Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell – Audiobook Review

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, narrated by Sarah Vowell, John Slattery, Paul Rudd, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgeman, Catherine Keener, Keanu Reeves, Maya Rudolph

Published in audio by Simon Audio, an imprint of Simon & Schuster; published in print by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin


1898: The year Manifest Destiny learned to swim. In what Sarah Vowell calls an “orgy of imperialism,” the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam in 1898, as well as invading Cuba and the Philippines. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell focuses on the decades immediately prior to Hawaii’s annexation in the lives of Hawaii’s people and the early American settlers on the islands, weaving these threads together with stories of Hawaii since statehood.

Thoughts on the story:

Few people bring history to life the way Sarah Vowell does. Her work is well-researched, but also contains her trademark wry humor. While describing the Battle of Manila Bay, Vowell states that (Admiral) Dewey decimated the Spanish Pacific Squadron. The juxtaposition of a library joke in the middle of the account of a war made me actually laugh out loud. Her asides when speaking about the puritanical culture of Yale during the Second Great Awakening, which led to the first American missionaries to Hawaii, were never inappropriate, but they made it clear that this story is personal to her, which in turn makes it personal to the reader or listener. Interesting, well-researched, and well-written, I’m not sure that history gets better.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Sarah Vowell’s narration will likely not be for everyone. Her voice is a bit flat, and cannot be described with words such as ‘golden tones,’ but in my opinion, she is by far the best person to narrate her own work. Her wry humor and earnestness comes across in her narration in a way that could easily be lost by another narrator or if reading the book in print. One interesting thing that was done here was that all extended quotations or manuscripts inserted into the work were read by separate voices (John Slattery, Paul Rudd, etc. listed above). This was extremely helpful in helping determine where quotations began and ended, although the jump from Vwell’s voice to someone else’s was occasionally a bit of a shock. Still, I think that it was a wise choice, and the editing together of these pieces was well done.

Overall recommendation:

I highly recommend Unfamiliar Fishes. Personally, I think Vowell is able to better express herself when she gives voice to her own words, but the topic and her treatment of it are interesting enough that I think print would be a good bet as well.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Print*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
Digiprove sealCopyright protected by Digiprove © 2011

14 comments to Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell – Audiobook Review

  • Thanks for sharing this review. I’ve had Sarah Vowell on my list of writers to check out for a while. Do you think this is a good place to start for a newbie or would you recommend a different Vowell text?

    Thanks again!

    • All of Vowell’s work stands very much alone. I have read (in print) Assassination Vacation, but have not read any of her other work and never felt either that I was missing anything, or that there was anything I understood better by having read Assassination Vacation. I say start with whichever subject most interests you.

  • I wondered what was up when I saw all those narrators. That is probably a great way to delineate excerpts – I remember listening to Into The Wild and having to try to “catch” when it switched from narrative to an injected reading from another work.

  • I think I might be better off with the print version of this book.

  • I love Sarah Vowell and I love her voice. She’s so dry, she just cracks me up every time. I love her on David Letterman, she’s one of the few people I’ll stay up late for. Will definitely be doing the audio book of this.

  • There is NO WAY I would read this book any way but the audio…she is such a pleasure to listen to, and her delivery has the comedic timing down. I really don’t believe anyone else could do the job. Our library has yet to get this one…praying that they do!

  • I really enjoyed The Wordy Shipmates, and I hope to read this one soon. I saw her appearance on David Letterman, and she’s quite funny!

  • I just read a review of this book on another blog (http://www.bookingmama.net/2011/03/review-unfamiliar-fishes.html)and I’m so intrigued!

    I love history, and authors who tell it in a narrative way are by far the best. My library has yet to get Unfamiliar Fishes, but they do have some other books by Vowell that I’ll have to check out (literally!)

    As far as interesting history writers go, I also recommend Les Standiford. He’s primarily a novelist, so when he does write nonfiction, he does it in an attention-grabbing way. My favorite is Last Train to Paradise, but then I’m a Floridian so maybe I’m biased!

    I’m a new reader and am enjoying your posts!

    Julie @ Read Handed (www.readhanded.blogspot.com)

  • i missed Sarah Vowell when she was here in Hawaii for her book signing of this one. but, i’m glad to hear that the book was a worthwhile listen.

  • […] ~ Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, reviewed by Jen at Devourer of Books […]

  • Review – Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (Audiobook) « Bookin' Down South

    […] Jen at┬áDevourer of Books […]

  • […] by Brendon Buchard Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, narrated by Sarah Vowell and others (my review) Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, narrated by Sarah Vowell and others (my […]

  • […] wasn’t completely sure about Hassman’s narration initially. Her voice is reminiscent of Sarah Vowell’s, not exactly a typical narrator. There were three things that worked in Hassman’s favor, […]