Literature: Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes

Title: Unfamiliar Fishes // Author: Sarah Vowell // Publisher: Riverhead Books // Pub. Date: March 2011 // 256 p.

It’s snowing here this morning in the Vail Valley—characteristically turbulent spring weather in Colorado’s mountains. Rain, snow, sun…repeat. I’m sure the big-fat snowflakes have some of the locals dreaming of warmer climates, so I’ve got a good book to recommend–not just for locals–for anyone out there thinking of lying facedown in the sand with the sun on your back: Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes.

Published just a few weeks ago, Vowell’s new book reads like an adventure through a little-known moment in history that begins in 1819, when the first New England missionaries arrived on Maui, to 2009, when a song written by Hawaii’s last queen serenaded America’s first Hawaiian-born president, Barack Obama, during his inauguration.

Besides offering a historically accurate account on this time period, Vowell also digresses from a straight telling of history into other entertaining topics such as hula, whaling, sailors, and her love for the plate lunch—a meal she makes a strong case for being the quintessential Hawaiian meal with its eclectic mixing of culinary traditions.

This book fits into at least these three categories: history, nonfiction, funny. And if you don’t normally think of “funny” as being in the same context as “history,” you should read Sarah Vowell. One of my favorite writers, humorist David Sedaris says that Vowell has created her own category of writer: “funny historian.” It’s true—Vowell is like history’s version of David Sedaris. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell demonstrates her ability to rewrite history—or even write it for the first time—with a trademark style full of personality, intelligence, and wit.

Photo credit: Riverhead Books

Click here to read my full-length review of this book on the Contemporary Literature site.


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