18 Hawaii Books to Read This Summer
Our guide to new and notable books from local authors and publishers.
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.”
Honolulu-based author Tyler McMahon tells a story of surfing, drugs and corruption in El Salvador through the eyes of a Hawaii character.
Hawaii Pacific University English professor Tyler McMahon’s second novel, Kilometer 99, is slated for release this month from St. Martin’s Press. Drawing on his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador from 1999 to 2001, McMahon’s story follows a young Hawaii surfer and engineer after a huge earthquake shakes up her world. Originally from the D.C. suburbs, McMahon came to Hawaii six years ago to teach, write and surf. We talked with him about his upcoming book, teaching writing in Hawaii, and his take on the local literature scene.
Q: What was it about the town of La Libertad in El Salvador that made you want to write about it?
A: It was an incredible place. The contradictions were all over—it’s the kind of place where you see a guy riding a horse and carrying a cell phone, where people will rob you and say, “Thank you very much, you really helped me out.” By now it’s probably very developed and a lot of surfers probably go there because the waves are just so good, but, back then, it was this weird mix of surfers, fishermen, a few hotels, drug addicts and drug dealers.
Q: Your main character and narrator is Malia, a surfer and Honolulu native. What was Hawaii’s effect on your novel and how did Malia come about?
A: Literally, I had written a whole other novel … and it just wasn’t working. I was beating my head against the table and couldn’t quite get it to gel. Then Malia just stumbled in one day. She had all these things that made the story snap into focus—she had a unique perspective on surfing, on tourism, development and colonial issues. All of a sudden she gave the book a whole other dimension that I really liked. Hawaii is a place that’s been trafficked in by a lot of different writers, and I didn’t want to be part of that tradition, to a certain extent. But I just couldn’t get the story to work without her.
Q: What other aspects of Hawaii did you draw upon to create Malia?
A: Being from a place that has already seen what can happen when you get a really big ocean-related tourist infrastructure gives her an even more critical perspective on what Pelochucho (the story’s antagonist) is planning to do.
I notice a yearning to travel from my students, especially local students. I wanted to tap into that a little bit, that idea of, I just want to see the world. Also, her mother comes up in flashbacks in later parts of the story, and in some ways she’s a very harsh character. … But I was really interested in a character who thinks about her ancestry and has specific individuals in her ancestry who loom really large. … I was trying to capture some of the mixed feelings you can have about where you come from.
Q: You’ve been teaching in the English department at HPU for six years now. What’s it like teaching in Honolulu as opposed to, say, Boise State University?
A: The writers, the students, I just feel so lucky to teach the students that I do. They have such unique perspectives. I started my teaching career in Boise—it was a very different group of students. Sometimes I look at my syllabi and I still have these vestigial paragraphs about civility and tolerance for different points of view. I’ll be reading it on the first day of class and I’ll ask myself, “What am I doing?” These students are so much more tolerant of differences and are willing to discuss things that are foreign to their experience. They’ve taught me so much.
Q: Having been part of the local literature scene for a few years now, what are your thoughts on what local writers and publishers are producing?
A: It’s particularly fun to work with books from local authors and books from local presses in my classes. It’s nice to know that not everybody subscribes to the same kind of hierarchy that a lot of Mainland writers aspire to. … Here more than anywhere you realize that artists should aspire to create community and write things their peer group can admire and be influenced by. I really think Honolulu is ahead of the curve. The rest of the world will eventually look like what the publishing scene looks like here. … What we’re really missing is more bookstores.
Q: You’re taking over Hawaii Pacific Review from long-time editor Patrice Wilson. What’s in the future for that journal?
A: For a few decades it’s been a print annual. I’m taking it over with the mandate that it’s moving online. I didn’t want it to emulate a print journal, so we’re doing an ongoing, rolling submission and publication cycle. We’re doing something different, and writers are sometimes wary about giving their work to something unconventional like that. But we’re getting good feedback. We encourage people to submit!
What will Tyler McMahon read this summer?
Of Sea and Cloud
by Jon Keller
Naked Me: Stories
by Christian Winn
Forest of Fortune
by Jim Ruland
From Talking Story to Manuscript
Big Island writer Darien Gee guides would-be authors in writing their Hawaii memoirs.
Darien Gee understands putting pen to paper as much as anyone. After all, the Big Island best-selling author has seven books to her credit, including three written under the pseudonym Mia King.
After nearly 20 years teaching writing here and on the Mainland, Gee has distilled her advice in a new book from Watermark Publishing (disclosure: Watermark is a sister company within the aio group of companies that owns HONOLULU). Writing the Hawaii Memoir: Advice and Exercises to Help You Tell Your Story is exactly what the title claims. It includes nearly 30 writing exercises and practical tips, along with pithy words of encouragement from some of Hawaii’s best-known voices (Lee Cataluna, Craig Howes and Mark Panek, to name a few) to help aspiring writers make the leap from talking story to manuscript.
The Hawaii memoir—from Gov. Ben Cayetano’s ambitious tome to Olivia Breitha’s harrowing account of her exile to Kalaupapa—is as much a part of local culture as Portuguese sweet bread and tutu’s Hawaiian quilt. Unlike baking or quilting, though, writing has a special way of intimidating would-be storytellers.
“There are a lot of expectations about what good writing looks like, and that can throw people off,” Gee says. “We’re not looking for Pulitzer Prize-winning prose here. We’re just looking for real, authentic stories.”
For the uninitiated writer, Gee’s book works as a roadmap to getting memories on paper and then organizing those thoughts into a story. And while plenty of books on writing can be found at Barnes & Noble, none address the particular challenges involved in local writing.
“We have so much Asian culture in the Islands that there is a lot of You’re embarrassing the family or That’s a secret. What I’ve come to discover is that no one benefits from keeping our story secret,” she says.
In the book’s forward, Pamela Young, co-author of My Name is Makia: A Memoir, recounts how so much of her family’s immigrant past has been lost by the all-too-familiar We don’t talk about that mentality.
She recalls discovering a photograph of a hopeful, young version of her grandfather who was very different from the fatigued, hardened man in the portrait she grew up seeing. What happened to him during the years in between?
“I will never know, because Gung Gung (Grandfather) Young was not to be mentioned. That’s the way it was back then. Families were so focused on the future they often refused to look back, especially on the darker side of personal history,” she writes.
Straddling the line between talking stink and writing what’s true can trip up local writers, too. In fact, Gee spends a section talking specifically about this issue.
So what happens once you’ve gone through the process of writing down your story?
Most of us aren’t looking to become the next Joan Didion or David Sedaris. We just want something to share with family, a few friends and maybe the generation to come. In that case, several inexpensive options exist. With the wonders of print-on-demand publishing, “you can literally have a book in a week,” Gee says.
Ultimately, though, this book is about getting people on the path of writing, especially those of us who aren’t looking for huge commercial success and just want to preserve our unique Hawaii experience for posterity.
“Most writers will say, always write for yourself first. It keeps it real and true.”
What’s her big piece of advice? “Don’t edit, don’t judge. Just get it down. Once you get it all down, you can decide what to keep and what to get rid of. Until then, just write and tell the story as honestly and as fully as you can.”
The Bento Box Memoir
Here’s one of Darien Gee’s favorite writing exercises from Writing the Hawaii Memoir.
First, decide on how many compartments—or memories—your bento box will have (minimum three, maximum six). Second, choose a period of time or a theme. A period of time could be a single day, such as a birthday or wedding, while a theme focuses on an overall thought or feeling. Divide a piece of paper into the number of compartments you’ve chosen. Now fill each compartment. Don’t overthink it.
Jot a few notes for each compartment. After letting it sit, go back and circle a keyword or phrase in each section. Use the memories to start writing.
Example: Theme — Arts & Crafts
Girl Scout Cookies
#2: Craft Room
#4: Self Portrait
Self-Publishing, Local Style
Here are a few local options for self-publishing your Hawaii memoir.
Belknap Publishing & Design, Independent Resources, belknappublishing.com
Mutual Publishing, under its Scripta imprint, mutualpublishing.com
Watermark Publishing, under its Legacy Isle Publishing imprint, legacyislepublishing.net
Local Book Picks
by Kaui Hart Hemmings
No telling whether George Clooney will make an appearance in the movie version of acclaimed local author Kaui Hart Hemmings’ second novel, but fans may find comfort in some familiar territory. (For the uninitiated: Think loss and grief.) Set in a ski town in Colorado, Hemmings’ new work follows Sarah St. John after her 22-year-old son is killed in an avalanche. Overcome with grief and confronted with new revelations, the single mother sets out to find answers about a son who can no longer speak for himself. Simon and Schuster, May 2014. Hardcover, 288 pages
Hawaii: A Novel
by Mark Panek
The state’s long-time U.S. senator is dead, leaving the state’s Democratic party fighting to fill some big shoes. Sound familiar? A gambling-addicted state legislator joins forces with a few unlikely (and shady) allies as he attempts to take on the party’s favorite to ascend to power. Mark Panek’s book is not to be confused with the James Michener tome by the same name. Panek’s depiction of Hawaii is like none Michener could imagine: wide economic disparity, a community ravaged by crystal meth and a prison system overpopulated by Hawaii’s native people. Loihi Press, April 2013. Paperback, 568 pages
Local Story: The Massie-Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History
by John P. Rosa
Historian John P. Rosa takes on the infamous Massie-Kahahawai case and how it came to symbolize the long-standing racial divisions in Hawaii. Two of the five young boys accused of raping Thalia Massie turn up dead, with overwhelming evidence linking members of Massie’s family and two Navy men to the crimes. When their lesser conviction is commuted, it contributes to a larger cultural dynamic forming between Asian/Native Hawaiian locals and the white elite. UH Press, April 2014. Paperback, 184 pages
Sovereign Sugar: Industry and Environment in Hawaii
by Carol A. MacLennan
Leeward YMCA, built around the old smokestack of the Oahu Sugar Co. in Waipahu, may be one of the few vestiges of Hawaii’s plantation past on Oahu, but the societal implications live on. Anthropologist Carol A. MacLennan, in Sovereign Sugar, examines how the sugar industry transformed Hawaii, standing in direct conflict with Native Hawaiian ideas about property relations and ownership. UH Press, March 2014. Hardcover, 400 pages
Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA
by Robert Ji-Song Ku
Does a 7-Eleven Spam musubi qualify as Asian enough? How about a chicken teriyaki bowl from Panda Express? Robert Ji-Song Ku delves into the extent that “dubious” Asian dishes are kindred spirits with Asians in the U.S., in that their counterparts across the ocean view them as lacking a certain authenticity. Academics and foodies alike will find something to chew on. Though largely a hardcover academic title, UH Press will release a paperback version for wider distribution this summer. UH Press, 2014. Paperback, 320 pages
Secrets of Diamond Head
by Denby Fawcett
Denby Fawcett may have retired from local television news, but she’s no less hard at work, continuing to report for Civil Beat and this publication and authoring more books. Fawcett’s latest is part history, part hiker’s guide to one of Honolulu’s most recognizable landmarks. This slim volume is comprehensive in its scope, including the history of ancient temples built by Native Hawaiians on Diamond Head’s slope, the crater’s use by the U.S. military and even a potential commercial future. UH Press (distributor), May 2014. Paperback, 112 pages
Beyond Green Tea and Grapefruit
by Gail N. Harada
The versatility of writer Gail Harada is on display in this latest single-author offering from Bamboo Ridge. Beyond Green Tea and Grapefruit toggles between stories, poems and memoir, and includes subject matter such as taking care of an aging parent and her own breast cancer. The collection also includes a nonfiction piece about her father’s role in the Japanese American 442nd Regiment in World War II and the rescue of the Lost Battalion. Bamboo Ridge, October 2013. Paperback, 160 pages
The Hawaiian Survival Handbook
by Brother Noland
Wandered down the wrong trail while hiking Maunawili? No worries. Acclaimed Hawaiian musician Brother Noland’s new book covers any number of potential nature mishaps a would-be explorer of the aina may encounter (he moonlights as a tracker, after all). The guide includes such topics as, How to Avoid a Wild Pig Attack, How to Wayfind in the Forest, How to Use Native Plants and How to Use the Moon. You know, just in case. Watermark Publishing, July 2014. Hardcover, 152 pages
The Nanjing Massacre: Poems
by Wing Tek Lum
Though technically a 2013 release, Wing Tek Lum’s collection of poems is worth a mention. The brutal Japanese occupation of Nanjing, China, in 1937, is the backdrop for this volume. Drawing from written accounts, photographs and more, Lum composes glimpses into a devastating part of history that some would prefer to sweep under the rug. In the way only poetry allows, the children, mothers and soldiers of war speak to us from beyond the grave, if we’re willing to listen. (For more with Wing Tek Lum, see page 30.) Bamboo Ridge, March 2013. Paperback, 240 pages
The Hawaii Bathroom Book
by John Richard Stephens
Once you get past the title, John Richard Stephens’ book is a veritable treasure trove of Hawaii factoids and anecdotes. The bite-size histories are perfect for waiting for TheBus, or tanning on the beach and, yes, the lua. The compendium includes the origins of Aloha Friday; a history of the Mai Tai, along with a recipe made famous by the Royal Hawaiian Hotel; and how, in 1935, the U.S. Speaker of the House Joe Byrnes stopped a hula dance in the House Office Building because he deemed it inappropriate. Mutual Publishing, April 2014. Paperback, 356 pages
Surfing Places, Surfboard Makers
by Andrew Warren and Chris Gibson
A pair of Australian human geographers takes a close look at the art and industry of surfing and how it evolved from the exclusive sport of the alii to a growing billion-dollar industry. “This is a book about surfboards,” the introduction reads. But, in fact, it’s more than that. Readers will get a comprehensive overview of the history of the surfboard—from the wood boards of ancient Hawaiians to modern fiberglass and resin version. Through stories about board makers, the heritage of board-making is revealed. UH Press, March 2014. Paperback, 304 pages
The Value of Hawaii 2
by Aiko Yamashiro and Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua
Expanding on the conversation started by its predecessor, The Value of Hawaii 2: Ancestral Roots and Oceanic Visions is a collection of new essays on the issues facing our Island home. New voices grapple with such issues as water rights, gender politics, archaeology, education and community health in an attempt to share a vision for paradise. Change is coming—it always is. Contributors to this volume urge readers to decide what that change should look like. (Read more in our April issue.) UH Press, April 2014. Paperback, 320 pages
Io Lani: The Hawaiian Hawk
Photographs by William S. Chillingworth, with John L. Culliney and Nathan Napoka
Featuring 50 color photographs by Big Island bird-watcher William Chillingworth, Io Lani offers a unique glimpse at the threatened Hawaiian hawk, once a symbol for Hawaiian royalty (think Iolani Palace). Though once found on several islands, including Oahu, today, the bird is only found on Hawaii Island. Chillingworth’s photography is accompanied by two scholarly essays to tell the story of a creature clinging to life. UH Press (distributor), April 2014. Paperback, 80 pages
A Pocket Guide to Hawaii’s Wildlife
by H. Douglas Pratt
Hawaii’s unique and fragile ecosystem is filled with more than 140 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. On a string of islands in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaii’s native wildlife is limited to the select species that were able to fly and swim thousands of miles to make paradise their home. As Polynesians arrived on our shores, the Islands’ list of wildlife grew. Readers will find a checklist of Hawaii’s animals, along with full-color photos of our beautiful and unique creatures. Mutual Publishing, April 2014. Paperback, 160 pages
Ewa Which Way
by Tyler Miranda
This local coming-of-age novel has been the talk of Hawaii literary circles since its release last spring, making it a worthy addition to our roundup. Craig Howes, co-producer of Aloha Shorts, says Miranda’s story joins the local canon alongside works from Chris McKinney, R. Zimora Linmark and Lois-Ann Yamanaka. Set around the time of Hurricane Iwa, the novel follows two brothers as their family experiences an economic crisis. Domestic violence and the pain of growing up too soon loom large. Bamboo Ridge Press, April 2013. Paperback, 304 pages
On Lisa Linn Kanae’s Summer List
Local Story: The Massie- Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History
by John P. Rosa
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Saw her TED Talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ and I was intrigued by her message, especially since I teach literature.”
by Jhumpa Lahiri
“She has to be one of my favorite writers.”
On Kaui Hart Hemmings’ Summer List
by Maggie Shipstead
“Since I liked her first novel.”
by Julia Fierro
“I love reading debut fiction. … Cutting Teeth seems perfect for summer.”
“I’ll be reading young-adult novels since that’s what I’m working on.”
On Lee Cataluna’s Summer List
An Abundance of Katherines and Looking for Alaska
by John Green
“I try to keep up with what the students are reading. … Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars was terrific.”
An Invisible Sign of My Own
by Aimee Bender
“She’s like a rock-star author. At the LA Times book fair, people were lined up around the block to get into the theater where she was speaking.”
Candle in Her Room
by Ruth Arthur
“This is the book that scared the heck out of all the girls of my generation. I remember being so terrified while reading it that I couldn’t sleep. Still, I couldn’t put it down.”
On Mark Panek’s Summer List
The Red-headed Hawaiian
by Chris McKinney and Rudy Puana
“I’ve read The Red-headed Hawaiian in draft form and thought it would wind up being the most important book Chris McKinney ever writes.”
by Robert Barclay
“I expect to use it in a class I’m teaching this fall.”
The Value of Hawaii 2
edited by Aiko
Yamashiro and Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua.
Looking for more books to read? Find out what the HONOLULU Magazine staff is reading this summer.