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Vowell takes on Hawaii's history but misses mark

The Associated Press, Tuesday, March 22, 2011, 9:07am (PDT)

"Unfamiliar Fishes" (Riverhead Books), by Sarah Vowell: Hawaii will always be a part of me, fixed in my memory as a place of immense beauty and boundless hope. I spent my first two years after college there, and my life is colored by the islands' gem-blue waters and the wafting scent of fields of pineapple and coffee.

So when Sarah Vowell writes of setting foot on her lanai at the Ilikai, where I spent my first nights in Honolulu, or sitting beneath a banyan tree in Waikiki, where I made my home, it strikes a chord, transporting me back to those days of optimism and youth in the Pacific. Trouble is, for all the work she appears to have put into telling the tortured past of these islands, she fails to weave a consistently engaging story, even though Hawaii has one of the most interesting histories anywhere in the United States.

Glimpses of that captivating history come through in the nuggets that Vowell has culled from archival research and her own interviews with islanders. But the exhaustive detail afforded the experience of New England missionaries in the islands comes without a cohesive narrative. And the thrilling, sorrowful, dramatic climax of Hawaii's story — the disintegration of the kingdom — is relegated to little more than an addendum.

Throughout the pages, Vowell's cheeky comments are scattered about, but not nearly enough to boost "Unfamiliar Fishes" to its full potential. Will you learn something from this book? Absolutely. The trick is wanting to keep turning the pages.

Vowell has a sizeable following earned through best-sellers including "Assassination Vacation," appearances on "This American Life" and essays in The New York Times. That afforded her the rare opportunity to illuminate readers to respect the depth of complexity there is to Hawaii and its people, too often glossed over in the stereotypes of a hula-swaying, white-sanded honeymoon spot.

If that audience picks up this book because of Vowell's name appeal and is able to soldier through, then some light will be shed on a facet of U.S. history worthy of further examination. But even though much information is there, even with all of the potential drama of the story of this tiny kingdom crumbling beneath the weight of early American imperialism, the author missed the mark.

Hawaii, once again, deserved better.

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