Unfamiliar Fishes
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Unfamiliar Fishes

3.55 of 5 stars 3.55  ·  rating details  ·  7,871 ratings  ·  1,395 reviews
From Puritans to heathens-Sarah Vowell takes on Hawaii in this New York Times bestseller.

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 l...more
Paperback, 233 pages
Published March 6th 2012 by Riverhead Trade (first published February 4th 2011)
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Siria
This is a brief, quirky and sharp history of Hawaii in the nineteenth century, from the early contact of its people with Europeans and Americans to the cowardly, shameless way in which the kingdom was annexed by the United States. Vowell writes not with mere sympathy for the Hawaiian people, but with empathy as well, seeing in their history strong parallels with the treatment of her own Cherokee ancestors. She has a talent for a wryly devastating turn of phrase—reading, I was often reminded of E...more
Kathy
Sarah Vowell makes reading and learning history the most irreverent fun you can experience in confronting the reality of what actually occurred versus what textbooks sugarcoat or ignore. The United States' acquisition of the Hawaii islands is eerily similar to the acquisition of America in its infancy when the Native Americans had to be "civilized" and "Christianized." Acquisition is, of course, a well-used euphemism for stealing. Having just visited the island of Oahu and having some inkling of...more
Wallace
I ADORE Sarah Vowell. I usually gobble up her books, and relish listening to the audio versions. So this, unfortunately, was a disappointment for me. I am not at all interested in Hawaii, but was sure that I would be once I heard Sarah Vowell's version of it. However, the usually incredibly witty (and often snarky) Vowell, was no where to be found. Granted, she made some fun of the missionaries coming from New England, but not much. This read much more as a history of Hawaii with very few of the...more
Rick
Oh man Sarah Vowell is so good, so fascinating. Okay, two things that hit me right off: First, this book has no chapters. There are a few (five, maybe?) section breaks, but basically it just starts, and goes full-on, full-bore for like the entire thing. It makes for interesting bedtime reading because you never get to a stopping point. Second, Sarah Vowell is the one author who I read who you can literally FEEL the note cards being assembled into a narrative. Her cross referencing and placing of...more
allysther
I made the mistake of listening to this instead of reading it for myself. I enjoyed the book quite a bit, but her voice made it difficult to listen for long periods.
jess
Unfamiliar Fishes is Sarah Vowell's take on the history of Hawaii. Vowell recounts the unraveling of the warrior kings, the arrival of the first missionaries, and all the way up to the end of the Hawaiian nation when Queen Liliuokalani was removed from her throne, the provisional government was established and Sanford Dole became president of the Republic of Hawaii. Then the country was annexed by the US. It is supposed to be the story of how we imported "our favorite religion, capitalism, and o...more
Eric
Sep 07, 2012 Eric rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: American History buffs
Recommended to Eric by: Kevin Shult
Shelves: non-fiction
I chose to read this after honeymooning in Hawaii and glimpsing the native culture, as well as a barely perceptible undercurrent of malice toward the islands' many "haole" tourists. I have a much better understanding of both having read this, and wish I read it before my trip there.

For the record, I don't read much non-fiction, and find history to be an incredibly dry and boring subject, so this three-star rating is a rather complimentary one, considering the reader. Especially if you consider t...more
martha
I thought that after a year of grad school I would never want to voluntarily read nonfiction again. But it turned out I wanted to voluntarily read nonfiction nearly immediately, because I'd had this waiting patiently on my Kindle the entire year. I was so excited about this because I've loved her other books, and the topic of this one seemed far more outwardly interesting to me. Unfortunately I didn't like it quite as much as her others. I can't tell if the problem was me -- I think I really wan...more
Kristopher
I wonder what other historians think about Sarah Vowell. I bet some of the more studious, straight-laced historians don't like her very much. It's not just that she injects a dry sense of humor into her books, but she also freely injects herself into them--talking about the research trips she goes on, the people she meets along the way, and her own personal reactions to the things she discovers. She also dips into pop culture: one of the most interesting parts of The Wordy Shipmates was an exami...more
Nicholas Karpuk
Sometimes it seems Vowell the humorist can't fully reconcile with Vowell the rabid historian.

There are large chunks of Unfamiliar Fishes that work quite well, with Vowell weaving her personal accounts and interviews into the discussion of how America gained control of the Hawaiian Island. It's a hell of a large topic to undertake, and at times the small size of her book seems to shortchange the tale.

Certain sections are deeply compelling even without Vowell's involvement in the topic. Her talk o...more
Jenny Maloney
Vowell has a great way of knocking the higher goals of historical figures - she cuts through the hyposcrisy really well - and at the same time elevating the intentions of these very human people.

The people populating this book are the Hawaiians (both royal and common), missionaries, military, Mormons, and politicians. Then Vowell proceeds to illustrate, in her own biting fashion, how these guys interact. Like all of Vowell's books, I was struck by the intricacy of the history...no matter what w...more
Kristen
I normally really enjoy Sarah Vowell's books (especially Assassination Vacation, which is one of my favorites). However, this one really didn't do it for me. I listened to it, as I've listened to all of her books, and found myself spacing out and having to rewind often as I wasn't taking it all in. Maybe I'm just not as interested in the history of Hawaii's trip to statehood as I am in the assassination of former presidents.

The lack of structure in the book really bothered me. It felt like it j...more
Emily
The day Unfamiliar Fishes came out, it was downloaded to my Kindle. I loved Sarah Vowell's previous books, especially Assassination Vacation. Sarah Vowell has turned into a sort of deep sticky underbelly of American History sort of historian whose books feel like long episodes of The American Life (and I love This American Life). I foist them on everyone I see -- "Want to learn bizarre facts of American History? Read these books!"

I liked Unfamiliar Fishes, a book on the history of Hawai'i from 1...more
Ruben
Definitely, one of the few historical narratives that entertains while informing. Author Sarah Vowell gives an overview of the history of Hawaii by focusing on the introduction of New England missionaries to the islands, and the subsequent impact of their arrival. In this book, dates and major events take a backseat to the evolving relationships between conflicting cultures. Best, Vowell presents her narrative in a way that almost makes you feel like you are watching reality television ala Jerry...more
Rachel
I had hoped that Unfamiliar Fishes would be as good as Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation or The Partly Cloudy Patriot, but I suppose that was naive of me. The book of hers it most resembles, which is unsurprising in retrospect, is her next-most-recent book, The Wordy Shipmates. Like The Wordy Shipmates, Unfamiliar Fishes is boring and hard to follow. I believe both of these problems stem from the book's lack of structure. There are no chapters. Characters drift in and out in such a way that...more
Mr. Cole
Here's my super succinct summary of this book: conversion, conversion, conversion, greed, conversion, conversion, somewhat witty joke, conversion, greed, conversion, conversion, white oppression, conversion, capitalism wins.

I have to admit that I prefer my nonfiction to read like fiction; I like characters that are fully developed and storylines that appear carefully crafted to reach some important thematic understanding. Unfamiliar Fishes though reads like a research paper, the type I once pain...more
Greg Zimmerman
When I made my first trip to Hawaii on vacation earlier this year, I quickly realized two things. First, I suck at pronouncing Hawaiian names. Secondly, I know embarrassing little about Hawaii's history.

So I was delighted when I learned that noted witticist Sarah Vowell's new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, provides a quick, glib guide to 19th century Hawaiian history. I've always meant to read Vowell, and never have, so Unfamiliar Fishes provided an opportunity to kill two Hawaiian nene geese with one...more
Steven
Fascinating and wry look (as expected from Sarah Vowell) at how Hawaii became annexed by the United States.

Well worth the time to read or listen, as I've found (despite my hearing problems) that I enjoy the author's narrated audio books better...if only to exactly know the pitch and tenor of her snark at times. :)
Stefanie
I really give this 3.5 stars but am rounding up because I like Sarah Vowell. This book is better than her last one, The Wordy Shipmates, but as my friend Jason said it HAS to be. That last one was a low point, I never even finished it.

This book, Unfamiliar Fishes, tells the story of Hawaii from its first encounters with British and American sailors and missionaries through its eventual takeover by the American government and its lasting cultural impact. Vowell does well in covering the colorful...more
Sarah
My husband asked why I was interested in the history of Hawaii's annexation. I told him it's because Sarah Vowell wrote it. I would read the history of the most boring subject you can consider, if Sarah Vowell wrote it. It was fascinating. I definitely recommend it.
Dan
Sarah Vowell is a joy to read. Part history lesson, part stream-of-consciousness conversation, the book takes you through the history of U.S. involvement in Hawaii (nee Owyhee, nee the Sandwich Isles), from first contact to backdoor annexation. The U.S. absorption of Hawaii serves as a good metaphor for American imperialism, and Vowell connects it to her own Cherokee ancestors, as well as to broader issues of U.S. foreign policy and culture. Hawaii was both the cherry on top for America's old sc...more
Simon
3.5 stars... Vowell wants to know exactly how Hawaii got to be the way it did and what happened to native Hawaiian culture. (In other words, why were there so many white people in The Descendants?) In her even-handed at dryly funny way she finds that there's plenty of blame to go around. Missionaries from New England brought education, which led to a written language, but wanted to Americanize the Hawaiians. You may lose track of the chain of succession of lengthily named Hawaiian kings; Vowell...more
Paul
The first time I ever heard Sarah Vowell reading her own work was on NPR, telling a story about the singer Johnny Cash. Her story was fascinating, made all the more so by her breathless, girlish voice. I couldn't help getting swept up in her enthusiasm for the subject. I very much enjoyed The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah's history of the Puritans settling in America, a witty and impassioned defense of America as the self-defined City on a Hill. Unfamiliar Fishes is the second Sarah Vowell book I've re...more
Julie Bestry
I always like Sarah Vowell -- if textbooks were written in Sarah Vowell's style, I imagine students would be far more inclined to do assigned readings. Not that Unfamiliar Fishes felt like assigned schoolwork, but it's always nice to learn new things in an entertaining way. I generally enjoy history, but rarely read about topics with which I have no prior experience. But I knew NOTHING about the history of Hawaii, and picked this solely because I knew Vowell would give me an entertaining cultura...more
Patricia
I listened to Sarah Vowell read the audiobook version of this one, back-to-back with The Partly Cloudy Patriot--hence the 4 stars as opposed to 5. I suspect I would have enjoyed this more had I read it since it's not quite as conducive to the radio essay style of much of Vowell's writing. Unfamiliar Fishes is basically a history of Hawaii that focuses on the arrival of white men to the islands and the events leading up to its annexation by the US. Vowell's research, as always, is extensive and i...more
Cheryl Gatling
I listened to the audiobook version of this. I didn't listen to it right away. When I saw the title in the list of downloads, I couldn't remember what it was. My reading tastes are broad, I admit, but had I really chosen to read a book about fish? Why? Then I saw that it was by Sarah Vowell, and I didn't care what it was about. I knew it would be interesting, informative, and entertaining. Any Sarah Vowell book is one part history, one part journalism, and one part sarcasm. I enjoy history, but...more
Jason
I'm going to agree with Stef on this one and say it's really a 3.5 star book. I'm leaning towards the 4-star point because of the interesting subject matter.

Getting away from her prior book which was immensely dull, this one focuses on the history of how Hawaii went from being a group of self-governed kingdoms to eventually being annexed by the United States. I appreciate that Vowell expresses her opinions strongly, but shows that there are several sides to each argument, and does not excuse cer...more
Peggy Tibbetts
On page one Vowell establishes a clever metaphor for the theme of this book. She is in Hawaii eating a plate lunch of macaroni salad and shoyu chicken under a banyan tree. What do they all have in common? The banyan tree, shoyu chicken, macaroni salad, and author are all from somewhere else. From then on, Vowell takes readers on a rollicking voyage back to 1778, when James Cook landed on the shores of Kauai and named the archipelago the Sandwich Islands, through the next hundred years as the pro...more
Jane
What did I know about Hawaiian history before reading this book? Something about missionaries replacing hula skirts with muu muus and Father Damien's work with lepers. Neither of these things were mentioned specifically in the book. It did mention an immense white ankle-length garment given to the queen. The leper colony was mentioned, but not Father Damien.

The title and theme of the book can be summed up with a quote from missionary and educator, David Malo, who became disenchanted with the Ame...more
Pudds Downing
I chose this book because I'm very interested in the history of Hawaii and I did manage to find a few tidbits to savor. Unfortunately, Sarah Vowell was far more interested in her own agenda than in actually relating truth. The majority of the book was a no-holds-barred attack on Christianity and all that it represents. If that's your world view you'll probably enjoy the book. But, as with all rhetoric, the facts are twisted to fit the opinion of the author. The Christian missionaries who settled...more
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Sarah Jane Vowell is an American author, journalist, humorist, and commentator. Often referred to as a "social observer," Vowell has authored several books and is a regular contributor to the radio program This American Life on Public Radio International. She was also the voice of Violet in the animated film The Incredibles and a short documentary, VOWELLET - An Essay by SARAH VOWELL in the "Behin...more
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“I guess if I had to pick a spiritual figurehead to possess the deed to the entirety of Earth, I'd go with Buddha, but only because he wouldn't want it.” 23 likes
“The groundswell of outrage over the invasion of Iraq often cited the preemptive war as a betrayal of American ideals. The subtext of the dissent was: 'This is not who we are.' But not if you were standing where I was. It was hard to see the look in that palace tour guide's eyes when she talked about the American flag flying over the palace and not realize that ever since 1898, from time to time, this is exactly who we are.” 6 likes
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