"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Friday, June 17, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

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A third hand accounting of the history of Hawaii until its statehood, by a history buff. 

Fans of This American Life will know Sarah Vowell's squeaky voice and her quirky views, but her books are a different story, literally.

Take the Cannoli was the first book of hers that I read, but I had trouble finishing Assassination Vacation.

Sarah avoids commas as fervently as I love them, with a chatty conversational style. Her loneliness is palpable and I felt pity for the author that this was her life and focus. But who am I to talk? She's a published author and I'm not. If it weren't for my love of Hawaii, I might have given up on this book. Here's a classic example of Sarah Vowell's writing:
What happened was, one afternoon in 1806 Mills and his college buddies were out for a walk. Getting caught in a storm, they sought shelter under (or maybe next to)  a stack of hay. During this impromptu huddle they got to talking about what red-blooded American boys always discuss while shooting the breeze on a rainy day - how missionaries should be sent to Asia. This brainstorm inspired the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the group that would eventually sponsor the missionaries to the Sandwich Islands. 

Sarah Vowell likes to take intense, deep looks into certain period of American history, finding any all all connections to the people and places. She traces the unification of the Hawaiian islands all the way up until statehood, focusing primarily on the missionaries and the whalers. Vowell gets sidetracked about very minor characters in history, and barely mentions Princess Kaiulani, who actually traveled to Washington D.C. to petition the government for sovereignty. In her description of the illegal annexation of Hawaii, she completely dismisses a key player. It's an interesting choice.

This book challenged some of the assumptions I had about Hawaiian history, having taken more than a few Hawaiian history classes growing up in school in Hawaii. My husband, who grew up in Iowa, never had to take Iowa history, but then again, nobody ever wanted to possess Iowa for its military significance or prime location.

I felt this was an incomplete book, but only because I was educated in the nuances and practical details of the repercussions of Hawaii's statehood. This book is a dense one; expect to need to take frequent breaks.

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