99

Free with 30-day trial
Membership details Membership details
  • A 30-day trial plus your first audiobook, free
  • 1 credit/month after trial – good for any book, any price
  • Easy exchanges – swap any book you don’t love
  • Keep your audiobooks, even if you cancel
  • After your trial, Audible is just $14.95/month
OR
In Cart

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 They contribute one or two sentences per chapter, representing historical documents written by a variety of likely and unlikely suspects, from Ernest Hemingway to Grover Cleveland.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

Critic Reviews

"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 Ratings

Overall

  • 4.0 out of 5.0
  • 5 Stars
    691
  • 4 Stars
    591
  • 3 Stars
    306
  • 2 Stars
    116
  • 1 Stars
    66

Performance

  • 4.1 out of 5.0
  • 5 Stars
    666
  • 4 Stars
    324
  • 3 Stars
    189
  • 2 Stars
    75
  • 1 Stars
    77

Story

  • 4.0 out of 5.0
  • 5 Stars
    570
  • 4 Stars
    403
  • 3 Stars
    243
  • 2 Stars
    82
  • 1 Stars
    33
Sort by:
  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Bitter

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

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.<br/><br/>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.<br/><br/>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.<br/><br/>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.<br/><br/><br/><br/>

19 of 29 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Couldn't Finish It

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.

6 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Irritating Narrator

Is there anything you would change about this book?

Make it more factual

If you’ve listened to books by Sarah Vowell before, how does this one compare?

n/a

Who would you have cast as narrator instead of the narrators?

Someone with a less annoying voice

Was Unfamiliar Fishes worth the listening time?

Not really

Any additional comments?

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.

5 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

At the end I wanted to cry

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.

7 of 13 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story
  • S
  • 11-27-17

Came for the Sarah Vowell...

...stayed for the Sarah Vowell. The hilarious history writer is as entertaining as ever in audio form.

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

An honest examination of Hawaiian history

Sarah Vowell is such an engaging, honest historian. I've never been to Hawaii but now when I go I'll see the islands with a more true perspective.
Thank you Sarah.

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Irritating reader, good history, but

Good history, but hardly interesting enough to keep you reading into the night. People are polarized on her speach. Its slow with little twists like baby talk or speach impediment. Others say just very nasle or Southern. Many love to listen to it, perhaps in proof of acceptance of develpmentally challenged. She is obviously bright.

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

edutainment at it's finest

Sarah never fails to educate and entertain. Well worth listening to. Hawaiin history us complicated and interesting.

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Great story, hard listen

the author does a great job telling the story of Hawaii in a fairly unbiased fashion, but her voice is difficult to get past.

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Never wanted to go to Hawaii....and dang it, now I do!

Seen the author a time or two on TVs The Daily Show and found her personality to be quite peppy (is that even a word?). Anyhow I swore I would give one of her books a chance and boy am I glad I did. I enjoyed her narration as I don't believe it would work any other way. Now, aside from her funny delivery on certain topics there a lot of information to consume so I'm eager to listen to this audible twice. Now, I randomly picked this book, as I needed a distraction from my job. Turns out, unbeknownst to me, much of this book makes references and comparisons between Hawaiians and the Cherokee Tribe. Irony of this...I am and happen to work for cherokee tribe 😕so this became a weekend reader 😏. Still yet, I much enjoyed this one and intend to purchase another of her books.