Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes

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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594485640
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/06/2012
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 251,475
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.57(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sarah Vowell is a contributing editor for public radio's This American Life and has written for Time, Esquire, GQ, Spin, Salon, McSweeneys, The Village Voice, and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Radio On, Take the Cannoli, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. She lives in New York City.

John Slattery has starred on Broadway in Rabbit Hole, Betrayal, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Off-Broadway credits include Three Days of Rain (L.A. Critics Award, Drama Desk nom.), and The Lisbon Traviata. On television he has been seen in Ed, K Street, Sex & the City, and Will & Grace. Films include Flags of Our Fathers, Mona Lisa Smile, The Station Agent,Traffic, and Sleepers.


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

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

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Unfamiliar Fishes 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 121 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
SwitchKnitter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I like Sarah Vowell a lot. This book is about the history of Hawaii, and it's pretty fairly balanced. Thee are bits of her quirky self in the prose, but not as much as there is in some of her other books. Recommended.
kevinyezbick on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My least favorite Sarah Vowell book, sadly, as I love her other stuff. Perhaps it was just my ignorance in how to pronounce Hawaiian names that made this one trudge along. I just couldn't get into it. I suppose I learned a little about the history and the people of Hawaii that I wasn't aware of, but I had a hard time developing any emotional attachment or sentiment for any of it. I suppose I'm just not surprised anymore when it comes to the United States in the era of Manifest Destiny or how our Imperialist tendencies are still alive and well today and we've come to learn nothing from it. Still, there was something lacking from this piece that has resounded in her other works. I think, perhaps, it was the dry wit and sarcasm that usually permeates her writing. It was spotted, here and there, but not with the same dark humor I've come to expect. I'll gladly look forward to her next work.
kqueue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A slice of Hawaiian history from the time the missionaries arrived until the U.S. overthrew the monarchy and annexed the islands. Vowell provides a humorous, balanced approach, being both sympathetic to the native Hawaiians and yet understanding of the American sensibilities of the time. As an ardent fan and occasional visitor to Hawaii, I found the book to be very enlightening to understanding modern Hawaii, and the tensions simmering among the native Hawaiians.
johnsshelf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story is a sad one--the conquest of a nation and the trampling of its culture by outside religious & business forces--but Sarah Vowell's snarky wit in the telling elicits a lot of laughter. Though I'm familiar with much of the history, I've never experienced it in such a lively & engaging way. After finishing Unfamiliar Fishes, I immediately moved on to another Vowell book--and I'm looking forward to reading all of the rest, as well.
bragan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sarah Vowell presents a short history of Hawaii, with specific emphasis on the early 1800s, when missionaries from New England landed on the islands and Hawaiian culture and government underwent a series of massive, rapid changes.Unfortunately, this didn't work for me quite as well as some of her previous books. For one thing, she tends to jump around in time a little bit, interspersing her discussion of history with mentions of her present-day researches or allusions to things that happened decades after the time period she's concentrating on. (In particular she talks quite a bit about the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani well before the point where said queen actually shows up in the chronology.) In her books about mainland US history, I had no problem with that kind of structure, even found it charming and insightful, but when dealing with a corner of history about which I knew practically nothing going in, it's a little disorienting. Wait, what date are we up to here?, I kept stopping to ask myself. And how is Liliuokalani related to these people I've been reading about again? It didn't help matters any that I also had trouble keeping track of many of the other people involved. I'd like to be able to blame that on the long and often very similar-sounding Hawaiian names, but the truth is, I couldn't keep the missionaries straight, either. And while I found the details of native Hawaiian culture and government fascinating, those were never really delved into in nearly as much depth as I would have liked. Honestly, I'd have preferred to read a lot more about the Hawaiians and a lot less about the missionaries. (I must admit, I've never been particularly fond of missionaries.)I don't want to be too negative, though, because it's really not a bad book. The subject matter genuinely is interesting, even if it only whetted my appetite on certain topics. And I'm particularly glad to have read it now, since I'm planning a trip to Hawaii later this year, and it's nice to have relieved at least some of my profound ignorance about the place before visiting. In particular, the somewhat shocking story of how Hawaii came to be annexed by the US deserves to be better remembered. Also, Vowell can be quite witty and insightful, and there are certainly moments when she displays those qualities here. And, as always, I very much appreciate her nuanced approach to her subject matter, her ability to see everyone's point of view, as displayed, for instance, in the way she expresses genuine admiration for the missionaries' bravery, dedication and sense of community, while also acknowledging their ingrained racism and their disturbing role in the history of American imperialism.
GBev2011 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm not sure what's happened to Sarah Vowell, but this is the second straight book from her that I didn't like. Assassination Vacation is one of my favorite books, but this one and "Wordy Shipmates" are seriously dull. The subjects are somewhat interesting, but Vowell's snarky, biting humor is nearly absent in both books. That's what makes her books fun to read is her style at presenting history. The last two books just seem like dry history readings that any stuffy professor could churn out.
splinfo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A history of Hawaii and it's colonization by the US in the uniquely humorous style that Sarah Vowell is known for.
FredB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of Hawaii's takeover by missionaries and their sons and daughters between 1820 and 1898. The native Hawaiians really got screwed over by the puritans from New England who came in the name of God and ended up gaining wealth. The Hawaiians lost their land and much of their culture in the process. The book contains a lot of fascinating quotes by missionaries and natives alike.
TadAD on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'd place this book somewhere in the middle of the pack of Vowell's books in terms of my enjoyment. It wasn't quite as structurally engaging as I found something like The Partly Cloudy Patriot but had a heavier dollop of her humor than The Wordy Shipmates.I wanted a little bit more of narrative flow to the book, a sense that we're starting at Point A (for example, pre-missionary Hawaiian society) and—by whatever circuitous route seems best—heading for Point B (say, modern Hawaiian society). Instead, there's a little bit of attention disorder as it leapfrogs around from paragraph to paragraph: now talking about Kamehameha, now about the present, then zip...back to the first missionaries. It made it a bit hard to connect to the work as a history.However, this is somewhat small beer. Vowell's quirky humor about American foibles, and her talent for the dry comment that causes me to snort ice tea up my nose means that all of her books occupy leading positions in the larger pack of humorous-but-serious non-fiction writers. She has the ability to get you to look at some cultural skeletons in the closet and think about them without the alienating sense you're getting your nose rubbed in the poo.As a general introduction to the history of Hawaii (or to the era of explicit imperialism in general) it's not only informative, it will keep you laughing.
melissavenable on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I lived in Hawaii for a couple of years but sadly never took the time to appreciate the history or really understand the protests that were taking place on the anniversary of statehood. This book provides some much needed context and helpful resources. Part storytelling/part investigative journalism, it's both entertaining and informative. Why aren't history textbooks more like this?
zibilee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In this crisp and witty non-fiction selection, Sarah Vowell elucidates her readers on the events leading up to 1898 American annexation of Hawaii, and shares how this surprising development impacted not only the people of Hawaii but how the repercussions changed the course of history for America as well. As Vowell pushes backward into the past, she gives us a taste of what Hawaii was like before this momentous change, when it was ruled by monarchs thought to be blessed by the gods, and how the arrival of American missionaries changed the political and historical landscape of this beautiful and picturesque archipelago. As Vowell relates this incredible story, her trademark humor comes bounding off the pages and her succinct observations on the mingled American and Hawaiian cultures will leave readers aglow with anticipation and wonder. Sharing her insights and the very particular components of this strange event in history, Vowell comes to understand the Hawaiian people in a way that she never has before and shares with her readers how the act of annexing Hawaii could not only be interpreted as an act of possession and domination, but as an act of military imperialism gone tragically overboard. Both witty and wise, Unfamiliar Fishes seeks to understand not only the culture and inhabitants of Hawaii before the annexation, but also after, when it was thrown into the melting pot of America to be boiled down to it most basic elements.I¿ve read a lot about Sarah Vowell and her writing, but until I sat down with Unfamiliar Fishes, she was an unknown quantity in my reading life. Some words I¿ve heard used to describe her books are: funny, fascinating, engaging and witty; and after reading this book I would have to agree with all of these adjectives. Vowell gets right to the heart of her material but isn¿t afraid to follow the occasional non-sequitur to its very end. She crafts history into a story that even those who are apathetic on the topic can savor and enjoy, and she has a sense of humor that kept me giggling along with her throughout. Though I didn¿t know much about Hawaii before reading this book, I now feel that I could talk intelligently about the subject, as well as regale my family over dinner with the Hawaiian importance of belly buttons.It was surprising to learn that before the missionaries arrived, the islands had no written language, and it was the missionaries who created the first Hawaiian alphabet (12 letters instead of 24, if you are curious). They also made education one of the premiere focuses of the island, first getting the king¿s approval and teaching him. It would have been great if everything the missionaries ended up doing in Hawaii was that altruistic, because although that contribution was huge, the missionaries were mostly the harbingers of a change that many Hawaiians were not comfortable with. They wanted to change the fundamentals of Hawaiian religion, politics, land ownership and marriage laws. They brought disease that ravaged the population, and they started many territorial wars with the sailors that used the islands as a stopover on their whaling trips. With one hand they blessed and with the other they snatched away, creating a strange mixture of admiration and revulsion in the native population. As years went by and the missionaries became more at home on the Islands, their priorities began to change from ideas of benevolence to ideas of ownership.But Vowell doesn¿t only share the history of the American missionaries on the island, she really digs deep and shares the history of Hawaii from its earliest origins. She speaks of the Hawaiian reverence of nature and how the kings and queens also revere their people and their responsibility to them. She shares the strange customs of royal incest that Hawaiians believe produce the most powerful of monarchs, and shows how these hardworking and compassionate people ended up at the mercy of a country that didn¿t understand them or their way of life. She
St.CroixSue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The history of Hawaii starting with early white contact told in the wry ironic voice of Sarah Vowell, author of 'Assassination Vacation' and 'Wordy Shipmates'. She 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. A view of Americanization that is close to home.
bookworx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
We are our own worst enemies and this book is as delightfully painful as all her works, you'll-laugh-you'll-cry.She goes with me in the car and Sarah is the argument of authors reading their own work. If you don't like her voice try listening to your own...If you think the Irony is heavy handed try to imagine Owen her nephew or Stephen Hawking reading it?Lot's you can judge about the book by it's cover, the tilt-shift focus on tin preacher action figure might suggest good examples of bad solutions ahead. She pulls taffy out of disbelief and rage (if you're out there, please write about the great Boston molasses flood & 1919 in general). Her amazing sense allows you to move forward after reflection and understand that time is at the wheel of the convenient truth mobile, unless they actually make one and it's already in the hands of a child.
justabookreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In September 2011, I went to hear Sarah Vowell speak at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. I stood in the back and laughed as she read her snarky take on the history of Hawaii. I bought the book that night at one of my two favorite bookstores. Yes, I have two favorites. In the 1800s, missionaries began arriving in Hawaii with plans to educate the good people of the islands on what it meant to be a good Christian. Upon arrival, they take on the task of reforming a society with some strange customs (royal incest was normal and encouraged) and impose on them some strange new customs of their own, forgetting the entire time they were no longer in New England but Hawaii. History can be, and is, strange. I¿m always fascinated when I come across something so out of the ordinary, especially when it concerns something I feel I should know more about. Hawaii is a state I don¿t know much about. I¿ve never been there, not for lack of trying to convince my husband, but a place I do hope to one day visit and not for the beaches alone although that would be cool too. What I want to now see is the original Hawaii. What it was before America decided it needed to have it. And no, I¿m in no way trying to start any kind of argument about statehood here. This book made me think about the complications that statehood certainly entailed, but also about what we all lose as days go by and we see things though a camera or screen without actually seeing what¿s there. This isn¿t my first Vowell book (The Wordy Shipmates was) and it won¿t be my last. I enjoy the witty way she looks at a slice of history and imposes her own past on it which might annoy some people but I think it¿s absolutely necessary to do that because not only are we trying to understand others but ourselves through that process of learning. I¿m looking forward to reading Assassination Vacation which she takes a look at places made famous by, yes, assignations.
thornton37814 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author's prejudices shine through in this short volume dealing with the history of Hawaii. She is very anti-missionary and very anti-United States. While I certainly do not agree with all of the methodologies that may have been utilized in the past, the author only approaches it from her prejudiced views and fails to adequately represent the other side of the story. I would love to see what someone who examined those same primary resources who wrote a truly unbiased account of the story would write. I think the story here is a worthwhile one to tell, but it needs to be told with all the viewpoints represented and not just the author's left-leaning one.
rdwhitenack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A good book, but one I thought I would like more than I did. Vowell's research was impressively thorough, but more impressive how she used that research to keep the reading funny and full of voice. As far as faults go I just didn't like how it was organized, and that I went in thinking a good part of the book would focus on the few years leading up to annexation in 1898. There was a lot of info leading up to 1893, but after that I lost track of any timeline because it flew by so fast.Basically, I would recommend the book to adult readers, but for the teens in my Library I will keep looking for quality NF material.
delphica on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sarah Vowell is always enjoyable, and sure enough, I enjoyed this book about the early contacts between Hawaiians and non-natives, the establishment of missionary activities, and other various events leading up to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii. Shortly after starting the book, as in, around the third sentence, I realized I didn't know anything about Hawaii that I hadn't learned in multiple re-readings of "Liliuokalani: Young Hawaiian Queen" in the Childhood of Famous Americans series, and seeing as she came to the throne when she was in her 50s, I am starting to suspect that maybe the Childhood of Famous Americans wasn't the most rigorously researched series ever (although, goofy as it is, it really sparked a life-long love of American history in me, so I can't complain too much).It's intentional that her interest in Hawaii coincides with the election of the first U.S. president to have been born in Hawaii. Despite my love for Sarah Vowell, sometimes her politics intrude overly much (and I say this as someone who agrees with her politics) but in this case, I think the connections and context of the Obama presidency are appropriate and thoughtful.
Lavinient on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Back in January I read and enjoyed The Wordy Shipmates by this author. I looked forward to reading another by Vowell and was excited to read her newest because I was very much lacking in knowledge of Hawaiian history. In fact I hate to admit too much of what Vowell talks about in this book was new to me. It was fascinating and I plan on reading some of the books she suggests at the end of her book.Vowell can be pretty funny without putting down the events or people she is talking about. And I like that fact that I feel like she is telling me a story (a true story) and not like I am reading a long list of people, dates, and events. I guess for me it makes the people and events a little more real.
tiamatq on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've taken to just picking up Sarah Vowell's latest book and listening to it, without regard for content or review. All I knew about Unfamiliar Fishes was that it was about Hawaii's history. It made for an interesting read (actually, I listened to it) and I learned a lot about Hawaii's past and the influence of the missionaries.Like The Wordy Shipmates, I miss Vowell's ability to mix her own travels and reflections with the history of her subject matter. Yes, there are the occasional mentions of her nephew Owen (I loved his statement that he would marry Hawaii if he could), but they're far too few. Still, if you enjoy Vowell's other books, you'll most likely enjoy this one. If you'd like to know more about a major turning point in the United States' history, this is an excellent book. I grew up taking Hawaii's statehood for granted. This will give you an entirely different perspective on it.
spounds on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a retelling of the history of the Hawaiian Islands from the time the New England missionaries arrived until annexation to the US in 1898. It took me awhile to get used to Vowell's voice, but eventually it grew on me. I liked the mixture of history and her social commentary and humor even when I didn't agree with it all. It certainly kept it lively and made me think at the same time--a nice combination. I will say that the use of multiple narrators got a little annoying after awhile when Vowell would stop reading in mid-sentence and someone else would take over. The themes that it covered--evangelism, imperialism, liberty and self-determination--are important ones even today more than a hundred years after Hawaii became a US territory and fifty years after she became a state.Recommended!