This is a transcription of Episode 40 — Hawaii.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Season Four Episode 40 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we are getting curious about Hawaii.
Melissa: I feel like everyone’s going to laugh at my associations with Hawaii. We haven’t been. But I have a very deep affection for Hawaii that started when I was about eight years old because we used to go to Florida. My family used to go to Florida on vacation in the winter. And we always stayed at the Polynesian Resort at Disney World and went to the luau.
[audio clip of voiceover narration: Lush vegetation, white sand beaches and the laid back spirit of the islands are the inspiration behind Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
Melissa: The flower dresses, the hula dancers, the music, the delicious food. And then, of course, there’s the Brady Bunch episode. [laughter] It’s actually three episodes with a three parter from 1972.
Melissa: Yeah. The dad, Mike, who’s an architect, gets a job in Hawaii, and the whole family goes. And I rewatched clips of it on YouTube to prepare to talk about it. It is so earnest and dorky that it kind of comes all the way around to charming. It starts out with, like, travelogue segments where they’re visiting Hawaiian landmarks and their Hawaiian tour guide is telling them Hawaii history. So they’re all looking very serious when they’re at Pearl Harbor. But then, of course, there’s the stuff I remember from a kid, the tarantula crawling into their bed and the tiki curse.
David: Yeah, the tiki curse was my primary take away from watching that as a kid.
Melissa: Also, did you remember that Vincent Price was in it?
Melissa: And there’s also a musical number with Don Ho. I mean, it’s amazing. I tried to find the complete episode so I could watch them again, but there’s only clips on YouTube.
David: One of the writers that I read, Sarah Vowell, talked about how her enchantment with Hawaii started with the 1987 movie North Shore.
[audio clip from the movie: Instead, he discovered the difference between conquering a wave and harnessing its soul. This is the North Shore.]
Melissa: Oh, wow. Sure.
David: I think it’s really funny how little weird cultural bits kind of get into your head.
Melissa: And they stick.
David: And they stick.
Melissa: Well, the other thing is the United States kind of went a little crazy with tiki culture in the middle of the 20th century, and I was like preteen at that time. So that’s just in there. Tiki drinks and tiki torches and tiki bars. We used to go to a tiki bar in San Francisco that is still there 100% over the top, you know, the drinks in the fish bowls.
David: And then there are artists like Shag who seem to make their entire profession based on the imagery of that time.
Melissa: And nostalgia for it. Shag is great. We’ll put some images in show notes.
David: So do we want to push past the the nostalgia we have for Hawaii and get to some get to some facts?
Melissa: Let’s do it. Hawaii is found almost exactly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And I know you say that or you hear that and you think you know what that means. But let me lay some numbers on you. If you go west from California, it’s about 2400 miles or 3800 kilometers until you hit Hawaii. And if you continue west from Hawaii in a straight line, it’s another 5280 miles, 8500 kilometers until you sail into the Philippines.
David: That’s a lot of water on either side.
Melissa: Indeed. I think most people are familiar with the main islands of Hawaii. The ones you would go to on vacation. They’re eight of them.
David: Yeah. Until we did research for the show, I didn’t know that there was anything other than the main islands.
Melissa: Right. Maui, Oahu, the big island of Hawaii, etc.
Melissa: Hawaii is actually 137 islands and most of them are uninhabited, but they make up something really important. It’s called the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site for two really awesome reasons. One, it’s a sacred site for native Hawaiian culture. And two, it’s home to more than 7000 species of animals, including hundreds that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.
David: So there are the main islands that we all know and love, and then there’s 130 other islands that are part of this national park. That’s really cool.
Melissa: Oh, it’s very cool. The map is amazing. I’ll put it in show notes. And the animals are the rarest goose in the world is called the Nene, only found in Hawaii.
David: It sounds like that goose would have a lot of attitude.
Melissa: 100%. The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle and the Hawaiian monk seal. In Hawaiian, the green sea turtle is called honu, and it’s revered. It’s name dropped in the Hawaiian creation chant. The monk seal, whose name I will now try to say in Hawaiian eelioholoeekaooahooah means dog running in the rough water. They are very blorpy and cute and I have photographic evidence that honu and eelioholoeekaooahooah are friends.
Melissa: Yes. That and the chant will be in show notes. Hawaii has two official languages, which is unusual for a state in the United States. They are Hawaiian and English, and many locals also speak Hawaiian pidgin. That’s multicultural slang that developed during the plantation era. If you visit Hawaii, please do not try to speak pidgin. This is 100% for locals only, although you will see signs on businesses in pidgin.
Melissa: If you hear the word Hawaiian used to describe someone, that means that they have Hawaiian blood in their veins. But people born in Hawaii are not necessarily Hawaiian. They’re called kama’aina, and white people born in Hawaii or not are sometimes called haole. There is some debate about whether or not that term is derogatory, but I’m sharing it now because it came up in all of the books I read.
Melissa: Which brings us to history. Just for context. Hawaiian history falls into three big buckets: the Polynesians who settled the islands, the era of colonization and missionaries, and Hawaii as a US state. And now we are going to fly through Hawaiian history at a ridiculous speed.
Melissa: The Hawaiian Islands were originally settled by Polynesians from the Marquesas and Tahiti, starting around the fourth century. These people were amazing. They paddled in double hulled canoes using the wind, and I can only assume what were massive shoulders, to travel 2600 miles to the Hawaiian Islands. That is 4200 kilometers for our European friends.
David: Over open seas.
Melissa: Open seas.
David: For a long time, people thought that was impossible until somebody did it.
Melissa: Thor Heyerdahl. Kon-tiki. In addition to being able to paddle themselves across an open ocean, they also had knowledge of weaving and woodworking and stone carving. They knew how to grow crops, so they settled the islands. And by the late 1700s, the population of Hawaii was somewhere between 800,000 and 1million people.
David: That’s a lot.
Melissa: It is. And then the Europeans showed up. British navigator Captain James Cook sailed into Waimea Bay in 1778 and to the Big Island in 1779. And that second time he stopped by. About 10,000 Hawaiians were at the time celebrating lono the god of peace. This will turn out to be very ironic.
David: Yeah. It’s really a sad story that they’re sitting there commemorating this god that they associate with peace. And then suddenly this ship appeared. And, of course, they drew the inference that a lot of people would that these are emissaries of peace sent from a higher plane.
Melissa: They were very excited. He stayed for two weeks and he was welcomed and celebrated the whole time. But then there were some misunderstandings.
Melissa: And Cook tried to kidnap the Hawaiian chief, and in a skirmish, Cook was stabbed and died. There’s a monument to him. It’s the only place in the Hawaiian Islands that are British soil. It’s like a little circle of Britain right there.
Melissa: Within a few decades, the Hawaiian King, King Kamehameha got it in his head that he should become the first king of all Hawaii. Until now, there had been kind of warring factions.
David: Right. So he’s going to unify Hawaii.
Melissa: Yes. Because he wanted to prepare for increased contact with outsiders. So he did that. He got everybody together, but it was mostly by force. He went island to island with his warriors. And then there was more contact with outsiders. And that’s had very significant results. Colonizers brought influenza and typhoid fever and measles. Missionaries brought Christianity, reading, writing and the notion of land ownership, which had a huge impact. There were new land laws that led to an agricultural boom. That led to plantations.
Melissa: The plantations need for workers led to immigration.
David: Unsurprisingly, Europeans did the same thing and lots of other places, including New Zealand, which we talked about in our New Zealand episode.
Melissa: So in the early 20th century, the Hawaiian population was enhanced with immigrants from Japan, China, and the Philippines, which has made Hawaii a really interesting melting pot. And we’re going to talk about some great food later because of it. We’re really fast forwarding.
In 1898, the US annexed Hawaii as a territory and on August 21st, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state.
Melissa: Which explains why across middle America, people were super excited about tiki drinks in the sixties. Speaking of tiki drinks, you might think that a luau is something that’s just done for tourists, but it’s actually a traditional feast that brings together family and friends and lots of food. Back in the day, a luau might celebrate a war victory or the launch of a new canoe.
Melissa: Today, it’s often a family party to commemorate a big life event or achievement. And I thought it would be fun if we, in our imaginations, celebrated being alive with a pretend luau.
Melissa: We’ll know it’s time for the party to start at sunset when we hear the deep sound of a conch shell being blown three times. We’ll drape flower lays around each other’s necks and make our way to the beach. As we get closer, we’ll hear the cry of a steel guitar and the strum of a ukulele mixing with the sound of the surf. Side note: The steel guitar was invented by a Hawaiian teenager named Joseph Kekuku in 1885.
David: His invention influenced all of slide guitar, so that went on to influence blues and rock. Every time you’ve heard a slide guitar, it started with a teenager in Hawaii.
Melissa: That is so cool. There’s a great documentary available online. I’ll put it in show notes for people who are curious about that. His last name is 28 letters long. I am not going to try to say it here, but that’s why he went by Kekuku. Before we feast, we’ll sip mai tais and play konane.
David: What’s konane?
Melissa: Konane is sort of like Hawaiian checkers and is played with pieces of white coral and black lava. In between rounds, we can nibble on delicious Hawaiian appetizers called pu pu.
David: Pu pu platter is one of your favorite things.
Melissa: It really is. We might eat things like boiled peanuts or Chinese barbequed pork, crispy eggrolls, fried shrimp.
David: That sounds delicious.
Melissa: While we’ve been relaxing, a whole pig has been cooking for 6 to 8 hours in the imu. The imu is the underground oven. It’s basically a pit of fire lined with stone and coconut palm fronds.
David: Is it spelled the same as the bird?
Melissa: It is not. It’s I-M-U. During the imu ceremony, the pig is unearthed from the pit, transferred to a platter and taken to the kitchen to be cut into manageable pieces. And then when it’s time to eat, the kalua pork is served on a big buffet. So imagine this table now, a big table. It’s covered with woven mats called lahuala. And it’s decorated with ferns and flowers and fruits. And arranged all over the table are bowls of other traditional dishes. So there’s lomi salmon, which is similar to ceviche. Or if you’ve ever had a poke bowl, you probably have some frame of reference for what that is. There will definitely be poi, which seems to be an acquired taste. It’s made from taro root that’s been cooked and mashed and fermented. I read a description of it that says, It’s purple and sticky and sweet and sour.
David: I wonder if it’s pickle-ish?
Melissa: Maybe yeasty. I’m having a hard time imagining the flavor. I think the only option is to go to Hawaii and try some.
David: I think so.
Melissa: There will also be white rice and steamed sweet potatoes. There might be chicken cooked in coconut milk and taro leaves. And for dessert, there will definitely be Hawaiian coconut pudding called haupia. And then after dinner, it’s time to dance. There’ll be fire twirling and hula dancing and we’ll wander off into the night to the sounds of a final Hawaiian chant.
David: That sounds really nice.
Melissa: One last tip for the luau. I was going to say, this is for the ladies, but I think it’s for everyone. If you wear a flower tucked above your left ear, the same side as your heart, that’s a sign that you have a significant other. If you wear it behind your right ear, that lets beautiful kane and wahine know you’re available.
David: That’s very nice. Are you ready for Two Truths and a l Lie?
Melissa: I will do my best.
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. The first one is about Hawaiian pizza.
Melissa: Mm hmm.
David: Hawaiian pizza is —
David: Delicious. People will disagree with you on that, but we’re fans. It is traditionally pineapple, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and then either ham or bacon. The statement is: Hawaiian pizza was invented in a dorm room at the Honolulu Community College. Statement Two: There is a weirdly gothic island in Hawaii. Some of the locals call it the Forbidden Island.
Melissa: I want to go there immediately, of course.
David: And then three: Do you remember the guy who recorded that very popular version of Somewhere ‘Over the Rainbow’ with the ukulele?
Melissa: I do.
David: His name was Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. I think. Locals just called him Brother Iz or just Iz.
Melissa: Very wise.
David: I’m going to go with Iz. The statement is: When Iz died, he lay in state in the Hawaiian state capital. Let’s do him an order. First one is Hawaiian pizza was invented in a dorm room at the Honolulu Community College.
Melissa: I’m going to say that one’s the lie.
David: That is the lie.
David: First of all, I wrote that lie and then went back and realized that there are no dorm rooms at the Honolulu Community College.
Melissa: That’s how I knew it was the lie.
David: But secondly, Hawaiian Pizza was invented in Canada.
Melissa: I figured it was invented somewhere not Hawaiian.
David: Yeah, it was invented in Canada by a Greek immigrant. This is slightly disputed, but most people agree that Hawaiian pizza was invented by one man, Sam Panopoulos. He was born in Greece in 1934. He immigrated to Canada with his brothers Elias and Nikitas in 1954.
Melissa: They have great names.
David: When he was 20. Yeah, they do. They opened a restaurant called The Satellite in Chatham, Ontario. If you go directly north from Cleveland, across Lake Erie, you’ll end up close to Chatham. The satellite had a broad menu. They had burgers and fries and omelets and waffles, but they also had American-Chinese food. And one day for fun, Sam said later, he put some pineapple on some pizza, and he created one of the most divisive tastes in popular cuisine.
Melissa: I don’t understand how it can be divisive. It’s sweet and salty. It’s savory. What more could you want?
David: I don’t know. He named it Hawaiian because that was the name on the can of pineapples he used.
Melissa: Adorable. [laughter]
David: Yeah. One writer pointed out that Hawaiian pizza was invented in Canada by a Greek immigrant inspired by Chinese cuisine to top an Italian entree with South American fruit.
Melissa: What could be more American than that? Except he’s Canadian.
David: Yeah. And it’s currently one of the most popular dishes in Australia.
Melissa: I love everything about that.
David: Sam Panopoulos died in 2017 at 83, but his pizza and the Satellite carry on.
Melissa: Now, I really want a Hawaiian pizza.
David: Yeah. Okay, second statement. There is a weirdly gothic island in Hawaii. Some locals call it the Forbidden Island.
Melissa: And I am delighted because that means that’s true.
David: It is true. So as many Gothic stories go, this one starts in the 19th century. In 1864, a woman by the name of Eliza Sinclair bought an island from King Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold.
David: Yeah. Every step of this is amazing. The island is called Ni‘ihau. On a clear day, you can see it from the west side of Kauai. The king said, You can have this island, but you have to protect the island and its residents from outside influences. And at the time, there were about a thousand people living on the island. The Sinclair family took that request seriously. Not much has changed on that island since 1864.
David: Ish. Let’s get into it. So there are no roads, no cars, no stores, no restaurants, there’s no internet, there’s no electricity, there’s no law enforcement, there’s no indoor plumbing.
Melissa: Okay, I retract my interjection of cool.
David: Although apparently you can get a cell signal from the beach sometimes. There are somewhere between 20 and 170 residents on the island right now. Depending on who you believe, those residents are subject to a bunch of rules that the descendants of Eliza Sinclair established: no booze, no guns, no smoking. Men have to have short hair. No beards. Everyone goes to church on Sunday.
David: Yeah. Breaking the rules can result in eviction from the island. And all of that is according to former residents. There is some dispute about how much of this is true. Some subset of it is true. Two old white guys run the place. Eliza Sinclair’s great-great-grandsons Keith and Bruce Robinson. They’re both over 78. They do not live on the island. They live in Kauai. To make this extra gothic, Bruce married one of the natives of the island, the priest’s daughter. She’s 30 years younger than he is. At least one of the natives hoped that once she got married, she’d be more beneficent. That has not proven to be the case. The island is not accessible to anybody without the permission of the Robinsons. It’s possible to get a tour, but they avoid the resident areas if you want to know more. There’s an episode of This American Life with a piece about the island. The section about the island is called ‘That’s Just How I Rule,’ and we’ll point to it.
David: So statement number three When brother is died, he was buried with state honors.
David: Yeah. But first we have to talk about that song. It’s 1988. It is 3:00 in the morning. A recording engineer in Hawaii is still at work. His name is Milan Bertoia. He’s had a long day, but he’s putting away all the cables. He’s literally wrapping things up and he gets a call. It’s a client of his and the client says, ‘Hey, listen, I don’t know what you’re doing right now, but can my friend come over and record with you?’ And the engineer says, ‘I would be happy to record him. Call me tomorrow.’ And the friend says, ‘No, no, no, no, no, wait, let me put him on.’ And he puts his on and Iz and Milan talk a little. Milan remembers him being really polite. And Milan finally says, ‘If you can get here in 15 minutes, we’ll do it.’ Fifteen minutes later, there’s a knock on the door. Milan opens it and he sees the biggest man he’s ever seen in his life.
Melissa: Yeah, he’s a big dude.
David: Yeah. Iz is six foot two, and at one point he weighed over 750 pounfs. He is a large man. If you’re metric, that’s 1.8 meters tall and 340 kilograms. So they talk a bit and then it goes into the recording studio and records a mash up of ‘Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World’ in one take.
Melissa: One take. That’s just showing off.
David: And then he leaves. And the next day nothing happened. And the day after that. Nope. Still nothing. That track sat on a shelf for five years.
Melissa: Wow. What was the urgency with recording it that night? Do you know?
David: I don’t know.
Melissa: Just had to bee in his bonnet.
David: Just had a bee in his bonnet. So now it’s 1993. Milan is working at a different studio when he hears is is putting out an album. He gets in touch with a producer and he says, ‘I have a track you have to hear.’ If you listen to that song, it’s not perfect. Iz seems to forget the words and the timing is a little loose. And he changes the melody, maybe intentionally, but that track captures a big man with a sweet voice singing about hope at 4:00 in the morning. ‘Over the Rainbow’ goes on to be the best selling Hawaiian song of all time. It’s featured in a dozen different TV shows and movies. It spends 185 weeks as number one on the Billboard World Songs chart. There is a version on YouTube that has over a billion views.
David: It’s important to take a second here to note that although that’s what most of us know Iz for that was not all he was. He was also a political activist. He wrote protest songs and he was loud about the displacement of native Hawaiians. He was happy to have the tourists, but he also wanted them to go home when they were done with their vacation.
David: Iz died in 1997, four years after his fame skyrocketed. He was 38. He had problems with his weight that finally caught up with him. One writer said, ‘He had the heart of a whale and it killed him.’ Two weeks later, the Hawaiian flag flew at half staff for his funeral. His casket lay at the state capitol building in Honolulu. At that time, he was only the third person to ever be honored that way. There have since been eight people total who have laid in state in Hawaii. Seven government officials and Iz. 10,000 people were said to have attended his funeral. Later, his ashes were spread out at sea. There’s a video of that event. It’s a party and a celebration and a memorial to the man who caught some of the spirit of Hawaii. And we’ll point to it. That’s Two Truths and a Lie.
David: So before we get to the book talk, we want to talk to you about a podcast we’ve been listening to and talking about.
Melissa: This is a really good one.
David: It’s called Vanishing Postcards. In each episode, the host, Evan Stern, takes us on a road trip of the US. This season we are riding along as he tours Route 66.
Melissa: Route 66 is so much fun. We have driven on Route 66. About 20 years ago when we moved from San Francisco to Austin, Texas.
David: 20 years ago?!
Melissa: Yeah, we drove on Route 66 with our two cats and all of our stuff. In a rented SUV.
Melissa: We got a speeding ticket leaving California.
David: We did.
Melissa: It was pretty epic. On Route 66, we got to sleep at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona.
David: Yeah, I distinctly remember the shape of that room and the cats trying to crawl under the bed. And then we went on to eat enormous steaks at The Big Texan in Amarillo.
Melissa: And I sang the song Route 66 nonstop the entire time.
Melissa: I got my kicks on Route 66.
David: It might start up again now. On Vanishing Postcards, Evan takes us down Route 66. We hear about the history. We visit a dance hall. And in Tulsa, I think it was. And by the end of the season, he is promised that we will arrive at the Santa Monica Pier.
Melissa: So romantic.
David: Yeah. And every episode has music and stories and interviews. It’s just fun.
Melissa: I found the show really funny and touching. It’s a great way to travel while you’re doing household chores like folding the laundry. Yes. Or going on your daily walk.
David: Yeah. If you’re listening to us for the virtual travel now you can go down Route 66 as well.
Melissa: Meet our buddy Evan. Yeah, the show is Vanishing Postcards, and it’s available wherever you like to listen to your podcasts.
David: Now, what was your first book?
Melissa: My first recommendation is Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport. This is a sweeping family saga that begins with a love affair between a rebellious Tahitian princess and a New England boy with a lust for adventure. That’s a promising start, right?
David: It is a promising start.
Melissa: And it ends in modern Hawaii.
Melissa: In between, it explores all of Hawaii’s real historical events through the experiences of one family and specifically, a grandmother named Pono and her granddaughters. We need to talk about Pono. She’s 84 years old. Yeah. She’s Hawaiian and stands six feet tall.
David: She’s like Iz.
Melissa: She has long, thick, gray hair that swirls around her like a shawl. She’s a kahuna, which means that she’s a seer, and she can turn herself into a shark.
Melissa: She carries a walking cane made from a human spine. And the rumor is that it’s from a lover who betrayed her.
David: Kind of want to get to know her.
Melissa: Yeah. That’s Pono, the grandmother. Once upon a time, she had four daughters. But Pono is, let’s say, emotionally difficult.
David: That’s not hard to imagine for the woman who carries the backbone of an ex-lover.
Melissa: One by one, she’s driven her daughters away, and over the years, each of them had daughters of their own. And for a bunch of circumstances, Pono’s granddaughters spend the summers at her rundown coffee plantation on the big island. Here’s how those summers are described in the book:
‘In those summers in that house, four young girls had slept like the dead, stroking through torched-sugar nights, dreaming through gauzy harems of the afternoons. Something lay its hand on them, they couldn’t stay awake. Later they would swear they slept for years, slept their way into womanhood in that strange, enchanted place. In other time zones, other latitudes, Jess would close her eyes and feel the moisture-laden trades. Wind searches its haunted rooms, turning pages of a book. A delicate slip laid across a koa chair breathes of itself. A letter trembles. Orchids sweep across the lānai. The life of each girl began before that house, but it so enveloped them, that was what they chose to remember as their beginning.’
Melissa: Very powerful experience for these four girls in this house together. When the story opens, it’s 1994. The four girls are now adults and scattered all over the world. They have very messy lives of their own and they have been summoned by Pono back to the family home. Very dramatic.
David: For unknown reasons?
Melissa: For unknown reasons. At this point, we get quick snapshots of each of them and then the story jumps back in time to 1834. And Pono’s great-grandmother, who is that runaway to Haitian princess. The story of her courtship is wildly romantic, and it sets the tone for everything that happens in the rest of the story. The women of this family are very fiery and complicated, and they live through challenging times because their roles as Hawaiians and also women are rapidly changing in the 20th century.
David: So this sounds like maybe a dark fairy tale that bleeds into modern day a little bit.
Melissa: Yes, there are strong fantasy and magical realism elements. There’s also a lot of real-life history. This family experiences everything that happens in the 19th and 20th centuries in Hawaii. So the colonialism and annexation that we talked about, the arrival of diseases, the rise of plantations. There’s a tsunami described very vividly and an earthquake and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Melissa: They go to a volcano eruption with a bottle of gin to give to Pele. One of the girls marries a yakuza gangster.
Melissa: Another one fights for Hawaiian Native rights. I mean, the story has everything.
David: So sprawling, multigenerational family saga with magical realism mixed in.
Melissa: And as you probably expect with a family saga, the themes of love and loyalty come up a lot. But specific to this story, the blurry lines between love and dependency and blind devotion and expectations of loyalty. A lot of chat about that. It also explores racism from the inside. All of the granddaughters in this story are of mixed heritage. So they’re Hawaiian, but they’re blended with Filipino, Chinese, Caucasian, and Japanese. No one outside the family ever lets them forget that — that they are not pure Hawaiian. But they remind each other too.
Melissa: They pick at each other. Who’s more Hawaiian? Who really belongs? What does it mean to be Hawaiian? What do they owe to the island? What do they owe to each other? These are the questions that they wrestle with and argue about, and eventually they learn why Pono has called them back to the plantation. And we get a little bit of an inkling of where all of these volatile women are going to go now that’s a mysteries have been revealed.
Melissa: As you might expect by now. This is not a breezy read. It’s a little over 500 pages. There are a few passages written and stream of consciousness.
Melissa: Some of the characters speak pidgin. There is a lot of passionate sex. Like, a lot.
Melissa: It’s used to tell you about the girl’s character and their relationships. But if that’s the thing for you, this is not the book for you.
Melissa: This is also not the book for you, if you like a tidy three act structure.
David: Okay. So sprawling.
Melissa: It sprawls. It meanders. You go to side stories. You go to back stories, flashbacks, the whole turning into a shark episodes. You just got to roll with it. So I will say that if you give yourself over to the way the author is letting this story unfold, it’s very seductive. And I feel like puts you in the mind of Hawaii. Lying out on the lanai and things kind of feeling dreamy and you can smell the coffee on the breeze. It’s also worth noting that the author is legit. Kiana Davenport’s mom is a full-blooded native Hawaiian. She can trace her ancestry back to the first Polynesian settlers from Tahiti.
Melissa: And her dad is Caucasian from Talladega, Alabama. Her parents met and fell in love when her dad was a Navy sailor stationed at Pearl Harbor. That is Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport.
David: My first book is Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell.
Melissa: Oh, I heard this book is really good.
David: Yeah. So Sarah Vowell is the kind of person I would like sitting next to me at the back of a high school class. She is funny, and she’s snarky, but she’s also taking notes. She’s a smart woman. There’s this bit in the book, she writes: One of my first homework assignments at college was to read Voltaire’s Candide. I love the book, and I especially love discussing the book in class. I had spent my high school years trying to hide just how pretentious I was. [laughter] So imagine my teenage glee at sitting in a fluorescent-lit room arguing about what Voltaire meant by ‘We must cultivate our garden.’ And maybe that tells you everything you need to know about Sarah Vowell. You might know her from her appearances on The Daily Show or Late Night. She was also a contributing editor to This American Life for 12 years. And she’s the voice of Violet in The Incredibles.
Melissa: I didn’t know that.
David: I didn’t either. She plays the shy, sarcastic daughter who can turn herself invisible.
David: Yeah, she’s written a few books. One of them is Assassination Vacation. In that book, she travels the U.S. researching the assassination of American presidents. There was a lavish audio book produced to that book. Conan O’Brien played Robert Todd Lincoln. Stephen King was in it as Abraham Lincoln and Jon Stewart as James Garfield. I just found out about that, and it’s all I can do to not start listening as we’re talking here. This book, though, is Unfamiliar Fishes. It’s about the US colonization of Hawaii and more generally about the time in US history when America annexed Hawaii and invaded Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.
Melissa: Wow. When you put it that way, it’s like just collecting tropical paradise.
David: And what a weird time in U.S. history when we just started acting like the British. [laughter] I realized that that topic may not sound super sexy, so I’m going to reframe it a little bit. The book starts in the time when Hawaii was ruled by the Polynesian natives that descended from the original settlers and ends when they willingly gave that up because of Christianity and capitalism and the US military. It is not a book that’s going to make you feel great about the United States in the 19th century, but it also doesn’t seem unbalanced.
David: Early in the book, Vowell tells us the story of her great grandfather coming from Sweden. And she writes, ‘Whenever I eat plate lunch, I always think back to the lore of my Swedish great-grandfather’s voyage across the Atlantic. Supposedly the only food he brought with him on the ship was a big hunk of cheese. And then he befriended a German in steerage whose only food was a big hunk of sausage. The Swede shared his cheese with the German, and the German shared his sausage with the Swede.’
David: Vowel is also Cherokee. She is a descendant of the Cherokees who were marched at gunpoint to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. And she writes, ‘Growing up, I came to know America as two places: a rapacious country built on the destruction of its original inhabitants, and a welcoming land of opportunity and generosity built by people who shared their sausage and their cheese.’
Melissa: That’s a really nice quote.
David: Yeah. And also there’s your problem, right? Both of those things are true. This book is about how both of those things are true for Hawaii. It is a welcoming land of opportunity and generosity. It is also built on the destruction of its original inhabitants. Vowell has really done her homework. She drops in stories that she unearthed by reading the diaries and speeches of the original missionaries and their wives. She is particularly sympathetic for the wives, some of whom were married to the missionaries weeks before they cast off to spend the rest of their lives in Hawaii. I can’t imagine that. Here’s a man. Here’s a boat. Here’s Hawaii in the 1800s.
Melissa: Have some poi.
David: There are chunks of interviews in the book. It feels well researched and at the same time, the book doesn’t overstay its welcome. It doesn’t feel dense. It’s like a smart, snarky friend spent nine months looking at the beginnings of Hawaii and then came over for dinner to tell you about it.
David: Yeah. And I think that was the intent. And it’s not intended to be the full history of Hawaii.
Melissa: Sounds like she did a better job than my one sentence in my 101.
David: She might have. Yeah. Some reviewers didn’t like this book. NPR said, ‘It turns out that deadpan casualness may not be a useful stance from which to approach the story of the death of a nation, especially when those wounds are still raw and bleeding.’
David: The New York Times said, ‘Miss Vowels determination to render history user friendly often feels reductive and condescending.’ Condescending? I mean reductive. Every history book is reductive. That’s the full intent of history books. But condescending feels like someone didn’t get invited to the back row of geometry class. You know?
Melissa: Nerds in front.
David: The New York Times reviewed this in two different contexts. One was the quote I just read to you. They also reviewed it for their book review. A Hawaiian scholar reviewed it for the book review. They were a lot kinder. The LA Times was also much more in favor of this book. I wonder if that hinges on expectations. I was expecting a dose of history with good story and humor and insight, and I got it. I was not expecting more than that. Like Assassination Vacation, Unfamiliar Fishees also got a lavish audio book. It features Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, and John Hodgman as Teddy Roosevelt.
Melissa: Well, I really want to listen to that.
David: Yeah. If you’re curious about the gritty details of how Hawaii became a state. Or if you’re like me and you just like spending time with Sarah Vowell, I recommend this book. It’s Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell.
Melissa: My second pick could not be more tonally different than the first. This one is pure, ridiculous fun. It’s Micro by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston. This book is like if you took the 1976 live action Saturday morning TV show Doctor Shrinker and made it slightly more plausible and better written.
David: So what was the premise of the Saturday morning cartoon show, Dr. Shrinker?
Melissa: A group of teenagers ended up on an island and were shrunken to tiny size by Dr. Shrinker and his evil assistant. And every week they got into danger as he tried to catch them.
David: And this is that, but written by the extraordinary storyteller Michael Crichton.
Melissa: Yes, this is much better, but also samesies.
Melissa: So here’s the setup. Nanogen MicroTechnologies is a mysterious biotech company in Oahu. At the helm is an evil billionaire named Vin Drake. In my mind, it’s Elon Musk. He lures a group of talented graduate students to Hawaii with the promise of lucrative jobs. He shows up at their campus in a Ferrari. On their interview. Visit the students, see and hear things that they shouldn’t. And before you can say, honey, I shrunk the kids, they have fallen victim to his new shrinking technology. They are half an inch tall, and he wants them out of the picture. So he dumps them in the rainforest and they have to find a way to survive.
David: I feel like Michael Crichton was usually closer to science than this.
Melissa: This thing is preposterous, and I loved every minute of it. Let me say right up front, it doesn’t have as much character development as Jurassic Park. [laughter] Basically, you tell the grad students apart by their fields of study, which turn out to be very handy in the rainforest. There’s an arachnologist list who specializes in spiders and scorpions.There’s a beetle expert. One of them is a botanist who studies plant hormones. Another is a pheromones specialist, that kind of thing.
Melissa: Each one of these skills comes up.
David: I bet.
Melissa: Because our heroes are only half an inch tall, normal things are now huge, of course, and super scary. There are no snakes in Hawaii, but there are birds and plants and insects galore. As the entomologist points out, insects are armored. They have built-in chemical weapons, and their jaws are made specifically for biting and cutting. Our heroes run afoul of angry ants, spider webs, a marching centipede, and a very, very hungry grub.
Melissa: But there are also some really delightful, playful scenes. The humans. Tiny, tiny humans. Realize that they’re so light they can jump off of tall things and they don’t get hurt. So they’re leaping and jumping and drifting on the breeze all over the place. At one point, a herd of daddy long legs walks by and the arachnologist just refers to them as the giraffes of the micro world. A butterfly shows them how they can drink nectar from the flowers. I want to read you a little bit.
Melissa: ‘Something drifted past Jen’s eyes, falling downward through the thick air. It was a small nugget the size of a peppercorn, studded with knobs… The nugget landed at her feet. Another fell slowly past. She put out her hand and caught it in her palm, then rolled it between thumb and forefinger. It was tough and hard, like a small nut. ‘It’s pollen,’ she said. She looked up. There was a hibiscus tree overhead, bursting into a profusion of white flowers, like a cloud. For some reason she could not explain, her heart leaped at the sight of it.’
Melissa: When Michael Crichton died in 2008, he’d written about one third of this book.
David: Oh, okay.
Melissa: So it was finished by Richard Preston. He’s a science writer for The New Yorker and author of several well-received nonfiction books about infectious disease and bioterrorism. So despite the fact that this sounds completely banana pants, the science and technology are grounded in reality.
David: That’s kind of amazing. So this guy, who sounds like a hard science writer, got a manuscript from Michael Crichton, which was half crazy, and he was like, Sure, let’s go with it.
David: That’s fun.
Melissa: It’s really fun. It is completely over the top big adventure story with some elements of a spy novel, and there are thrilling set pieces. The villain is very villainous. You cannot wait for him to get his comeuppance. And fair warning: There are some major gross out scenes with bug stuff, so if you’re squeamish, this might not be for you.
Melissa: I said EW out loud so many times when I was reading it.
David: I remember that. Yeah.
Melissa: Richard Preston said in an interview that while he was working on one of his other books, an editor accused him of being a 14-year-old boy who just likes to gross out the girls. And he said in an interview, ‘I think Michael Crichton has something of that in him, too.’ If you like the idea of a cartoony roller coaster ride that celebrates nature and ingenuity and gives you great reasons to hate an evil billionaire — this is really, really fun escapism. It’s Micro by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston.
Melissa: I should also mention that this would be an excellent pair read with the novel Invasive by Chuck Kendig. That is also a techno thriller, but it’s about genetically modified weaponized ants. Also set in Hawaii. Chuck Wendig writes great female characters, and the action in this one is non-stop. So I say, make a bowl of popcorn, mix yourself a mai tai, and read these two books like your own bookish drive-in movie double feature.
David: There’s also Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov, where he shrinks people down and puts them into a body, basically, so he can explain how the body works. And it sounds a little bit like Michael Crichton might have done this with the biology of Hawaii.
Melissa: Yeah, 100%. So now we have a triple feature. I love it.
David: My next book is The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey. This book is a little bit of a cheat in that only part of it is set in Hawaii. But I have no regrets. This book is about rogue waves. Waves that are 100 feet high or taller that sometimes suddenly appear in the middle of the ocean.
Melissa: I know you guys can’t see me. I’m violently shaking my head no.
David: Mel doesn’t like the big water idea
Melissa: No. The idea of giant waves gives me massive anxiety.
David: Yeah. So first, that’s 30 meters. For scale, it’s about the length of a basketball court. 100 feet.
David: Everything about these waves is exceptional waves. That large push with 100 tons of force per square metre that can rip a ship in half.
Melissa: Really hard not to personify a wave like that.
David: Yeah, well, and that comes up a lot in this book. Some scientists used to dismiss the idea of giant waves. They thought that the conditions that would produce a wave like that were so far beyond rare that it would never happen. Not even worth talking about. The numbers just don’t add up. Couldn’t possibly. And then reports happened. But they were occasional and science was like, they’re probably inaccurate. People are probably just scared and overreporting. And then on New Year’s Day, 1995. On that day, there’s proof: An oil rig in the North Sea was having a bit of a storm. 38 foot waves are coming by, all measured by a laser on the underside of the rig. 38 feet is not nothing but well in line with what the rig was set out to handle. And then in the middle of that, at 3:00 in the afternoon, seemingly out of nowhere, an 85-foot wave comes and hits the platform at 45 miles an hour.
Melissa: Oh, my gosh.
David: Yeah, that’s about seven floors of water. The platform suffered some damage but stayed up, which was amazing because the engineers who built that platform thought that the platform might see a 64 foot wave once every 10,000 years. But now the scientific community has proof that rogue waves are a thing. And they went back through the history books and they realized the truth might be that most people who have seen 100-foot wave didn’t survive long enough to talk about it. That blew my mind. The idea that there was something that if you saw it, your chances of surviving that encounter are low. What else in nature is like that?
Melissa: The Ring.
David: The Ring?
Melissa: The movie The Ring.
David: Exactly. So there’s a story in the book about a 400 foot tall, 337 foot high oil platform off the coast of Newfoundland. It was built to withstand 110 foot seas and winds of up to 115 miles an hour.
Melissa: Don’t want any of that.
David: The engineers thought it was indestructible. In 1982, it was hit by a wave. It capsized and collapsed so quickly, no one on board had time to radio in the problem. 84 people were on board at the time and they were all lost at sea.
Melissa: That’s terrible.
David: Isn’t that awful? And that happens fairly routinely. The author, Susan Casey, explores different groups of people who are interested in giant waves. She talks to scientists and mariners and insurance people. She talks to the scientists at something called the 10th International Workshop on Wave Hindcasting and Forecasting and Coastal Hazards Symposium.
Melissa: Rolls right off the tongue.
David: Does she visits the offices of Lloyd’s of London to talk about shipwrecks and unexpected dangers? But she spends most of the book with surfers, specifically surfers who are trying to ride a 100-foot wave.
David: Yeah. I don’t know if I can adequately express how irrational that seems to me. And spending time with this book did not make that less so. The idea here is that a surfer would go out pulled by a person on a jet ski and catch a wave that will absolutely do its best to kill him if he fails to write it properly. A 100 foot wave would catch a fallen surfer and drive him down and likely crush him against the sea floor. It happens frequently with lesser waves. That’s how surfers die. There is a cash reward attached to surfing a wave that big. Billabong, the surfwear company, is offering a half million dollars to the first person who rides 100 foot wave.
Melissa: Gotta survive it to collect the cash.
Melissa: That doesn’t seem like enough money to even try.
David: Yeah. So as a reader, I got the idea that the half million dollars was secondary to the adrenaline rush and the bragging rights and the endorsement deals. Learning about that subsubculture was really fascinating to me. What kind of person wants to do something like that and what is their life like? Who’s the kind of person who can hear something like, Hey, big waves forecast this weekend in Tahiti — and then they go with a board and a jet ski and support staff. And then they run into their work buddies. They’re like, Who are those people? The author spends a lot of time with a surfer named Laird Hamilton. He is a real life action star. He is brave and strong and blond and wealthy. He is Batman of Maui. He knows the ocean, and he’s married to Gabriela Reis, the volleyball.
Melissa: Oh, wow.
David: Yeah. Knowing this guy walks, the world changed my view of the earth. Some of the writing in this book is a little much.
Melissa: I mean —
Melissa: It’d be hard to avoid hyperbole when you’re talking about the Batman of Maui and 100-foot waves.
David: Yeah, I know. Still, like, every once in a while, I’d read a sentence that made me stop and rewrite it in my head. The author compares a wave to an assassin. Like, really? She compares a wave to Hell’s freight train.
Melissa: I don’t know. I’m kind of into it.
David: Maybe you want to get somebody else to say that, and then you quote them. She writes things like, If respect were currency, he was a zillionaire.
Melissa: That made me laugh.
David: But also to your point, it’s a book about a wave that might kill somebody if they see it. So maybe hyperbole is part of the part and parcel there. But as a reading experience, this is a really solid adventure book. It’s Susan Casey, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean.
Melissa: My final recommendation is This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila. This is a short story collection. And it’s been a few weeks since I read it. And I’m still thinking about the characters and their lives as if they’re people I met, and I’m wondering what they’re doing right now. The author is of native Hawaiian, German, and Norwegian descent. I watched a video of her talking about her current work in progress, and she just comes across as a lovely, thoughtful young woman. A little serious, but very warm. She seems like she feels things deeply. At the beginning of the video, she thanks her father for being there, and then she gets a little choked up. As she says, ‘There’s a Hawaiian idea that we carry our ancestors on our shoulders. And it’s not just me who’s here. It’s my entire family and my people.’
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: It’s really sweet moment. And all of that seriousness of purpose and warm humanity is present in her stories. They’re set on Maui and Oahu and Kauai and the Big Island. And she is really, really good at drawing word pictures that play out cinematically. And she has the magical gift of showing us the Hawaii that the native Hawaiians experience — without losing the wonder of the place. I feel like it’s a really neat trick to make something that is familiar also seem extraordinary at the same time.
David: Yeah, yeah. That’s really good.
Melissa: The title story, This is Paradise, is a whopper. It introduces us to three groups of women in Waikiki. So we meet some teenage surfers, housekeepers at a fancy hotel, and a group of women with successful careers. And the narrative moves back and forth among all of them over the course of a day. The young girls go surfing and later go to a local tiki bar. The professional women put in their hours at the office and then go out for drinks to celebrate a friend’s promotion. The hospitality workers are fussing over details. They want to make sure that the tourists’ hotel stay is as perfect as possible. And all of them come in contact in different ways, at different times with a young female tourist who keeps kind of popping up in the narrative. At the Tiki Bar, the local surfers do that thing that girls do in the bathroom where they introduce themselves like very fake friends. Girl, what’s your name? Kind of thing.
Melissa: Later, the surfers hear her, the tourist, whispering to her brother, ‘Everyone talks about aloha here, but it’s like Hawaiians are all pissed off. They live in paradise. What is there to be mad about?’ And the author lets the surfers tell us what they have to be mad about. This is what it says: ‘We look at each other and we feel the heat rising in our faces. Our families are barely affording a life here. The land is being eaten away by developers. The old sugar companies still control water rights. Not only does paradise no longer belong to us, but we have to watch foreigners destroy it. We have plenty aloha for someone who appreciates. We have none for a girl like this.’
David: Harsh. That sounds accurate.
Melissa: Yeah, 100%.
Melissa: And then a thing happens. It’s a great story. She packs a lot into — it’s like concentrated detergent. There’s, like, a lot of power in these short stories. Other stories in the collection address father daughter relationships and the conflict between being a native Hawaiian and being a local, which I talked about a little bit in the 101. All of the stories address universal themes, but they arise out of things that are specifically Hawaiian, which makes it perfect for Strong Sense of Place. My favorite is called ‘39 Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game.’
David: That sounds fun.
Melissa: To me, it’s worth buying the book for this story alone. It’s a portrait of a Hawaiian family and food and tradition set at a grandmother’s funeral. And it’s told in the form of a list. Here’s how it begins:
‘1. Take a drink each time the haole pastor says ‘hell.’
Take a drink each time he asks if anybody in the room wants to go there.
Take a drink each time he looks at one of your uncles when he says this.’
Melissa: As the story unfolds, the items on the list get longer and more involved and a little bit sadder.
Melissa: ‘Number 18, take a drink for each male cousin you see cry for the first time.’ The list goes on, weaving in family history and food and the darkly funny, awkward truths that come up at a funeral. ‘Number 36. Take a shot when one of the women gets so drunk she announces her husband is screwing a Korean. Take another shot when the woman calls the mistress a yobo. Find out the drunk woman is a distant cousin. Her husband is a cousin, too, but from the other side of the family. No one claims the yobo.’
Melissa: I won’t ruin the ending, but step 39 is well worth the trip. This is a really beautiful story, and it’s really well told. I would say if you only read one thing about Hawaii, I would pick this story.
David: Really? Yeah.
Melissa: It’s great. You’ll find it in This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila.
David: Those are five books we love set in Hawaii. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com. You should really visit our show notes. They’re really good.
Melissa: I’ve stopped reigning myself in when I make the show notes and I’m sharing so many things that we found fascinating. They’re all high quality. They all round out the picture. But I’ve stopped limiting how many things I can share. It’s the Internet. There’s endless real estate. When we find good stuff or things that make us go, Wow, I feel like we should share them.
David: I have a request of you. If you have read and liked anything that we have talked about and you have an Instagram account, take a picture of it and tag us. We’d love to see what you’re reading and what you’ve been interested in and what resonated with you.
Melissa: Basically, we’re super nosy and we want to know which of the books you like.
David: You say tomato. I say tomato.
Melissa: Yeah, that’s just me.
David: Mel, can you tell us where we’re headed on our next episode?
Melissa: Oh, I’m really excited about this next one. We are going to be in the gateway between the East and the West, looking across the Bosphorus in Turkey.
David: Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock.
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