Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Unfamiliar Fishes” as Want to Read:
Unfamiliar Fishes
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Unfamiliar Fishes

3.6  ·  Rating details ·  11,684 Ratings  ·  1,840 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. 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, becoming an international sup ...more
Paperback, First Riverhead trade paperback edition, 256 pages
Published March 6th 2012 by Riverhead Books (first published February 4th 2011)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Unfamiliar Fishes, please sign up.

Popular Answered Questions

Kara Johnson I'd say anyone with an interest in Hawaii, and history in general. It was fascinating, sad, and inspiring!
This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
Rating details
Sort: Default
Apr 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 28, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 19, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  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
Mar 01, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Mar 01, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 19, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
May 22, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
I enjoy Sarah Vowell’s mixture of well-researched history, travelogue and personal opinions. She always makes clear what is history and what is opinion, often through her use of sarcasm. More recently I have started listening to her books, which she narrates, and have found them even more enjoyable that way. Unfamiliar Fishes is the story of Hawaii achieving statehood or losing its independence as a kingdom, depending on how you look at it. Sarah Vowell makes a strong argument for the latter. Sa ...more
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 07, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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
Jan 03, 2011 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
Jan 15, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My second Sarah Vowell, I read it between breaks of Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was once again riveted by the author's voice. This book, peppered with primary sources, offers the reader a brief history of Hawaii, its people, and the colonization process that led it to becoming a state.
Alex Dow
Sep 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Essential reading for your next Hawaiian vacation (along with the first two chapters of Michener's Hawaii)
Apr 05, 2016 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
Julie Bestry
Jun 04, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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. :)
Nov 07, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Mar 20, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 20, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I thought this book would be a good one to cap off a vacation in Hawaii. I've never read any of Vowell's other work so I wasn't acquainted with her writing style, which I found both rambling and jumpy. It took me some time to get used to the way she deals with chronology: instead of starting with C and saying "C happened because of A and then B," she tends to say "C happened because of B, which happened because of A, which happened because of..." Consequently, I felt like I was in some kind of a ...more
Mar 06, 2016 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
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
LSPL Book Junkies: Sarah Vowell on This American Life 1 2 May 14, 2014 11:14AM  
LSPL Book Junkies: Hawaiian Royal cheat sheet 1 4 May 14, 2014 10:37AM  
Madison Mega-Mara...: Unfamiliar Fishes 1 3 Jun 25, 2012 12:03PM  
  • Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen
  • State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
  • Vertical: The Follow-Up to Sideways
  • There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America
  • The Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times
  • Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America's First Imperial Adventure
  • December 1941: The Month That Changed America And Saved The World
  • The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History
  • The Long Way Home
  • Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
  • Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West
  • The National Parks: America's Best Idea
  • The State of Jones
  • Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It
  • The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War
  • A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History
  • Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
  • Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror 1801-1805
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
More about Sarah Vowell...
“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.” 46 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.” 12 likes
More quotes…