18 Hawaii Books to Read This Summer
Our guide to new and notable books from local authors and publishers.
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Lettering: Maria Lieber
Bookstore, where art thou? If there’s a single theme that stood out as we compiled and reported our roundup of summer reading, it was lamenting Honolulu’s lack of general book retailers. Specialty bookstores abound, from Na Mea Hawaii for all things Hawaiian to Jelly’s for used books. But the places in town to shop for mass-market and literary books has shrunk to two. Bookends in Kailua is perhaps the last remaining locally owned bookstore and, with the closing of Barnes & Noble in Kahala Mall, we’re left with the Ala Moana Center location as the last mass retailer in town.
Nevertheless, local presses are churning out new titles, albeit some at slower paces than before. Here’s our list of notable summer reads, along with recommendations from some of Hawaii’s local authors. Having trouble finding these books? There’s always Amazon.
The Inspiring Side of Chris McKinney
Known for his hard-edged fiction, local author Chris McKinney has set aside his damaged characters to write the hope-filled memoir of a high school classmate.
In a departure from his typical fictional portrayal of a Hawaii in turmoil, Chris McKinney has collaborated with his childhood friend, Dr. Rudy Puana, to write a local-boy-does-good story for younger readers. It’s a move that may have die-hard McKinney fans a little perplexed, as he turns away from the grittiness of the Islands to adopt a more inspirational tone.
Still, The Red-headed Hawaiian, released last month by Mutual Publishing, seeks to challenge a few ingrained local attitudes, including notions of what it means to be tough, and give permission to Hawaii’s youth to dream for better lives than their parents had.
“It’s a book that doesn’t necessarily uncover the messy reality of Hawaii, but one that hopefully shows kids who live under glass ceilings, for whatever reason, that anything is possible,” he says. “I would call it my give-back book.”
The story, told in Puana’s voice, follows an unlikely candidate for medical school—a local boy from Kahaluu making bad grades and bad decisions. To the surprise of his friends and family, he summons the determination to get into medical school, his eyes set on the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. But when UH puts him on the wait list, and a slew of Mainland schools offer him acceptance and scholarships, he’s forced to consider something he never thought he’d do: move beyond Hawaii’s shores.
“I didn’t think the Mainland had anything special to offer,” says Puana, who now has a medical practice in Hilo serving the Native Hawaiian community. “I was very sheltered in a bubble of Hawaii. My dad was very local, a local fisherman. At first he hated me going to school, because I would help him on side jobs for plumbing.”
Puana goes from not knowing “Kimo from chemo” to becoming the youngest associate medical director of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Even to this day, friends and former classmates are surprised when they discover he’s a successful doctor.
“Me being fair-skinned, redhead, last name Puana, I had to be more local than the brown Keoni next door. So I was the typical local punk,” he says. “Especially when I go to Oahu, when people ask what I’m doing now and I say, doctor, they think I’m kidding.”
Puana originally began writing the book on the Mainland as a series of memories and anecdotes, his way of pining for his beloved Hawaii. Eventually he thought he might have the makings for a book, so he reached out to his Mid-Pacific Institute classmate and Kahaluu friend Chris McKinney.
“Over the years, people have always tried to pitch me their life story. Of course, most of the time the answer is no,” McKinney says. When he read through Puana’s work, though, he saw potential.
Part of what Puana discovered when he first went to med school is that the vast majority of Mainland kids wanted to be doctors from when they were 5 years old. “That’s not implanted in local rural Hawaii,” McKinney says. “No one I’ve known as a kid had parents who told them, ‘Doctors make a lot of money, you should grow up and be a doctor.’”
Having worked with local students for 14 years at Honolulu Community College, McKinney says he’s seen their aspirations get pigeonholed.
“We’re talking about Kalihi here, so a lot of kids grow up the way I grew up,” he says. And it’s not just at HCC. Even in his work with his Language Arts Center in Mililani, which he runs with his wife, he says the same ideas present themselves. “Maybe it’s not a socioeconomic thing, it’s a Hawaii ethos thing.”
In the end, through Puana’s story, McKinney wants to challenge the common local definition of tough. “When we think of tough, it’s how much ass you can kick, essentially. But that’s not tough, that’s easy. Tough is doing the necessary things, day in and day out, to achieve your goals.”
Now that he’s had his foray into creative nonfiction, should we expect his own memoir anytime soon? Don’t count on it, he says. Instead, McKinney is looking away from publishing to the greener pastures of television and film. He’s been working with a writing partner on a pilot for a cable series. In fact, they’re shopping it to FX, AMC and a few others, he says. Tentatively titled The Aina, it’s a noir series in the mode of The Sopranos and The Wire, set on the Big Island.
“What’s become more and more apparent to me over the years is that books are dying, especially here,” McKinney says. “When my first book came out, I had to go to all the bookstores all over the island for book signings and stuff like that. But now there’s only one bookstore. I’ve known for a while now that I’m at a point where I’m done with books.”
What will Chris Mckinney read this summer?
by Émile Zola
“One of those classics I always wanted to read and am finally getting to.”
Ewa Which Way
by Tyler Miranda
“I like to keep up with what younger local writers are producing.”
The Nanjing Massacre: Poems
by Wing Tek Lum
“To bone up on some contemporary poetry, which I admittedly neglect too much, like most of America.”