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Unfamiliar Fishes Hardcover – March 22, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Recounting the brief, remarkable history of a unified and independent Hawaii, Vowell, a public radio star and bestselling author (The Wordy Shipmates), retraces the impact of New England missionaries who began arriving in the early 1800s to remake the island paradise into a version of New England. In her usual wry tone, Vowell brings out the ironies of their efforts: while the missionaries tried to prevent prostitution with seamen and the resulting deadly diseases, the natives believed it was the missionaries who would kill them: "they will pray us all to death." Along the way, and with the best of intentions, the missionaries eradicated an environmentally friendly, laid-back native culture (although the Hawaiians did have taboos against women sharing a table with men, upon penalty of death, and a reverence for "royal incest"). Freely admitting her own prejudices, Vowell gives contemporary relevance to the past as she weaves in, for instance, Obama's boyhood memories. Outrageous and wise-cracking, educational but never dry, this book is a thought-provoking and entertaining glimpse into the U.S.'s most unusual state and its unanticipated twists on the familiar story of Americanization. (Mar.)
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“Sarah Vowell is an intellectual melting pot. Her cleverness is gorgeously American…” – Los Angeles Times
“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, in a kind of 50th-state variety show. It’s a fun book…[a] playful, provocative, stand-up approach to history.”—The New York Times Book Review
“As entertaining and personable as it is informative.”—Washington Post
“Sarah Vowell is for my money, the best essayist/radio commentator/sit-down comic and pointy headed history geek in the business.”—Seattle Times
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Top Customer Reviews
Although I think Sarah does make the point that America’s “orgy of imperialism” began with the first colonists in New England she does not seem to hammer it home the way I would have liked. Yes, America leapt off the continent in 1898 and swept into the lives of various indigenous and mixed race inhabitants of several Pacific and Caribbean islands but she seems to have forgotten America’s earlier experiment with invading other nations. She does mention the importance of the California / Hawaii trade relationship that began with the California gold rush but she neglects to emphasize that California was, just like Hawaii, stolen by force just a few years earlier. That little episode, that featured a successful invasion of Mexico and occupation of Mexico City, proved that America can get things done as well as any imperialist European nation. Sarah does make the distinction that the Spanish American War made America a world power. I do understand what she means, launching attacks across the oceans of the world to conquer islands necessary to support a world dominating navy, but wouldn’t forcing Mexico to give up more than half her territory by military force, making America a continental nation, also propel the US to world power status? I actually don’t really think the Spanish American War really had anything to do with Mahanian doctrine. I think America just had a hard-on for current and former Spanish colonies.
My little digs aside, Sarah Vowell has done it again: produced a fantastically delightful, insightful and educational read.
Indeed, history is the highlight of Vowell's book where she narrates and provides as much background to the history of Hawaii that too is a major part of American history that pre-dates what many known about the islands as it relates to World War II. And more so, precedes the annexation of the islands and her neighbors, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico as a result of the Spanish American War of 1898. All these events parallel each other in terms of the tumultuous upheavals that took place within the social and political lines of colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, and revolution, but the main premise of her examination concentrates on two sources, the Memoirs of Henry Obookiah and Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power Upon History that shows the tremendous affect of colonialism within the islands that ultimately resulted to the end of the monarchy of Hawaii.
In spite of the ironic aspects of this part of American history, Vowell retells a history that attempts to bring understanding that is twofold. Firstly, she distinctively makes parallels to her own personal experience with Hawaii, her visit in 2003 and previous to that, as a teenager, watching the 1987 film North Shore starring Matt Adler who played Rick a surfer who decides to get a true taste of the waves by winning a trip to Hawaii to learn how to surf the native way but in the interim encounters a culture clash between he and the natives. Secondly, two major events in history relating to American missionaries in Hawaii that is contiguous to the landing of Puritans in New England where both represent the Americanization of a region and its people. Hawaii and New England share the common experience of its inhabitants greatly affected by disease and conversion within various forms, natives and settlers within this vast landscape that Vowell describes as the "spiritual wilderness" that missionaries and Puritans sought in their creation of a new world that would later be economically and politically beneficial but not without major transitions taking place.
Unfamiliar Fishes opens one's eyes to the history of the past. With Vowell's blunt approach to examining history, after reading the book there most likely will be more questions to be asked about the history of Hawaii that may entice readers to delve deeper into the history of the United States or other histories that closely relate to what occurred in Hawaii. There is no doubt that the reading and studying of history comes in various dimensions, especially if a bridge of understanding is established over events that have not been retold too often.
My only complaint - she never does explain the omnipresent macaroni salad.