7 Local Hawai‘i Books to Solve Your Gift-Giving Gap This Holiday

Not only do these deliver the goods, they’re just what you need to get people to put down their screens and steer conversation away from all the ugly sweaters: provocative and informative local stories that shake up the routine and maybe spark a few dinner table discussions (that aren’t about politics or football).
christmas gifts
Video: David Croxford & Katie Kenny


Yes, here’s a subtle way to interrupt the televised boredom (and other perils of the holidays) with these books from local authors, presses or notable contributors on Hawai‘i. Learn how history prepped our local cuisine, check out a Japanese American detective story set in 1953, enjoy an illustrated compendium of plants used by Hawaiians. Shiver to the chicken-skin poetry of a Filipino’s hard-knock life. Also on tap: a stunning back-to-Vietnam story that upends Miss Saigon; an Island origin story told by nature’s actors; and a rousing naval tale of tall ships, the first missionaries and Queen Ka‘ahumanu.


Food for Foodie Thought

hawaii cuisine book
Photos: David Croxford


Fine cuisine in Hawai‘i? Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, doyenne of the regional food movement in the U.S., once put it this way: “Eating in Hawai‘i is like having airline food three times a day.” Today, of course, she sings a different tune—as did HONOLULU’s own John Heckathorn, who wrote a memorable 1991 pan of two early avatars of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, Avalon and Hali‘imaile General Store. Now the late editor is remembered as one of our local food champions.


Along with dozens of others, Heckathorn was interviewed by author Samuel Hideo Yamashita during the six years he spent researching Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine: The Food Movement that Changed the Way Hawai‘i Eats. The Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History at Pomona College, Yamashita hails from Kailua and evidently used his sabbaticals and vacations home well. His opening chapter on Hawai‘i’s blended culture goes much deeper than food—as only befits a history professor—and sets the table for an entertaining, well-organized appreciation filled with personal anecdotes.


But for every imaginary bite you might take while reading this essential book, Yamashita seasons our perspective with his bracing account of how invasion and colonialism decimated the Pacific Rim—preparing the ground, so to speak. It’s this undercurrent that made the regional cuisine movement more than just about locally sourced greens and tableside bottles of chili pepper water at fancy restaurants. We’re eating our history, and savoring a little social justice at the same time.   


Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine: The Food Movement that Changed the Way Hawai‘i Eats, by Samuel Hideo Yamashita. University of Hawai‘i Press. uhpress.hawaii.edu


Homicide in Honolulu



Trauma takes its time—and its psychological effects arrive on their own schedule. Scott Kikkawa’s breakthrough detective noir, Kona Winds, shows us how trauma works its way through a society as well as an individual.


Kikkawa’s subject is murder, circa 1953, but deep inside his period fashion and diction is the repressed agony of Honolulu Detective Francis “Sheik” Yoshikawa, a typically tight-lipped survivor of World War II combat. PTSD has been a peg that lesser writers and Hollywood hacks have used as a convenient character explanation. Kikkawa has more ambitious goals; in dissecting the long-term effects such repression has had in Hawai‘i, he delivers a moody and violent meditation on “the deal” that supposedly traded Japanese American sacrifice and internment for a piece of the Prosperous ’50s.


Yes, it’s a murder mystery. Yes, it has a lovely woman’s body found floating in the harbor, a diamond bracelet, lowlifes and union toughs, a couple of decadent descendants of a wealthy white plantation family, and a plot that ties old and new political establishments together. But what drives the story and its tarnished knight, Sheik, is the private inferno of his trauma and his outrage at a society that has put his and other men’s sacrifices aside in pursuit of money, sex and power.  


If this doesn’t sound much different from today, well, that’s our Hawai‘i. Although aligned with the best works of Chris McKinney and Mark Panek, there’s nothing like Kona Winds in local literature. It raises hopes to hear that Kikkawa, a real-life federal law enforcement officer, is working on three sequels. We’ve been needing someone to go down the mean streets of our Island history.


The book is hotter than a two-dollar pistol. Go to the website and lay down your dimes.


Kona Winds, by Scott Kikkawa. Bamboo Ridge Press issue No. 116. bambooridge.com


How to Use a Hawaiian Plant

laau hawaii


First published in 1992, this handsome reprint of au Hawaii: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants is a celebration of the centenary of author Isabella Aiona Abbott, who taught ethnobiology at the University of Hawai‘i for many years. Looking at it with fresh eyes, it’s almost impossible not to jump ahead to chapters on medicine, canoe-building and personal adornment, but every chapter is fundamental to an understanding of how Hawai‘i evolved.


 Abbott’s mother taught Sunday school to Mary Kawena Pukui and held lifelong discussions with her about Hawaiian words and customs. The book benefits greatly from carefully annotated photos of plants, seeds, heiau and agricultural works, carvings and other objects. Attention is given to how plants were used in religious and hula practices; in fact, the entire text is an introduction to the spiritual and sustainable orientation of Hawaiian culture.


This is one to take into your backyard this holiday and start cataloging all you and the keiki can do right here at home.


 Lā‘au Hawai‘i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants, by Isabella Aiona Abbott. Bishop Museum Press. bishopmuseumpress.org  


Extra, Extra: Art Triumphs Over Life!

leaving our shadows behind us


“It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there,” a man once wrote to his wife after describing a flower. Elmer Omar Bascos Pizo escaped death—barely, in a head-on collision of two buses in the Philippines—to find poetry in middle age. Shorn of his short-term memory, he was advised to write down his recollections. Poetry flowered.


But work didn’t. A child of a poor farmer family with a university degree in agriculture, Pizo had just returned from a hellish two years in Saudi Arabia. There, along with a job managing greenhouses, he ended up like thousands who sign labor contracts only to find themselves virtual prisoners, passports confiscated, wages nonexistent. He protested, and led protests, and was rewarded by jail and whippings while tied to a post. The accident occurred on his homeward journey, like an Odysseus interrupted.


Moving to Hawai‘i, he found work gutting chickens, among other hard-time occupations we associate with news, not poetry. He was working as a handyman at the home of the late Marie Hara, one of Hawai‘i’s most celebrated literary cultivators, when she saw him writing on his break. She asked what, he replied, and Leaving Our Shadows Behind Us is the result.


Pizo is the rare poet writing news as well as poetry. It’s an important book about the Philippines, domestic violence, the remittance diaspora, labor abuse and human connections in extremity. Most of all, it is an unflinching portrait of working-class life at the desperate edges of survival. Pizo doesn’t flinch; reading some of these poems put me in mind of Charles Bukowski more than Philip Levine, America’s factory poet. But the skill and the pacing of his book keeps you reading. It’s as artful and entrancing as a good short story, thanks to editing by Christy Passion and Juliet S. Kono, two established writers connected with Bamboo Ridge, which was Hara’s literary home when not teaching at the University of Hawai‘i.  


It’s sobering to think what we might have lost had Hara not asked a simple question. We certainly wouldn’t have Pizo’s powerful book. It’s comforting to think Hara left this world last August knowing it was going to see the light.


Leaving Our Shadows Behind Us, by Elmer Omar Bascos Pizo. Bamboo Ridge Press issue No. 114. bambooridge.com


How to Look at Hawai‘i (And Why It Looks This Way)

wind waves wing


Seeing Wind, Wings and Waves: A Hawai‘i Nature Guide, you may think, What? Another guide? Who needs it?


Well, I think you do, dear reader. Author Rick Soehren uses the vectors of propagation of life—wind, wings, waves—to build an entrancing portrait of how life came to be on our Islands and where it is now. Told conversationally, but laced with memorable details and observations, scientifically astute (and deftly rigorous), this story flies like, well, the wind. There are examples that leap out on every page, such as Soehren’s nugget about the relatively recent formation of Diamond Head and Koko Head during what are called rejuvenation eruptions, which occur long after the huge island-building ones. If you think Pele is done with O‘ahu, better think again:


“Once rejuvenation eruptions begin, an island can experience them for over two million years, with long breaks in between. O‘ahu may still be within this stage. The locations … are also unpredictable; they usually don’t happen at a caldera or the site of any previous volcanic activity.” Hollywood screenwriters, take note.


Author of The Birdwatcher’s Guide to Hawai‘i, Soehren is a consulting zoologist who has worked in California and the Islands on conservation, environmental restoration and interpretive natural sciences. He ends each chapter with a chipper Field Trip! section that gets us out of the chair and exploring our Islands with a rejuvenated eye and a checklist of what to look for. It’s a perfect excuse to get out into nature during the holidays.      


Wind, Wings and Waves: A Hawai‘i Nature Guide, by Rick Soehren. A Latitude 20 Book, University of Hawai‘i Press. uhpress.hawaii.edu


Not Just Another Back-to-Vietnam Story

fire summer


Another kind of trauma informs Thuy Da Lam’s delicately told but wildly adventurous homecoming-to-Vietnam story, Fire Summer, set in 1991, shortly after the U.S. and Vietnam achieved “rapprochement,” as it was called—agreeing to pretend we hadn’t dropped two times the number of all the bombs dropped in World War II on them, that we hadn’t poisoned their forests and generations of children with Agent Orange.


Almost immediately, American vets began coming back to the country, many to chase the ghosts of who they were as young soldiers, to experience for themselves the bewildering forgiveness of the Vietnamese or to confront and perhaps expiate their own guilt, whether survivor’s or the other kind. But that’s not what this quiet stunner of a novel is about.  


Instead we have young Maia, a “boat people” refugee, as they were dubbed, callously, at the time, whose return is from Little Saigon, that hotbed of Army of the Republic of Viet Nam die-hardism in Orange County, California. She’s on a secret mission to deliver a message to the Resistance that her aging elders, vehement anti-communists all, still believe will topple the tyrants who drove the Americans (and, historically, the French, and the Chinese, and plenty of others) away. She’s also in search of what became of her mother, who years earlier forced baby Maia and her father onto the boat for women and children, taking the doomed boat of men herself.


We know Maia’s first mission is going nowhere, realistically, from an early scene set in a rain-sodden jungle camp of the handful of Resistance holdouts. (These guys make the marooned actors of Tropic Thunder look like Navy SEALs.) As for reuniting with her mother, I sort of expected a surreal, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moment, something to do with ghosts or reincarnation. But I was surprised.


Surprise is Da Lam’s default mode. Her writing counterpoints dead-on observation—“The former trails of sacrifice now attracted resettlement, local businesses, and international golf course development”—with deadpan dialogue: “Hurry!” says a former bar girl, Na, to Maia. “The dwarf is going to mediate with the dead.” And, yes, the dwarf does just that. As Maia proceeds, she attracts a kind of caravan of misfits and symbolic creatures, including the Hawai‘i-born son of an American vet who went AWOL.


There’s a true story Gabriel García Márquez told about how his first writing to be translated into English was dubbed Magical Realism by European and American critics who couldn’t imagine the things he wrote about were real. That seems like the case for Da Lam, too. We follow her story easily, it seems, piecing together clues, anticipating the next crisis only to find we guessed wrong. What we think is a dream becomes actual and sometimes actions take place in a dreamlike state with real consequences. Yet it all feels solidly grounded by her careful observations; she even footnotes certain references, songs, poems, observations (the book was her Ph.D. dissertation at UH Mānoa). The sentences are precise and calibrated for a second and third reading. There’s humor, and mind-blowingly absurd dialogues out of Samuel Beckett. The cast of characters part company and recur like strands of DNA.


At times there’s a vaudeville feel: When a troupe of security men set out to stop Maia, and actually throw her in jail, the bar girl, Na, helps distract them with karaoke. There’s also a kitten and a camel of consequence, neither of which I expected, yet accepted, like a Fellini film vision. More substantially, this deadpan novel expertly swirls together past and present; Stone Age villager and steely functionary of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; the dead and the undead; the grieving and unstuck-in-time Maia; and the seemingly feckless tourist, J.P. Boylan, who’s also on a secret quest to find his AWOL father.


It does not end as you think.  


Born in Qui Nhon, Da Lam teaches at Kapi‘olani Community College. After arriving in the U.S. at age 9, in 1981, she grew up in Philadelphia, which I like to think informs her witty, neck-snapping dialogue that could come from a Ben Hecht play, maybe The Philadelphia-to-Perfume-River Story. The rigor of her sentences and thought may come from her initial academic concentration—philosophy—but her choice of the writing life explains the smoky veils of narrative that lift and fall over her scenes like river mist. A true artist, she could be working in ceramics, or painting screens. But instead, she’s given us this novel—and its magic—while holding back on any easy resolution. Life is like that, too.


Fire Summer, by Thuy Da Lam. Red Hen Press, distributed by Ingram Publisher Services. redhen.org


A Rousing Sea Story Set in Hawai‘i

devil in paradise


Not every adventure story needs to take place in a galaxy far, far away. For those who like their pulse-raising reading to pack historical weight, there are classic novel series that take place at sea during the wars between France, Britain, Spain and the Dutch—aka the Heroic Age of Sail.


Although Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander used the Galapagos to fine effect, Hawai‘i fans of the seafaring series genre have long wondered when the Islands would get their due. Now comes James L. Haley, rounding the Horn into the Pacific with The Devil in Paradiseand a most ingenious plot and story it is, catching Hawai‘i at the fateful moment after Ka‘ahumanu’s rebellion helped to overthrow the kapu system and the arrival of the first company of missionaries fulfilling the request of a dying convert, Henry Obookiah (Ōpūkaha‘ia).


Although the book starts with Connecticut Yankee officer Bliven Putnam aboard his new ship, it boldly alternates the point of view with that of his wife Clarity, who forces herself on the First Company in order not to be separated from her husband. Before they depart, we see their corner of the Nutmeg State—a hotbed of religious zealots, poets and writers, famous educators, abolitionists and an entrepreneurial seafaring class that would roam the seven oceans and ransack them like so many Walmarts.


Reaching Hawai‘i, Bliven and Clarity find themselves in the middle of that chaotic time of epidemics, fallen gods and shifting allegiances, magnetic personalities (especially Ka‘ahu‘manu and Kalanimoku), the exploitative Singapore sandalwood trade and more. The sea battles at the heart of the genre involve slavers and privateers in the Caribbean, pirates in the Malacca Strait and, eventually, Island action—where the Olowalu Massacre plays a key role. 


A Texan and historian, Haley’s last book was 2015’s Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii (thoughtfully reviewed by Loren Moreno at HONOLULU). Lone Starsky he may be, Haley evidently knows his way around an archive, salting the meat of his story with savory details of Native Hawaiian society and political rivalries, the Company’s stumbling progress (and blatant hypocrisy) and the men and ships of the Age of Sail. He’s acute on the growing rift between the North and South that is splitting the service apart, even in 1820: You just know this series is going to end up in the Civil War. It’s also clear he sees parallels with our own times. 


But what elevates The Devil in Paradise is the equal time and storylines given to Clarity. One of the side pleasures of the seafaring novel is the genre trends progressive. Tyrants, slave-runners, sleazy privateers and brutal disciplinarians are hard to celebrate, but the great naval writers like Capt. Frederick Marryat, C.S. Forester and O’Brian were men of the Enlightenment. (Contrast this to American film about the Civil War and its aftermath, which has an awful record on that score, producing mostly Confederate apologetics, from Birth of a Nation right down to Clint Eastwood’s fake-newsy The Outlaw Josey Wales.)


Haley gives full voice to Hawaiians, Clarity and the First Company—the 20 hastily married Thurstons, Chamberlains, Binghams and more, plus Yale-educated Hawaiian converts Hopu, Kanui, Honoree and Tamoree (to achieve period flavor, Haley uses the spelling of the times and forgoes diacritical marks). The result is an adventure story of unusual historical detail and appeal to both—make that all—genders.


The Devil in Paradise, by James L. Haley. G.P. Putnam’s & Sons. penguin.com


Read more stories by Don Wallace