Monday, July 11, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell — 256 pgs

Unfamiliar FishesIn this crisp and witty non-fiction selection, Sarah Vowell elucidates her readers on the events leading up to 1898 American annexation of Hawaii, and shares how this surprising development impacted not only the people of Hawaii but how the repercussions changed the course of history for America as well. As Vowell pushes backward into the past, she gives us a taste of what Hawaii was like before this momentous change, when it was ruled by monarchs thought to be blessed by the gods, and how the arrival of American missionaries changed the political and historical landscape of this beautiful and picturesque archipelago. As Vowell relates this incredible story, her trademark humor comes bounding off the pages and her succinct observations on the mingled American and Hawaiian cultures will leave readers aglow with anticipation and wonder. Sharing her insights and the very particular components of this strange event in history, Vowell comes to understand the Hawaiian people in a way that she never has before and shares with her readers how the act of annexing Hawaii could not only be interpreted as an act of possession and domination, but as an act of military imperialism gone tragically overboard. Both witty and wise, Unfamiliar Fishes seeks to understand not only the culture and inhabitants of Hawaii before the annexation, but also after, when it was thrown into the melting pot of America to be boiled down to it most basic elements.

I’ve read a lot about Sarah Vowell and her writing, but until I sat down with Unfamiliar Fishes, she was an unknown quantity in my reading life. Some words I’ve heard used to describe her books are: funny, fascinating, engaging and witty; and after reading this book I would have to agree with all of these adjectives. Vowell gets right to the heart of her material but isn’t afraid to follow the occasional non-sequitur to its very end. She crafts history into a story that even those who are apathetic on the topic can savor and enjoy, and she has a sense of humor that kept me giggling along with her throughout. Though I didn’t know much about Hawaii before reading this book, I now feel that I could talk intelligently about the subject, as well as regale my family over dinner with the Hawaiian importance of belly buttons.

It was surprising to learn that before the missionaries arrived, the islands had no written language, and it was the missionaries who created the first Hawaiian alphabet (12 letters instead of 24, if you are curious). They also made education one of the premiere focuses of the island, first getting the king’s approval and teaching him. It would have been great if everything the missionaries ended up doing in Hawaii was that altruistic, because although that contribution was huge, the missionaries were mostly the harbingers of a change that many Hawaiians were not comfortable with. They wanted to change the fundamentals of Hawaiian religion, politics, land ownership and marriage laws. They brought disease that ravaged the population, and they started many territorial wars with the sailors that used the islands as a stopover on their whaling trips. With one hand they blessed and with the other they snatched away, creating a strange mixture of admiration and revulsion in the native population. As years went by and the missionaries became more at home on the Islands, their priorities began to change from ideas of benevolence to ideas of ownership.

But Vowell doesn’t only share the history of the American missionaries on the island, she really digs deep and shares the history of Hawaii from its earliest origins. She speaks of the Hawaiian reverence of nature and how the kings and queens also revere their people and their responsibility to them. She shares the strange customs of royal incest that Hawaiians believe produce the most powerful of monarchs, and shows how these hardworking and compassionate people ended up at the mercy of a country that didn’t understand them or their way of life. She gives us many examples of a people who are still bitter over the usurping of their home into the jaws of a country that seems to want to swallow other territories whole, never realizing or appreciating the differences of other lands. Vowell writes at length about the seizure of the Hawaiian queen and tells her readers just how her power was stripped from her, leaving the islands at the mercy of foreigners that wanted nothing more than to add them to a collection of other militarily advantageous lands.

Part of the reason this book appealed to me, despite my tepid regard for full-on historical reads, is the fact that Vowell stands in the unique position of making her book historically accurate while also seeking to entertain her readers. I can’t imagine wanting to read about these subjects had they been penned by another author. Vowell is never dry nor repetitive, and the sense of wonder that she feels while exploring these events comes across clearly as she shares them with her reader. She also has a unique gift for being sympathetic to all parties in the drama and never resorts to stereotyping or name calling within her reflections. It’s obvious that some parties bear more responsibility for the problem than others, but Vowell lets her readers decide just how much and how to feel about all the players in this event. It’s to her credit that she takes on all sides of this quibble equally and doesn’t resort to mudslinging at any point. Her all-encompassing need to get the facts straight provided an unbiased reflection of the Hawaii/ American conflict.

Unfamiliar Fishes was a very interesting read, made more enticing because it wasn’t vague nor taxing. Vowell has a way of getting to the kernel of her material and expanding her study in a way that’s not only instructive but invigorating. It’s history yes, but written in a sometimes playful and sometimes grave way. If, like me, you haven’t had the experience of losing yourself in Vowell’s writing, I would recommend it heartily. If you’ve read previous books by this author then you know what I’m talking about. I’m eager to continue my history lessons under Vowell’s tutelage and will probably grab The Wordy Shipmates from my stack very soon. An intriguing and engrossing read, written with candor and intelligence. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

23 comments:

Kathy said...

This sounds like a really good read. I am addicted to history and always looking for good books. Thanks for a great review and for pointing out a new author for me!

TheBookGirl said...

We have a number of Vowell's books in the shop and I have been tempted to pick one up; like you, I have never read her before, but have been curious.

I think I will start with this one (which of course we don't have at the moment), because the subject is fascinating to me. Hawaii, with its paradise-like setting, and distinctive culture seems like another world to me, and from your review, she really brings it to life in an entertaining, but equally informative way.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have this book too, but think that I should only read it in the proper setting, i.e., Hawaii. Just have to talk my husband into it! :--)

Sandy Nawrot said...

I thought it was pretty cool, having been to Hawaii, to hear about places I'd seen. I so love Vowell. She makes history come alive. But you really need to get her stuff on audio. Her narration is priceless!

Audra said...

Wow -- this sounds great! I'm not drawn to straight up nonfiction but the way you describe Vowell's writing -- and the subject matter -- have me super interested. Great review -- I'm definitely going to look for this!

Aths said...

I've been curious about this one for a while. I have only read about the disease aspect - how the Hawaiians were very sheltered but after people started coming into Hawaii from outside, there were suddenly so many diseases like leprosy, because of their low resistance. I will add this one to my list.

Darlene said...

I've never read any of her books either but this one sounds like a really good read or maybe something that would be great to listen to.

Tracy said...

I've read Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, which is very amusing, as well as being informative (definitely recommend it), so this one sounds interesting (though I've only been to Hawaii once, a couple of days spent there en-route from Auckland to London, and it's unlikely I'll go again in the near future)

bermudaonion said...

I've got to try Vowell's work. I've gotten to know a woman here who goes to most of the Book Your Lunch events and she loves Vowell's work. Booking Mama shared her copy of this with me, so I have no excuses anymore!

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Sounds like a fabulous reading experience! I haven't read anything by Vowell, yet but it sounds like I need to. Thanks for the review!

Aarti said...

I really like history non-fiction that takes one event/person/inanimate object and then uses it to describe an entire era or something like that. I know that sentence doesn't really make sense, but I mean books like 1491, Salt, etc... they're great!

Marg said...

I have heard so many good things about Sarah Vowell, and I am pretty sure that I had one of her earlier books out from the library, but didn't get to read it. I really should.

Amy said...

This sounds really great. I've read and really loved on Vowell book so know I need to read more at some point :)

Vasilly said...

Unfamiliar Fishes sounds like an amazing book. I haven't read anything by Vowell or anything about Hawaii before. After reading your great review, I'm adding this to my immediate tbr list.

Jenners said...

Yay ... You've been converted to Vowellism! I've enjoyed her books ... with my favorite being Assassination Vacation. She has a knack for making you care and want to know more about things you didn't think you cared about at all.

Suko said...

Excellent review! Vowell is a new to me author; I will keep an eye out for this book, which sounds exceptional.

Geosi said...

Wonderful review though I've not heard of this author.

celawerdblog said...

Sounds like a very interesting read.

Jenny said...

I have never read anything by her and sort of feared her writing would be too intelligent for me lol! I guess I should check one of her books out one of these days! Everything you said this book was about makes it sound really interesting!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

"Vowellism"?!? Jenners taught me a new word.

I like what you say, Heather, that Vowel's writing is instructive, yet entertaining (and unpredictable). I haven't yet read her -- J read WORLDLY SHIPMATES and gave me a tepid review. However, I think I'm much more in line with your reading taste than his, so I'll pull this out of the stack.

Jenny said...

I read Sarah Vowell's book about pilgrims, the title of which now escapes me, and there was just something about her writing that bugged me. It wasn't -- I don't know, it was a little too self-consciously trying to be funny, I guess. Even when she was relaying new and interesting information, I just didn't care for it. :/

Michelle (my books. my life.) said...

I just got this on audio. I've never read any Sarah Vowell before and I'm looking forward to it.

Liz @ Cleverly Inked said...

I would have liked to have been there during dinner, Belly Buttons and wine.

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