Unfamiliar Fishes–Sarah Vowell

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After a trip to Hawaii this summer and as part of my growing interest in all things eastern, I asked for who knew what books were good on Hawaiian history.  My brother suggested this one by Sarah Vowell, who had earlier written a book on the Puritans.

Her interest in the Puritan mindset continues in Unfamiliar Fishes as she explores the flood of haoles overflowing Hawaii after the landing of Captain Cook.  Vowell uses discrete events, like the death of Henry Obookiah’s parents at the hands of the conquering army of Kamehameha, who “unified” the islands in a tide of death.  Obookiah’s orphan status propels his fate forward, landing him in New England, where he was taken in by the President of Yale (founded because Harvard wasn’t puritanical enough).  His memoirs, assembled after his death, pushed the agenda of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries, which in 1820 sent missionary couples to bring Christianity to heathen Hawaii.  Vowell’s story candidly portrays the ways in which Hawaiian natives, particularly elites, cooperated in their own westernization as traditional culture was subverted for profit and prestige.  Her missionaries clash with New England whalers and diverse sailors who come to port after months at sea looking for fun.  All of these visitors bring death to the Hawaiians, whose population falls from 300,000 to less then 35,000 from the arrival of Cook to the annextation of Hawaii.

Vowell traces the change of western business from God to sugar and the declining fortunes of the descendents of Kamehameha, one of whom dies of measles on a trip to England to secure protection from American interests and another of whom dies in California after being ousted by sugar plantation-owning descendents of the original missionaries backed by outrage over greed and rapacious governing.  Her discussion of King Kauikeaoluli’s creation of a constitutional monarchy and the Great Mahele, alienating of crown lands, reminded me of the story of Joseph II of Austria, whose Enlightened good intentions for his people led to misery for them and him.  Kauikeaoluli’s constitutional monarch required an infrastructure that invited non-natives to dominate his government and the sudden privatization of land in a culture that had not practiced such a concept led to the gobbling up of land by haoles and the separation of natives from their own lands.  Even here Vowell does not blame a straw haole, but acknowledges that 19th-century capitalists acted as 19th-century capitalists and bought land that came up for sale and exploited it for profit. 

Vowell also does not shrink from the present anger of many Hawaiians at the events that led to their annexation.  Despite the complicity of Hawaiian elites in the destruction of their own culture and infrastructure, Vowell’s explanation of the American government’s shoddy pretense of a joint resolution to annex the islands when Congress would not vote through the treaty of annexation makes it difficult not to empathize in their anger and feel, once again, shame at the imperialist self-righteousness of my (figurative) ancestors.

My only complaint with the book, besides my wish that a trained historian had written it, is Vowell’s frequent references to Obama’s Hawaiian birth and his election as president–like, I wonder what King so and so would think of this fact or Queen somebody or other.  Read your own narrative.  Some would be pleased.  Others would roll in their graves.  He is not native Hawaiian, not part of the royal bloodline.  The logical conclusion on this issue based on Vowell’s telling of events is that Obama’s election as president is the capstone in the imperialist project that was begun with the commissioning of missionaries in the early 19th century. Even the first Hawaiian president is not Hawaiian. 

Finished 12/30/13  

The Tao of Pooh–Benjamin Hoff

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Apparently anyone who is cool has already read this book, but I, who thought I was too cool for a book about Pooh, missed it during any decade in which I might otherwise have been cool.  

Hoff does a beautiful job of explaining basic Taoist concepts while managing to make me fall in love with, and desire to re-read, Pooh and his adventures.  His dialogues with Pooh and characters became a little tired by the fourth chapter, but I loved his extended quotes from Milne.  

One of my favorite chapters is the first, which explains through The Vinegar Tasters the three major Asian schools of philosophy:  Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.  

I’ve always know I was an Eeyore, but did not see how shameful that was until reading this book.  Also my Rabbit and Owl sides are not pretty in Hoff’s mirror.  

One of my favorites passages was this:

“If you’re in tune with The Way Things Work, then they work the way they  need to, no matter what you make think about it at the time.  Later on, you can look back and say, ‘Oh, now I understand.  That had to happen so that those could happen, and those had to happen in order for this to happen….’ Then you realize that even if you’d tried to make it all turn out perfectly, you couldn’t have done better, and if you’d really tried, you would have made a mess of the whole thing.”

I’m going to be optimistic and say if I had read this in my twenties I would have been a much less uptight young adult, young wife, and young parent, but I know the Way Thing Work enough to know that I wouldn’t have understood it then because I first had to find my own way.  

But that does not mean I’m not buying a copy for my twenty-something daughter.  Planting seeds.

Finished 12/29/13

Paradise of the Blind-Duong Thu Huong

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I have read many, many novels about the history of Europe, but my exploration of Asian history is still in its infancy.  Under the Banyan Tree led me to Duong Thu Huong and this is the first of her novels published in the United States, and so my entry point into her writing.  Her biography bears further exploration for those interested in history and the paths of authors.

Paradise of the Blind begins near the end and moves back and forth from Hang’s childhood to the novel’s endpoint in her early twenties.  Hang’s family is complicated.  She is fatherless, but doted on by her father’s sister, Aunt Tam.  Hang’s mother sells small goods in the city while Aunt Tam maintains the family home in the village.  Hang moves between her present as a factory worker in the Soviet Union and her childhood torn between the two women she loved most and who most loved her, Aunt Tam and her mother.  Both women, however, sacrificed their lives for the memories of their brothers.  Aunt Tam worked herself to the bone, and she is described as skeletal, to return her “bourgeois” family to their ancestral home.  Hang’s mother works herself to a skeleton to feed her Communist party official brother and his wife and sons.  Hang slowly learns the story of her mother and father’s romance and her uncle’s role in its, and her father’s, demise.  All is sacrificed, hard work and hope, to put flesh and more flesh on the frame of the greedy and corrupt uncle, who appreciates none of it.  Uncle Chinh is Communist Vietnam and the patriarchal Vietnamese culture.  Aged and wrinkled by her early twenties, robbed of her chance at education and a brighter future in order to support her mother, Hang finally sees her uncle for who he always was,  ignorant, confused, and immoral, and finds the strength to walk away.

Duong Thu Huong’s prose is beautiful and haunted and dark.  Near the end of the novel, Hang compares her people with Japanese tourists in Russia.  She says, “Our faces were always taut, lean with fear.  The fear that we might not be able to pay for food, or not send it in time, the fear of learning that an aging father or mother had passed away while waiting for our miserable subsidies…..We had darting, calculating faces: You had to think of everything, weigh everything.  All the time.  You had to think to survive, to feed your loved ones, to hustle for a day’s wages sharecropping or sweeping on a train.  you had to think too of the life that stretched out ahead, the pain that still waited for you, of a future as obscure and unfathomable as sea fog” (229).

And so continues the path begun by The Lizard King.  The story of the Easts.

Finished 12/28/13