So, today is Book Lovers Day. Who knew? In honor, I am sharing my latest finds. They’ve got a theme, you’ll see. It’s Hawaii. I hunted around Google to find the origins of Book Lovers Day, with no success. Not that I need an excuse to read a book. But why August, I wondered? But, really, why not? August is a popular vacation month. Vacations are a great time to read.
1. In Unfamiliar Fishes, humorist-historian Sarah Vowell takes on Hawaii from the arrival of the missionaries in 1820 until annexation in 1898, the same year the United States annexed Puerto Rico and Guam, invaded Cuba and the Philippines. While the theory behind Sarah’s—may I call her Sarah?—book is that 1898 represented a powerhouse year for a fast-growing superpower, the book is 100% about Hawaii. Take the title. It refers to a comment Hawaiian minister and educator David Malo wrote in a letter to a friend: “If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean, and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up.” But we know Malo—and Vowell—are really referring to the white men and women invading the Kingdom of Hawaii. There is no subtlety to Vowell. She has a quirky point of view that David Letterman loves. (When she’s a guest, he can’t get a word in edgewise, believe it or not.) And with the title, we clearly understand what Vowell’s point of view is. She writes, “This book tells the story of how…Americans and their children spent the seventy-eight years between the arrival of the Protestant missionaries in 1820 and the American annexation in 1898 Americanizing Hawaii, importing our favorite religion, capitalism, an dour second-favorite religion, Christianity. It is also the story of how Hawaiians withstood these changes, and how the Hawaiian ruling class willingly participated in the process.”
2. I didn’t want to like Susan Casey’s The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean. I’d read her New York Times bestseller The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks and, truth be told, I was jealous. She got to hang out on with biologists studying great white sharks off the Farallon Islands outside San Francisco. Dang her. This time around she befriends Laird Hamilton. If you live in Hawaii, and you go anywhere near the water, you know who Laird Hamilton is. You know he is a living legend. That he pioneered tow-in surfing. That he faces down waves of seventy and eighty feet with nothing but his surfboard and surf trunks and that, in doing so, sometimes loses both. You know that Hamilton—I won’t call him Laird—eschewed professional surfing for something more esoteric and that, in doing so, attracted big-name sponsors waving big amounts of cash. You know that he’s married to Gabrielle Reece. The Wave is more than just a groupie stalking some star. There’s good science here from scientists trying to understand ship-swallowing waves that tower 100 feet tall. There’s data from ship owners about container ships completely and wholly vanishing, never to be seen again. And there’s tall tales about the surfers chasing waves around the globe. It’s a damn good read.
3. A year ago, I started volunteering at Makauwahi Cave Reserve along Kauai’s South Shore. That’s when I discovered Back to the Future in the Caves of Kauai: A Scientist’s Adventures in the Dark by David A. Burney. To be honest, I expected it to be a tough read, full of facts and science and numbers. I can’t absorb numbers. Numbers bounce of me like a tennis ball off a garage door. But it’s nothing like that. I knew it with the first paragraph of the book, “Visitors come to Hawaii seeking paradise. But the truth is, these islands have become a kind of living hell for nature. The place is a microcosm of the world condition, where the role of humans in transforming nature stands out in high relief. This is a story that matters, because humans need to know that they are a threat to the rest of creation. Can we learn to tread more lightly on this speck of dust in the universe that we call home? Will anything we hold dear make it into the future? How did we get to this point?” The book is about Burney’s—everyone calls him Burney, as if it’s his first name—twenty years unearthing fossilized remains and artifacts from a stretch of cave system on Kauai that is quite unusual. Unlike the rest of the island—and island chain—this cave system is made of limestone. It was carved out by ground water. It is not volcanic. The caves are not lava tubes. That was hugely important for Burney’s work as a paleoecologist, because the limestone rock and the Ph-neutral ground water that created the tentacles of the cave acted like a deep freeze--one of the few and richest in all Hawaii, possibly even all of the Pacific. And while Burney can call a spade a spade, as evidenced by his first paragraph, his book is full of Burney’s signature sense of humor, too. Indeed, the narrative reads just like Burney talks—like he’s exhaling the story in a single breath.
4. I just discovered The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island last week when Terry Hunt, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, stopped by Kauai to give a talk. I haven’t read the book yet, but I cannot wait to dive into it. Hunt’s work at Rapa Nui disproves the theories about how those mysterious statues were erected. In doing so, Hunt takes on Thor Heyerdahl and Jared Diamond. He also proposes his own theory on how the statues got from their quarry of crafting to their myriad of sites around the island. In the process Hunt and his co-author Carl Lipo dispel numerous other accounts, too, proposing the people of Rapa Nui did not cut down their palm tree forest to sate a warmongering chief’s penchant for statues. They did not commit ecocide. And maybe they weren't just as barbarous and cannibalistic as many have painted them. As soon as I finish The Big Year, I’ll be cracking the spine of this book.
What about you? Do you have any good books--with a Hawaii theme--that you'd recommend? List them below in the comments section.