Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes

3.6 97
by Sarah Vowell
     
 

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From the author of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, an examination of Hawaii, the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn.

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a

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Overview

From the author of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, an examination of Hawaii, the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn.

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when 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 defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired 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, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Allegra Goodman
[Vowell's] prose is conversational but clever, her anecdotes quirky yet highly crafted…It's the kind of writing performed so well on National Public Radio, journalism as human interest, history as found poetry, monologue casting a spell of public intimacy…this is a book aimed at a wide audience, and Vowell tells a good tale. Forgive her journalistic excesses, consider her shrewd observations, and enjoy her comic turns of phrase. If you feel compelled after reading to journey to the Bishop Museum or devour the journals of Captain Cook or see some real hula, so much the better.
—The Washington Post
Kaui Hart Hemmings
Greed, death, cultural desecration, manifest destiny—what a lark! But with Vowell as tour guide it does, at times, manage to be just that…Vowell deftly summarizes complex events and significant upheavals, reducing them to their essence…While [her] take on Hawaii's Americanization is abbreviated, it's never bereft of substance—her repartee manages to be filling, her insights astute and comprehensive.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Recounting the brief, remarkable history of a unified and independent Hawaii, Vowell, a public radio star and bestselling author (The Wordy Shipmates), retraces the impact of New England missionaries who began arriving in the early 1800s to remake the island paradise into a version of New England. In her usual wry tone, Vowell brings out the ironies of their efforts: while the missionaries tried to prevent prostitution with seamen and the resulting deadly diseases, the natives believed it was the missionaries who would kill them: "they will pray us all to death." Along the way, and with the best of intentions, the missionaries eradicated an environmentally friendly, laid-back native culture (although the Hawaiians did have taboos against women sharing a table with men, upon penalty of death, and a reverence for "royal incest"). Freely admitting her own prejudices, Vowell gives contemporary relevance to the past as she weaves in, for instance, Obama's boyhood memories. Outrageous and wise-cracking, educational but never dry, this book is a thought-provoking and entertaining glimpse into the U.S.'s most unusual state and its unanticipated twists on the familiar story of Americanization. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“Sarah Vowell is an intellectual melting pot. Her cleverness is gorgeously American…” – Los Angeles Times

“Its scintillating cast includes dour missionaries, genital-worshiping heathens, Teddy Roosevelt, incestuous royalty, a nutty Mormon, a much-too-­merry monarch, President Obama, sugar barons, an imprisoned queen and Vowell herself, in a kind of 50th-state variety show. It’s a fun book…[a] playful, provocative, stand-up approach to history.”—The New York Times Book Review

“As entertaining and personable as it is informative.”—Washington Post

“Sarah Vowell is for my money, the best essayist/radio commentator/sit-down comic and pointy headed history geek in the business.”—Seattle Times

Library Journal
Displaying her trademark wry, smart-alecky style, author/historian Vowell (contributing editor, NPR's This American Life The Wordy Shipmates) tells the story of the Americanization of the formerly independent nation of Hawaii, beginning in the early 1820s with the New England missionaries who remade the island paradise to conform to their own culture. The diverse characters about whom she writes include an incestuous princess torn between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen. Unfortunately, listeners' enjoyment of this otherwise compelling material is diminished by Vowell's staccato, monotone reading of it, and brief cameos by various entertainment industry personalities are not enough to recommend it over the print version. [The Riverhead hc, which was an LJ Best Seller, was recommended for Vowell's "growing number of fans and those with an interest in Hawaii's history," LJ Xpress Reviews, 3/17/11.—Ed.]—Dale Farris, Groves, TX
Kirkus Reviews

Ever-clever NPR contributor Vowell (The Wordy Shipmates, 2008, etc.) offers a quick, idiosyncratic account of Hawaii from the time Capt. James Cook was dispatched to the then–Sandwich Islands to the end of the 19th century, when the United States annexed the islands.

The author skips the politics by which Hawaii was admitted to the union in 1959. Within months, James Michener's blockbuster novel named after the new state became a runaway bestseller. Now, with a Hawaiian-born resident of the White House, Vowell's nonfiction report is a fine update—short, sweet and personal. She's especially sharp in her considerations of the baleful effect of imposed religion as missionaries tried to turn happy Polynesians into dour Yankees. Earnest, intrepid advocates embarked for the place where Cook died, hoping to correct the islander's easygoing—and, in the case of royalty, incestuous—ways. The invading clerics were soon followed by rowdy whalers who rubbed their fellow New Englanders the wrong way. (They were the "unfamiliar fishes" new to Honolulu's waters). The result was early empire building in the pursuit of Manifest Destiny. Annexation and the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarch, was a destiny aided, ironically, by powerful Hawaiians. Vowell celebrates the early restoration of the hula, but she skims much of the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 20th century. The author presents the views of the islanders as well as the invaders, as she delves into journals and narratives and takes field trips with local guides. Her characteristic light touch is evident throughout.

Lively history and astute sociology make a sprightly chronicle of a gorgeous archipelago and its people.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101486450
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/22/2011
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
103,401
File size:
423 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“Sarah Vowell is an intellectual melting pot. Her cleverness is gorgeously American…” – Los Angeles Times

“Its scintillating cast includes dour missionaries, genital-worshiping heathens, Teddy Roosevelt, incestuous royalty, a nutty Mormon, a much-too-­merry monarch, President Obama, sugar barons, an imprisoned queen and Vowell herself, in a kind of 50th-state variety show. It’s a fun book…[a] playful, provocative, stand-up approach to history.”—The New York Times Book Review

“As entertaining and personable as it is informative.”—Washington Post

“Sarah Vowell is for my money, the best essayist/radio commentator/sit-down comic and pointy headed history geek in the business.”—Seattle Times

Meet the Author

Sarah Vowell is the bestselling author of The Wordy Shipmates, Assassination Vacation, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Take the Cannoli, and Radio On. A contributing editor for public radio’s "This American Life", she lives in New York City.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
New York, New York
Date of Birth:
December 27, 1969
Place of Birth:
Muskogee, Oklahoma
Education:
B.A., Montana State University, 1993; M.A., School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1996

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Unfamiliar Fishes 3.6 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 97 reviews.
PaulaM More than 1 year ago
I do enjoy Sarah Vowell's books, but her editors may want to adjust the settings on the snarkometer. Sometimes a wry and sardonic tone is appropriate but it seems too often in this book, she substitutes pop culture references and asides about Owen for actual explanations of Hawaiian culture and history. (For instance, there is way more significance to the hula than the ones she discusses.) I've also got to say that there must be some topic which Sarah cannot somehow bring back to the Trail of Tears, but I don't know what that topic would be. Overall, it's an amusing, quick read but you're not really going to learn much you didn't already know about Hawaii (says the woman with the Hawaiian brother-in-law).
BookBobBP More than 1 year ago
As a history nerd I always enjoy reading Sarah Vowell. She makes me laugh at the mistakes that people of the past have made and always gives good insight to their motives of why they did what they did. I enjoyed Unfamiliar Fishes but I there was a lot borrowed from previous books which gave me less insight than I usually get from her books. But this book is still very interesting and I enjoyed it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you like Sarah Vowell, you will like this history of Hawaii. Since Hawaii is my favorite vacation spot, I try to learn of its history and relate to its inhabitants. Vowell deals with the imperialistic takeover of Hawaii and retells native stories through her unique wit (and sarcasm). The diehard star-spangled patriot may cringe, but Vowell has done her homework. I find no fault with her facts. She makes history enticing and forces the reader to view it from a non-textbook perspective. Her storytelling is irresistable.
AFINCH More than 1 year ago
Really, has she done anything original since "The Partly Cloudy Patriot"? I used to look forward to her books, but could not get through Wordy Shipmates" and now this one is just a bash America, God, and let me tell you about my nephew to excess. Sorry, used to love her, won't get fooled again.
HarryVane More than 1 year ago
In Unfamiliar Fishes, you'll find everything that you usually find in a Sara Vowell work, incisive research, witty observation and a spot on comparison between the historical subject and the modern day. I would never say that the history of Hawaii was ever a topic that I was particularly interested in, however she finds the right angles to draw the reader in and engage them in the subject matter. That being said (and I hope that I am not the only Sarah Vowell fan that is disappointed by this), I really believe that the Trail of Tears is the definitive subject matter that seems geared toward Vowell's interests and strengths. Don't get me wrong, I believe that Unfamiliar Fishes is an interesting read, one could argue it is a vague sequel to the Wordy Shipmates, but its limited in scope and, again, touches upon similar themes to her last book. Also, what's her deal with New Englanders? I once drove up to Northampton, MA and went to one of her speaking events...her reception of the audience, as well as, her approach to the event was completely cold...its like she wanted to get out of there as soon as possible...considering her constant digs in the past two books, I have a feeling its not just based on history.... Also....its god with a small g
Anonymous 10 months ago
She is who she is. Interesting topic and reasonable informative. She's clear about her bias which is always good.
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Love this book! Loaned it to someone who taught Hawaiian history and she said it was good, which was high praise.  
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