Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

Unfamiliar Fishes
written and narrated by Sarah Vowell
and featuring the voices of Fred Arminsen, Bill Hader, John Hodgeman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph and, John Slattery
Simon and Schuster Audio
7.4 hours

Unfamiliar Fishes is the fun, smart and entertaining history of Hawaii, the focus being on the nineteenth century when New England missionaries came to the islands and introduced Christianity, literacy, infectious diseases and, Western ideas like democracy, entrepreneurship and, marginalization. The topics may be heavy; but Sarah Vowell's wry style of delivery makes this a relatively digestible lesson in history that probably wasn't covered in your classroom.

Ms Vowell herself is funny and smart; but the novelty of having her narrate her own book wears thin after a little while. Because she includes personal memories or thoughts in the book, she is perhaps the best narrator for her own material; but her shuttered, neurotic clip and even a mispronunciation ("forecastle" should be pronounced "FŌK-sull") may cause the listener to reflexively tune out as a defensive mechanism. The other voices listed as narrators occasionally pop in with a quote; but nothing substantive or consistent. Sometimes Sarah Vowell reads a quote, sometimes someone else. The celebrity guest roster of contributing narrators is impressive; but really no more than a gimmick and the intrusive edit-ins of their lines is disruptive to the listening experience, as is the music that signals the end of each chapter.

Recommendation: Check out Sarah Vowell on the book trailers, on the late night show circuit and even at any of her appearances on a book tour if you get the chance. She's funny and delivers her bits flawlessly; but then go buy the print book.

Other Stuff: I bought a digital dnload copy from

This book qualifies for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. Unfamiliar Fishes is set in Hawaii.

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