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Unfamiliar Fishes

3.57 of 5 stars 3.57  ·  rating details  ·  9,480 ratings  ·  1,551 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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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
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
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 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.
Sep 07, 2012 Eric rated it 3 of 5 stars
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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. :)
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
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
After enjoying her WORDY SHIPMATES about the 1700's settling of New England, I wanted to read more of her and found this history of Hawaii. In some ways it parallels the earlier history. Her approach is the same - wandering around the islands, looking at monuments, museums, and natural features, and giving her personal reflections on how they contributed to the history of Hawaii.

She makes interesting observations, one being that the Americanization of Hawaii in the 19th century paralleled the "
Alison Dellit
A wry and self-deprecating tone belies the serious research, perception and passion that Vowell brings to this slight, mournful tale of Hawaii's descent into annexation by the United States.
Vowell's huge strength, aside from her readability, is how skillfully the book brings to life the personas principal, Hawaiian royalty, the missonaries and sugar farmers, who battle to create a future for these islands in a suddenly globalised world. Vowell's interest lies in how people struggle with their ow
Brad Eastman
A very amusing read about the history of Hawaii becoming a U.S. territory. While apparently well researched, the book is less a work of history and more a personal riff on Hawaiian history inspired by a family visit to Hawaii. Ms. Vowel skillfully weaves her own musings about her mixed European and Native American heritage with the story of the Kingdom of Hawaii from its consolidation to first encounter with Europeans to incorporation as an American territory. She manages to convey something of, ...more
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.
This was a wonderful audiobook, with Vowell's trademark mix of celebrity narrators spicing up the track (Keanu Reeves and John Slattery come to mind).

Another poignant story told by Vowell. This time she connects the dots between American missionaries (the progeny of the stars of her previous work The Wordy Shipmates) and Hawaiian natives as they met and mingled prior to annexation. Great source material again. I think it would be amazing to have more source material from the Hawaiian side, but s
One of the worst kept secrets in American history is how the United States has not always been as altruistic in its dealing with other nations as we would like to think we have been. The Spanish-American War of 1898, which saw the U.S. annex Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii while administering the affairs of both the Philippines and Cuba for the next half century, is one of those moments. In this book, Ms. Vowell applies her usual wit and charm to the history of Hawaii's annexation from the arrival ...more
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
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
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
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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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