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
Here’s my review in a nutshell: The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir is over 600 pages long, and I finished it in 5 days. It’s good.
Maybe it’s because I just finished reading The Other Boleyn Girl or maybe it’s because I’m more familiar with the major players in general, but I found this to be a much more readable biography than Marie Antoinette. The book is well-researched and pulled me in to the lives of all of Henry VIII’s wives. It seems fairly unbiased and points out the good and bad qualities of all six wives.
I saw recently that Alison Weir also writes historical fiction based on the Tudors, and I’m definitely going to check those out.
Don’t be scared away by the length of this group biography; if your arms can handle it, I recommend picking up a copy.
The Other Boleyn Girl
Marie Antoinette: The Journey
I watched Marie Antoinette, the movie starring Kirsten Dunst and directed by Sofia Coppola, a few months ago. The movie almost felt like it didn’t have a plot; it meandered from scene to scene without any feel of cohesion and when it was over, I felt like I had just watched one of those videos of a log burning in a fireplace – it was like opening the door to someone’s daily life without gaining a whole lot of insight into why they are doing what they do.
Not that I mean to be overly harsh about the film. It was a decent film and beautiful. I just didn’t ever feel pulled into the story the way I expected. It did make me want to learn more about Marie Antoinette though, and I saw on IMDB that the movie was inspired by Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey. I checked out the book from the library and it was pretty big. Yikes.
It took me almost a month to get through it, because I wasn’t devoting a lot of time to it and it’s a pretty hefty book to plow through. If you like biographies or history, I’m sure you’ll like this book. It gives a lot of insight into the world of Marie Antoinette and is very sympathetic to the queen. It covers in a lot of depth her childhood and what court life was like for her as a young bride.
Part of what made it hard for me to get through was the author’s assumption that her readers would be very familiar with French history and other people from the time period. While she spent lots of time introducing some members of the court, others were only touched on, assuming you knew their background. Or she would talk about aspects of court life that were interesting or difficult, but assume you understood that court convention. I gave up trying to learn all the names and resigned myself to not understanding many little parts of the story.
Like the movie, the book felt like you were skimming over the life of Marie Antoinette. This is probably due to the fact that I regularly read fiction, and the book is not written like a fictional story, but instead like a very long essay on Marie Antoinette’s life.
I also liked all the photos and artwork included in the book. It really helped bring parts of the book to life, especially since Antonia Fraser references the artwork as part of her story.
I recommend this book for lovers of history or biographies, but not if you’re not a big non-fiction fan.