Friday, June 24, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes - Sarah Vowell (Audio)

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   


Jennifer | Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I have a hard time with audio books. I tend to tune them out and then feel lost. I think i'll have to give audiobooks another try at some point.

I haven't read anything by this author. I'll have to check out some of her stuff. Great post!

Unknown said...

You're rushing ahead of me again! I still have "The Wordy Shipmates" at the top of my audio book list (at about number 3) but it isn't very easy to get hold of in the UK. I'll get to a Vowell one day - even if I have to import it. First I have to get through a few of your other recommendations. :-)

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I'm with you...if only we could find a way to tell these stories to students instead of boring them with lectures and multiple choice tests, then they might see a more relevant side to the history classes we "force" them to take that they will "never use" for their majors (eyes rolling).
I'm adding this to my TBR...I tend to enjoy audiobooks where the actual author reads so that's a double plus for me on this one. :)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Interesting that she made that remark about genitals before the whole Wiener thing broke!

ds said...

Sarah Vowell is the ultimate road trip companion--I listened to The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation & was thoroughly entertained and enlightened. She is definitely going to accompany me on my next long-distance drive!
(And I'm with you regarding Ms. Vowell & David Sedaris; some writers belong on audio. No matter how great the quality of their prose, their actual voice makes it work). Thanks, Sandy!

SuziQoregon said...

We've listened to both Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates - they're perfect road trip books for The Hubster and I. I'm currently on the library waiting list for this one, but we'll wait for The Hubster to finish reading Michener's Hawaii before we give it a listen.

Zibilee said...

I am reading this one right now, and am liking it a lot. It's my first Vowell, but I also have The Wordy Shipmates on my shelf and after having such a good time reading this one I am going to be making time for that one soon. I like Vowell's style, and I love the way she slightly goes off on interesting little side detours in her story. Great review, I am glad you liked this one so much! I also would have liked to learn history from Vowell.

Jenners said...

I too prefer my history the Vowell way ... though I preferred Assassination Vacation to Wordy Shipmates ... and this sounds more like Wordy Shipmates. Still, I'm sure I'll give it a go one day.

Julie P. said...

I read this one but I bet it was even better on audio. I think I'll try an audio for my next Vowell book.

Ti said...

Who is Sarah Vowell? LOL. I know, I was left behind somehow when this craze overtook readers everywhere. So many love her books and I know nothing about her. I must give her a try.

Kathleen said...

Sounds like a good one for audio. I think my eyes would glaze over if I was reading so many facts!