15 Hawai‘i Books to Read This Summer

Our annual quest to track down this year’s can’t-miss books from local authors and publishers.

Summertime seems the right time to plunge into a stack of books, whether we’re lying on the beach, the couch or traveling. We hunted down some of the best local releases of the past year, an eclectic mix from Hawai‘i-related authors and publishers. We found a debut collection of lyrical stories and poems by professor, poet and yoga teacher Brenda Kwon. We came across a sweeping history of Hawai‘i by Texas historian James Haley sure to spark some controversy. And we caught up with Hawai‘i author R. Zamora Linmark, now teaching at the University of Miami, on the heels of the 20th anniversary of his defining novel, Rolling the R’s. Add in editors’ picks of noteworthy books, and there’s enough essential reading to last all summer long.  


Paradise Lost       

Photo: James L. Haley 

In this compelling account of Hawai‘i’s history—from the brutal (later romanticized) reign of King Kamehameha I to the racist plot of Lorrin A. Thurston to dethrone the queen and lobby for annexation—Texas historian James L. Haley strips away any notion of Hawai‘i as a Pacific paradise.


Just about anyone who picks up James L. Haley’s new narrative history of Hawai‘i is bound to come across something that will make them uncomfortable. 


Mainland readers, who were Haley’s intended audience, likely won’t be able to stomach the shameful coup of a sovereign by power-hungry Americans. Hawai‘i  readers may not be used to seeing its ancient culture depicted in such a no-holds-barred manner—human sacrifice, brutal savagery, licentiousness and all. 


Haley wasn’t interested in making friends. As the author of several volumes of Texas history and the recipient of multiple history and literary accolades, Haley says he set out to tell a balanced account of our former kingdom and republic. 


“Trying to be an honest broker of history is a goddamn thankless task,” Haley says. He bills himself as a historian who tells it like it is, without being weighed down by a political agenda (which obviously leaves those with political agendas—whether on the Native Hawaiian side of the spectrum or the colonialist American side—with raised eyebrows and ire).


Captive Pardise: A History of Hawai‘i


For in-the-dark Mainland readers, Captive Paradise is a sweeping, honest account of how the Sandwich Islands went from kingdom to statehood. Reviews on the continent, from The Wall Street Journal to Publisher’s Weekly, praise it for being exactly that. The reaction he’s received here at home, however, is a different story.


Part of the reason, Haley says, is because he’s white (and a Texan). And when we spoke with him, we sensed his genuine understanding of Native Hawaiian sensitivity to a haole telling this story. The frosty response in Hawai‘i is also partly because Captive Paradise, rather than focusing entirely on the role of missionaries, sugar barons and colonialist Americans in the downfall of the Hawaiian Kingdom, turns the camera on the Hawaiian royal class, as well, and their role in this tragic story.


“Everytime you turn around, the royals are shooting themselves in the foot, as far as keeping their hands on their own country,” Haley says.


Haley is in no way laying blame at the feet of the Hawaiian monarchy. Far from it. Instead, with the sort of wide-frame perspective that an outside pair of eyes can offer, he depicts the self-sabotage and bungled relations of the royals that allowed a plotting Lorrin Thurston & Co. to wrest control of the nation from their grasp. 


“The Kamehameha dynasty, it seems to me, could have come out entirely different if Kamehameha III had not disinherited Ruth Ke‘elikolani, saying that she may be po‘o lua, illegitimate,” Haley says.


Princess Ruth held some 10 percent of the land, or 335,000 acres (now the lands of Kamehameha Schools-Bishop Estate). She was staunchly anti-American, refused to convert to Christianity, and was by all accounts popular and beloved among the people. Had Kamehameha III not scratched her name out of the line of succession, Haley says, the kingdom may have had a fighting chance.


“She would have been a powerful monarch,” Haley says.


Princess Ruth’s possible role in changing history extends beyond the Kamehameha dynasty, too, Haley argues.


David Kalākaua, he says, was envious of her place in the line of succession and her claim to the throne, and he took every opportunity he had to insult her. He stripped her of her Big Island governorship, a post she held for nearly 20 years, and in her place installed a crony from the legislature.


“If Kalākaua had treated Princess Ruth decently, he would have inherited her lands,” Haley says. “By the time he got done slapping her around, he was left to beg and borrow from the sugar barons, and that was his fatal mistake.”


The Bayonet Constitution, anyone?


Haley spent two weeks in the Islands, perusing the state archives, the UH Mānoa archives, the Hawaiian Historical Society, the Mission Houses Museum and any other place that would let him in. The Bishop Museum, Haley says, never responded to his emails requesting access to its files. 


During his time in Hawai‘i, though, Haley says he was told time and again that he wasn’t the one who should be writing this history.


On a trip to the Big Island’s Kīlauea, to see the legendary site where Kamehameha had chased Keōua Kū‘ahu‘ula’s forces, Haley and his research assistant talked with a docent. His assistant let it slip that he was writing a book.


“That was my first experience with what you call stink eye. She said, ‘You know, you’re not the one who should be writing this book. If you insist on doing it, you should submit yourself to the kūpuna and get their approval,’” Haley says.


Haley did nothing of the sort. And that might be enough for Native Hawaiian readers to find insult in his work, Haley thinks, despite the fact that he agrees with Native Hawaiians on the overthrow and annexation and calls for the U.S. to make amends.


“I wound up concluding the overthrow was about as illegal as it gets. There just isn’t much defending it,” Haley says.


Annexation wasn’t about sugar, he says, though he understands that’s a popular view both here at home and on the Mainland. And it wasn’t about missionaries, either.


“The sugar growers were opposed to it, because if Hawai‘i became a U.S. territory, the exclusion act would have kept them from importing Chinese laborers,” Haley says. “It wasn’t so much the missionaries, they weren’t such bad people. It was more their children and grandchildren.” 


Think: the Hawaiian League and the Honolulu Rifles, led by Thurston, with members such as Sanford Dole and William Castle.


“They had gone to the Mainland, to Harvard and Yale and Columbia, and they came back just steeped like a bunch of teabags in 19th-century American racism.”


Ultimately, Hawai‘i’s location in the middle of the Pacific meant the U.S. couldn’t risk it falling into the hands of the Japanese, Haley says. There are no excuses, though. “Hawai‘i deserves to have it made right,” he writes in the last line of his book. 


Lovers of our history will revel in Haley’s small details that aren’t taught in 10th grade Modern History of Hawai‘i. For instance, after annexation the Hawaiian flag was lowered at ‘Iolani Palace, and a 36-foot Stars and Stripes raised in its place to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


“At this,” Haley writes, “several members of the Hawaiian Band abandoned their instruments and quit the scene, unable to continue.” 


What will James L. Haley read this summer? 


Walt Whitman and the Civil War

By Charles Glicksberg

University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933


The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict

By Donald R. Hickey

University of Illinois Press, 1989


Two Years Before the Mast

By Richard Henry Dana

A boxed, illustrated Heritage Press edition from 1947


The Good Old Boys

By Elmer Kelton

TCU Press edition, 1985


Texas in 1848

By Viktor Bracht

German-Texan Heritage Society edition, 1991



Back to Kalihi

Photo: Jilson Seckler Tiu

Nearly 20 years since R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s followed a group of Kalihi kids coming of age in the 1970s, we catch up with him to talk story about his landmark novel and his upcoming work.​


It’s hard to believe it’s been almost two decades since R. Zamora Linmark introduced us to a group of rambunctious Kalihi teenagers in his debut novel that single-handedly reinvented the local coming-of-age story. 


Like most stories in our local canon, Rolling the R’s, published in 1996, dealt with cultural identity and prejudices in the rich context of Kalihi. But it was more than that. With its main character a defiant and flamboyant Edgar Ramirez, it was one of the first local gay “coming out” stories in local literature. Set in the disco era, we met drag queens, transvestites, sexually curious teens and a predatory custodian named Mr. Campos. 


It was a slow rise to success for Rolling the R’s locally, but eventually it spawned a cult following and even a stage adaptation that premiered at Kumu Kahua Theatre. The book is now taught in many Asian-American and queer studies programs in universities across the country. 


We caught up with Linmark, currently serving as distinguished visiting associate professor in creative writing at the University of Miami, to take a look back at Rolling the R’s and to get a preview of what’s to come.


HONOLULU Magazine: Where did Rolling the R’s come from? Did you set out to write a novel, or did it come about more organically?


R. Zamora Linmark: It was 1992, and I had just returned from my first visit to the Philippines, after an absence of many years. I was born and raised there, but I grew up in Honolulu, for the most part. The reverse culture shock I experienced when I went back to the Philippines was so profound. I felt so fragmented after that visit that I wanted to write about that experience. 


I sat down and wrote, but what came out instead was a vignette about this very strong and defiant character named Edgar. I was in extreme awe, because that wasn’t what I intended to write. After that day, I had crossed a junction where I could either further explore the story of this kid or go back to my original intent and write about feeling like a stranger back in the motherland. I decided to pursue this guy, because it was the 1970s, it was the disco era, I felt like I was reliving my childhood. I started living vicariously through these characters.


HM: Rolling the R’s has a nontraditional structure, told through vignettes and poems and stories. It’s also one of the first times we see real gay characters represented in local literature. Did you have a sense, at the time, that you were doing something different?


Rolling the R’s

By R. Zamora Linmark

RZL: I was writing stories that I wanted to read. Was I doing something different? Yes, that’s obvious. It was really a departure from the local aesthetic. Here comes this book that is written by one of the locals, but it’s structurally different, the content is very raw and potent. And I was writing about taboo stuff. You have the word “faggot” in there how many times? It’s very in-your-face and unashamed.


Interestingly enough, the book came out during the same-sex marriage issue, when it was being contested in court in 1996. I remember I was in Kapi‘olani Park, where I used to run, and I heard all these homophobic people giving their anti-gay sentiment. This was all at the same time: On one hand, you have this very conservative community of Islanders, and, on the other, you have this book that is basically saying, “I am gay, and I love it, and I’m proud of it.”


HM: You split your time between Honolulu and Manila. How does moving back and forth affect your writing?


RZL: Remember I was telling you about the reverse culture shock? That story is Leche, my most recent novel. The character Vicente from Rolling the R’s returns to the Philippines in Leche after so many years of absence. It’s his story of reverse culture shock and his experiences back in the motherland. That novel took me 12 years. I wanted to explore the concept of home, and the experience of displacement and dispossession.


In order for me to write about Manila, I actually had to go live there. When you’re talking about representation, I didn’t want Manila to come across as just another capital in a third-world or developing country. I had to go in there and put on my sociologist’s hat. When I’m writing about a place, I don’t treat setting as just setting, I treat it as a main character. It’s your responsibility as a writer to portray a place with authenticity and give it the kind of soul and music that comes out of that place.


HM: So far, you’re the author of three volumes of poetry and two novels. Rumor has it we can expect at least two new books from you next year. Can you give us a sneak peek?


RZL: I’m going on a book tour in the first half of the year to promote the 20th anniversary edition of Rolling the R’s as well as my fourth poetry collection, Pop Verite. If all goes according to plan, next year Random House will publish my third novel, a young-adult book, These Books Belong to Kenzie.


Pop Verite is sort of an homage to my literary and pop icons, but it’s also about what a poet goes through during the day. I have Amy Winehouse, Frank O’Hara, the day I found out Donna Summer died. It’s a mixed bag of popular culture.


With the young-adult novel, I had no idea it was going to be sold within two weeks. This is my first foray into young adult, so it’s something very new. I worked on it for three years. It’s set on an uninhabited island near Saipan. I put people there and decided this would be where my next novel takes place. There’s an element of dystopia. There’s a northern part and southern part split by a border. The northern part is privileged and the southern is independent, but very poor. There’s a lot of military involved. Within that story is a love story that falls apart. It’s about dealing with heartbreak.


I’m also working on the sequel to Rolling the R’s right now. It’s going to be bigger than the original; it’s my ’80s novel. The kids are now juniors in high school. I revisit them seven years later, when they’re at Farrington High School. 


Books by R. Zamora Linmark

Rolling the R’s

Kaya Press, November 1996, 149 Pages 



Coffee House Press, 2011, 280 pages


Prime Time Apparitions

Hanging Loose Press, 2005, 88 pages


What Will R. Zamora Linmark Read This Summer?

Henry Darger

By Jim Elledge

Darger was an eccentric American artist and writer.


My Documents, collection of short stories

By the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra


Map: Collected and Last Poems

By Nobel Prize-winning poet Wislawa Szymborska


King Larry: the Life and Ruins of a Billionaire Genius

By James D. Scurlock



Photo: Leslie Oyama 

In Brenda Kwon’s new book from Bamboo Ridge, The Sum of Breathing, Hawai‘i has found a poet on a spiritual journey. 


Brenda Kwon’s debut book, The Sum of Breathing, doesn’t fit into any box. Like Kwon, a literature and writing professor at Honolulu Community College and a yoga teacher (she also plays in a band), the book is a bit of an outsider, in the most wonderful way.


It’s at once about the Korean-American experience, the mother-daughter relationship, alienation and skepticism of men, blurring the lines between fiction, memoir, spoken word and poetry. The combination makes for a fascinating look at the journey from girlhood to womanhood, told through an intoxicating experiment in narrative structure.


“When you have artistic inclinations, you’re going to be an outsider,” Kwon says. “Feeling marginalized, wanting to belong, is part and parcel of what it means to be creative.”


Shifting between poems and stories, it’s sometimes hard to pin down who is really Kwon in this work. How much of this is Kwon’s imagination and how much of it is really her? As she explains, part of this effect is because she wrote the book (without intending it to be a book) over a period of 10 years or so. 


“I was writing about things I was trying to process, so it’s very autobiographical, while at the same time I’m letting characters become their own people,” Kwon says.


The recurrent themes become clear rather quickly: Kwon’s stories are about the women in her life, particularly her mother and grandmother. 


In “The Wake,” we’re introduced to Sara, whose halmeoni, or grandmother, is blind and living in a care home. Sara is soon confronted with death and her mother’s grief. What also strikes readers is the near absence of men in the story. We experience generations of women supporting one another as they face the hard reality of their own mortality.


“We’re from a family of women,” Kwon says. “Until one of my cousins had a son, it was always us girls. I just strongly identified with the female authority figures in my life.”


Kwon’s dad passed away when she was 17 years old, and she didn’t know either of her grandfathers. This absence of men shows up frequently in The Sum of Breathing, often as Kwon’s pining to know them. Take, for instance, the poem “Smile,” a meditation on a photograph in which her father had coaxed her into smiling. 


The Sum of Breathing 


The stranger who took the photograph saw “a father who loved his daughter so much that the point was less to smile than to simply testify we had spent one day together; a Sunday we mistook for countless among many, rather than rare among few,” Kwon writes.


Because the book was written in pieces over 10 years, Kwon says organizing the book made her realize that at the very heart of her work is her mother. “I have a piece called ‘Flight’ and there’s a line in there that says she’s the background rhythm to the words. That was really the case with putting the book together.”


In “Mul,” we’re introduced to Kwon’s admiration of her mother’s beauty and presence in the world. She’s so in awe of her mother that she takes up her mother’s love of ballet in an effort to gain some of her stature. 


“My mother was beautiful in a way I wasn’t,” Kwon writes. “In the pictures of her when she was in high school, her figure defies the wool of her school uniform, her stance a dead giveaway to the hours she spent dancing.”


Kwon says she wasn’t sure how her mom would react to the book, especially since so much of it is centered around her.


“She had come to my opening, and she called me that Monday to say she stayed up to 2 in the morning reading the book,” Kwon says. “She said, ‘I didn’t know you were paying that much attention to me,’ that I’d been watching her her whole life.”


Kwon says her book also invoked a painful discussion with her mom. “She told me it made her sad because it made her feel like she should have paid more attention to me,” Kwon says. “That was such a hard thing for me to hear. Anytime you’re close to someone, it’s not an easy relationship. There were times when I wish my mother had understood me more. She read the book and she walked away understanding, I think, for the first time what I’d been trying to tell her: We want our mother’s approval. We really do.”


As a Korean-American, Kwon’s work is also about cultural identification and the separateness she feels toward her ancestral land. Kwon took her first trip to Korea in 2001 and, four years later, received a Fulbright to teach at a Korean university. She learned quickly, she says, that she was an outsider.


“It was difficult for me, because I’m a woman and Koreans have very specific ideas about hierarchy and women. I sometimes offended people by the way I would walk or I didn’t have the right body language,” Kwon says. “It didn’t matter that I had Korean blood or that I knew stories about my grandfather fighting for independence.”


Organizing the pieces in The Sum of Breathing into a cohesive narrative presented its own challenge. Over and over again, Kwon says she was challenged by Bamboo Ridge editors Eric Chock and Darrell Lum to reorganize the book.


“Initially, I grouped it together according to genre. There was a spoken-word section, there was poetry, memoir, short stories, and they said, ‘No, we don’t like it. Try again,’” Kwon says. “Eventually I realized there’s such a thing as being close to your own work. They saw themes that were coming out that I didn’t realize were there.”


In the end, Kwon says she realized that The Sum of Breathing is a narrative about her own evolution. Eventually, her yoga training helped her create the book.


“It became very yogic, like a journey through the chakras. To me, it was about this movement of starting from the beginning, where you have this need for nurturing, to becoming your own person, and then what it means to go out and nurture,” Kwon says. 


What Will Brenda Kwon Read This Summer?

My Struggle, Book 3

By Karl Ove Knausgaard


The Grandmothers

By Doris Lessing


Birds of Paradise Lost

By Andrew Lam


Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

By Jill Leovy



Local Book Picks

Cherished Elders of Hula

By Ishmael Stagner II 

Nā Hulu Kūpuna O Hula is the last scholarly work of revered po‘e hula (keeper of the hula tradition) Ishmael Stagner. The son of a kumu hula, Stagner’s life work was spent learning from kūpuna, and, presented here as Cherished Elders of Hula, are his personal insights into Hawai‘i’s dance and chants. Stagner’s work reminds us that hula is a sacred art form, often passed from one generation to the next in selective bits. Both practitioners and hula lovers alike will find something here: insightful reflections, along with some 30 pages of photos of Stagner’s family and hula connections. Mutual Publishing, March 2015, 96 pages


A Pocket Guide to Nature on O‘ahu

By Michael Walther

With all the development and urban sprawl, it’s easy to forget that O‘ahu is home to some of the world’s most spectacular natural beauty. In Michael Walther’s new guidebook, you’re treated to dozens of photographs of the Gathering Place’s wildlife and plants, along with maps showing where to find these stunning creatures. From Hanauma Bay to Makapu‘u, Ka‘ena Point to Kapi‘olani Park, Walther’s guide will convince even the homiest of homebodies to get out and enjoy the view. Mutual Publishing, April 2015, 160 pages


Hawai‘i’s Scenic Roads: Paving the Way for Tourism in the Islands 

by Dawn Duensing

From the roads of foreign settlers meant to spur economic growth (think: sugar cane), to the scenic roads that used our islands’ beauty to drive the economy, Dawn Duensing takes a wide-lens look at the politics and social dynamics surrounding our highways and byways. Roads, Duensing argues, were a primary factor in redefining the Territory of Hawai‘i as a state (leaders argued that our federal highway funding confirmed we were an “integral part of the Union”). Hawai‘i’s Scenic Roads includes the stories surrounding some of our most loved drives, such as Pali Highway, Haleakalā Highway and Hāna Belt Road. UH Press, March 2015, 328 pages


The Blind Writer: Stories and a Novella

By Sameer Pandya 

UH Press is primarily a publisher of scholarly works, so we were excited to see literary fiction included in this year’s offerings. In this collection of short stories by  India-born author and University of California, Santa Barbara professor Sameer Pandya, we experience the lives of first- and second-generation Indian-Americans living in California. The stories are anchored by a novella, The Blind Writer, which follows an emotional love triangle over a period of several months, culminating in a life-changing moment for all. UH Press, January 2015, 216 pages


The Confessions of a Number One Son: The Great Chinese American Novel

by Frank Chin 

Frank Chin, author of the play The Chickencoop Chinaman and The Year of the Dragon, penned a novel in the 1970s that went unpublished and was later presumed to be lost. UH Press has published this full-length work that continues the story of Chicken-coop’s main character Tam Lum. In Confessions, Lum has fled San Francisco’s Chinatown for the simple life of Maui, only to fall in love with Lily, a former nun, and befriend her father, a once-famous Hollywood actor. UH Press, March 2015, 280 pages


Līhu‘e: Root and Branch of a Hawai‘i Town

by Pat Griffin 

In this gorgeous hardcover, coffee-table volume on Līhu‘e town, Pat Griffin takes us on a trip, building by building, block by block, through the heart of Kaua‘i. Starting with kings and their men (Kaumuali‘i, the great ruler of Kaua‘i, who was subdued by Kamehameha the Great) to its plantation days (for 160 years, Līhu‘e sugar mill played a significant role in the town’s economy), Līhu‘e: Root and Branch of a Hawaiian Town is a meticulously researched look at one of the oldest hamlet-turned-town-turned-urban-centers in the Islands. Kaua‘i Historical Society (UH Press, distributor), January 2015, 322 pages


Bamboo Ridge 35th Anniversary Issue 

by multiple authors

It’s hard to believe that Bamboo Ridge is just 35 years old—we’re hard-pressed to imagine a time when Hawai‘i’s literary scene was without it. In this stunning issue featuring local favorites Wing Tek Lum, Juliet Kono, R. Zamora Linmark, Cathy Song and so many others, Bamboo Ridge says goodbye to its two founding editors, who are equally an institution in our literary scene: Eric Chock and Darrell Lum. Guest editors Lee Cataluna and Lisa Linn Kanae have put together this issue, and contributed some new work of their own. As far as we can tell, Bamboo Ridge’s future is bright. Bamboo Ridge Press, December 2014, 280 pages


A Nation Rising 

by multiple authors

In this volume of essays split into three parts—Life, Land and Sovereignty—contemporary readers are challenged to revisit key moments in the Hawaiian social movement that emerged in the 1970s. As much of a look back as it is a look forward, this volume is edited by the University of Hawai‘i’s Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘opua and Erin Kahunawaika‘ala Wright, along with The Hawai‘i Independent’s Ikaika Hussey. From the re-emergence of the Hawaiian language to resistance of the Akaka Bill, A Nation Rising is a call to action for Hawai‘i’s new generation. Duke University Press, September 2014, 416 pages


Why Smart Men Do the Same Dumb Things

by Rosalie Tatsuguchi

From the author of Why Smart People Do the Same Dumb Things comes a follow-up aimed at men and our penchant to repeat the same mistakes over and over again (though we’re curious why women don’t get a gender-specific version). Like its predecessor, this new volume uses psychology and Buddhist thought (Tatsuguchi is a veteran Hawai‘i psychologist) to create a road map to become a more mindful and happier you. We’re all for that. Watermark Publishing, May 2015, 144 pages


Language Contact in the Colonial Pacific: Maritime Polynesian Pidgin before Pidgin English

by Dr. Emanuel J. Drechsel

​How exactly did European explorers communicate with Native Hawaiians upon their initial arrival in the Islands? Most of us assume it was some sort of pidginlike English, but research from UH Mānoa professor Emanuel Drechsel reveals that it’s more likely that Europeans spoke some form of reduced Polynesian language called Maritime Polynesian Pidgin. It’s essentially a meld of Tahitian, Maori and Hawaiian, which are grammatically similar. Drechsel’s fascinating thesis turns a lot of our assumptions about Hawai‘i’s contact with the west upside down. Cambridge University Press, May 2014, 349 pages


A Common Virtue  

By James Hawkins

Honolulu resident James Hawkins draws on his experience as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War in his new novel A Common Virtue, which takes us into the jungle as sniper and reconnaissance expert Paul Jackson, sole survivor of a massacre at the hands of the Vietnamese foe. Like the Marines of today, many of these men are still kids (the character at the heart of this story is just 18), and, while it’s hard to see a story about the horrors of war as a coming-of-age novel, that’s exactly what we have here. A book with this caliber of vividness can only be written by someone who has been there.

Naval Institute Press, November 2014, 240 pages


Two Tyrants

By A.G. Roderick

Former political staffer in the state legislature and Honolulu City Council A.G. Roderick has written a new book that critiques our national two-party political system. Essentially arguing that, since both parties are cut from the same cloth of corruption and corporate influence, the American populace is left in a “crisis of creativity,” he says. With another Bush and Clinton likely to run for president in 2016, Roderick argues we’ve reached the point of an American monarchy, where surnames have become a political qualification. Two Tyrants is a call to action to take back our political system.


Photos: Odeelo Dayondon