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Unfamiliar Fishes

3.59  ·  Rating Details ·  11,084 Ratings  ·  1,766 Reviews
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, becomi ...more
Hardcover, 238 pages
Published March 22nd 2011 by Riverhead Books (first published February 4th 2011)
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Apr 25, 2011 Rick rated it it was amazing
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
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
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
Mar 30, 2011 allysther rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011, audiobook
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.
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
Peter Derk
Jan 12, 2016 Peter Derk rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish
I listened to this on audiobook with my mom while we drove to Santa Fe. Believe me, just about anything would be entertaining in that situation. We're not a picky people. But this, hoo boy, this book is bore-city USA, population: me and my mom in the car. If our car trip was a country, it would be Boresylvania. If it was a state, it would be Massachusetts. Yeah, I said it. That place is boring. Hot take!

This book is just an endless string of names and places, and I just had the hardest time keep
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
Jun 02, 2011 jess rated it it was ok
Shelves: audiobook-d, 2011
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
Sep 07, 2012 Eric rated it liked it
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
Jul 25, 2012 martha rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, 2012
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
Apr 04, 2011 Emily rated it liked it
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
Greg Zimmerman
Apr 14, 2011 Greg Zimmerman rated it really liked it
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
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
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 matter what w
Apr 09, 2011 Rachel rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2011
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
Feb 10, 2016 Spencer rated it really liked it
The perfect mix of informative and entertaining, Sarah Vowell (for whom I harbor an increasingly persistent author crush) has once again captivated my heart and mind with Unfamiliar Fishes, a pointedly non-fairytale account of just exactly what went down when the U.S. flexed its imperialist muscles and "acquired" the Hawaiian islands. I listened to this on audiobook, and Vowell's at-first-quirky voice is at least as intriguing as her biting sarcasm and impeccable comedic timing. She's a regular ...more
Kristy Miller
“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.”
I love the way Sarah tackles specific topic in history. She takes these
Sep 23, 2011 Ruben rated it it was amazing
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
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. :)
Apr 06, 2016 Elena rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I guess I didn't expect much from this book, first person, amateur history about a vacation destination. I had read Gavan Daws' masterful history of the Hawaiian Islands "Shoal of Time," what could be added? Well, lots. Vowell makes lots of interconnections in her story about the 19th century American take-over of the islands. There are tie-ins with stories ranging from Genesis to the invasion of Iraq. She has an irreverent, amusing way of describing historical events, stripping off the pompous ...more
Nov 07, 2011 Ms.pegasus rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone who has visited Hawaii; history buffs
Shelves: nonfiction, history
UNFAMILIAR FISHES opens with a string of tourism anecdotes, leaving readers to wonder: What is the point? The point is the cataclysmic changes to Hawaii between Captain Cook's landing in 1778 and its annexation as a US territory a little over a century later. Rather than sticking to chronology, Vowell selects key events and shows how they spread, tsunami-like, across the Pacific. Thus the westward expansion into the Oregon Territory, and the California gold rush spurred the island's transition f ...more
Sep 19, 2015 Trike rated it really liked it
The title of this slim yet dense history book comes from Hawaiian David Malo who was an apparent genius and someone who could clearly see the future:

If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up. The white man's ships have arrived with clever men from the big countries. They know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us.

Everyone mentions this quote, and
Aug 11, 2015 Bookista rated it liked it
I felt conflicted again with my second Sarah Vowell book. On the one hand, George Bush was NOT the president when she wrote this book, so we are spared frequent complaining about him. Also, I learned a lot of really fascinating things about the history of Hawaii. And Sarah Vowell seems to be pretty good at reading primary sources and selecting the best/juiciest quotes. However, a few things:

- The book is really A History of Things Americans Did In Hawaii Sarah Vowell Didn't Like. It feels episod
Apr 12, 2011 Stefanie rated it really liked it
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
Mar 14, 2016 Robert rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People Who'd Like to Buy a Vowell
I enjoyed the eclectic voice cast, and since I've listened to Assassination Vacation previously I knew more or less what to expect this time around, but all told it wasn't quite as compelling a narrative for me.
Vowell's ability to weave archival materials around her own present-day observations is impressive, but it felt as though by venturing into the territory of an alien culture's first contact story with the West (and Americans in particular) she was a little out of her comfort zone, and no
Mar 24, 2011 Sarah rated it really liked it
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.
Jul 29, 2016 Beth rated it it was amazing
Everyone should read about the history of Hawaii!
Jun 22, 2013 Krista rated it liked it
Shelves: 2013, nonfiction
If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up. The white man's ships have arrived with clever men from big countries. They know our people are few in number and our country is small, they will devour us.

This is a quote from David Malo, the first Native Hawaiian ordained to preach and Hawaii's first superintendent of schools, and serves as a warning of what was to come for the Hawaiian pe
(originally reviewed at )

In one month from now I will be on my way to Hawai’i! The countdown has begun both at home and, apparently, at work, as my coworkers are planning a bon voyage party for me. While I start to think about the various things I am going to need to take with me (including which books), I just finished up one of my books on Hawaiian history, UNFAMILIAR FISHES by Sarah Vowell. I really like Sarah Vowell, from her work on NPR to her role as Violet Parr in T
Jul 15, 2011 Carin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, read by Sarah Vowell with John Slattery, Paul Rudd, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Maya Rudolph. Wow. That's quite a list of narrators! Sarah has done this in her other books as well. The guest narrators don't do extensive pieces, but they each take on a few of the "characters" and read their direct quotes. I will admit, knowing the list was extensive, with fun people I like, I did spend some time thinking ...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.” 45 likes
“...the air has that bracing autumnal bite so that all you want to do is bob for apples or hang a witch or something.” 11 likes
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