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Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

picture of book cover

Unfamiliar Fishes seems like it can't go wrong: after all, Sarah Vowell made me want to go visit sites of presidential assassinations.

And while I've been to Hawaii and love American history, my knowledge of the state basically consists of Pearl Harbor and the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani.

It turns out the story of how America acquired this set of islands in the Pacific is filled with missionaries and treachery, incest and sugar, whale-hunting and the tradition of hula dances. The reader will come away feeling like he's both learned a lot and that Hawaiian history should be covered in more depth in school. That's the good news.

The problem is the huge amount of ground Vowell has to cover and the lack of knowledge of most of her readers. I was trying to pay attention, but half the time I had no idea which king had done what to whom (or why), and which American white guy was trying to gain power. Vowell's tone, sardonic yet wise, is a mixed blessing. It provides the moments of comedic relief, i.e. “Sybil Bingham wrote in her diary, thanking God for answering her prayer for filling 'the void' with a husband like Hiram, a 'treasure rich and undeserved.' Having read his insufferable memoir, A Residents of Twenty-one Years in the Sandwich Islands, all I can say to that is: I'm happy for her?” Yet it can also cause you to get a little lost. There are a lot of expeditions and friends and descendants, but they don't always form a complete picture. It's unfair to say that Unfamiliar Fishes isn't fun, but in the end ... it isn't fun. Those who haven't tried Vowell before would be better off grabbing Assassination Vacation .