Book Reviewed: Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell is one of the only writers I actively follow, meaning I jump on every new book by her the day it comes out. Last Tuesday, when Unfamiliar Fishes was officially released, I occupied the very first hold position at my library. I waited two months after placing that hold, so as soon as the book came in on Tuesday, I pushed aside everything else I was reading. I finished it in two days. Such is the power of the Vowell.
Since I first read Asssassination Vacation as a teenager, then went back to read her books of essays, I've been obsessed with her funny, intelligent writing style. She takes history subjects I think I have no interest in - Puritans, President Garfield - and makes me care about them. I still think Assassination Vacation, about the first three presidential assassinations in America, is her best book. Every page presents some new, bizarre fact that grabs me. I was a little disappointed that her last book, The Wordy Shipmates, didn't interest me in quite the same way. Same goes with her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes.
Unfamiliar Fishes is a look at the history of Hawaii and its relationship to the United States. Missionaries arrived in Hawaii in the early 19th-century with the hope of converting its inhabitants to Christianity. They were mostly successful in this goal, but the changes they wrought had some unsavory impacts on the island nation. In an interview Vowell did with the AV Club, she mentions that she saw Fishes as a kind of sequel to The Wordy Shipmates. After all, these missionaries are descendants of those original Puritans who wanted to carve out a new world and ended up pushing out the natives. Vowell clearly comes to her research with an agenda, but because these books are simply little looks into important and strange events, this hardly matters. What matters is how interestingly she presents the information. Frankly, I found Unfamiliar Fishes to lack a little in the interest department. I did not have the same kind of emotional or intellectual fascination with this book that I had with Assassination Vacation.
That being said, a so-so Sarah Vowell book is still better than most things out there. I had absolutely no knowledge of Hawaiian history before starting this book, but I felt pretty well-versed in the island's last 200 years by the time I finished. It's a fascinating subject. And reading about Hawaii during a yucky late-March cold snap definitely had its perks. It wasn't my favorite Vowell book in the world, but it was still a pretty great way to spend two days.
Note: Sarah Vowell is one of the few writers I recommend without limit. She certainly won't be for everyone, but when I pass her essays or books on to family members and friends, they usually find at least something to like there. If you are a Vowell newbie, I suggest starting with her excellent essay collection, Take the Cannoli, which is nerdy and hilarious. I also think Assassination Vacation is a good place to start. That book is all kinds of awesome and informative. She's also one of the only writers whose audio books I can stand. She reads her own work, and she does a fantastic job. If you put on one of her audio books while cleaning the house or doing your hair, you are bound to have more fun than originally planned.