Sarah Vowell’s latest work Unfamiliar Fishes is the history of how missionaries and sailors came to Hawaii, and how that affected Hawaii’s history, ultimately leading to the annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Like most of Vowell’s works, she tells this through her perspective, interspersing the historical facts with her personal experiences and tidbits.
Some people love Vowell’s quirky writing style and some people hate it. It helps if you have listened to Sarah Vowell on This American Life or other broadcast, because it’s best to read her humor in her tone of voice. Otherwise, you may find her too dry or brittle to find humorous. Other people who are looking for a purely historical tome are likely to be turned off by Unfamiliar Fishes because it doesn’t follow the typical history book format. If you’re looking for a good historical book on Hawaii, you might dislike the way that Vowell strays from the story into anecdotes, such as her stories about hiking in Hawaii with her nephew.
I have really enjoyed Sarah Vowell’s essay books, especially Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. In these books, Vowell follows a theme but takes on many different topics and interjects a lot of her wry wit and humor. In her last two books, Unfamiliar Fishes and The Wordy Shipmates, she sticks to a tighter topic for the whole book, and it feels like she puts less of her humor and personalization into the book. Unfamiliar Fishes feels a little lost between a personal essay book and a history book, not quite fitting into one nook or the other.
While I enjoyed Unfamiliar Fishes, it took me a while to get into it. It’s an interesting read, but not Sarah Vowell’s best work by far. Personally, I’m hoping that she moves back to her previous style of essay books instead of continuing with the history books.
Take the Cannoli
Over the last few months, I’ve read three books of essays by three very funny women:
I think there’s somethings wrong with me. I just didn’t find any of these books laugh out loud funny. There were humorous bits, and parts that made me smile, but overall? I didn’t love them. Is it just me? I think it’s just me.
I like essay books, so I don’t think that’s what’s off. I love David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and Laurie Notaro. Maybe I’m expecting too much. Maybe knowing how funny these women can be, I have set my expectations at unattainable levels. Poor ladies. Will Tina Fey ever forgive me for being the one reader in all of America who didn’t swoon over her book? Somehow, I think she’ll get over it.
For certain, I would recommend these books if you like funny writing. I would recommend Bossypants and Cool, Calm, and Contentious more so than Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? While that book is funny, it lacks the depth that the other two books have.This may be due to the age and experience of the writers – Tina Fey and Merill Markoe have been in the comedy business far longer than Mindy Kaling, have fought more of the gender battles, and dealt with more love, loss, and dirty diapers/dogs respectively. Mindy is no Kelly Kapoor, but her book’s level of introspection feels like a Kelly when compared to the Liz Lemon levels of the other two books. (Did I take that metaphor too far?) Any of these books would probably be good to pack with your beach gear.
So in conclusion, these are probably funny and I have no idea what I’m talking about.
I asked for An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler for my birthday after hearing NPR rave about it and my husband forwarding me an article from the New York Times talking about Adler’s book, and “simplifying your life by ditching the recipes.” Hmm, this sounds interesting! A book about cooking that doesn’t focus on recipes? That saves you time and simplifies your life? These are all things I’d like to incorporate into my life.
You guys, I could not get through this book. I made it to page 49 (out of 240) and could not force myself to continue. I tried, I really tried — for you. I posted this as “Currently Reading” and invited you to read along. I feel like I owe it to you to read the whole thing. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. Here are the reasons I cannot force myself to finish this book:
- The NY Times is right, it has very few recipes. That is, it has very few recipes written like recipes. It’s totally filled with recipes written in paragraph form. It’s a bunch of tips, techniques, and recipes without exact ingredients or timings, but still basically recipes. And reading this in paragraph format is just agonizing to me.
- The time saving techniques are only time saving if you are one of those few people who doesn’t have a lot of spare time, but when you do, it’s in huge chunks. So you’re really busy, but you’ve got all Sunday afternoon to shop for greens and vegetables (at the local farmers market, natch) and then spend the rest of the day cleaning and cooking them. Then you’re ready to go for the week! Only for me (and I suspect most of America’s population), our spare time doesn’t come in huge chunks. We have half an hour here, an hour there. I need time saving techniques that I can institute every other day or so, not in a huge block.
- The money saving techniques only work if you have a family who eats everything. For example, she suggests roasting or boiling a chicken, then using the bones and such to make broth, and the fat that solidifies on top of the cooled broth to sauté vegetables or spread on toast. Again, great if you have a family who eats everything. I myself hate dark meat chicken, so half of this chicken would go to waste. And I can’t imagine anyone in my immediate family spreading fat on toast. Butter may be mostly fat, but I have to just say no to chicken fat. But following her advice, you still won’t save money, because you will be shopping at the farmers market (as mentioned previously), and buying chickens raised lovingly on small farms, eggs handpicked, etc. Although I may agree with this philosophy for the health of my family and the environment (she suggests it for the taste), it’s certainly not cheap and I cannot do it to nearly the extent I’d like; certainly not to the extent that Adler calls for.
- This book may call for a return to simple, basic cooking, but it does not call for healthy cooking. The parts I have read do talk about beans and vegetables a lot, but Adler also calls for drizzles of olive oil on everything (even when it was already cooked in olive oil) and liberally salted everything.
- It feels kinda pretentious. I can imagine self-styled “foodies” reading this book and shouting, “Yes! YES!” And Alice Walker wrote the foreword praising her prose as “exquisitely crafted.” To me, it felt overblown and a touch obnoxious. Here’s a sentence that Alice Walker loved but that pangs me to read, “The noodle or tender spring pea would be narcissistic to imagine it already contained within its cell walls all the perfection it would ever need. We seem, too, to fear that we are failures at being tender and springy if we need to be seasoned. It’s not so: it doesn’t reflect badly on pea or person that either needs help to be most itself.” Blarg. I don’t know why it irks me so, but good food is poetry unto itself; food writing that tries to be poetic just feels pompous.
- I know there are all kinds of foods that we refrigerate that don’t necessarily need to be refrigerated. But I don’t feel that I’m comfortable taking that advice from someone who wrote, “I still remember with a pang a superb fish soup lost one New Year’s morning after a friend thought it was pure poison because it had been sitting out all night. I am fairly sure he wasn’t right, and I am completely confident that it was spiritually wrong.”
If you read those two quotes and thought they sounded lovely, and find yourself disagreeing with my above points to side with the author, then you will probably love An Everlasting Meal (and many out there seem to love it, from other reviews I’ve read). But I personally cannot recommend this book to anyone.