27 Best Local Books to Read This Summer
Throw ’em in your beach bag or load up your nightstand: 27 must-have books from local authors and publishing houses.
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A man breaks up with his wife over a volcano. A king buys a yacht built to woo a princess, then tries to use it to conquer Kaua‘i. A 13-year-old plans and executes the first-ever archaeological dig in a tsunami-ravaged valley. Just a few of the true stories in this summer’s nonfiction. Multigenerational immigrant drama? Spies stalking the twisted alleys of Old Honolulu? Families torn by inherited conflicts and addictions? It wouldn’t be summer fiction without them. And we’ve got the year’s big theme, too: the natural world.
These days, Hawai‘i books go mainstream and win big prizes: a Pulitzer for William Finnegan and Barbarian Days; an American Book Award for poet Craig Santos Perez and from unincorporated territory [guma‘]; and a Poets and Writers Award for Kimo Armitage. Also, 2015 National Book Award nominations went to Susannah Moore and Hanya Yanagihara. “Sales numbers are climbing, demand is up,” says Bess Press publisher Dave DeLuca. Read on!
Lab Girl Brings Life to Science
UH geobiologist writes a best-selling, thought-provoking memoir.
By Kim Steutermann Rogers
Photo: Courtesy of Hope Jahren
When teaching science, explaining complex ideas in a clear, easy-to-understand way has its challenges. For Hope Jahren, a UH geobiologist and author of a new, highly lauded memoir-cum-science book, the secret is metaphor.
“I think very hard about which metaphor stabs closest to the heart of what I’m trying to say,” she says. “Metaphors are like an egg. A light little tap and the whole thing breaks open, and then your student—and your reader—is on the same page as you.”
It’s a technique Jahren tapped for her book, Lab Girl. Take, for example, this passage about how little water trees actually collect from the ground: “If we think of all the water on Earth as an Olympic-size swimming pool, the amount that’s available to plants within the soil would fill less than one soda bottle.”
Lab Girl contains many passages about trees. This is the part Jahren calls sneaky—“textbooklike.” But her prose, far from being academic, is clear and thought-provoking, ensuring you won’t look at the tree outside your kitchen window—or elsewhere—in quite the same way. Did you know there are about as many leaves on one tree as there are hairs on your head?
Apart from the science bits, Lab Girl is most assuredly a memoir, chock full of personal stories—some funny, some heartbreaking, some bravely revelatory—of Jahren’s route from penniless student to tenured professor and recipient of three Fulbright Awards. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that the book “does for botany what Oliver Sacks’ essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.”
In her lab, Jahren tackles big questions. What, for example, will happen to plants—and, hence, our world’s supply of food, medicine and wood—in 350 years if greenhouse gas levels keep increasing at the rate they do now?
Photo: Aaron Yoshino
But why a coming-of-age-as-a-scientist memoir, and not the textbook academia expected of her after earning her Ph.D.? “I tried that,” Jahren says. “But I couldn’t keep my own story out of it. I felt a need to say this stuff, to talk about what’s important, to write in my voice.” And, in the process, Jahren found the writing helped her make sense of her own life.
In a March essay for The New York Times, Jahren tackled another subject that’s important to her—sexual harassment in the science community. Questioning why little has been done to stop it, Jahren writes, “Female scientists like me will be solicited for constructive solutions that don’t involve anybody getting fired. Female students will be advised to examine how their own behavior might have contributed, and I will have more than my usual trouble keeping my mouth shut. And, in the end, science—an institution terminally invested in believing itself honorable—will sort of come close to admitting that it isn’t.”
She says the essay began with the oft-asked question of why there aren’t more women in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—careers. “In my view, we’re never going to be able to stand with a clear conscience and recruit women into science without being sure we’re offering a fair shot at success in a safe environment.” Jahren pauses, then adds, “I owe it to my students, don’t I?” Jahren doesn’t have any specific complaints about the University of Hawai‘i, although there’s a “special kind of inertia here, and that’s frustrating.” She has since announced she is leaving UH.
Students in Hawai‘i, she says, “are generally really receptive to caring about nature, and the whole island is basically a greenhouse. It’s like Hawai‘i was created as a place to grow plants for science.” In a chapter on seeds, Jahren writes, “When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.”
By now, we know Jahren’s also talking about people. We are like trees in a crowded forest, adapting, bending toward the light, seeking the things that nourish us. Plants, animals, institutions: We all need to adapt to grow.
Holy Mōlī Soars on Wings of Love and Loss
A retired nurse’s albatross obsession becomes a publishing sensation.
By lavonne leong
Photos: Aaron yoshino
If you’ve ever dreamed about writing a book someday but haven’t yet, this one’s for you.
At 67, Kaua‘i resident, retired nurse and Laysan albatross advocate Hob Osterlund has published her first book. Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors is a memoir of loss and grief, a love letter to the species she has devoted more than a decade to saving, and a moving personal essay about how the two strands, woman and mōlī (the Hawaiian word for albatross), have come together. As much as Osterlund has worked to save the birds, the birds, of course, have also saved her.
As with most of us, Osterlund’s life has not run in a straight line. Her adored mother’s death when she was 10 years old set her on a devastated, wandering course in which a degree in ecological geography was followed by a career in nursing, marriage was followed by divorce and then an LGBTQ identity, long before that was a term. She arrived in Hawai‘i in 1983, “summoned” by a dream in which ancestral relation Martha Beckwith, translator of the first English version of the Kumulipo, placed a copy of the book in her hands.
Years later, Osterlund had her first encounter with a Laysan albatross. Like other authors who have written about close encounters with another species (you’ll probably recall Gorillas in the Mist, and Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk and Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus are two of the finest recent works in this genre), she found that spiritual kinship can cross species lines.
Laysan albatrosses, who mate for life, are famously tender mates and devoted parents. Politically, they lean progressive; not only do they practice equal-time parenting, but one in every three mated pairs in the main Hawaiian Islands is female-female.
They’re also red-listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, put at risk by humans (whom they don’t fear) and sea-level rise, which threatens to drown the low-lying Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where more than 99 percent of their population resides. Wildlife biologist Lindsay Young says the birds’ fragile, tiny populations on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu are considered a kind of “ark.”
Osterlund is the founder of the Kaua‘i Albatross Network as well as Cornell’s live “Trosscam,” which has received millions of hits since it was founded four years ago. Watching the birds carry on with their lives against a backdrop of constant danger and heartbreak provided her with a perspective that humans alone couldn’t offer. Just being who you are, even if there is a heavy price to pay, is a theme that runs through Holy Mōlī. Another is knowing what you’ve got before it’s gone.
This fall, when the albatrosses take off for their monthslong flights over the Northern Pacific, Osterlund will fly, too: to the West Coast for a whistlestop book tour to promote this slim volume, which has some heavy hitters singing its praises. Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild, described Holy Mōlī as a “moving and fascinating book about birds, loss and finding a true home in the world.”
Osterlund, though, wants to talk about the birds: “When we say ‘wild animals,’ we tend to think of tigers and bears, but birds are the wild animals who live in our communities, going about the business of survival right in front of us, every minute of every day.”
WHAT HOB OSTERLUND IS READING:
Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel
by Carl Safina
A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World
by Daniel Goleman
‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings
by Mary Kawena Pukui
Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors, by Hob Osterlund, Oregon State University Press, May 2016, 147 pages