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Books in Places: Sarah Vowell’s “Unfamiliar Fishes”

My dear friend Herb is in Hawaii this week – and yes, I’m totally jealous.

However, check out what he read on the plane!

🙂 BookNerds travel, too.

Ms. Vowell goes to Hawaii – “Unfamiliar Fishes” by Sarah Vowell

While on my Hawaiian honeymoon last August, I became a bit of a Hawaii-phile.

It’s hard not to visit the gorgeous place and not become enraptured not only by it’s spectacular beauty (it really does look like a postcard) but also it’s fascinating history. Well, at least for my husband and I – history nerds – it wasn’t.  There were certainly tons of bikini-clad tourists around who were there only for the sun and shopping and didn’t care to learn a thing about history.

That’s not how I roll.

So it pleased me immensely when I heard that Sarah Vowell’s next book was about the annexation of Hawaii.  In previous books, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain have attempted to write about this most unsettled of lands – and the results are fine, if incredibly dated. Vowell is one of those writers whose books I will buy the day they’re released, and to wrap all her genius and smarts and modern sensibilities into a topic I’m fascinated by seemed like pure perfection.

“Unfamiliar Fishes” is really, really good. I knew I was going to love it when the opening line contains a reference to “plate lunch,” which is a remarkable Hawaiian THING that you have to eat to understand. (Chicago-ites, you should try Aloha Eats on Clark for the only real Hawaiian plate lunch in town.)  From there, Ms. Vowell launches into the history of how Hawaii, once a kingdom all it’s own with a monarchy, got visited by missionaries, had some revolutions, and eventually became part of the United States of America.

As always, Vowell comes off as your really smart, funny, and interesting friend explaining history to you.  She travels to Hawaii in addition to several other places, and for those who’ve read some of her other books brings her young nephew Owen with her to provide his adorable (and normally spot-on) commentary along the way.

Reading “Unfamiliar Fishes” reminded me of my favorite parts of my vacation there – namely, visiting the I’olani Palace where Queen Liliuokalani lived (and was held in a room for eight months) and the overwhelming sense of history and broken ties.

(Note: One of my favorite historical figures, Liliuokalani was also a noted songwriter.  In fact, in 2009 when Barack Obama – the first Hawaiian born President of the United States – was inaugurated, it was the Queen’s song “Aloha O’ie” that was played.  Seems crazy that it was a previous US president who essentially overthrew her reign and toppled her kingdom, doesn’t it?)

The history of Hawaii isn’t always as beautiful as the land, but it’s just as captivating.

Listen Up! – “Radio On” by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell spent 1995 listening to the radio every day and keeping a journal about what she heard and how she felt about it.  This journal became “Radio On,” a witty and hyper-modern collection of notes and essays about music and media in the mid 90’s.

1995 was a busy year. Jerry Garcia died, the O.J. trial and verdict were taking place, the Oklahoma City bombing happened, a Million Men Marched, Courtney Love was captivating the country in the year after the death of Kurt Cobain, and both Alanis Morisette and Rush Limbaugh were bursting forth as big stars.

“Radio On” reads as a fantastic portrait of modern American history, told in a short-attention span format that’s perfect for a nation accustomed to quick edits.  In the course of the year, Ms. Vowell travels the country from San Francisco to Chicago with numerous stops in between – including Montana and Los Angeles.   As she crosses the American landscape while completing her graduate degree in Art History, she’s witness to a country in political conflict as it geared up for the 1996 Clinton vs. Dole election, as well as a country seemingly at war with itself. (There’s a heartbreakingly gorgeous passage where she praises the strength of Oklahoma people in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing that nearly brought me to tears.)

Always political, Vowell dedicates a good deal of the pages of this book to both the actions of the actual government, as well as to the rise of Rush Limbaugh and the absurdity which he spews onto the airwaves. In addition to Rush, all the names you think of when you think of radio are here: Casey Kasem, Garrison Keillor, Howard Stern.  For those of us in Chicago, even Mancow gets a few references.

Other than an art nerd, a history nerd, and a politics nerd, Vowell is first and foremost a music nerd.  It’s this aspect of her writing that truly steps forth in “Radio On.”  From her attempts to understand the giant rollercoaster that is Courtney Love’s public persona,  to her distaste for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame building being designed by an architect known for his elegance (and who wasn’t a rock fan), this is a woman who knows her music and isn’t afraid to speak her thoughts on the subject.  She doesn’t care for Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, or Hootie and the Blowfish. So there.

In a strange and ironic twist, Vowell even rips on NPR for their pretension and for just being boring in their super-competence.  (This was obviously before the resurgence of NPR thanks to Ira Glass and “This American Life,”  which is just beginning to take shape in the second half of “Radio On” as Vowell visits her friend Glass during one of the earliest airings of “This American Life.” Vowell became a contributor to the show in 1996.)

Sarah Vowell never disappoints, and “Radio On” is one of the most shining and enjoyable pieces of her work.   I expected the book to be smart and amusing, but I wasn’t expecting the sheer scope of the project to be as eye-opening as it turned out to be.  In 1995, I was thirteen and a middle school student in Alpena, Michigan.  My most vivid memories of the radio at the time are of hearing Ace of Base’s “Beautiful Life” played countless times.

[FYI – There’s a 2009 documentary about KGLT, a radio station in Montana that Vowell got her start working at. Check out the trailer below!]