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
It pains to me to say this, but I did not love The Big Rumpus: A Mother’s Tale from the Trenches. I adored Ayun Halliday‘s books No Touch Monkey! and Dirty Sugar Cookies, but never felt as drawn into this book of stories about raising children in New York City. I think this was her first book (other than her zines), which might explain part of that.
The book tells stories of Ayun caring for her firstborn Inky, and later the addition of Milo, in a small apartment in New York City. She shares her efforts at shopping in the big city when you’ve got a stroller and a kid tied to your back, navigating holidays in a mixed-faith family (where you don’t have any strong religious tendencies but childhood memories wield enormous strength), and juggling mom duties with personal fulfillment.
Even though a lot of these stories connect to many a mom’s struggles, for some reason they just didn’t connect with me. I think it’s possibly because Ayun is a stay-at-home mom and I have a full-time job. We share a lot of the same struggles, but they don’t play out in the same way in our lives. She has a lot of strong, counterculture views, and while I applaud her ability to do things her way, they just didn’t resonate with me. I’m trying to put my finger on why her other books are so enjoyable but this one wasn’t. I think with the other books, her stories make you wish you could live a little bit of her life. With this book, I felt no such desire to, just for a little bit, trade places with her.
The strongest story in this book for me was her recounting of the birth of her son Milo. I’m a sucker for a well-told birth story, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It’s funny, poignant, and detailed, and even if you gave birth in a hospital grateful for the epidural, you’ll enjoy Ayun’s tale of her trips back and forth from the birth center as she waits for Milo to arrive.
I would strongly recommend checking out some of Ayun’s other books (and I have 3 more at home on the shelf waiting for me!), but not this one.
Related review: Dirty Sugar Cookies
If I learned anything from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’s that I cannot pronounce Swedish words. Also, I have no idea what Swedish holidays are. I liked this book and I can’t even tell you why – there were way more negatives to it than positives. Let me enumerate:
- The narration jumped from character to character without warning and often in the middle of a chapter, but without making it obvious at first. The story would be told from one character’s point of view while talking to another character, and then all of a sudden, whoa, you’re hearing things from the other character’s point of view.
- Plus it was an omnipotent narration so why are you putting us in their heads at times? Disconcerting and weird.
- Supposedly the author was pointing a finger at misogyny in society, but it felt like the same old use of violence and sexual assault against women in order to titillate and entertain, a la Law & Order SVU. Yuck.
- Seriously, I feel queasy if I think in any depth about the sexual assaults in this book. (Is that what they mean by pointing out misogyny? Will this somehow stir many of us to take a stand and make a change? I’m gonna make a change, for once in my life….)
- I guess some people like a lot of sex and violence in their mystery novels. I could do without, frankly.
- The mystery was pretty far-fetched and stretched to the point of incredulity.
- There was a mystery within a mystery. The inner mystery was way more exciting and the denouncement of the outer mystery was boring in comparison to the main one.
- Authors sure do throw hackers around in stories a lot these days. And hackers can do anything! Apparently they can do things almost as awesomely as Jason Bourne or Danny Ocean.
Despite all that, I find myself wanting to read the next book in this mystery trilogy series by Stieg Larsson, so I guess it was a pretty decent read. Plus I managed to finish an adult book in under a week! Ok, it was a long holiday weekend, but still. Yay me! (And yay book, that it kept me pulled in.)