I’ve read a lot of books in the past few years where I pause and think, “Was an editor actually involved in this at all?” This is one of those books.I’ve read a lot of books in the past few years where I pause and think, “Was an editor actually involved in this at all?” This is one of those books.
Now, the history of Hawaii is by turns fascinating and horrifying (and often fascinatingly horrifying/horrifyingly fascinating). In simple form, it goes Native Hawiian rule --> whalers/missionaries invade --> sugar plantation magnates gain power, perform a coup d’etat, form a “republic” and get Hawaii annexed by the US. It is the only state in the Union that was wholly ruled by a king before forced into statehood. Crazy stuff. I’m glad that Vowell has written a fairly accessible non-dry explanation of this history.
Vowell can be very amusing. She can pluck out some of the crazy characters and stories in Hawaiian history and make the past fun. But she cannot always stay focused. She does things like bring up the term “haole” (a not very kind way to refer to a Caucasian), talk about its meaning, get distracted for a dozen pages with some topic like New Englanders or whaling and circle back and explain “haole” again like she’s forgotten she’s already talked about it. This is my main problem with the book: it’s meandering and unfocused. It’s mostly chronological but not always. There are pet topics like white Americans’ poor behavior (to put it mildly) towards Native Americans that are only tangentially related to the main story (which, in case it is not obvious, is: HAWAII) but that are randomly brought in. This book is like that professor you like because he can be charming and funny but at the same time annoys you because he is always going off-lecture to mention the 18th century whaling industry or the origin of a word or whatever tickles his fancy and while these are all interesting topics in their own right and he is amusing when he speaks about them you just want him to FOCUS on the actual topic.
This book is also ostensibly a travelogue, but needs more traveling and ogue-ing. There are few actual descriptions of modern Hawaii or visits to most of the islands or insights into what the culture is like (full-on Hawaiian slang is not even brought up, and I will tell you from personal experience that it is fascinating and sometimes not fully comprehensible to a mainlander). While I am all for Sarcastic History Books and hope that is a genre that takes off, that’s not what this is supposed to be. This is supposed to be a Bill Bryson type humorous travelogue with history and geography and all that jazz thrown in with a strong dose of sarcasm and self-deprecation. But Vowell and her family are in this book so little that it is actually jarring when they pop up. Pages will go by focused on history and suddenly there will be a random comment about Vowell’s opinion or background or anecdote and I will be like “Why is this here? Is this a history book? Is this a travelogue? Is this a memoir? PLEASE PICK ONE OR MELD THEM MORE COHERENTLY.”
Really, this comes down to editing. Vowell wrote a good book that needed someone to sit down with her and tell her, “Sarah, you are very funny. You have some good material here. Please cut out the tangents. Please have some kind of structure. Please weave your family’s visit to Hawaii in more logically. And for the love of God, please remember that chapters have been invented and should be used. I don’t care if it’s short, it still needs chapters. Remember what I said about structure? Chapters can help with that.”
An enjoyable mix of travelogue and history. I've been reading a lot of Bill Bryson recently, and I actually like Horwitz more (I read his ConfederatesAn enjoyable mix of travelogue and history. I've been reading a lot of Bill Bryson recently, and I actually like Horwitz more (I read his Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War several years ago while I was cleaning out someone's library and it caught my eye). It is less silly than Bryson's work and more focused on the history than the traveling.
Horwitz looks at the waves of Europeans who hit US shores. There's the Vikings, the Spanish, the English. Not everything is covered--New Amsterdam, for one (go Dutch!) is left off, probably because Horwitz wanted to end with the mythical founding of America in Plymouth.
There was quite a bit I already knew from my American history classes, but there were a few myths that I still held to that Horwitz debunked. Ponce de Leon, for instance, wasn't hunting for the Fountain of Youth in Florida. Like all the other Spaniards, he was looking for gold.
Amusing and informative--there's not much more you can ask for in a history book. The traveling part could also bring some interesting things up: for instance, the men who portrayed conquistadors at a US historical fair. For a good read on the explorers and Native Americans of the United States, this is it.
P.S. I nearly forgot! Tony Horwitz is totally married to Geraldine Brooks! Who just wrote Caleb's Crossing, about Puritans and Native Americans in New England! Coincidence? I think not!!!!...more
I think I can only take Bryson in small doses. He can be amusing, but he can also be so in love with his own joke it can be irritating. He feels likeI think I can only take Bryson in small doses. He can be amusing, but he can also be so in love with his own joke it can be irritating. He feels like a younger brother who you sometimes just want to give a punch-in-the-arm to.
It’s not really helped by the fact that this book is about 20 years out of date. It is fun to see people having to deal with problems that today's technology has taken care of. Like, payphones and how hard it is to get to connect to the right number. Ha! Get a cellphone, Bryson!
It is sad how little has changed, though; Americans still have the reputation of being ignorant, violent, fat and lazy (but friendly!). The stereotype is a stereotype and therefore not accurate for many, but twenty years later, the world still sees us this way.
It is also hard to tell how many of these jokes were actually fresh at their time but now have become clichéd. Fancy coffee! Why is it so hard to get a standard cup of Joe these days? Now it’s all mocha cappuccino venti whip! Not even the sizes are in good ol’ English! This brings up another problem with Bryson: his exaggeration. I can’t trust him, because he often takes things to the extreme and out of reality. In his rant about being unable to get regular coffee (WHICH IS NOT TRUE EVERYONE HAS REAL COFFEE IT IS SUPER EASY TO ORDER, GOOD GOD MAN!) he has the barista ask him if he wants an americano and he is like FINE JUST GIVE ME COFFEE and the barista asks, “with whip?” NO ONE PUTS WHIP ON AMERICANO. That is only on mochas. Not even lattes (sadly). Americano is just espresso and water – whip is NOT standard and NO ONE asks about that. It is clear that Bryson is just taking the idea of Can’t Get Regular Coffee No More to its (il)logical extreme. I know comedians do this, and it’s a way to be funny, but I find it annoying. I want a humorous but realistic look at a situation. That is not what Bryson wants to give me.
He also sometimes takes an okay joke WAY TOO FAR. Like his tax schtick. Taxes! So confusing! The forms so incomprehensible! Okay, yes, make that joke Bryson! On the other hand you don’t need pages and pages and pages about it. It just gets extremely irritating, having someone unable to end a one-note joke. I just ended up skipping the ones like this (also: computer instructions. Computers! So crazy! Instructions! So incomprehensible! Might as well be written in Chinese, amirite?).
When Bryson calms down a little, he can be funny. And it is interesting to see America through British eyes (Bryson may be American, but he’s writing for a British audience). But it's not quite the biting wit I was looking for. ...more
A demonstration of why Steinbeck is one of the Great American Authors. He is a gorgeous writer, with not a word wasted. He is wryly, dryly funny and uA demonstration of why Steinbeck is one of the Great American Authors. He is a gorgeous writer, with not a word wasted. He is wryly, dryly funny and uses his canine companion, the noble poodle Charley, as comic relief. He also has sharp insights into 1960s America as he travels through it.
This book was published in 1991. That is TWENTY YEARS AGO. Way to go making me feel old, book.
While most of the book still holds true, there have defiThis book was published in 1991. That is TWENTY YEARS AGO. Way to go making me feel old, book.
While most of the book still holds true, there have definitely been changes in the two decades between when Bryson traveled Europe and I did. Some of his complaints just are not true anymore. It's impossible to find a hotel! French women don't shave their armpits! It's expensive to call home! All these things are a time of ye olde past. Weird to think that Bryson did his traveling before cellphones and the internet. I kept thinking that if he had just waited a few years so many of his problems would be solved. He could just pull out his smart phone and find a hotel or Skype home.
It was very intriguing that this was written in the shadow of the newly ended Cold War. A whole generation has grown up with no living memory of the Cold War, but it was still very real to Bryson. Also, it was twenty years closer to the Holocaust. While the Holocaust has rightfully not been forgotten, it was much more present when it was only 50 years in the past instead of 70. I had an absolutely lovely time when I visited Austria. Bryson (again, rightfully) couldn't get over the fact that they had elected an ex-Nazi to office.
This isn't Bryson's best book. It is sometimes amusing, but gets old fast because he keeps bringing up the same old travel gripes (people are rude! hotels are crappy! other tourists clog up things!). It's like he ran out of new things to say.
Also, he was kind of gross. Several times he describes in loving detail physical attributes of women. One especially comely ticketing girl had all her best features admired by Bryson. I came out of this book knowing Bryson is a butt man. I didn't need to know that. Ever. I know, I know he's a guy and I'm perfectly willing to admit guys do think these things all the time. But I don't want to read about them. It's not like he's writing for an exclusively male audience. Why write this? Why did his editor not cut them?
I'd say that if you love Bryson, then pick up a copy. It's kind of funny to see Europe of 20 years ago and appreciate how far time has marched on. But definitely don't make this your first Bryson book (I much prefer his portrait of Australia, In a Sunburned Country)...more
I know nothing about Nordic history, so I figured a travelogue would be a good way to go about it. Sjoholm is a good travelogue writer and also bringsI know nothing about Nordic history, so I figured a travelogue would be a good way to go about it. Sjoholm is a good travelogue writer and also brings in some interesting modern-day experiences – the Ice Hotel, dog sledding, etc. But what I didn’t realize but becomes more and more blatant is that Sjoholm’s main focus is not the countries themselves but the Sami people (the native people of the area). Sami people and their rights is Sjoholm’s passion. And it is definitely interesting to learn about a group of people I barely knew existed but I wish that Sjoholm had also taken more of an interest in the general history of Sweden, Norway, and Finland. When Sjoholm discusses maybe one or two things about general Nordic history, when the past is talked about, it’s usually about the Sami (which, since her focus stays in the arctic north does make sense, because the Sami history is the history of that area). ...more