Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

May 4, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

By Sarah Vowell

Published March 22, 2011

Riverhead Books

256 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48787-1

Reviewed May 4, 2011

If Sarah Vowell has a knack for anything, it’s for digging the most interesting things out of topics that most casual readers wouldn’t even take a second glance at. A self-described “civics nerd,” she can expound on topics ranging from the lunchroom at Carlsbad Caverns to the “sad sack quality of Canadian chronology” to the diary of President Garfield, and still manage to pull out connections to real life and other history that makes her theories a joy to experience. Her last book, “The Wordy Shipmates,” found dynamic personas in the stereotypically staid environment of Puritan New England, discovering the lively debate that shaped the earliest cities and states in America.

Now in her latest book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” she’s moved from the first states to the last one, seeing how the American spirit of colonization and conversion shaped the fate of Hawaii’s people and culture over the last century and a half. And while the topic’s a bit denser and darker than her earlier work, “Unfamilar Fishes” is another satisfactory addition to the canon further cementing the fact that no one’s writing about history quite like Vowell, and that no one else is making it such an accessible read.

Vowell’s titular “unfamiliar fishes” are the ‘haole’ foreigners who manipulated Hawaii on its path to becoming the fiftieth member of the United States, beginning with the New England missionaries who sought a “bloodless conquest for Christ” in converting the native population and ending with those missionaries’ grandchildren handing the land over to America after overthrowing the last queen. She traces the path of Hawaii’s lost independence through decades of foreigners setting up shop, the diseases and conversions they brought with them, and how the seeds of revolt were sown by the commercial desires of settlers and the gradually decaying base of the monarchy.

In my review of “The Wordy Shipmates” I noted the shift from her travelogue/essay format to a more formal academic feeling, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” does continue the structured approach to her work. While she bounces from past to present in mixing in her own real-life experiences, the narrative remains mostly chronological and straightforward as it goes through Hawaiian history, with regular callbacks to earlier points of importance tying it all together. She’s said she sees her work as a form of journalism, and it’s clear she’s done her research – she dips liberally into the letters and memoirs of the original missionaries, and supports it with the stories told by Hawaiian museum tour guides and scholars.

However, at the same time the book also feels much more unfocused and at times scattershot than “The Wordy Shipmates,” possibly as a consequence of the wider timeframe. With decades of letters and regime changes to cover there’s less time to focus on the story’s more characterful players, as she did with presidential assassins or Puritan colonists. Vowell’s thought process, while always charming in the random connections she makes, shows a bit of strain to maintain the same era while at the same time jumping from the Polynesian Triangle to Voltaire to President McKinley. Given the wide swath of time and generational cast involved, it also wouldn’t have hurt to include family trees of the royalty and missionaries to show just how intertwined this saga was.

That said, these changes don’t do anything to dilute Vowell’s inimitable style or just how readable she makes American history. Vowell has an innate grasp of analogy – she can see a Bible verse on helping Macedonia to the high-fructose corn syrup of American colonization – and an open mind to both sides to see their similarities, as the earliest days of missionary contact becomes “the story of traditionalists squaring off.” And while they are fewer than in other books there are a few figures of particular interest in the history of Hawaii – standouts are Henry Obookiah, one of the earliest Hawaiian converts to to Christianity, and adventurer turned prime minister Henry Murray Gibson – and she makes sure that we spend enough time with them to stand out as characters. Long-time readers of Vowell will also be gratified to see the scenes of her recurring travel partner nephew Owen, now eight years old and with his own own interesting quirks: his goodbye over the phone happens to be “I love you! Don’t die!”

There’s a sense from Owen that he’s been infected with his aunt’s somewhat macabre sense of fascination in American history, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” is yet another example of why Vowell’s unique perspective on history remains infectious to readers as well. It’s a reliable choice for fans of her earlier work and anyone looking for a primer on Hawaiian history – maybe not the best book for the island’s beaches but certainly something to have on hand for the long flight in, so you can understand there’s far more to these islands than sun and garish shirts.


Book Review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

May 27, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

By Allison Hoover Bartlett

Published September 17, 2009

Riverhead Books

288 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48891-6

Reviewed May 26, 2010

In the Rare Book Room of Powell’s City of Books, sealed behind a glass door and bordered by two faded brown texts, sits an unassuming blue-covered copy of John Keats’ complete poetry. While it may seem indistinguishable from volumes you’d find on a garage sale card table, this book is worlds above them for the name scrawled on the inside page: Jack Kerouac. This volume was owned by Kerouac in 1949, the same year he and Neal Cassady drove across country in the journeys that would become “On The Road,” and contains various underlines and marginal comments the great author made. It’s a book saturated in history – and kept out of my hands by an $8,000 price tag.

But as much as I eye the book and lovingly run my fingers over the glass border, thoughts of larceny never once cross my mind. Even if all the store’s employees were on a smoke break and no legal consequences existed, the thought of stealing this book – or any book – is abhorrent to me no matter how deep my passion runs. It’s a moral code that many serious book lovers share, but one that sadly doesn’t extend to everyone. Allison Hoover Bartlett’s discursive “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” explores how that bibliomania drives the lives of thieves and collectors – and what happens when the two go into conflict over one volume too many.

The titular man who loved books too much is one John Charles Gilkey, a California native who was gripped at an early age by the fever of book collecting. Unable to afford the titles he wanted and furnish the grand library of his dreams, Gilkey moved into the world of fraud, using bad checks and stolen credit card numbers to defraud sellers. Establishing a system – harvesting credit card numbers from his job at Saks, calling ahead to order titles as gifts and picking them up “in a hurry” – Gilkey soon became one of the most successful operational book thieves, filching over $100,000 worth of first additions and rarities from rare book dealers.

Such a string of thefts eventually gained attention in this passionate community, and the growth of “pink sheets” (dealer theft reports) became the pet cause of Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America security chair/Utah rare books dealer Ken Sanders. In the process of modernizing the ABAA’s theft system, he brought Gilkey’s efforts to the attention of other dealers – an effort not helped by the police’s apathy what they saw as petty book thefts, and Gilkey’s utter refusal to turn away from his habit after being caught.

Bartlett presents her narrative from a first-person perspective, interviewing both men extensively and casting herself in reactions to their stories. In the case of the fiery Sanders, Bartlett is drawn into the world of book collecting, painting the immersion of antiquarian book fairs and stores with towering shelves. The dealers she meets offer all the right war stories: their start in the field, the joy of a Holy Grail title discovered in a back drawer or brought in by an unknowing seller, the deep betrayal felt when a previously trusted customer liberates titles without paying. It can be a dry subject for the non-bibliomaniac, but Bartlett keeps it relevant by discussing her own reactions, experiences in collecting and volumes that mean something to her. She may not care as deeply as Sanders, but she does care, and her enthusiasm for these stories carries over.

The varied anecdotes on book sales and book thefts keep “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” interesting, but it is the inclusion of Gilkey’s stunning amorality with his bibliomania that makes it compelling. Gilkey is a fascinating figure – very knowledgeable about his passion and completely swept up in the image of “his library,” paradoxically wanting to show off a collection that would land him back in jail if the right person saw it. His complete lack of regret for any of his thefts, as well as his often childish conviction that going to jail for stealing books he can’t afford is a personal slight against him by the booksellers, will set any librarian’s blood boiling but make him a character worth studying. His brazen nature also allows for some particularly memorable scenes during the interviews: in one, Gilkey casually wanders the halls of a bookstore he’s robbed before, firing off random details on titles for sale as the owner and Bartlett look on with respective suspicion and horror.

Similar scenes do provide “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” with tension, but it lacks the grip of other true crime stories. Some of this stems from the fact that this story isn’t a traditional cat-and-mouse structure of two men purposely trying to outsmart each other (though Sanders spearheaded a sting effort to catch Gilkey the two have never met, and Gilkey can’t even remember Sanders’ last name when asked), but there is a feeling that Bartlett could have dug deeper. She never seeks a concrete answer from Gilkey on how deeply his father was involved in the thefts despite mentioning her curiosity more than once, nor does she take Sanders’ advice and try investigating where Gilkey stashed his ill-gotten library. True, such efforts would have likely destroyed the rapport she built with Gilkey, but that aspect feels like it would have been improved by more interactions outside the two men.

But that will likely only disappoint readers looking for a taut crime thriller, and “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” has far more to offer than that. Gilkey and Sanders represent two very different sides of the same obsession, and Bartlett as intermediary stirs up not only the deep allure books represent to them but a plethora of stories perfect for anyone who has more than a passing interest in maintaining their bookshelf. If you’re like me, it might even make you take a more serious look at how you value your own collecting elements – at time of writing, I’ve got a mason jar collecting coins so that Kerouac/Keats might move into my own hands in due time.