Book review: ‘Unfamiliar Fishes’ by Sarah Vowell

In my quest to add more non-fiction to my reading diet, I sometimes pick up a book that feels slight “out of character” for me — like this one, Unfamiliar Fishes, by an author who seems to appear often in others’ recommendations for funny, interesting history: Sarah Vowell. Listening to the book on audio was a fun experience and good primer on Hawaii’s past.

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. (Goodreads)

Sarah Vowell might be a familiar face — and voice — for readers. Though I’d heard of her work through books like Assassination Vacation, it wasn’t until I stumbled on a review of Unfamiliar Fishes that I felt compelled to take a peek. Vowell’s voice — literary, physical — is very distinct, and I was enthralled with her take on Hawaii’s history because she’s in the story.

Back in college, professors railed against the use of any first-person accounts in academic papers — and rightfully so. There are ways to express an opinion without saying “I thought,” for example, and that’s a lesson many of us have to learn early. What startled me about Unfamiliar Fishes, then, is the way Vowell seamlessly interjects her own experiences and interpretations into a historical account and doesn’t make it seem, well . . . cheesy. I loved hearing about Vowell’s take on “plate lunch,” a Hawaiian staple, and her experiences taking her sister and nephew, Owen, around the island. These personal tidbits added flavor to a long, protracted history, and I loved it.

But the actual history? Well, experiencing the book on audio might not have been the best method for me. I found myself easily distracted and confused while running errands, trying to leap back into a queen’s dethroning or missionaries’ goals. Since I typically listen to an audio in 10- to 20-minute chunks, I probably would have felt more invested in the history had I “read” straight through . . . and not broken up the narrative quite as much.

That’s just me, of course. And Unfamiliar Fishes was still a very entertaining, educational listen. Having known little about Hawaii before starting, I finished feeling like I had a good primer on a basic history — in Vowell’s words, anyway — and was sparked to do some of my own research. It was especially interesting in light of Hawaii’s first denizen going on to become a U.S. president: Barack Obama. And President Obama’s take on plate lunch was really cool, too.

History buffs and those who enjoy Vowell’s sassy, sarcastic and quick-witted takes on the past and present will find plenty to enjoy in Unfamiliar Fishes. Both cautionary and entertaining, I won’t hesitate to explore the nation’s past with her again.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 159448564X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonPublisher page
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

About the narration: Sarah Vowell reads her own work, and that worked extremely well for me. I don’t know who in the world could possibly capture her unique humor, voice and character better than the author herself. Some might know her as Violet from “The Incredibles.” I enjoyed the background music and overall production of Unfamiliar Fishes, too; it was interesting without being distracting.

13 thoughts on “Book review: ‘Unfamiliar Fishes’ by Sarah Vowell

  1. Wow – talk about co-incidence! I am in San Francisco for a few days visiting my daughter, and needless to say the first place I went to is a wonderful bookshop called Green Apple where I treated myself to a few books to take back to Beijing – all were chosen more or less at random and one of them was ‘Unfamiliar Fishes’!


    • Isn’t it great how that happens? I’m looking forward to reading more from Vowell; I’ve also heard this isn’t fans’ favorite. I think I’m going to hit Assassination Vacation next.


  2. No, everyone is right, this is not her Magnum Opus. That would either be Assassination Vacation or Wordy Shipmates. One thing though that runs through all of her audios is the enormous amount of facts and dates and things. You just can’t keep track and I don’t even try. But her dry wit and that voice and the way she interjects now and again with her personal journeys…I just love her. LOVE. She is one person who, despite the glut of history she is covering, I will never read in print.


  3. I’ve had a bit of hit and miss luck with Vowell, but my all-time fave of hers continues to be The Partly Cloudy Patriot. There’s some history in there but it’s also quite a bit of personal essay. Great stuff.


  4. I totally love Sarah Vowell, and I haven’t read this one yet. . . but I will now. I do think she’s an easier on the page read rather than an about-town audio read. . . maybe a road trip? Thanks for this review.


  5. This was my first experience with Sarah’s work, and while I enjoyed her dry wit and factual presentation, the audio experience was just not for me. I am planning to try another one of her books in print because I thought the writing itself was very strong. It definitely helped that thanks to reading James Michener’s HAWAII right before listening to UNFAMILIAR FISHES, I was able to grasp all the facts she was spouting quite easily.


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