Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, read by Sarah Vowell with John Slattery, Paul Rudd, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Maya Rudolph. Wow. That's quite a list of narrators! Sarah has done this in her other books as well. The guest narrators don't do extensive pieces, but they each take on a few of the "characters" and read their direct quotes. I will admit, knowing the list was extensive, with fun people I like, I did spend some time thinking "Is this Bill Hader? Who was that?" I think John Slattery had the most distinctive and easy-to-pick-out voice. I like this technique, although it might sound distracting, as sometimes knowing when something is a quote and isn't on an audio, can be difficult as people don't say "quote... close quote" when reading quotations. There's often an opening such as "Theodore Roosevelt then said..." but there's seldom any way to figure out when a quote ends. I also like it, as it's an add-on for us audiobook listeners, who often get shafted and don't get to see funny drawings (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night), or photo inserts (any serious biography) unless the book is the very awesome Bossypants.

Anyway, on to Unfamiliar Fishes. Sarah Vowell is an unconventional historian, probably most similar to Tony Horwitz. She doesn't at all try to remove herself from the story (although it isn't a memoir per se). She talks about her sister and her nephew joining her on her research trips to Hawaii and relates what she learns to herself personally. Most notably in her comparison of the treatment of the Hawaiian native to the Native Americans, as she is part Cherokee, which is an apt comparison. She's funny, a little kooky, loves a random bit of trivia (my favorite!), and tries to both understand the thinking of the people back then and also from our modern-day perspective.

Favorite trivia: Morse, inventor of the telegraph and Morse code, was a painter. Not like he painted on the side or it was a hobby, that was his regular job, day-in and day-out, and he was respected and paid well. But while he was painting some semi-famous guy in New York, his wife became deathly ill back in Connecticut. By the time he found out and was able to race home, she had already died. He invented the telegraph out of frustration with the poor communication of the times. I had always thought he was one of those inventor-guys like Edison and Franklin who probably invented a bunch of other things, but nope.

I know some people find Ms. Vowell's voice abrasive or grating, but I find it very endearing. To me she sounds a lot like a little kid. But several hours of it would be a bit much if it was grating to you, so I recommend her books on audio with the caveat that you should check out her voice first with a quick This American Life story or a Daily Show clip. But if you like her, this book won't disappoint. And I promise, you'll learn some unusual history not covered in class. Aloha.

I downloaded this book from Audible.


Dusty said...

Especially enjoyed this review. And the inclusion of the good links.
Thanks, Dusty Deming

Dusty said...

You are a fine reviewer, Ms. Carin!

Booksnyc said...

I have one of Vowell's books on my shelf but am thinking I should listen to it instead - I hear so much about her distinctive voice.

Bailey said...

I haven't listened to a nonfiction audiobook yet... I might have to check out her voice and see what I think. I like learning about interesting history!

Christy said...

That is some interesting but sad trivia re: Morse. Nice audiobook review - I like how you offered up information about the audiobook experience. I mostly remember Vowell's voice from The Incredibles though I'm sure I must have heard her on NPR at some point.