Unfamiliar Fishes

by Sarah Vowell

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Recommended by John Warner

Sarah Vowell is a fascinating writer. She launched her career as a radio (and print) essayist in the Sedaris mode, with a wry and self-mocking tone mixed in with pointed barbs that didn’t seem to hurt anyone all that much, leaving plenty of room for laughter.

Over the last several of her books she has evolved from personal essayist to what she now appears to be in her last two books: our best and most entertaining historian of Puritan America.

That might not sound like much fun, but Vowell’s mix of history with present-day reportage and sharp one-liners achieves what the best history does: shows us how our past is reflected in our present. Unfamiliar Fishes is a kind of sequel to her previous release, The Wordy Shipmates, as once again she’s fixated on the Puritan experience, but this time she’s engaged with New England missionaries who mean to civilize the native Hawaiian islanders and cause unpredictable, but inevitable mayhem. Just about every third page, you’ll find yourself shaking your head in disbelief over some tasty historical nugget that Vowell manages to unearth. Incest, leprosy, and prostitution are all apparently central to our 50th state’s transition from a self-contained culture to an “Americanized” colony.

As Vowell shows, the American imperial impulse reached a kind of peak in the final years of the 19th century, as the new power flexed its regional muscle, not just in Hawaii, but Puerto Rico and the Philippines as well, in the form of the Spanish-American war, which ended in a victory that ultimately turned pretty sour. Vowell makes the reader reflect on the costs of America inserting itself where it wasn’t invited, and may not be needed without lapsing into polemic. She’s questioning and searching, and it’s a pleasure to follow along.

Vowell the wisecracking character is less involved in her recent work, as for the most part she stays out of the action and in the background, but the voice is still there, as though you’re going on a historical places tour with the world’s wittiest tour guide. Her fans will love the book as much as they’ve loved all the others. Newcomers, particularly those who enjoy popular history, will be well satisfied.

John Warner is the editor of The Staff Recommends and the author of Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant.

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