I listened to my first Sarah Vowell audio two years ago in Poland. "The Wordy Shipmates" saved me from certain insanity resulting from a car ride from hell (ala loud Polish talking and a stinky dog). Six months ago I listened to "Assassination Vacation", and have exhausted my library's inventory with "Unfamiliar Fishes". With Vowell, it is one-stop shopping...a little funny bone tickling with her dry sarcastic wit, learn a bit of history, and brush up on your political issues, all at the same time. It is a particular brand of fun I've not found anywhere else.
Synopsis: We've moved on from the Mayflower and dead presidents, and are taking a vacation to beautiful Hawaii. With a thorough and quirky tenacity, Vowell digs into the minutiae, and explains how Hawaii was cultivated by American missionaries into a little "mini me" New England. At odds against these apostles of Christ were the sailors who thought it was their God-given right to have a full supply of whores. It was their belief that prayer would kill them before the clap would. At the center of the scuffle were the Hawaiian people ruled by an incestuous and sometimes crooked monarchy. Add in a few lepers, opportunistic capitalists, and a sugar baron or two, and you have an extremely interesting coming-of-age tale that you might not find in the history books.
My thoughts: I've always thought that life in high school would have been alot more entertaining if I had learned about history the Sarah Vowell way. She is very good at sifting through oceans of data and finding the ironic facts that make a story juicy and worthy of repeating to your friends. (I bet she would be a great garage sale partner!) As always, I'm compelled to share a few quotes with you, just so you can see how damned clever she is:
"I guess if I had to pick a spiritual figurehead to possess the deed to the entirety of Earth, I'd go with Buddha, but only because he wouldn't want it."
"The groundswell of outrage over the invasion of Iraq often cited the preemptive war as a betrayal of American ideals. The subtext of the dissent was: 'This is not who we are.' But not if you were standing where I was. It was hard to see the look in that palace tour guide's eyes when she talked about the American flag flying over the palace and not realize that ever since 1898, from time to time, this is exactly who we are."
"I envy a people who celebrate their leader's private parts. That they love those leaders so much they want them making newer, younger versions to tell the next generation what to do. In the Democratic Republic where I live, any politician whose genitals have made the news probably isn't going to see his name on a ballot again."
In comparing this book to earlier ones, it did seem like it was heavy on facts and light on the humor. Vowell has always been adept at packing in the trivia, to the point that your head spins. But this particular history lesson needed a little more balance, as I found myself drifting a few times. That being said, I will never miss an opportunity to listen to her. I've bought into her gig hook, line and sinker.
A word about the audio production: As always, Vowell narrates her own work, assisted by a large and star-studded cast to read for certain characters. You can tell me this long list of actors and actresses are at the microphone because they are well-paid, but in my heart I know that humanity loves Sarah Vowell, and these folks believe in her shrewd and clever sense of right and wrong. Their contributions are their act of solidarity.
As with David Sedaris, I shall never read a Sarah Vowell book in print, even though all those facts can make your head spin when you are in listening mode. No matter. If 20% of what she says sticks to a brain cell, I consider the effort a success.
3.5 out of 5 stars