I stumbled across Sarah Vowell through Nick Hornby's reading journal, as he complained about her stylish prose and witty writing. And so far I've been enjoying her books, especially as she writes nonfiction in a energetic, opinionated and interesting manner that amuses me even as it deepens my knowledge about some event.
In Unfamiliar Fishes, she combines chances to visit the lovely Hawaiian islands with the excuse of researching its modern history. She tells about the people she spoke with and the places she went as she learned about the people and events in Hawaii from its unification through its annexation as an American territory. I knew the general outlines of this story (probably mostly from Michiner's Hawaii, which I read a few decades ago), but Vowell's account shows the good and bad intentions of the players in memorable detail. She's willing to accept the self-professed motives of people from Hawaiian kings to ambitious plantation owners, but she also skewers their greed and duplicity.
I found the meandering path of the narrative a bit confusing, as she skips back and forth among several generations of Hawaiian royalty, following various stories as they interest her rather than chronologically, and I admit that I didn't need quite so much of her nephew Owen's opinions, but overall it was a worthwhile few hours. I've been to Hawaii once, and her descriptions remind me that I'd really like to go back again.