Depending on your age and taste, Sarah Vowells endearingly nasal voice and smarty-pants charm immediately brings to mind either This American Life during pledge drive season or Violet from Pixars The Incredibles. As a storyteller, voice actor, and ace Late Show with David Letterman guest, Vowell comes off as a quirky bookworm with a wry sense of humor. But as the author of popular nonfiction, Vowell goes way darker, indulging her fascination with historys cruel -- and often absurd -- ironies. Vowells 2008 book The Wordy Shipmates was a wickedly funny, but deeply felt, look at the divisions between the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans and the settlers of Plymouth in the 1630s. In her latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell tells the story of the Americanization of Hawaii, where, as she puts it, Manifest Destiny got a sunburn. Vowell examines the doomed efforts of early-1800s New England missionaries to Christianize the island chain, and the chaotic free-for-all that defined the decades prior to the United States annexation of Hawaii. Weaving together personal narrative, details from President Obamas childhood, and deep historical research, Vowell tells the alternately hilarious and heartbreaking tale of an incestuous princess, leper colonies, missionaries, whoremongering whalers, and Theodore Roosevelt, as they vied for dominion over the westernmost point of the frontier.
Thu., March 31, 7 p.m., 2011