Unfamiliar Fishes

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Unfamiliar Fishes
Author Sarah Vowell
Country United States
Language English
Subject History of Hawaii
Genre Nonfiction
American History
History of Hawaii
Publisher Riverhead Books
Publication date
22 March 2011
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 238
ISBN 9781594487873
LC Class DU625 .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.


Susan Salter Reynolds in her Los Angeles Times review writes 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] Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times is unimpressed, condemning Vowell's self-indulgent style, writing: "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]


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; Narrated by Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, John Slattery, Sarah Vowell (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.