Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

70%

14 Critic Reviews

So what does she want from us? She wants us to drop our native credulity, no matter how endearing, how childlike it may be. She wants us to see that the annexation of Hawaii rests on shaky legal and moral grounds.
-LA Times

Synopsis

From the author of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, an examination of Hawaii, the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn.

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, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired 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, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.


From the Hardcover edition.
 

About Sarah Vowell

See more books from this Author
Sarah Vowell is the author of the bestselling Assassination Vacation, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Take the Cannoli, and Radio On. She is a contributing editor for public radio’s This American Life. She is also a McSweeney’s person and the voice of teenage superhero Violet Parr in Pixar Animation Studios’ The Incredibles.
 
Published March 22, 2011 by Riverhead Books. 258 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History. Non-fiction
Bestseller Status:
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Critic reviews for Unfamiliar Fishes
All: 14 | Positive: 9 | Negative: 5

NY Times

Below average
Reviewed by MICHIKO KAKUTANI on Apr 17 2011

Ms. Vowell’s determination to render history user-friendly often feels reductive and condescending, and her contemporary analogies can be strained.

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NY Times

Excellent
Reviewed by KAUI HART HEMMINGS on Apr 01 2011

Its scintillating cast includes dour missionaries, genital-worshiping heathens, Teddy Roosevelt, incestuous royalty, a nutty Mormon, a much-too-­merry monarch, President Obama, sugar barons, an imprisoned queen and Vowell herself...

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WSJ online

Below average
Reviewed by ALEC SOLOMITA on Apr 01 2011

But the complex, often sordid tale of the annexation of Hawaii by the United States is ultimately sunk by Ms. Vowell's pontificating, her inability to resist the easy wisecrack and her willingness to do a little annexing of her own...

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NPR

Below average
Reviewed by Dan Kois on Mar 22 2011

More fatally, though, Unfamiliar Fishes reveals the limitations of Vowell's arch style. It turns out that deadpan casualness may not be a useful stance from which to approach the story of the death of a nation...

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Book Reporter

Excellent
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on Mar 28 2011

In Vowell's nimble hands, it's easy to see what she loves about Hawaii. UNFAMILIAR FISHES is a charming and sophisticated ode to this complicated paradise.

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Globe and Mail

Excellent
Reviewed by David Shribman on Aug 10 2011

Those missionaries (on an errand from God) and those sailors (on leave, and with God-awful behaviour) are at the centre of Sarah Vowell’s idiosyncratic island narrative, a brisk and sometimes beguiling little volume...

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National Post arts

Below average
Reviewed by Ron Nurwisah on Apr 08 2011

But Vowell’s strengths — her wit, her personal touches and asides — are also where this book falls short.

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Entertainment Weekly

Excellent
Reviewed by Stephan Lee on Jun 24 2011

Although Unfamiliar Fishes could use a little more of Vowell's voice peppered throughout some of the long stretches of history and reporting, her brainy wit and savvy cultural references keep the book from seeming like homework.

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LA Times

Excellent
Reviewed by Susan Salter Reynolds on Mar 26 2011

So what does she want from us? She wants us to drop our native credulity, no matter how endearing, how childlike it may be. She wants us to see that the annexation of Hawaii rests on shaky legal and moral grounds.

Read Full Review of Unfamiliar Fishes | See more reviews from LA Times

Christian Science Monitor

Excellent
Reviewed by Randy Dotinga on Apr 06 2011

...never intends to be more than an engaging visit to a time, a place and a people. In that, it succeeds. With her trademark combination of curious mind and tender heart, Vowell remains one of American history’s best tour guides.

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San Francisco Chronicle

Below average
Reviewed by Michael Shapiro on Mar 26 2011

But that same editor also taught me about the value of the "nut graf," the paragraph that tells you what the story is about and why it matters. "Unfamiliar Fishes" could have used a nut graf to help pull together this wide-ranging school of fishes.

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The Washington Post

Excellent
Reviewed by Allegra Goodman on Apr 01 2011

...this is a book aimed at a wide audience, and Vowell tells a good tale. Forgive her journalistic excesses, consider her shrewd observations, and enjoy her comic turns of phrase.

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The Millions

Excellent
Reviewed by JANET POTTER on Mar 22 2011

It’s easy to see why she was attracted to this project, where there are no clear villains or heroes, just two worlds colliding to create a third...In her blunt, pithy way, Vowell shows us around that world and lets us draw our own conclusions.

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National Post arts

Good
Reviewed by Ron Nurwisah on Apr 08 2011

Vowell isn’t your traditional historian. You won’t find footnotes or academic attempts at thoroughness in her books. She’s more like the smart, sharp-tongued tour guide you wish you had at your side the last time you went to a major museum.

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Reader Rating for Unfamiliar Fishes
73%

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