Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes – Sarah Vowell

Title: Unfamiliar Fishes
Author: Sarah Vowell
ISBN: 9781594487873
Pages: 256
Release Date: March 22, 2011
Publisher: Riverhead (Print) / Simon & Schuster Audio (Audio)
Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Audiobook
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5

Summary:

In her latest work of non-fiction, Sarah Vowell recounts the tumultuous history of Hawaii.  She discusses the missionaries who left the United States for Hawaii in 1820 and their eventual coup against the queen, which led directly to the American annexation of Hawaii in 1898.

Review:

I really have enjoyed the Sarah Vowell books I’ve read (reviews of Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates), so I was looking forward to reading her new book.  Though I’ve visited Hawaii multiple times, I don’t know much about its history, so I was eager to learn something while also being entertained by Vowell’s trademark wit.

When it comes to Hawaii, Vowell does have some biases, but she’s very up front about them.  It’s difficult not to have an opinion after hearing how the missionaries inadvertently destroyed the native culture of Hawaii, all while thinking they were doing good.  At the same time, Vowell presents the other side – the missionaries helped the native Hawaiians turn their backs on unhealthy practices such as royal incest.  While she acknowledges that they did do some good, overall it’s clear that the missionaries’ lasting impact wasn’t a positive one.

While Unfamiliar Fishes is well-researched, it isn’t quite as engaging as some of Vowell’s other works.  It’s never dry or boring, but Vowell clearly doesn’t have the same passion for Hawaiian history as she does for presidential assassinations.  Her enthusiasm doesn’t come through as much in this book, unfortunately, and as a result, it went slower for me than I would have liked.

I listened to Unfamiliar Fishes on audio, which I’ve learned is the best choice for Sarah Vowell’s books.  She narrates her own audios, and while her voice takes some adjustment, it’s perfect for her dry wit.  The audio version is unabridged and runs seven and a half hours.

Unfamiliar Fishes is a brief but interesting history of a part of the United States that many of us aren’t familiar with, beyond its sandy beaches and Pearl Harbor.  This isn’t a rigorous, in-depth history, but it provides a great overview and introduction to those who aren’t overly familiar with Hawaiian history.  I learned a lot, and the fact that I enjoyed the experience only serves to underscore my love for Sarah Vowell and her books.

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Comments

  1. I also have this book up for review soon, and it will be my first Vowell, but I do have The Wordy Shipmates on my shelf as well. I am hoping that I enjoy this one, and that the material isn’t too dry for me to enjoy. Great review, Swapna. Thanks for being so honest when it came to the small flaws in this one.

  2. I also have this book up for review soon, and it will be my first Vowell, but I do have The Wordy Shipmates on my shelf as well. I am hoping that I enjoy this one, and that the material isn’t too dry for me to enjoy. Great review, Swapna. Thanks for being so honest when it came to the small flaws in this one.

  3. I’ve yet to try Vowell’s work, but another Book Your Lunch devotee raves about her work and keeps telling me I have to try it. I’ve never been to Hawaii either. 🙁

  4. I’ve yet to try Vowell’s work, but another Book Your Lunch devotee raves about her work and keeps telling me I have to try it. I’ve never been to Hawaii either. 🙁

  5. I’m waiting to get this one from the library. I’m making The Hubster read James Michener’s Hawaii first, then we’ll listen to this one together.

  6. I’m waiting to get this one from the library. I’m making The Hubster read James Michener’s Hawaii first, then we’ll listen to this one together.

  7. I REALLY want to read something by Vowell, although I probably won’t start with this one.

  8. I REALLY want to read something by Vowell, although I probably won’t start with this one.

  9. I agree with you that Vowell probably works best on audio. LIke you, I think Assassination Vacation was so fun and enjoyable. I’m thinking I’ll go with Partly Cloudy Patriot next before trying this one. This sounds more along the lines of The Wordy Shipmates, which I didn’t enjoy as much as AV.

  10. I agree with you that Vowell probably works best on audio. LIke you, I think Assassination Vacation was so fun and enjoyable. I’m thinking I’ll go with Partly Cloudy Patriot next before trying this one. This sounds more along the lines of The Wordy Shipmates, which I didn’t enjoy as much as AV.

  11. I had a pretty extensive familiarity with Hawaii’s history, so I like UNFAMILIAR FISHES to a good confirmation of that history. When you have the background knowledge, some of her comments and stories are all the more poignant and have a greater impact. This was my first Vowell, and I did listen to it on audio. I never really got over her voice, but I was impressed enough to purchase THE WORDY SHIPMATES on my last trip to the bookstore. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  12. I had a pretty extensive familiarity with Hawaii’s history, so I like UNFAMILIAR FISHES to a good confirmation of that history. When you have the background knowledge, some of her comments and stories are all the more poignant and have a greater impact. This was my first Vowell, and I did listen to it on audio. I never really got over her voice, but I was impressed enough to purchase THE WORDY SHIPMATES on my last trip to the bookstore. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  13. I had a pretty extensive familiarity with Hawaii’s history, so I like UNFAMILIAR FISHES to a good confirmation of that history. When you have the background knowledge, some of her comments and stories are all the more poignant and have a greater impact. This was my first Vowell, and I did listen to it on audio. I never really got over her voice, but I was impressed enough to purchase THE WORDY SHIPMATES on my last trip to the bookstore. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  14. I had a pretty extensive familiarity with Hawaii’s history, so I like UNFAMILIAR FISHES to a good confirmation of that history. When you have the background knowledge, some of her comments and stories are all the more poignant and have a greater impact. This was my first Vowell, and I did listen to it on audio. I never really got over her voice, but I was impressed enough to purchase THE WORDY SHIPMATES on my last trip to the bookstore. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Trackbacks

  1. […] S. Krishna’s Books – “While Unfamiliar Fishes is well-researched, it isn’t quite as engaging as some of Vowell’s other works.  It’s never dry or boring, but Vowell clearly doesn’t have the same passion for Hawaiian history as she does for presidential assassinations.” […]

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