Courtney's Reviews > Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell
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's review
May 20, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: library, disappointment, cultural-criticism
Read from May 13 to 19, 2011

2.5 stars. To be honest, I learned more about imperialism from watching Eddie Izzard stand-up routines.

What a waste of a provocative, complex topic. There is so much to say about Hawaii, and its troubling relationship with the US and other Western powers, but Vowell only manages to create an irritating hodgepodge of history, anecdotes, and Isabella Bird quotes (seriously, Vowell must really have a thing for Bird). While there were some interesting parts of Unfamiliar Fishes, the lack of structure and direction made this a frustrating read. There were no chapter or section breaks, which made it difficult to process all the information. As a consequence of this disorganization, the time frames and historical figures just seemed to blend together. It's like when you ride the carousel as a kid and try to look out into the sea of parents while the horses are at top speed: you don't see much of anything, and you feel a bit nauseous afterwards.

I didn't hate the entire book, mind you. Early on, I really appreciated Vowell's description of the female missionaries who first settled in Hawaii. It wasn't something I knew much about before, and I thought her treatment of the subject was very graceful. Clearly, Vowell despises what happened to Hawaii in the years following these initial encounters with missionaries, but she doesn't exhibit malice towards them, or hold them fully accountable for the heinous actions of their descendants. Personally, I would be a bit tougher on the original missionaries, but I like the fact that Vowell lets the reader decide how to interpret their actions.

Unfamiliar Fishes regained a small sense of direction and purpose near the end, when Vowell details the corrupt and infuriating political maneuvers that eventually lead to Hawaii's annexation. Those 40 pages were intense and very informative. If only the rest of the book would've been so focused and interesting.

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05/13/2011 page 15
09/26/2016 marked as: read
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