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 They contribute one or two sentences per chapter, representing historical documents written by a variety of likely and unlikely suspects, from Ernest Hemingway to Grover Cleveland.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


  • 4.0 out of 5.0
  • 5 Stars
  • 4 Stars
  • 3 Stars
  • 2 Stars
  • 1 Stars


  • 4.1 out of 5.0
  • 5 Stars
  • 4 Stars
  • 3 Stars
  • 2 Stars
  • 1 Stars


  • 4.1 out of 5.0
  • 5 Stars
  • 4 Stars
  • 3 Stars
  • 2 Stars
  • 1 Stars
Sort by:
  • Overall

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.

19 of 19 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story
  • Dave
  • Whittier, CA, United States
  • 05-01-12

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.

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Kat
  • ANNANDALE, NJ, United States
  • 03-23-11

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.

50 of 54 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Mildly interesting history, monotone narration

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

I started this book with high expectations, as multiple people had recommended it to me. I was disappointed to find that it is sporadic, confusing and surprisingly dull for such an interesting period of history. The author didn't even touch on Princess Ka'iulani, who I was most interested in.In the end, the author sums up her own book as "a story of how people like us ruined this place." Although there is much to criticize among the actions of Americans in the history of Hawai'i, the author's tone throughout is one of dry sarcasm, which simply becomes tiresome.

Would you be willing to try another one of the narrators’s performances?

No. I was already familiar with Sarah Vowell's voice through This American Life and thought I was fine with it. But while listening to this audiobook I found that I couldn't listen to her dry, ironic, sarcastic monotone for more than an hour at a time. The celebrity cameos, rather than breaking up the monotony, were abrupt and confusing, as they were mostly brief sentences scattered throughout the book rather than extended readings.

23 of 25 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Lisa
  • Whiting, IN, United States
  • 04-04-11

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.

23 of 26 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Bonnie
  • Colorado Sptings, CO, United States
  • 04-30-11

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.

25 of 29 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Smart Exposition Marred by Narration

Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

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.

19 of 22 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

One of my favorite narrators and historians

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.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

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.

24 of 29 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

A bit too discursive and self-indulgent

Entertaining up to a point, but too intertwined with the writer and her own agenda to pass for history. Readers who want to know about the story of Hawaii will be disappointed. Readers who are anxious to learn what Sarah Vowell thinks about lots of things will be satisfied.

15 of 18 people found this review helpful

Sort by:
  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story
  • Amazon Customer
  • 08-03-14

Sarah Vowell returns, this time Hawaii.

If you could sum up Unfamiliar Fishes in three words, what would they be?

Foreigners claim land.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Unfamiliar Fishes?

The fact the book isn't about one set group.

Which character – as performed by the narrators – was your favourite?

Sarah Vowell talking about herself.

Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

Definitely laugh, Vowell's writing is smart and not obfuscated with long needless details.

Any additional comments?

At the time of this review The Wordy Shipmates isn't on Audible UK, this is more like that book than the other Sarah Vowell books.

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story
  • S. Matthewman
  • 07-09-13

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.