Sunday, April 14, 2013

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes is Sarah Vowell's highly personal history of Hawaii, from first contact with Europeans to the political machinations which resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy and Hawaii's eventual statehood. Vowell goes off on many tangents along the way, such as anecdotes about her young nephew, Owen. If you prefer objective history and just the facts, this book is not for you. If you're in the mood for an entertaining overview, more travel-writing than history, then stick around and enjoy.
"The United States declared war on Spain in April of 1898. By August, the McKinley administration had invaded the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam and annexed Hawaii. In this four-month orgy of imperialism, the United States became a world power for the first time -- became what it is now. [...] To Roosevelt and his likeminded cronies in the government and military, the most important objective of all the 1898 maneuvers was possession of far-flung islands for naval bases at strategic ports like Guantanamo and Honolulu's Pearl Harbor. He and his friends had pined for these bases for years the way a normal man envisions his dream house. All they ever wanted was a cozy little global empire with a few islands here and there to park a fleet of battleships."
The end of Hawaiian sovereignty was signalled by the arrival of American missionaries in the nineteenth century.
"All missions are inherently patronizing to the host culture. That's what a mission is. A bunch of strangers showing up somewhere to inform the locals they are wrong."
Vowell's three-minute book trailer on YouTube is illustrated with plates of food. It's a good example of Vowell's chatty style and sense of humour. It's also a good way to get a sense of the audiobook [Recorded Books: 7 hr 45 min] which is narrated by the author. Vowell's nasal tone takes some getting used to. The audio production also includes a lot of guest narrators who give voice to quotations. I found that rather disconcerting. I think the print version is probably a better bet than the audio.

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