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Unfamiliar Fishes

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Many think of 1776 as the most defining year of American history, the year 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 crucial to our nation's identity, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded Cuba, and then the Philippines, becoming a meddling, self-serving, militaristic international superpower practically overnight.

Of all the countries the United States invaded or colonized in 1898, Vowell considers the story of the Americanization of Hawaii to be the most intriguing. From the arrival of the New England missionaries in 1820, who came to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'etat led by the missionaries' sons in 1893, overthrowing the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling if often appalling or tragic characters. Whalers who will fire cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their god-given right to whores. An incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband. Sugar barons, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaii-born president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With Vowell's trademark wry insights and reporting, she lights out to discover the odd, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state. In examining the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn, she finds America again, warts and all.

238 pages, Hardcover

First published February 4, 2011

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About the author

Sarah Vowell

25 books3,033 followers
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 "Behind the Scenes" extras of The Incredibles DVD Release.

She earned a B.A. from Montana State University in 1993 in Modern Languages and Literatures and an M.A. in Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996. Vowell received the Music Journalism Award in 1996.

Vowell is a New York Times’ bestselling author of five nonfiction books on American history and culture. Her most recent book is Unfamiliar Fishes (2011), which reviews the takeover of Hawaii's property and politics first by white missionaries from the United States and later joined by American plantation growers, ultimately resulting in a Coup d'état, restricted voting rights for nonwhites, and forced statehood for the small chain of islands. Her earlier book, The Wordy Shipmates (2008), examines the New England Puritans and their journey to and impact on America. She studies John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” – and the bloody story that resulted from American exceptionalism. And she also traces the relationship of Winthrop, Massachusetts’ first governor, and Roger Williams, the Calvinist minister who founded Rhode Island – an unlikely friendship that was emblematic of the polar extremes of the American foundation. Throughout, she reveals how American history can show up in the most unexpected places in our modern culture, often in unexpected ways.

Her book Assassination Vacation (2005) describes a road trip to tourist sites devoted to the murders of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Vowell examines what these acts of political violence reveal about our national character and our contemporary society.

She is also the author of two essay collections, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (2002) and Take the Cannoli (2000). Her first book Radio On: A Listener's Diary (1997), is her year-long diary of listening to the radio in 1995.

Her writing has been published in The Village Voice, Esquire, GQ, Spin, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the SF Weekly, and she has been a regular contributor to the online magazine Salon. She was one of the original contributors to McSweeney’s, also participating in many of the quarterly’s readings and shows.

In 2005, Vowell served as a guest columnist for The New York Times during several weeks in July, briefly filling in for Maureen Dowd. Vowell also served as a guest columnist in February 2006, and again in April 2006.

In 2008, Vowell contributed an essay about Montana to the book State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America.

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5 stars
2,587 (17%)
4 stars
5,769 (39%)
3 stars
4,853 (33%)
2 stars
1,159 (7%)
1 star
269 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,201 reviews
Profile Image for Rick.
Author 6 books73 followers
April 25, 2011
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 interesting tidbits in the exact moment is so librarianesque it's amazing. I love it. I can just picture her there in her little room, with her note cards tacked all over the wall. Yarn is probably involved, but that's probably because I'm confusing her with those obsessive serial killers on things like Dexter and Se7en who also put things on their walls, only she's not doing it to kill someone. But she probably is close to about as equally obsessed. I also love how the parts in her research where she turns to physically visiting the applicable locales turn autobiographical. It's subtle. Like when she's writing about the events from the books, it's all suitably academically written, but when she goes and visits a temple or a library, it suddenly becomes anecdotal, storylike, and personal. I love that.

And now I know a lot more about Hawaii, and, wow, I was under no illusions about the US's imperialistic ways in that period, but... god, it's humiliating, embarrassing, horrifying. Depressing.
Profile Image for Peter Derk.
Author 24 books336 followers
January 13, 2016
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 keeping track of who was doing what and where. Not because the names were Hawaiian. I couldn't even keep my English explorers straight. The only thing that I followed in this book was the bit about plate lunch.

Not my favorite.

While we're going negative, I have something in my craw. Which I assume means butt. I have a thing in my butt that's bothering me.

I ran across this line in a review of another book on Goodreads today:

"2.70 "it was okay and I liked some of it"

I'm waging a constant battle against the halving of stars on Goodreads, and this was like a slap in the face. Or maybe a slap in the craw (butt).

Okay, you realize that in breaking reviews down in this way, you’re rating books on a scale of ONE to FIFTY!? That if each potential rating between 0 and 5 stars has 10 divisions, we now have 50 possible ratings a book can receive?

A thoughtful look at the Amazon reviews for a non-book product give a person a pretty good idea of whether or not it’s a good product, a bad product, or mediocre. And that’s a product that might not be considered art, such as a set of blue towels. It’s pretty easy with towels. What’s the size like, and when I put them on liquid, do they pick up said liquid? That’s about it, right? I mean, it’s tough to delineate the difference between a 6-star towel and a 7-star. That seems to be without purpose, in my eyes.

As for books, I think we get really caught up in the importance of our personal star ratings. It’s not THAT important, people, where we need 50 different options. I don’t think it’s even as important as 10 options, honestly.

What are you expecting of a book? For a book to be 50/50, it would have to, I don't know, cause a spontaneous, 8-hour nocturnal emission in the night following every reading. For a book to be like a .2/50? I read Kim Kardashian's selfie book, and even it was better than .2/50. It was a book that didn't physically harm my hands in holding it. I didn't get a communicable disease from touching it. I don't plan, if I have a deformed child, to blame the deformity on Kim's book. So why bother?

To put it another way, explain to me the difference between a book that's a 2.6 and a 2.7. Just explain it to me. Because I can tell you the difference between a 2 and a 3 out of 5.

Which might be at the core of the problem. Maybe the Goodreads breakdown doesn’t work and we have to come up with our own.

Goodreads does it like this:
1. Didn't like it
2. It was ok
3. Liked it
4. Really liked it
5. It was amazing

Personally, I feel like that's pretty fair and understandable. What would a 10-star breakdown be like?
1. This book made me want to shake a baby I didn't even know.
2. This book made me want to shake my own baby, but only momentarily.
3. I didn't like it.
4. I didn't like it, and I'm not happy about it, but it had its moments.
5. It was ok. If I knew what I know now, I wouldn't read it again, but here we are, ever-onward.
6. This was almost passable as something I would read. Close. Not hateful.
7. This is the minimum standard for what I would call decent.
8. This is good. Not great. But overall, a good experience. Would recommend to some.
9. Really good. I think other people should definitely read this book over others.
10. The ultimate reading experience.

That seems so micro. Also, I think that a larger scale breaks down the system in one significant way.

If you look at weird, ridiculous books as often as I do, you see something where people have given titles a 1-star rating having never read it. For example, for some reason, my reading of Modelland causes a book about re-educating gay people to be straight to pop up in my recommendations. Interpret that connection as you will. Most of the reviews for this book are 1-star, screw this book, and so on.

I'm not a huge fan of a book getting torn down because people disagree with its stance. Gay re-education is an extreme example, but...

Let me put it this way. I saw a comment on a review regarding Book X. And the quote I read said, "I haven't read [Book X], but I already know it's amazing."

Really? You do? Because...how?

So I'm not all that pumped about people giving high reviews just because they "know" something is amazing either.

Here's where the problem sets in: It's my thinking that a 10-star scale causes the 1- and 10-star reviews to have a lot more weight. Because if someone is rating a book they haven't read a word of, whether it be a rating of hate or love, it's probably going to be a 10 or a 1.

We've all seen this. Someone hates an author, or an "author" like Kim Kardashian, and they give her book a 1-star rating without reviewing it, usually followed by about 10 gifs with no text in between.

We've all also seen the book that hasn't been released yet and somehow has a couple 5-star reviews because people are EXCITED about it. These are often accompanied by gifs, which often seem to be pulled from Supernatural. I've never watched Supernatural, but I have to wonder if, at some point, they were writing episodes with the idea of having moments gif-ified. I wonder if you put all the available, already-existing Supernatural gifs together, what percent of the series you could watch.

Maybe the problem is that the Goodreads star descriptions don't work for people. Let me make some alternate suggestions:

1 Star: I would dig up my grandmother's corpse and put this in the coffin with her to have the world be rid of it, but I'm afraid the terribality of this book will re-animate her and she'll haunt me forever, so I guess I'll just try and return it.

2 Star: If this book were a state, it would be Massachusetts (got you again, suckers!)

3 Star: I'm not mad that I read this. It wasn't a total waste of time. Having read this, I would read it again for the first time, but wouldn't be likely to re-read. If I invented a mind wipe machine and made a list of things to read, this probably wouldn't be on it, but wouldn't be on the list of books titled "Bury With Grandmother's Corpse, Don't Ask Questions".

4 Star: This was good. I liked this book. I could see re-reading this book. When someone else has read this book, I'm kind of excited to talk about it with them. When I hear this book is being made into a movie, I'm somewhere between "I'm a little nervous they'll screw it up" and "Well, it wasn't a masterpiece".

5 Star: If I had the choice between a nocturnal emission and reading this book, I would read this book.
Profile Image for Kathy .
698 reviews232 followers
September 5, 2011
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 the United States' machinations and the greedy cabal of missionary descendents responsible for Hawaii's annexation in 1898, I was eager to read a book that told the story with the blinders removed. I couldn't have picked a better source than Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes. Her wit and uncensored revelations kept me intrigued throughout the telling of this blighting of the Hawaiian monarchy and attempted blighting of Hawaiian culture. Amazing story, amazing book.
Profile Image for Eric.
872 reviews78 followers
September 7, 2012
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 that the history of the annexation of Hawaii starts off with a pilgrimage of New England missionaries and ends decades later in a bloodless, legal coup (can you think of a more boring premise to base a book on?).

The title of the novel comes from Hawaiian writer David Malo, with this unfortunately prophetic quote:
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.
This book, sadly, made me a bit embarrassed to be an American. America's policy of manifest destiny at the cost of the cultures, freedoms and lives of various indigenous peoples throughout history is truly appalling, and this book -- although funny in its author's casual delivery -- is a sad reminder of one of the less publicized examples of that policy.
Profile Image for Wallace.
144 reviews114 followers
April 23, 2011
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 personal anecdotes and humor Vowell usually brings to her topic.

I saw her speak in Pasadena, while on her book tour, and she did admit that she had held back in light of the fact that she wanted to be respectful of the descendants of the Hawaiians she was writing about. She quipped that feels more comfortable making fun of her typical subjects because no one who cares about them are around to read her words. Also, probably, because she is part of the culture of her typical subjects. This trepidation was incredibly evident and, unfortunately, I wasn't interested in finishing this book. I was wondering why there was so much publicity for this book (much more than normal for her, I feel), and now that has been answered. This is not a book that Vowell's typical fans will flock too... so getting the word out about it was more important than usual, I imagine.

I'm keeping this book (which I received thanks to the publisher), and hoping that I can finish it sometime in the future when there aren't so many other interesting books in my to be read pile.

I gave this two stars instead of one because it is Sarah Vowell -- it just felt sacrilege to give her one star!
Profile Image for allysther.
116 reviews5 followers
March 31, 2011
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.
Profile Image for Siria.
1,796 reviews1,308 followers
February 27, 2011
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 Eddie Izzard's sketch in Dress to Kill, in which he talks about the Pilgrims arriving in America and telling the indigenous peoples there, "Sorry we were a bit brusque when we first arrived, we didn’t realise you owned the entire country! But you have no system of land ownership? Hmm, interesting, maybe that can come in useful later… Hmm? Yes there are more of us coming, but don't worry—we all keep our promises." Definitely recommended as an introduction to the history of the islands.
Profile Image for Brierly.
155 reviews104 followers
April 11, 2019
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 contemporary politics, often focused on the Middle East.

I learned quite a lot about the Hawaiian royal family, the cities Honolulu and Lahaina, and the Christian missionaries that began the process of Americanization, thoroughly imbued with capitalism and Judeo-Christian values. Vowell travels from museum to garden to archives; she hikes significant trails and is usually accompanied by her sister and her nephew for additional narrative texture. As a final note, these stories truly are personal essays and not nonfiction accounts of the topic in particular. Not as interesting topically as Assassination Vacation, yet enjoyable all the same.
Profile Image for Celia.
1,193 reviews153 followers
January 17, 2019
“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 Americanization of Hawaii is described in detail. That and the history of Hawaii before that year.

Sara Vowell brings her signature wit and thorough research to this book. I learned alot about missionaries, kings and queens, and Hawaiians who say they are not Americans.

4 stars
Profile Image for jess.
848 reviews71 followers
May 8, 2019
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 of showing how Hawaii was leveraged in the larger geopolitical happenings of the time. I was also more interested in how she was able to relate her Cherokee family's experiences (trail of tears, illegal treaties, leaders making bad deals for personal benefit, etc) with those of the Hawaiian people. I thought the Haole looked sufficient stupid and crooked with direct quotes and cited documentation, without personal commentary from Vowell. It is interesting to read books you read a long time ago and see how different (or the same) you feel. I was also frequently nostalgic for the time period when we had a Hawaiian US president.

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 our second-favorite religion, Christianity."

This passage really stuck with me, and carried me through the book. The idea of Hawaii as a sort of canary in the coal mine of American imperialism and conquest drew me through the pages. I wanted point, evidence, counterpoint to support this narrative. This quote is from the second page.

I started looking into Hawaii's bit part in the epic of American global domination. I came across a political cartoon on the cover of Harper's Weekly from August 27, 1898. Above the caption, "Uncle Sam's New Class in the Art of Self-Government," Uncle Sam poses as a schoolmaster in a classroom festooned with a world map in which little American flags are planted on the barely visible island dots of Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba & the Philippines. A barefoot, frowning boy wearing a dunce cap labeled "Aguinaldo" represents the Filipino revolutionary who began the Spanish-American War as an American ally against Spain; but after Spain surrendered and handed over the Phillipines to the United States, Aguinaldo led the guerilla war against his new American colonizers. Uncle Sam is trying to break up a fight between two other barefoot boys, one wearing a satchel marked "Cuban Ex-Patriot" and the other a belt marked "Guerilla" meant to symbolize the unruly discontentment of Cuban freedom fighers also dismayed that their American allies in the fight against Spain for Cuba libre had just become their new colonial overlord. Meanwhile, off to the side, two good little girls, their headdresses identifying them as "Hawaii" and "Porto Rico," have their noses in the books they are quietly reading. Presumably because well-behaved Hawaii & Puerto Rico have politely and graciously accepted the blessings of annexation without any back talk.

See? That's good. But the book gets caught up in churchy Puritans and fails in what I wanted/expected.

There are several references to Barack Obama, America's first Plate Lunch President. It seems pretty obvious that Obama is an important factor in both the writing and the reading of this book, but I'll say it anyway. He's the cultural touchstone that lends this book relevancy.

Sarah Vowell is a polarizing author and you usually love her or hate her. Generally I appreciate her work. But this book fell short on several things I love about her writing. Despite her meticulous research and humor, something is missing. Vowell has a nuanced understanding of the political, cultural, economic, religious and contradictory events of Hawaiian history, but there is no counterpoint to the elimination of the culture & ethnicity of the islands. There is no silver lining. What good came from this? Where is the justifiable outrage? Instead, you get a sort of grumbling, complacent indignation. Even the trademark snarky humor serves to turn atrocities into punch lines instead of skewering the perpetrators. The white people who handed over the nation to the US may have been morally bankrupt and motivated by greed, but they were not, in the strictest sense, doing anything illegal. They didn't break the law, Sarah Vowell tells us, because they wrote the law themselves. And maybe that's just how it had to go, after the Hawaiians gave up taro cultivation, the monarchy and the hula. They got a written language. Besides, the Puritans had lived there for generations, so they were Hawaiian too.

That was so totally not the conclusion I thought we were going to come to.

Ultimately, this book could have been a lot of things, but it just wasn't. Above all, I read Sarah Vowell for fun in my free time, as nerdy as that sounds, and this book most certainly was not fun to read.
Profile Image for Kristy Miller.
405 reviews85 followers
August 7, 2017
“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 topics and not only explains them in an amusing and approachable way, but relates them to current events and politics. Earlier this year I read Alan Brennert's Moloka'i, and found this to be a good companion book. Sarah takes us through the 80 years between New England missionaries arriving on The Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) through to the American annexation of the islands, with throwbacks to Hawaiian history and anecdotes on Hawaiian culture's revival and survival in modern day America. The missionaries weren't all bad; they helped create a written version of Hawaiian, and in 20 years helped the islands to an 80% literacy rate, but they opened the doors to the west. This brought diseases that devastated the population, and people whose decedents eventually overthrew the monarchy and invited American annexation. There's an interesting and disturbing link between Reconstruction/Jim Crow era Mississippi and Hawaii. There are also several comparisons to the plight of the Native Americans and Native Hawaiians, not only due to similar circumstances, but because Sarah is a descendant of the Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears.
I enjoyed Unfamiliar Fishes more than The Wordy Shipmates, but not quite as much as Assassination Vacation. Definitely a fascinating book that has added to my desire to visit Hawaii.
Profile Image for Ann-Marie "Cookie M.".
1,111 reviews121 followers
June 18, 2021
I have grown to accept what White people have done to African Americans and Native Americans. I no longer feel mind numbing grief and guilt over what my ancestors have done.
Now, along comes Sarah Vowell and "Unfamiliar Fishes," and I have Hawaii to reckon with.
Can't White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans touch any other culture without ransacking and destroying it?
Is it just something in our DNA?
I have relatives in Hawaii. They have been there long enough that some of them have married Native Hawaiians and I have Hawaiian cousins. They have popped up on my Ancestry searches.
This leaves me feeling really conflicted.
Vowell did a wonderful job with this book. I think this is just how I am supposed to feel.
Profile Image for Emily.
Author 8 books24 followers
April 4, 2011
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 1778-1900, but the subject matter is so soul-crushingly depressing the upbeat sarcastic tone of the text clashed with the actual text at times. The narrative begins with the death of Captain Cook in 1778 at the then-named "Sandwich Islands" for doing horrible things to the local natives and then discusses what Hawai'i was like at that time: not a peaceful paradise. The islands had just been forged into a Kingdom after a bloody civil war. The society was highly stratified with bloodlines of chiefs and a feudalistic system of land division. Men and women were segregated from one another at meal times and women were forbidden to eat certain foods under kapu laws. They had their own Gods -- Ku the War God gets prominent mention for his prominent temple. Then the missionaries came with their Jesus and their Bibles in 1820 and everything changed.

Everything would have changed anyway. Had it not been the missionaries it would have been someone else. The missionaries at least came with the printing press and a zeal for learning. They translated the Bible into a new written form of Hawai'ian and, from there, others wrote down all the chants and religion and myths and culture they could to preserve it. The missionaries came to save the Hawai'ians, which meant stamping out the local culture, shoving New England Protestantism on it, and persuading the high Chiefs to do away with various bits of their culture to make it more "modern." Granted, by the time the missionaries came, the Hawai'ians were starting to dismantle some of their culture anyway, so perhaps some of it is moot, but it would have taken a different course.

Then the shipping came, and then the sugar plantations, and the imported workers, and the round trips from newly established and totally hot San Francisco, and then with it came the smallpox and the malaria and the dysentery and everything else that could wipe out a local population. In time, the US Navy started eying Hawai'i as a Pacific port, especially with the sexy Pearl Harbor. Enterprising grandchildren of the original missionaries decided to stage a coup, and then decided to get Hawai'i annexed to the US to avoid tariffs on sugar. When Congress voted against the treaty of annexation due to the protest of the islanders, Pres. William McKinley decided it was good old "American Manifest Destiny" and figured out a back door to get annexation through anyway.

The sugar plantations are gone, now. And there's a huge revival of local culture -- a good thing.

Why did I give this book 3 stars? Mostly because Goodreads won't allow me to set 3.5. This is a good book, but not a great book. It does feel like a long episode of This American Life, but not one that sticks in the memory. I also felt terrible and depressed at the end because it's a terrible and depressing subject, and no amount of sarcasm and no number of funny stories about insane Mormons who are trying to become King of the Pacific make up for how sad and depressing the story is. It reminded me strongly of George Carlin's bit, "Religious Lift." It goes like this:

"Like I say, religion is a lift in your shoe, man. If you need it, cool. Just don't let me wear your shoes if I don't want 'em and we don't have to go down and nail lifts onto the native's feet!"
Profile Image for Kristen.
1,127 reviews64 followers
April 21, 2011
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 jumped around and didn't have a strong narrative thread holding it all together. And while there were some individual funny moments, I didn't find this nearly as funny as Vowell's other works that I've read. I also wasn't a huge fan of the audio version--I didn't feel like she was reading with much enthusiasm, unlike in previous books (although I did love that Edward Norton was one of the "special guest" audio voices). All in all, I was just very underwhelmed and would recommend that if you're new to Vowell you try one of her other books first (unless you're absolutely fascinated by the topic). However, I'll definitely try her next book, and will hope for better things!
Profile Image for martha.
562 reviews52 followers
July 26, 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 wanted far more about modern day Hawaii and/or cultural stuff, when of course it's loads of history -- or if it was just a bit less funny than the last few.

The overwhelming takeaway is how incredibly shitty American settlers were to Hawaii, methodically and shamelessly stealing sovereignty through legal reform and then just taking over. I had no idea just how blatant it was (or that Grover Cleveland tried to stop its annexation; wtg Groves?). Poor Hawaii. Ugh, white people.
Profile Image for Trike.
1,466 reviews152 followers
September 20, 2015
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 for good reason: his prescience was astounding, especially given the culture he grew up in.

This book focuses primarily on the New England missionaries who fundamentally altered Hawaiian society as much as the numerous whalers and sailors who descended upon the islands. Of course, it went exactly as it has for every indigenous civilization which encountered the white man's technology, diseases and zeal to impress upon them their way of life.

Even those with good intentions ended up destroying the very people they meant to save.

This is the first Vowell book I've read, despite having two of her other books in my to-read pile. I quite enjoyed it. It helped that her thesis is that the year 1898 was as important a year in America's development as a nation as 1776, because that was the year my grandmother was born. I often marveled that she remembered hearing when the first airplane flew, that she was older than television, radio, refrigerators, antibiotics, even sliced bread. Yet there she was, in her kitchen baking cookies while watching TV as Americans walked on the moon. 1898 was when America went on an empire-building spree, adding island after island to its list of territories. Many of those people, like Puerto Rico and American Samoa, are Americans but aren't allowed to participate in elections or much of their own governance, 117 years later.

It also helped that I've been to many of the places Vowell talks about. Lahaina, Honolulu, the Bishop Ford museum... Hawaii is an amazing place and the people are unique. If you can manage it, I recommend visiting Hawaii at least once.

But read this book before you go, haole, so you understand why there are still underlying tensions between natives and the white people.
Profile Image for Rachel.
729 reviews7 followers
April 9, 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 it's hard to keep track of who is who or why we should care. It only really gets any momentum going in the last thirty pages--before that it feels pretty aimless. The bright side is that all these things are less true for this book than they were for The Wordy Shipmates (at least there's a clear ending that the book is explicitly headed toward). So it is better than the last one, if not by a lot.

I'm still going to read whatever Vowell publishes in the future, but I can't see myself getting really excited about it again.
Profile Image for Spencer.
490 reviews33 followers
February 10, 2016
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 contributor to NPR's This American Life, and this book felt kind of like an unabridged version of one of those episodes. This was not my first Vowell, and it will not be my last. I don't think anyone could read one of her books and not both laugh and learn something.
Profile Image for Albert.
368 reviews50 followers
November 4, 2019
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. Sarah often picks as her subjects some of the more unlaudable moments in US history. She does that again here, focusing on a moment when the US subjugated the desires of the native population to the country’s goals. While Unfamiliar Fishes was well-researched and I learned quite a bit, I found it tedious and a bit dull. Logically I knew what I should be feeling but unfortunately the writing just didn’t make me feel anything strongly.
Profile Image for David H..
1,998 reviews19 followers
June 14, 2020
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, with the interactions between the missionaries (and their descendants) and the natives. And--as a sign that I think a nonfiction book did its job--I'm motivated to seek out more on several topics brought up here.

Audiobook: Like the Lafayette book, Vowell narrates the majority of the book but most quotes are read by a wide cast (Keanu Reeves voices Native Hawaiian historian David Malo, for instance). Even though I knew to expect it this time, I still find it aggravating to have narrators switch in the middle of sentences.
468 reviews4 followers
April 20, 2021
This is an important story, and it's one that I certainly wasn't well-versed in, and I suspect many Americans aren't. In this short volume, Vowel focuses on the history of Hawaii from the time American missionaries from New England arrived in 1820 until the American annexation of Hawaii in 1898. It's Vowell's contention that the latter year is a highly significant one in American history, the year that the United States became an imperial power. And the Americanization of Hawaii is absolutely a story of American imperialism. Vowell starts the book by describing Hawaiians holding placards at the 50th anniversary of statehood saying, "I am not an American." She revisits this at the end of book. After learning the story, I was now saying to myself, "I understand this now."

Much as I admire Vowell's ability to latch onto an interesting story and research it thoroughly, this book was only so-so for me. She has a gift for capturing the essence of something in a phrase which prompts you to nod to yourself, "I get this." But her meandering style lacks focus at times. And her insertion of humorous asides into the narrative can be just plain annoying. I was charmed by her style of narrative non-fiction in two of her previous books, but the style seemed to have worn thin. That said, her passion for history and her eccentricity are endearing. Perhaps the best line of the book is from her young nephew who accompanied her on several of her research trips. After watching a performance of native arts and cultures her proclaimed, "If I could marry Hawaii, I would do it immediately." The real gem here is that place with its rich history and culture.
Profile Image for Greg Zimmerman.
805 reviews171 followers
April 14, 2011
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 lava rock: learn history, read Vowell. (Also, it mercifully allowed me to rethink my original plan to learn Hawaiian history: Trudge through all 1,140 pgs. of James Michener's Hawaii.)

Beginning with King Kamehameha's unification (read as: conquest) of all the islands in the early 19th century and continuing through the arrival of the first American missionaries in 1820, the book explains how various events, factors, influences, etc. all led up to the US's rather underhanded annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Along the way, we get some fascinating tidbits about whaling, the founding of Punahou School (an elite private high school that happens to be our president's alma mater), a Hawaiian princess conflicted about marrying her brother, and a crazy pseudo-Mormon guy named Walter Murray Gibson who made friends with a Hawaiian king, but was excommunicated from the Mormon church for misappropriating funds.

Vowell is a thorough researcher and a wonderful writer — switching seamlessly between historian, travel writer and humorist. She's certainly the most fun-to-read when she's cracking wise and pointing out contradictions and stupidity. She's no fan of the missionaries and generally let's 'em have it throughout the book. My favorite line, which I judge to be pure genius: "In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the x axis of faith intersects with the y axis of reason at the zero point of 'I don’t give a damn what you think.'"

The black-and-white historical sections are still interesting, but lack that Vowell flair. Near the end of the book, as Vowell rushes through the (il)legal maneuverings that led to the annexation, she barely stops to take a breath, much less throw in her signature wit. Here, you learn more than you're entertained — which isn't of itself a bad thing, but it feels more like a college textbook.

So, four stars for Unfamiliar Fishes. I realize now I liked it a lot more, and learned much more, than I thought I did while reading it. Isn't it cool when a book sneaks up on you? If you like Vowell, you won't be disappointed here. And I liked it enough to try some of her other stuff now.

By the way, the title is a reference to a quote by a native Hawaiian and Christian convert named David Malo, who in his old age, became concerned that the old customs were being abandoned and that the Haole (Hawaiian for "outsider", basically) or "unfamiliar fishes" would soon dominate the islands.
Profile Image for Nicholas Karpuk.
Author 4 books64 followers
April 6, 2011
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 of early missionaries and trips to the islands have a great deal of warmth to them. The humor comes through quite well and you really get a sense of the time and place.

Vowell the historian starts to come through stronger in the second half. The narrative glue begins to wear thin, and there are chunks where it feels like a barrage of names and dates rather than a coherent discussion of history. I'm not sure if she simply didn't have enough data, ran out of time, or simply didn't wish to make the book longer, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

I've purchased every Sarah Vowell book as an audiobook. I know it seems counter-intuitive with her nasally, stilted voice, but her comedic delivery is oddly compelling. Not only that, but she has an odd number of connections to the comedy world, so guys like Fred Armisen and John Hodgeman show up to play the roles of figures quoted throughout. For $10 over the hardcover, I'd say that's a good trade off.

It's odd to find myself saying it, but I wanted Vowell to talk more. There are moments in this story that are utterly heartbreaking, such as the quote the title is derived from. If she's holding back for whatever reason, I'd really rather she stop.
Profile Image for Jenny Maloney.
Author 3 books38 followers
October 26, 2011
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 history...no matter what we may think, the world is small, and has always been so. Everything is interconnected. School systems, political systems, etc., they are all tied together. Sometimes you forget (or didn't even know, in some cases) how the reconstructionist Mississippi constitution influenced the writing of the second Hawaiian constitution.

My only problem with this book was that I didn't fall in love with it quite as much as her other books. Though she still has hilarious insights that make you go 'so true' - like this one: "I envy a people [she is referring to the Hawaiians] who celebrate their leaders' private parts - that they love those leaders so much they want them making newer, younger versions to tell the next generation what to do. In the democratic republic where I live, any politician whose genitals have made the news probably isn't going to see his name on a ballot again."

Place for the Stolen
Under Ground Writing Project
Profile Image for Alex Dow.
35 reviews1 follower
September 27, 2017
Essential reading for your next Hawaiian vacation (along with the first two chapters of Michener's Hawaii)
Profile Image for LindaJ^.
2,134 reviews6 followers
May 6, 2020
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 Spring 2019 and visited some of the same spots, including the Leper Colony on Molokai. Hawaii does not feel like the mainland US. Surprisingly she does not get into the political reason behind admitting Hawaii to balance the admission of Alaska to the union in the same year -- 1959. If you are unfamiliar with how Hawaii went from being a monarchy to a state and like a little snarkiness with your history, start here.
Profile Image for Jeimy.
4,539 reviews33 followers
March 27, 2017
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.
Profile Image for Elena.
90 reviews39 followers
April 7, 2016
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 high school history narrative to find real people, mostly acting badly. On the many missionary references to the biblical "Macedonian call": 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 the canisters of Agent Orange..."She occasionally weaves in comments from her endearing, the-emperor-has-no-clothes nephew Owen ("They shouldn't kill whales.") While Sarah Vowell is clear about the devastation of the beautiful Hawaiian culture by American colonialist missionaries and capitalists, she does not fall for the noble savage myth. The indigenous people are plenty human indulging in internecine warfare, human sacrifice, and occasional treachery. The missionaries are boring, bigoted, and narrow-minded to be sure, but they are not all bad. They bring death and disease, of course, but they also have an incredible energy for building educational institutions and literacy. The literacy rate in mid-nineteenth century Hawaii is higher than the mainland US or Europe. The explosion in publishing in the Hawaiian language is extraordinary. And they foster remarkable individuals such as David Malo. A touching quote from Malo supplies the title, finally explained in the middle of the book. Sarah Vowell has a soft spot for the last queen, Liliuokalani, who wrote the beautiful Aloha Oe song, sewed a lovely and meaningful quilt while under house arrest, and successfully petitioned against the annexation treaty --only to have this success circumvented by a joint resolution of Congress. Vowell ties the events to the imperial ambitions of the 1890s, links it to the claims on Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and the push for a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific. She describes the collision of two traditional cultures, and connects it with her Cherokee ancestors' sad experience, overwhelmed by more powerful forces. While her historical style is informal, she has done her homework in archives in Hawaii and the mainland US, digging up gems that reveal the Zeitgeist at work. She sifts the documents with zeal in archival repositories where "the closest thing to a felony is using a pen instead of a pencil." Then she jolts the readers because she herself is jolted by what she finds: "My research into Hawaiian culture made me more aware of my own biases and prejudices than any project I'd ever worked on." Her funny and snarky style gives way in the last part of the book to sober analysis where she carefully documents each stage in the annexation of Hawaii: America's imperial ambitions, the demands of a modern naval power, the commercial interests at work, and the blatant disregard for democratic principles. She equates the ancient temples to the war god Ku with the modern military bases, both of which demand human sacrifice. Her ultimately revisionist view of American democracy stands up to the historical facts, she just connects the dots in a new and revealing way. It's about more than Hawaii, about more than the 19th century. This is not just for tourists or history nerds, she is saying something about our country that we need to listen to. And I would love to meet Owen.
Profile Image for Ms.pegasus.
703 reviews138 followers
November 8, 2011
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 from a subsistence to a cash economy based on sugar and beef. The first missionaries landed on the islands in 1820, and whalers found Lahaina on Maui a convenient port in their pursuit of sperm whales. By 1824 disease from these contacts had decimated the native population. The end of the civil war in 1865 created an economic dilemma for the sugar plantations which had formerly enjoyed a monopoly on export to the American market. American territorial ambitions at the turn of the century fueled the desire for acquiring Hawaii – in particular, the port of Pearl Harbor as a Pacific outpost.

Vowell is slow to develop these patterns, as she is required to build a foundation relating the history of the missionary presence in Hawaii. Their arrival created an interesting dynamic: Ingratiating themselves with Hawaiian royalty while their grandchildren engineered the overthrow of the monarchy, and annexation of Hawaii as a US territory. This is in fact the meaning for her enigmatic title. She quotes from a letter by David Malo (1793-1853): “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.” It is a parable of the haole dominance he had witnessed within his own lifetime.

Vowell is a facile writer and passionate commentator on Hawaiian culture and values. Historical remnants such as Princess Nahi'ena'ena's yellow featherwork skirt are endowed with a symbolic poignancy impossible to capture from a mere museum exhibit or collection of archival photographs. Her mordant humor, although it often belies the seriousness of her themes, brings the history of this brief but turbulent period to life, and is a thought-provoking reminder about the economic predation and cultural destruction that a globalized America has brought in its wake.
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