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Season’s reading

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Books. We get ’em and they keep on coming. We try to take notice of books from Hawaii publishers or writers, or books that have local interest, but there are always a few that stand out from the pack. We’ve selected some here to share, in no particular order, as potential Christmas presents — they are some of the best books of the year.

"ANSHU: DARK SORROW," by Juliet S. Kono (Bamboo Ridge Press, $18)

"Anshu" comes from the Japanese hiragana characters for darkness and grief, and that’s a pretty apt description of this emotionally harrowing tale of a Hawaii plantation girl sequestered in Japan during the war. Although of Japanese ancestry, Himiko has the triple whammy of being unmarried, pregnant and Americanized. When Tokyo burns and nearby Hiroshima is blasted flat by the atomic bomb, she has to cope with the devastation, both physical and emotional.

Kono, a writing instructor at Leeward Community College, has crafted a vivid and powerful story, and has enough writing smarts to avoid larding the tale with self-conscious literary tricks. Just the regular literary memes do splendidly, such as her heroine’s unhealthy fascination with the cleansing — and cinematic — properties of runaway flames.


This is a beefed-up, sensible sequel to Preston’s previous 10-step process to learning ukulele played the "Hawaiian way," that is, not the strummy, vaudeville, 23-skidoo style. In addition to tips about playing in ensembles and chording, strumming and instrument-positioning informational graphics, the package has dozens of songs from around the world, including classical pieces, broken down for easier learning. The package also contains a CD with the songs arranged for two ukes, plus guitar and bass.

Music teachers tell us this is a terrific introductory package for those just learning uke, particularly when paired with Vol. 1. It is also wire-spiral bound, so it will lay flat or folded.

"AKULE," by Wayne Levin (Editions Limited, $39)

Akule are those tasty, big-eyed fish without much in the way of defense mechanisms, so they go for safety in numbers. When threatened, akule schools compact so much that they become seething underwater sculptures of whirling, silvery fish.

Photographer Wayne Levin isn’t a predator so much as a big-eyed observer, but the akule seem to have welcomed him. In the clear waters off Hawaii island’s Kona coast, particularly Kealakekua Bay, Levin dives among the writhing akule schools and captures images of startling beauty — pictures that go beyond simple compositions of light, shadow and texture. The amped-up herding instincts of akule, although present in most animal groups, make one wonder about inchoate philosophy, shared intelligence and mathematical constructs as much as the simple, dashing beauty of underwater life.

Levin shoots in black and white, using polarizing filters to strip out reflected light, creating a world that is boiled down to its visual essentials. Special shout-out also for Barbara Pope’s book design.

The market is full of gaudy, four-color picture-postcard books of Hawaii scenery, but none are as magical as this. It is full of wonder.

"LEGEND OF THE GOURD," by Caren Ke’ala Loebel-Fried (Kamahoi Press/Bishop Museum, $16.95)

As a writer, Loebel-Fried tends to be overshadowed by her extraordinary block-print illustrations. That’s not really fair, as Loebel-Fried’s storytelling abilities are first rate, and she has to uncanny ability to suggest much in just a few words. She is also helped along by Kaliko Beamer-Trapp’s Hawaiian translations. Loebel-Fried has won the American Folklore Society’s Aesop prize for Children’s Folklore and a Ka Palapala Po’okela from the Hawai’i Book Publishers Association.

"Gourd" might put more trophies on her mantle. The district of Kau, on the Big Island’s Kamaoa Plain, is reputed to house the "Children of the Gourd," so named after a legend of two lovelorn alii and a tragedy that passes between them. The story is told through the gourd itself, a symbol of the Hawaiian people’s connection to the land.

The story has resonance in Christian mythology as well. It’s gorgeously illustrated and handsomely designed. Not just for kids.

"THE VALUE OF HAWAII KNOWING THE PAST, SHAPING THE FUTURE," edited by Craig Howes and Jon Osorio (University of Hawaii Press, $19.99)

This is a deliberately provocative work designed to make one think not just about the future, but how the past shaped our present and defined our options. Hawaii is a fishbowl terrarium of social trends, and we’re a scale model of limited resources. Hawaii leads the nation in the same way canaries lead coal miners. As the disparity between rich and poor grows greater, as average families can no longer afford the basic necessities our grandparents took for granted, we wind up with homeless beach dwellers, an addict’s dependence on the financial teats of military and tourism, an environment that grows steadily smaller and more noxious, and fear and distrust of authority.

Is there a way to coexist without becoming like the cannibal mice in the psychology experiments? "Value" is a collection of varied essays by thinkers on widespread subjects and, as such, opens one’s mind to the need for situational awareness in all fields and beliefs. The ideas presented here tend to be ivory tower in nature, but at least they’re suggestions designed to spark vigorous, useful discussions — not something we actually get much of in the current political climate.

"LESTER HIGATA’S 20TH CENTURY," by Barbara Hamby (University of Iowa Press, $16)

"Lester Higata knew his life was about to end when he walked out on the lanai behind his house in Makiki and saw his long-dead father sitting in a lawn chair near the little greenhouse where Lester kept his orchids."

OK, you had us with that first sentence in this lovely collection of short stories. Thematically arranged around the life of a nisei veteran who married a haole, each tale providing a glimpse into Higata’s universe — and neighborhood — Hamby’s sense of character and motivation glitters like a jewel’s facets. Her sense of the changes Hawaii went through over the last half-dozen decades, and the way families and friends are interwoven within, is pretty amazing.

What’s more, unlike the turgid, self-pitying, self-important exposition you usually get from most "generational" literary works, Hamby’s style is light and bemused, even when dealing with horrors like mainland haole mothers-in-law. Or when a guy hides from his crazy ex-wife by becoming a cash-only carpenter on Iniki-slammed Kauai. Or even when the neighborhood mango trees are cut down to make way for a parking lot.

The author was previously known as a poet, and her unerring sense of wordplay is evident here, as is her delight in craftsmanship. This is the sort of literature that makes you glad writing was invented.

"WAIKIKI TIKI ART, HISTORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS," by Phillip S. Roberts (Bess Press, $22.95)

Don’t let the compact size fool you. This hugely enjoyable ride through our mutated cultural landscape, as defined by carved wooden tiki statues, probably has more cool dope per page than any other Hawaii book we can think of.

Tikis are the icons, the graven images of tiki culture, born of that sunset lounge experience of exotic music, flaming torches, grass walls, bizarre, fruity rum-based drinks and black velvet paintings of nubile maidens glowing in the dark. Watching over it all are the statues hewn from wood, eyes bulging, mouths grimacing — the kitschy kids of Hawaii’s sacred kii by way of Easter Island and Hollywood.

Kii are sacred; tiki are commercial props, and Phillips’ mania for recording the cultural grab bag of tiki production seems to know no bounds, ranging from enormous wooden pillars for architectural purposes to tiny reproductions. Henry Kapono, in a charming introduction, reveals that one of his first toys was a tiki key-chain dangler with glass eyes.

This is one of those instant nostalgia books that maniacally delves into a previously overlooked corner of pop mythology. It covers the era when Waikiki evolved from a beach with some hotels to a gloriously overcooked homage to romanticized South Pacific fantasies. And it’s already fading as Waikiki becomes more international and generic.

We like this book a lot.


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