Unfamiliar Fishes

  • by Sarah Vowell
  • Narrated by Sarah Vowell, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, John Slattery
  • 7 hrs and 28 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Many think of 1776 as the most defining year of American history, the year 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 crucial to our nation's identity, a year when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded Cuba and then the Philippines, becoming a meddling, self-serving, militaristic international superpower practically overnight.
Of all the countries the United States invaded or colonized in 1898, Vowell considers the story of the Americanization of Hawaii to be the most intriguing. From the arrival of the New England missionaries in 1820, who came to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état led by the missionaries' sons in 1893, overthrowing the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, if often appalling or tragic, characters. Whalers who will fire 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, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaii-born president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade. With Vowell's trademark wry insights and reporting, she sets out to discover the odd, emblematic, and exceptional history of the 50th state. In examining the place where Manifest Destiny got a sunburn, she finds America again, warts and all.
Read by the author a cast that includes Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery. Music by Michael Giacchino with Grant Lee-Phillips. The score contains excerpts from "Hawai'i Pono'i" (words by David Kalakaua and music by Henri Berger) performed by Grant-Lee Phillips.

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What the Critics Say

"Vowell makes an excellent travelling companion, what with her rare combination of erudition and cheek." (The New York Times Book Review)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Sarah Vowell returns, this time Hawaii.

If you could sum up Unfamiliar Fishes in three words, what would they be?

Foreigners claim land.


What was one of the most memorable moments of Unfamiliar Fishes?

The fact the book isn't about one set group.


Which character – as performed by the narrators – was your favourite?

Sarah Vowell talking about herself.


Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

Definitely laugh, Vowell's writing is smart and not obfuscated with long needless details.


Any additional comments?

At the time of this review The Wordy Shipmates isn't on Audible UK, this is more like that book than the other Sarah Vowell books.

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- Amazon Customer

Not Vowell's finest, but still fun and informative

Would you try another book written by Sarah Vowell or narrated by the narrators?

I'd previously enjoyed The Partly Cloudy Patriot, and so had been looking forward to this one. It didn't engage me as much as my first Vowell audiobook, but I love her writing style and sense of humour, so will be listening to more.


What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?

The history of Hawaii is told in an engaging way that makes you wonder what life on the islands was like before the settlers from Britain and America came to dominate.


Did the narration match the pace of the story?

Absoutely. Sarah Vowell's delivery can start off sounding like a robotic monotone at first, but once your brain falls in step with the pace and rhythm of her voice, you realise it matches her disarming brand of self deprecation and sarcastic charm completely.


Did Unfamiliar Fishes inspire you to do anything?

One day, I'll visit Hawaii for myself. One day.


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- S. Matthewman

Book Details

  • Release Date: 22-03-2011
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio