Unfamiliar Fishes

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Unfamiliar Fishes
Unfamiliar fishes vowell.jpg
AuthorSarah Vowell
CountryUnited States
SubjectHistory of Hawaii
American History
History of Hawaii
PublisherRiverhead Books
Publication date
22 March 2011
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
LC ClassDU625 .V89 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes is a nonfiction book by This American Life contributor Sarah Vowell, first published in 2011 in print and audiobook versions.[1][2]


The book takes a humorous tone and examines the fulfillment of American imperialist manifest destiny at the end of the 19th century as America annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded Cuba, and the Philippines in 1898, in an attempt to become a global power. Vowell then tells the story of the culture clash that ensued following Christian missionaries who then moved in swiftly to try to convert the laid back native Hawaiians to the American way. The title comes from a reference of David Malo.


In her Los Angeles Times review, Susan Salter Reynolds wrote of Vowell, "Her cleverness is gorgeously American: She collects facts and stores them like a nervous chipmunk, digesting them only for the sake of argument. Her curiosity is fueled by indignation. She insists, like a good empiricist, on seeing the people and places she writes about. She is the queen of that great American institution: the road trip."[3]

By contrast, Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times is unimpressed, condemning Vowell's self-indulgent style: "Certainly at a time when ignorance and historical illiteracy are rampant, there is a place for books that make the past relevant and easy to digest for the casual reader. But Ms. Vowell's determination to render history user-friendly often feels reductive and condescending, and her contemporary analogies can be strained."[4]

However, in the New York Times Book Review, Hawaii resident Kaui Hart Hemmings praised the author thus: "Vowell deftly summarizes complex events and significant upheavals, reducing them to their essence. ... While Vowell's take on Hawaii's Americanization is abbreviated, it's never bereft of substance—her repartee manages to be filling, her insights astute and comprehensive. It's not surprising to learn that she spent significant time interacting with islanders and combing through journals and archives. A variety of voices are heard, and all sides are implicated in the old Hawaii's demise."[5]

Although Dan Kois, writing for National Public Radio, felt that Vowell was "good at connecting the dots in ways that make history vivid for her readers," he found the book "glib" and the subject "so complicated that her anecdotal structure isn't quite up to the task." He also cited "the limitations of Vowell's arch style."[6]


An unabridged audiobook was released by Simon & Schuster on March 22, 2011. It contained a large cast of readers, and music was performed by Michael Giacchino and Grant-Lee Phillips. The cast was:


  1. ^ Vowell, Sarah (2011). Unfamiliar Fishes. New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 978-1-59448-787-3.
  2. ^ Vowell, Sarah (2011). Unfamiliar Fishes (Audiobook). New York: Simon & Schuster Audio.
  3. ^ Salter Reynolds, Susan (26 March 2011). "Book review: 'Unfamiliar Fishes' by Sarah Vowell: The 'Partly Cloudy Patriot' author takes on American imperialism and exceptionalism". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  4. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (17 April 2011). "Some Stuff She Knows About Hawaii". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 September 2011.
  5. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/books/review/book-review-unfamiliar-fishes-by-sarah-vowell.html?_r=0
  6. ^ https://www.npr.org/2011/07/14/134738707/unfamiliar-fishes-sarah-vowells-glib-luau-tales

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