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Unfamiliar Fishes

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  13,743 ratings  ·  2,081 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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Average rating 3.62  · 
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 ·  13,743 ratings  ·  2,081 reviews

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Apr 25, 2011 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
Peter Derk
Jan 12, 2016 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
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
Apr 19, 2012 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
Mar 28, 2011 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.
My third book by Sarah Vowell; I read the print edition of this one. In summary, the book is a personal essay approach to the Americanization of the Hawaiian islands—as always—interwoven with the cultural observations of Vowell herself. Much like my first read, Assassination Vacation, and my second selection, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, Fishes is a hybrid account of Vowell’s travels throughout the U.S. exploring historically significant sites as certain events align with contemporar ...more
Mar 01, 2011 rated it it was ok
2019: I visited Hawaii for the first time recently and many times I thought about this book (which is probably the first time I have thought about this book since I first read it in 2011). I am surprised to see that I seemed to hate it and gave it two stars in 2011. I felt more kindly and forgiving to the book this time around. I appreciated the distance Vowell traveled to research this book, and the depth of detail and nuance she brought to oft-repeated stories. I thought Vowell did a good job ...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
“Unfamiliar Fishes”. The title refers to a Hawaiian scholar’s grim warning that “large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes . . . they will eat them up” (from the NY Times review dated Apr 1, 2011).

In 1898, the United States annexed three territories: Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico. They also invaded Cuba and the Philippines. A very critical year in the history of the US.

This book is about the acquisition and history of Hawaii. The Americanizatio
Apr 04, 2011 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
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
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
Sep 19, 2015 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
Jan 03, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011, nonfiction
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
Mar 01, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: year-2012, nonfiction
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
David H.
Jun 13, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook, nonfiction
This is my second Sarah Vowell book after Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, and I continue to like her style, though it's probably not for anyone who doesn't appreciate her asides or casual language. The topic of the book was really interesting, as it covers US-Hawaiian history in the 19th century with the arrival of New England missionaries and ending with the queen being overthrown and the islands annexed. I thought the author did a good job in trying to summarize a complex history, wit ...more
Greg Zimmerman
Apr 07, 2011 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
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
Jan 15, 2016 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
Alex Dow
Sep 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Essential reading for your next Hawaiian vacation (along with the first two chapters of Michener's Hawaii) ...more
I always read Sarah Vowell in audio. She read then, with a little help from others. Her books are history based but not like the history books you read in school. She does a lot of research but she usually starts with and used her visits to places related to the subject of the book. Often she has her nephew Owen along, and he's quite an observant young fellow. She is quite irreverent and often funny in a somewhat sarcastic manner. This book focused on Hawaii and its history. I was in Hawaii in S ...more
Mar 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
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
Nov 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone who has visited Hawaii; history buffs
Shelves: history, nonfiction
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
Feb 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Sarah Vowell is a history buff and has written several books on the subject. The subjects are quite varied and include Lafayette and the assassinations of US Presidents. One thing they all have in common are the quirky tidbits she relates in those histories. UNFAMILIAR FISHES is the story of Hawaii. In January 1778, British Captain James Cook became the first European to come to the island nation. He was soon followed by Christian missionaries from New England. In their wake, Hawaii was chang ...more
Julie Bestry
Jun 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
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
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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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The social observer known for the nonfiction romp Assasination Vacation turns her wit to the unusual history of Hawaii's statehood in Unfamiliar...
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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.” 48 likes
“For Americans, Acts 16:9 is the high-fructose corn syrup of Bible verses--an all-purpose ingredient we'll stir into everything from the ink on the Marshall Plan to canisters of Agent Orange. Our greatest goodness and our worst impulses come out of this missionary zeal, contributing to our overbearing (yet not entirely unwarranted) sense of our country as an inherently helpful force in the world. And, as with the apostle Paul, the notion that strangers want our help is sometimes a delusion.” 16 likes
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