Unfamiliar fishes

A few weeks ago when it was too snowy to go to the library, I re-read my paperback copy of The Wordy Shipmates (Riverhead Books, 2008). This entertaining history of the Puritans by Sarah Vowell of NPR’s This American Life is definitely worth a read if you like history. It occurred to me that perhaps Sarah Vowell had written other books. As it turns out, she has. So I got a couple of them out of the library, and review them below.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (Riverhead Books, 2011)

This is Vowell’s latest book, a history of Hawaii and how it got to be a state. She is a devout Democrat and proud liberal (though from a conservative Montana family, oddly) so her take on this may be not the conventional one. But it was fascinating to learn about Hawaii from her perspective. Vowell visits every place she writes about, giving her historical narratives a personal feel. According to Vowell, Hawaii was conquered by the Americans in order to acquire a naval base at Pearl Harbor, with no regard for the rights of the native Hawaiians and their independent monarchy. The perceived needs of capitalists also figure largely in the story.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell (Simon & Schuster, 2002)

This is one of Vowell’s first books, a collection of essays about American politics. She writes about Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and George Bush, Thanksgiving, political campaigns, Canada, various previous jobs, growing up in Montana with her twin sister, and living in New York City as an adult. Vowell loves to travel to national parks and historic sites all over the country, even ones you’ve never heard of, to experience history first-hand. She is a great narrator with the informal voice of a close friend. I have never heard her on This American Life but she must be good.

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