Read (Listen) Before You Go: Unfamiliar Fishes


While there has been a bit (OK a lot) of criticism of Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, I loved this book. I didn’t read it, I listened to it –and will listen again. Vowell reminds me of historical facts of Hawaii I have learned and forgotten many times over. And instead of simply stating dates, names and events, Vowell, a seasoned author and lecturer adds her perspective and humor. Sure she might gloss over some of the important historical and cultural context, but as she says in the opening paragraph: she’s a tourist, which brings a newcomer’s perspective to a very long and complicated story. For instance, why was Maui so popular with early mariners?  Over a hundred years ago instead of coal or petroleum based oil, ambergris derived from  humpback whales lit the streets of our fine cities. Hence Maui–situated between Asia and North America with a continual supply of whales–became a major city in the middle of the Pacific.  And then came the missionaries. One memorable passage was Lucy Thurston’s non-medicated (wide awake in a rocking chair) mastectomy, which she claimed made her stronger. Her grandson, Lorrin would years later play a pivotal role in the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani, whom Vowell introduces us to as well. In fact, she brings the personalities of a few of the last monarchs to light. While her critics argue that she does not do these Hawaiian rulers justice, I disagree, she has whet my appetite to learn more. Now when I drive down Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki, I can’t not think of the colorful King David Laʻamea Kamanakapuʻu Mahinulani Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua and his dedication for his people and love of the traditional hula. Sure there are better academic accounts of this time period, but for me, Vowell’s humor and big picture perspective makes the complicated story of Hawaii’s statehood, a little easier to understand.

Read what Kauai Hart Hemmings, (author of The Descendents) wrote for the NewYorkTimes.

While you wouldn’t catch me making that case to the fiery proponents of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, it has crossed my mind. In fact, Vowell restates much of what has already been argued, but her delivery makes it fresh and immediate. Her riffs are clever and even her criticisms are oddly flattering. For a Hawaiian, it’s like watching your friends, family and identity being mocked on “The Daily Show.”


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.

Ouch, another review from New York Times (like I said, not everyone liked the book)

Sarah Vowell starts her willfully cutesy-pie book “Unfamiliar Fishes,” about the Americanization of Hawaii and America’s imperial ambitions, by asking this question about the takeout meal she has bought as a tourist in Waikiki: “Why is there a glop of macaroni salad next to the Japanese chicken in my plate lunch?” 

This is typical of Ms. Vowell’s relentlessly casual, David Sedaris-chatty style. And her highly personal approach — like her guest appearances on television programs like “The Daily Show” and the “Late Show With David Letterman” — underscores our blog-era culture’s appetite for spontaneity and subjectivity,  its tolerance of self-absorption and craving for entertainment.

“Unfamiliar Fishes” is less history than performance art by a multiple-hyphenate writer-humorist-public radio personality, who acts in these pages as a hostess steering us through Hawaii’s past as though it were a marathon cocktail party, pointing out this or that personage or event, while keeping up a constant flow of conversational chatter about her own likes and dislikes, and dishing out plenty of free-associative riffs about her own life and travels. It’s the complete opposite of traditional history, which aspired to objectivity and wide-angled perspectives, and tried not to judge the past retrospectively through contemporary mores and ideals.

And then for fun, listen to Sarah Vowell's interview on the Daily Show, where she discusses this particular time in America history she describes as an "Orgy of Imperialism" and accuses Jon Stewart of getting his history from the Brady Bunch ;).