Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes: Sarah Vowell makes reading about history lively

Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes tells history with style.

Posted By on Tue, May 3, 2011 at 12:57 AM

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Hawaii’s history is at once as fascinating as it is sad. The subject of hundreds of academic thesis and of one huge tome (James Michener’s Hawaii), that history gets a unique treatment from writer Sarah Vowell in her new book Unfamiliar Fishes.

Vowell doesn’t cover any new ground in the book but does make Hawaiian history come alive with her style that is, as more than one critic has noted, cheeky.

Cheeky and conversational in tone with contemporary references and slang adding zest to what might otherwise pass for academic recitation.

For example, she writes: “When it came time for the oligarchs to frame a constitution for their new country, Lorrin Thurston wrote Sanford Dole a letter on March 10,1894, with his thoughts on the subject. It reads much like a long Randy Newman song sung from the point of view of an uppity, powerful white man delighting in his own self-importance that I can’t peruse without hearing Newman’s piano accompaniment twinkling in my head.”

Reading Vowell is like having a conversation with a very bright and acerbic friend. And like a good friend, she doesn’t drone on, but tells a sweeping story in a mere 233 pages. That’s about a third of a typical Johnathan Franzen novel and just as compelling.

If you’ve seen or heard Vowell in one of her television or radio interviews of late, you know that she is a talent to be reckoned with and someone who can make even the most mundane material interesting.

Unfamiliar Fishes is available at the Deschutes County Library and local book stores.

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