Monday, April 25, 2011

O My Lily of Killarney

They meant ''Kauai.'' Looks like Hanalei.I have only ever heard two people in Rhode Island utter the name of the last Hawaiian queen, and they both pronounced that name dramatically differently.
The first -- a Fifth Grade teacher who had our class memorize the locations of Union and Confederate losses as well as the names of the hapless generals whose incompetence he held as cause -- intoned the designation as some variation of "Lily O'Killarney."
The only other person who ever said the name was the breathtaking Sophronia (mentioned here and here) who, while recently visiting her alma mater Brown University and avoiding Emma Watson, exhaled the name of "Leeliwokeelahnay" incidentally, carelessly, and as though she were referring to her mother's great-aunt.
Which she probably was.
And that's what I got for mentioning Sarah Vowell's newest book and that it's about Hawaii.
As I steamed through Unfamiliar Fishes -- Sarah Vowell's gift to us dockbound vicarious history vacationers -- it was the latter's voice that I heard wrestling control from the unmistakably characteristic Sarah Vowell. Whenever I read a rumination of historical events ruminated upon by Sarah Vowell, I invariably hear the veritable voice of Sarah Vowell reading it. And this without the audiobook version.

Blame it on my decades of blade-and-tape audio editing, call screening, or phone center customer servicing, but once I've heard a voice, it's filed in the soggy attaché that I secret behind my eyes. But whenever I see a word that isn't German and possesses numerous neighboring vowels, I can hear Sophronia's luscious mezzo-soprano, casually and fragantly dropping the name of some secluded beach or other on the island where she herself exotically bloomed, moonlight dappling her soft cocoa skin, softly dusted by fine volcanic sand languorously affixed with playful errant splashes of warm salt sea...
You know, like humuhumunukunukuāpua‘a. Or kahlua. Or uhaul.
Although, a weekend running around the former Sandwiches with Sarah Vowell would be a pleasant diversion. She apparently knows everybody and certainly recognizes the best spots for plate lunch. And the bonus is that for every hike to Kealakekua Bay with her precious nephew, we get to hang out in a moldy house museum or library stacks with some ardent and single-minded archivist caricatures.

Although I am sure that we'd argue about whether sugar laborers or American whalers are the root of Hawaiian Portuguese cuisine.
I guess we'd just have to sample lots of it.
Unfamiliar Fishes is a fine sampler of another variety of fare.
One might button down Unfamiliar Fishes as a sequel to The Wordy Shipmates in that once again, Protestant busybodies in their missionary zeal spoil everything. The Wordy Shipmates features spot-on discussions of John "Ronald Reagan Will Misquote Me Often" Winthrop and our local celebrities Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. These folks and their progeny -- divergent though their intentions were -- sank the hooks pretty deep into New England soil. Deep enough so that a new generation of clumsy genocidists feels compelled to exercise itself even further west and further demonstrate what a bunch of greedy clever prissy selfish hypocrites they were.
Unfamiliar Fishes testifies to a historian's vocation: to introduce us to people who can no longer edit themselves or tweak their own reputations. Sarah Vowell lets the participants tell their stories, usually in their own words, and sometimes repetitively. The still-wordy missionaries ("mikaneles"), Bible-literate haoles, ill-prepared maoli -- and their historical and contemporary mouthpieces. At one point, I found myself immersed in an engaging reminiscence of the Nation of Hawaii before it became clear that I had neglected to return to Sarah Vowell's book after briefly consulting Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen on my Kindle. I don't know if Sarah Vowell was channeling Queen Liliuokalani. Recently, I've found that technology sometimes troubles me.
Pre-ordering a new Sarah Vowell book and awaiting the Kindle upload date, I was put in mind of haunting the college pub, anticipating the presence of some sweet object of schoolboy fascination from History of Literature class.
You spend a lot of the night getting up the nerve, but when you do introduce yourself, you immediately fall in with a welcoming and agreeable companion.
You giggle about Andrew Marvell's time-consuming slampiece, sing along with the Neil Young on the jukebox (who THEHELL played that ?), quote The Brady Bunch and that funny NPR show, try the drink that the bartender has "been working on," and nobody exchanges numbers because you'll be in class Wednesday and Friday.
I was mailed a copy of The Wordy Shipmates, and even though I am a self-impressed gasbag recognized widely for "bombastic pomposity" (I can't let go), I never wrote a review. I understand that when someone sends you a book for free before it is even dropped, you probably should do. No such demands were made on me, but I said nice things anyway. In a brief statement about something else.
And then Sarah Vowell comes to New Bedford, sneaks around the Whaling Historical National Scenic Shopping District, and doesn't even have her people send a note to advise me that I have been officially snubbed.
Sarah Vowell has made some impression on the local Visitor's Center volunteer coterie. Just after the publication of her exchange with a decidedly emblematic New Bedfidgian ("Oh No Not Another Moby-Dickhead"), the Cetacean Holocaust National Paving Blocks Aren't Cobblestones Dammit Park people are actively seeking new volunteers who will gush about Melville's big ole book.
I am sure, however, that the New Bedford Office of Who's In Charge of Tourism This Week appreciates Sarah Vowell's strict observance of the "You can't say 'New Bedford' without saying 'Whaling Museum'" Law (although she missed the opportunity to comment on the "burgeoning arts scene" like everybody else does). I would like to sincerely thank her for not mentioning the name of the sham house museum/banquet facility that she claims to have visited while here, and then admitting that New Beige had some passing something to do with "sailors" in Hawaii. I beg her to not do a book about whaling even though her wit, scholarship, and charm would completely blow Nat Philbrick -- and Rory Nugent for that matter -- off the shelves. And I appreciate that a woman who doesn't drive begins her book at the Rainbow Drive-In in Honolulu.
It should also be noted that, given the opportunity to take on the very same subject matter -- the effects of mikanele on Hawaii -- I would have turned out a novelty pamphlet explaining how Mele Kalikimaka ever happened.
Mahalo to you Sarah Vowell.

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