Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes

3.6 97
by Sarah Vowell

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

Of all the countries the United States invaded or colonized in 1898, Sarah Vowell considers the story of the Americanization of Hawaii to be the most intriguing. From the arrival of the New


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

Of all the countries the United States invaded or colonized in 1898, Sarah 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 heathens, 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 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 Hawaiian-born president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark wry insights and reporting, Vowell sets out to discover the odd, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state. In examining the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn, she finds America again, warts and all.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Beatrice Prior must make a decision—one that will change the course of her life forever. On Choosing Day each year, 16-year-olds across dystopian Chicago must devote themselves to one of five factions, each committed to the cultivation of a particular virtue. On one hand, Beatrice can remain in Abnegation and live a quiet life with her family; on the other, she can be true to herself and join a rival faction. Regardless of her choice, Beatrice must be careful not to divulge a secret she has been warned to keep—a secret that can unravel society as she knows it. Amidst budding friendships and oft-confusing romance, Beatrice struggles to come to terms with the decisions she has made and their unimaginable consequences. Despite its similarity to other dystopian novels, Divergent's depiction of adolescence rings true. Growing up isn't easy, and growing up with a terrible secret is just plain hard. Reviewer: Alex Ivey
Allegra Goodman
In a dystopian future, war-ravaged Chicago is divided into factions, each believing that there is a singular quality that will lead to a perfect society. At sixteen, teens must choose which faction they will join, and they are given a test to see what will be the best fit for them. Beatrice Prior received the results to her aptitude test only to discover that there is no one belief that guides her: she is wise, selfless, and brave. She is a divergent. Beatrice decides to leave her selfless abnegation family and undergo the rigorous and dangerous initiation required to become a dauntless warrior. When the erudite faction manipulates the dauntless into waging a war, only Beatrice and the other divergents will be able to stop them. Divergent is similar to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008/VOYA October 2008): a dystopian future society divided into factions, with a young female protagonist who must fight in a war. While Divergent will attract fans of Hunger Games, Roth's nonstop action, excellent voice, and simple yet accessible writing style will draw in many new readers to the genre. The themes are particularly poignant for young adults trying to identify their place in the world—having the choice to follow in your parents' footsteps or do something new. The budding relationship between Beatrice and her trainer will entice those with a taste for romance as well as action. This is a fast-paced and fun read. Reviewer: Devin Burritt
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
Gr 9 Up—In a future Chicago, the population is divided into five factions—Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, and Amity—each of which believes its opposite is the root of human evil. Sixteen-year-olds are tested for aptitude and must choose whether to remain in their birth faction or select another. They are aided in this selection by a simulation in which their decisions indicate which faction best suits them. Occasionally, though, the simulation indicates multiple choices. These individuals, known as Divergents, are perceived as threats by leaders who want members to behave and think in specific ways. Beatrice Prior is a Divergent, born into the selfless Abnegation faction but fascinated by the outrageous Dauntless. She chooses to become an initiate there and leaves her family behind, little knowing the challenges she will face. Despite her slight build and her meek upbringing, she must demonstrate her courage in physical combat and in simulations designed to present her with her deepest fears. Only 10 initiates will be accepted, and there are those willing to let cruelty take the place of courage. Beatrice comes to realize that another faction plots against Abnegation and that it may take a Divergent to save them. Roth paints her canvas with the same brush as Suzanne Collins. The plot, scenes, and characters are different but the colors are the same and just as rich. Fans of Collins, dystopias, and strong female characters will love this novel.—Eric Norton, McMillan Memorial Library, Wisconsin Rapids, WI
Library Journal

Cliques writ large take over in the first of a projected dystopian trilogy.

The remnant population of post-apocalyptic Chicago intended to cure civilization's failures by structuring society into five "factions," each dedicated to inculcating a specific virtue.When Tris, secretly a forbidden "Divergent," has to choose her official faction in her 16th year, she rejects her selfless Abnegation upbringing for the Dauntless, admiring their reckless bravery. But the vicious initiation process reveals that her new tribe has fallen from its original ideals, and that same rot seems to be spreading... Aside from the preposterous premise, this gritty, paranoid world is built with careful details and intriguing scope. The plot clips along at an addictive pace, with steady jolts of brutal violence and swoony romance. Despite the constant assurance that Tris is courageous, clever and kind, her own first-person narration displays a blank personality. No matter; all the "good" characters adore her and the "bad" are spiteful and jealous. Fans snared by the ratcheting suspense will be unable to resist speculating on their own factional allegiance; a few may go on to ponder the questions of loyalty and identity beneath the façade of thrilling adventure.

Guaranteed to fly off the shelves. (Science fiction. 14 & up)

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.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.56(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.57(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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 Lafayette in the Somewhat United StatesUnfamiliar FishesThe Wordy ShipmatesAssassination Vacation, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
December 27, 1969
Place of Birth:
Muskogee, Oklahoma
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 More than 1 year 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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