Thursday, April 14, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes: Hawaiian History With a Bit of Punch

When I made my first trip to Hawaii on vacation earlier this year, I quickly realized two things. First, I suck at pronouncing Hawaiian names. Secondly, I know embarrassingly little about Hawaii's history.

So I was delighted when I learned that noted witticist Sarah Vowell's new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, provides a quick, glib guide to 19th century Hawaiian history. I've always meant to read Vowell, and never have, so Unfamiliar Fishes provided an opportunity to kill two Hawaiian nene geese with one lava rock: learn history, read Vowell. (Also, it mercifully allowed me to abandon my original plan to learn Hawaiian history: Trudge through all 1,140 pgs. of James Michener's Hawaii.)

Beginning with King Kamehameha's unification (read as: conquest) of all the islands in the early 19th century and continuing through the arrival of the first American missionaries in 1820, the book explains how various events, factors, influences, etc. all led up to the US's rather underhanded annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Along the way, we get some fascinating tidbits about whaling, the founding of Punahou School (an elite private high school that happens to be our president's alma mater), a Hawaiian princess conflicted about marrying her brother, and a crazy pseudo-Mormon guy named Walter Murray Gibson who made friends with a Hawaiian king, but was excommunicated from the Mormon church for misappropriating funds.

Vowell is a thorough researcher and a wonderful writer — switching seamlessly between historian, travel writer and humorist. She's certainly the most fun-to-read when she's cracking wise and pointing out contradictions and stupidity. She's no fan of the missionaries and generally let's 'em have it throughout the book. My favorite line, which I judge to be pure genius: "In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the x axis of faith intersects with the y axis of reason at the zero point of 'I don’t give a damn what you think.'"

The black-and-white historical sections are still interesting, but lack that Vowell flair. Near the end of the book, as Vowell rushes through the (il)legal maneuverings that led to the annexation, she barely stops to take a breath, much less throw in her signature wit. Here, you learn more than you're entertained — which isn't of itself a bad thing, but it feels more like a college textbook.

So, four stars for Unfamiliar Fishes. I realize now I liked it a lot more, and learned much more, than I thought I did while reading it. Isn't it cool when a book sneaks up on you? If you like Vowell, you won't be disappointed here. And I liked it enough to try some of her other stuff now.

By the way, the title is a reference to a quote by a native Hawaiian and Christian convert named David Malo, who in his old age, became concerned that the old customs were being abandoned and that the Haole (Hawaiian for "outsider", basically) or "unfamiliar fishes" would soon dominate the islands.


  1. Great review- sounds like an interesting and funny read. Love the quote you chose!

  2. Hmm. I don't think I've ever read anything about Hawaii either. Nor do I know the islands' history very well, though I've always wanted to learn more. Seems like a good introductory pick.

  3. I am assuming you read this in print. The most wonderful way to experience Vowell is through her audios, which she narrates. OMG. You just can't help but fall in love with her dry wit and her delivery is spot on. I've listened to Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, and have this one loaded and ready on my iPod. (For fun, look on YouTube for when she was on David Letterman talking about this book.)

  4. I had my first Sarah Vowell experience while listening to Marc Maron's WTF podcast. No doubt that she has the potential to make dry material jump out of the page. She has the cutest lisp also.

  5. @bookspersonally - That quote practically cannonballed off the page - it's funny because it's true.

    @Biblibio - This is definitely a good introduction - much more fun than reading a straight history book.

    @Sandy - You know, I've heard that about 4,532 times since I started reading Vowell - wish I'd heard it before! :) Yeah, she's awesome on This American Life, and whenever she does the talk show circuit - like her appearance on The Daily Show last week - she's hilarious!

    @Ben - Ha - she does. Part of her charm.

  6. Sounds excellent Greg. Vowell is not only a wonderful writer but she interviews well also.

    By the way - is "fishes" correct English?
    I was under the impression that fish is the plural of fish.

  7. @Man - You're right, but she's quoting a non-native speaker with the title, so I think we can let it slide...

  8. Greg, did you happen to see Michiko Kakutani's scathing, snooty, bitchy, obnoxiously high-browed review on this in the NYT today, titled "Some Stuff She Knows About Hawaii?"

    Some choice moments: "willfully cutesy-pie";
    "impressionistic and highly selective narrative style...can be annoying in the extreme"; and my fav: "The reader can only ask: who cares?"

    I think I want to read it even more now.

  9. @Seth - I did see that, took the requisite grain of salt, and went about my day. I'm with you - usually when Kakutani is that scathing (or as you put it much better - snooty, bitchy and obnoxious), there's probably something very hip, cool and funny about what it was she was reviewing.

  10. I didn't realize this was non fiction. We've visited Hawaii several times and my husband knows a lot of the history. I must tell him about this book. Thanks for reviewing it.

  11. Neat. I listened to the audiobook version of Sarah's Assassination Vacation a year or two ago, and thought it was really good, and really funny.

    Have to watch out for this one, too.

    Visiting via Cym Lowell's blog.

  12. I love books that read like novels and teach at the same time. This one sounds wonderful.

  13. I know what you mean about sneaking up on you. I enjoy that too.

    Stopping by from Cym Lowell's book review giveaway.


  14. Thanks for the review. She's been on my list for a long time, but I haven't gotten around to reading any of her work. I'm now going to bump her up on the TBR list.