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.
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.
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