Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tahleen reviews: "Unfamiliar Fishes" by Sarah Vowell

Title: Unfamiliar Fishes
Author: Sarah Vowell
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2011 (print available from Riverhead Trade)
Narrator: Sarah Vowell

Rating: 4.5 stars

Have you ever wondered how the United States came to acquire Hawaii? Do you know anything about the history of the last state to join the country? Sarah Vowell, in her typical sarcastically funny and intelligent fashion, takes us through the history of this chain of islands that have been through so much. From the ancient Hawaiians, to the missionaries that first stepped on the shores, to President McKinley making Hawaii officially part of the United States, Vowell tells us all about the dynamic history of Hawaii.

How have I made it this far in my life without reading one of Sarah Vowell's books? This book is fantastic. I loved Vowell's voice; she puts herself into the story as much as all of the historical figures and events, and the story is richer for it. We start with her contemplating her plate lunch, and how all these different cultures are together on one plate in Hawaii. She launches into the history and culture, both past and present. Her biting comments, quirky choice of words, and funny asides kept me listening and eager to hear more.

I picked up this audiobook because my fiance and I are going to Hawaii for our honeymoon, and I wanted to know more about it. Plus, I've heard great things about Vowell. I wasn't disappointed. Not only did I learn a great deal about the history and culture, but I was entertained throughout it with Vowell's unique style of writing. I was kind of surprised at how much I didn't know about the islands, though I suppose I shouldn't have been. We don't learn this stuff in school, and I had no reason to learn about it before this. Not that that's an excuse, but my interest was piqued when I learned I'd actually be going there.

A note on the audio edition: At first I was completely turned off by Vowell's voice. It was whinier than I was expecting. But I got used to it, and eventually started to really like how she narrated her writing in deadpan and in a conversational way. I would definitely listen to another one of her audiobooks, and most likely will. I can't wait to get my hands on Vowell's other work.

Disclosure: I got this from the library.


  1. I have heard great things about Vowell's books, too but haven't read one yet. I need to correct that. Although I don't have your great reason for reading about Hawaii, I'd love to know more about this topic and trust Vowell's view will be honest and entertaining!
    I'm not sure about the audio because of her whiny voice. I think I will listen to a snippet and then decide.

    Loved your review!
    Congratulations and enjoy Hawaii!

  2. I so agree about Vowell's voice! I listened to her perform 'Assassination Vacation' and I didn't think I'd last five minutes. It definitely grew on me, though, and by the end I was convinced her voice perfectly suited the material. I wasn't sure which of her books I should listen to next, so I'm glad to read your review. I don't know much about Hawaii - sounds like this is a good place to start. (PS: You should totally try Assasination Vacation...hilarious)

    1. I will! I almost bought the audio because it was so cheap on Amazon (I think it was that one anyway), but then I thought, eh I'll just get it for free from the library. :)

  3. YES! I own this book and talked briefly with Ms. Vowell about it last year at the DC Book Festival. As a Native Hawaiian myself, I'm very interested to see how she tells our story as an outsider. I haven't found the time (or the strength) to pick this one up yet for fear I will get angry with her portrayal. Glad you read this and could shed some light on Hawaiian history! -Sash

  4. Wandered here from The librarian who doesn't say shhh. So glad I did! What a great blog!! I'll definitely be back in the future!

  5. I'm looking for my next audio and will definitely be requesting this one from the library! I've heard great things about Vowell and recently saw her on a documentary. (Can't remember which one -- possibly about Lincoln? Something dorky, I'm sure. That's how I roll.)

  6. I really enjoyed this one, but I liked The Wordy Shipmates a bit more (maybe because I've never been to Hawaii but know Boston pretty well). I have Take the Cannoli on my TBR and am thinking about reading it during the April readathon.

    Everyone keeps telling me that Assassination Vacation is her best, though.

    1. Ohh, I live near Boston! I will definitely have to pick up The Wordy Shipmates soon, too.


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