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Unfamiliar Fishes Hardcover – March 22, 2011

3.9 out of 5 stars 213 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; First Edition edition (March 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594487871
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594487873
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (213 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #275,435 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Peggy Tibbetts VINE VOICE on March 22, 2011
Format: Hardcover
On page one Vowell establishes a clever metaphor for the theme of this book. She is in Hawaii eating a plate lunch of macaroni salad and shoyu chicken under a banyan tree. What do they all have in common? The banyan tree, shoyu chicken, macaroni salad, and author are all from somewhere else. From then on, Vowell takes readers on a rollicking voyage back to 1778, when James Cook landed on the shores of Kauai and named the archipelago the Sandwich Islands, through the next hundred years as the proud warrior natives endured the mishmash of cultures as they exploded onto their shores. Whether it was clashes between the New England missionaries and the sailors looking for rum and prostitutes, or Great Britain and the US fighting over imperialism, the Hawaiian natives were always caught in the middle. However, as Vowell shrewdly points out, they were often willing participants in the demise of their ancient customs. Throughout this extraordinary history of the kingdom of Hawaii Vowell injects her usual wink-wink nudge-nudge style of humor which makes "Unfamiliar Fishes" a fascinating and fun read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Those who have visited Hawaii know that it has earned its status as a gorgeous place. However, outside of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the recent history of Hawaii is not something that comes up very often for mainlanders. This book provides an enjoyable lesson on the subject.

Sarah Vowell's oddball style of reporting is on display here as she broadly covers the history of Hawaii from the time the first Europeans stumbled upon it. She discusses some of the ancient culture and the clashes with the first missionaries to descend upon the islands from New England. The book culminates with a telling of how Hawaii was annexed to the United States through a joint resolution, since an annexation treaty failed to pass Congress after vehement protests by native Hawaiians.

There are admittedly some problems with this book in regard to the writing. At times, sentences seem to drift off and loop back around on themselves. There is also a hefty serving of fragmentary writing, and the transitions are not always easy to follow. However, if you stick with it, there is enough humor and insight to keep you entertained while learning something as well.

This book will probably not satisfy die-hard historians or those with very strong opinions on Hawaii's changes over the years. However, for the casual reader it's a great way to learn some of the history of this beautiful land, though it wasn't always a beautiful story. Some may not like the message, but it's a tale that needs to be told. In truth, this book made me feel plenty guilty for having been to Hawaii many times and not considering the steps it took for me to get there without a passport. I'm looking forward to another trip where I can investigate some of the sites mentioned in the book.
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Format: Hardcover
This is the first book I've read of Sarah Vowell's canon, and I was very impressed both with the erudition and the writing style. I have visited Hawaii twice (and now realizing what a haole I was), but I'm just not interested in conventional history.

What I got from this book was valuable lessons about how the rich prey on the poor, how early the United States had dreams of empire, and how decidedly capitalism seems to overwhelm and reshape a culture.

The language and insights are remarkable and often funny. One of my favorite lines was about how Americans "imported our favorite religion, capitalism, and our second-favorite religion, Christianity" to the islands.

Vowell describes both the romance of monarchy as well as its abuses of power and tendency toward dissoluteness. She relates the story of New England missionaries who came to do good and did well, their sons ultimately overthrowing the monarchy and trying to abolish hula. She shows how Americans basically forced Hawaiians to change from a simpler, self-sufficient economy to one dependent on the monoculture of pineapples and their export to world markets in a cash economy.

All the while, Vowell is cracking the reader up with sly asides, such as "But if history teaches us anything, upper-class white guys can be exceedingly touchy about taxation." And, relating a story of how an American Mormon developed delusions of grandeur regarding himself and Hawaii: "He dressed in long white robes and called himself the High Priest of Melchizedek and tried to turn Lanai into his own private Waco."

I've never had such fun learning history since Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United StatesA People's History of the United States (P.S.). This is history from a humanized perspective, and the author is frequently a hysterical writer. I'd highly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover
Sarah Vowell has written several books on American history and culture, and was a contributing editor for the radio program This American Life from 1996-2008.

In 1778, Captain Cook, the first European captain on Hawaiian shores, died on the Big Island, and that was just about the last time that Kanaka Maoli -- Native Hawaiians -- came out ahead in their interactions with the haoles (outsiders) who would soon inhabit their islands.

Many different groups came with different agendas: different missionaries came to tell about their religion to save the Hawaiians' souls, whalers came to visit the harbor towns, and sugar-cane plantations took their toll of the islands.

A reader who is not so familiar with the Hawaiian history can be lost in this story or the way that it is told. Sometimes, there is unnecessary telling of different museum visits or quotes of the tour guides, and sometimes just quotes of her friends like hula dancers, courthouse workers etc.

If you are interested in finding answers to topics like:
When did New England and Hawaiian cultures mix?
What happened when Western imperialism met tribal feudalism?
How did missionaries save the souls, minds and hearts, and gained the lands of the Hawaiian kings?

Sarah Vowell tries to answer these above mentioned questions. She also tries to make her readers understand the cultural complexities of Hawaii today.

It is not a coherent or simple story, but it is still worth reading if you are interested in Hawaii and its history. You just need to get used to the way the author writes, and if you like the way she writes, then you will like this book.
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