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New Release: Unfamiliar Fishes

By Sarah Vowell
Riverhead Hardcover | 256pgs
Release Date: March 22, 2011

Bestselling author and popular NPR contributor, Sarah Vowell, studies the history of Hawai’i during the 19th century in her new book Unfamiliar Fishes. The arrival of priggish New England missionaries in 1820 sets off a series of events that leads to eventual American annexation and U.S. statehood. While converting the native population to Christianity and attempting to tamp out prostitution with the visiting whalers, the missionaries also managed to nearly destroy the indigenous island way of life and begat a generation of children that would conspire with the U.S. military to overthrow the Hawaiian queen in 1893. With her rapier wit, Vowell describes the events of 1898, where in a spate of orgiastic imperialism, the U.S. annexed Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico in addition to invading Cuba and the Philippines, thus establishing the nation as an international superpower.

In an interview with Kirkus Reviews, Vowell discusses the misconceptions many Americans have about Hawai’i. “Most people picture this nonexistent, barely populated dream world of palm trees swaying in the breeze or something, instead of a real place with real people and problems, as well as an overwhelming number of military installations—the archipelago’s strategic location being the main reason the U.S. annexed Hawai’i in the first place. Most of the time I was researching the book, the state was so broke that public schools were closed on Fridays. I mean, Hawaii is obviously a gorgeous place with nice weather, but it still exists in the objective reality of planet Earth.”

What Critics are saying:
Early editorial reviews have been generally positive for Vowell’s wry account of Hawaiian history. “Vowell, as smart and funny and determined as ever, knows just how to draw us in—and just when to step back and, for better or worse, let history speak for itself,” praises Erik Henriksen in a review for the Portland Mercury. Though Matt Sedensky of the Associated Press feels the author “missed the mark” a bit with Unfamiliar Fishes due to a lack of cohesive narrative, he does agree that the book sheds light “on a facet of U.S. history worthy of further examination.”

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