Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Synopsis:

8857310Many 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.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d’état of the missionaries’ sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired 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, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode “Aloha ‘Oe” serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

Review:

Like I said in my review of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States Vowell is the definition of my audiobook wheelhouse.  Funny but substantive non-fiction with public radio roots?  Always, all the time please.  This is the third book of hers I’ve listened to but sadly, it’s my least favorite.

I’ve spent the past few days trying to figure out why.  The problem may be me – I didn’t know much about Hawaiian history and didn’t have mental scaffolding to hang the narrative on.  I don’t think that’s everything, though, as Vowell isn’t at her best.  While there are some personal stories they aren’t as funny or interesting as in Assassination Vacation.  The history is outlined and gentle fun is poked, but it lacks the oomph of previous efforts.

Thinking about it, maybe Vowell is pulling her punches out of respect to Hawaiian culture.  It’s much easier to lampoon your own, and the last thing a marginalized people need is more skewering.  So in that sense, yea!  I’ll take a drop in laughs for that if I must.

Beyond the content this is my least favorite audiobook of hers so far.  It’s not Vowell’s fault, she’s as lovely as ever, but the supporting cast is large and each person only gets a few lines.  And despite the large cast it sounded like there was only one woman voice actor doing several roles, which confused my wandering attention.

All in all… enh.  Not awful, but I expected much better.

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Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Synopsis:

24602886On August 16, 1824, an elderly French gentlemen sailed into New York Harbor and giddy Americans were there to welcome him. Or, rather, to welcome him back. It had been thirty years since the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette had last set foot in the United States, and he was so beloved that 80,000 people showed up to cheer for him. The entire population of New York at the time was 120,000.

Lafayette’s arrival in 1824 coincided with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Congress had just fought its first epic battle over slavery, and the threat of a Civil War loomed. But Lafayette, belonging to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction, was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what they wanted this country to be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans, it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing singular past.

Review:

I’m not a big audiobook person but the chances of my listening to one go up if it’s:

a – nonfiction
b – funny
c – read by the author
d – …who is a contributor to This American Life

It might be the narrowest of genres but it rarely fails. 😉  Continue reading “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell”