Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ category

“Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers” by Sara Ackerman

June 2, 2018

A missing husband and father. A deadly secret. A gentle lion. A community under suspicion. A budding romance.

“Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers” (2018) by Sara Ackerman is a historical fiction novel that blends war, mystery, and romance into an engaging story about the effects of war, the anxiety of keeping secrets and living with uncertainty, standing up for your friends against racial prejudice, accepting that life is unfair, and trusting that things will turn out right.

Set in Honoka‘a on the Big Island in 1944, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, school teacher Violet Iverson is still reeling over the disappearance of her husband and coping with her daughter’s anxiety. Soldiers move in at Honoka‘a School and change their lives, and Violet has second chance at love with Parker, an attentive marine sergeant stationed at the school.

Meanwhile, her 10-year old daughter Ella is anxious because she is hiding a deadly secret, and the only thing that helps her is spending time with animals. A gentle African lion named Roscoe distracts her from her secret and gives her the courage to set aside her fear.

With Parker’s help, Violet begins to accept that “life was far from fair, but if you followed love instead of fear, you would come out ahead. No matter what.” She starts to think about the future and enjoy life again.

I enjoyed seeing the dual perspectives of an adult and child about World War II and the racial tensions between Japanese-Americans and the police. The characters felt as if they were real people, even neighbors that you grew up with, with dynamic character growth. The portrayal of Hawaii feels authentic and personal, including the war-time food and gas rationing.

Interestingly, while Ella has a strong connection with nature and finds healing with animals, Violet is constantly challenged when she ventures into nature – by a sea urchin, a storm, and an underwater cave.

A historical note from the author: “Over 50,000 Marines, and mascot Roscoe the lion, lived at Camp Tarawa on the Big Island before sailing off to Iwo Jima and Saipan, two of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific.”


“Trekonomics” by Manu Saadia

May 5, 2018

The optimistic, altruistic world view of Star Trek caught my imagination when I was young – and I’ve been a loyal fan over the years. Seen through young eyes, Star Trek was a universe of possibility, good intentions, and people striving to do the right thing.  But I never questioned whether the Star Trek society and economy could work in the future – or be a role model for us today.

So I was intensely curious to read “Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek” (2016), published on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, by author and Star Trek fan Manu Saadia.

According to Saadia, “The world of Star Trek is an economic utopia” based on universal abundance and automation of labor. It is “the world that awaits us on the other side of that great social metamorphosis.” Saadia explores the economics of Star Trek, as well as the psychology of its members, capitalism and the Ferengis, and real-world Treknomics.

Saadia identifies six characteristics of the Star Trek economy, starting with the absence of money in Star Trek: The Next Generation (though he acknowledges that money may still be used outside of Starfleet).

Note: With my apologies to the author, I re-ordered his discussion a bit. I’m not an economist, but I think the presence or absence of money is irrelevant; the game-changer that revolutionized the economy was the replicator.

In the Star Trek economy…

  1. There is no scarcity. With the invention and public availability of the replicator (a device that can almost instantaneously create food and goods on demand), there are unlimited resources, and there are no barriers to economic growth or population expansion. Humans do not worry about survival (food, clothing, shelter, war), so they are more mentally stable; and reason and altruism become the norm. There is less poverty, lower child mortality, higher literacy rates, lower crime, and higher life expectancy.
  2. There is no production or logistics. With the replicator, there is no need to find raw resources, produce goods, or transport them. Like the Internet with information or GPS with location, the replicator is a global (or interstellar) public good. All of the craft and art is in the design stage; once the template is created, it can be shared freely with everyone.
  3. There are no taxes. When everything is free and there is no lack of resources, the role of government is greatly diminished. The government does not need to discover or conquer other lands for natural resources, and does not need to tax people to fund government. The limited role of government and the anti-colonialism philosophy is expressed in the Prime Directive (non-interference with other societies, which requires sacrifice for the greater good and the acceptance that other societies may suffer).
  4. Money is obsolete. As Picard says, “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” This is only possible because there is near-absolute abundance – almost nothing is scarce. There is no conspicuous consumption, so wealth is no longer a marker of status, and private property is mainly sentimental. Reputation is the new currency.
  5. No one is required to work. If everything is available at zero cost, then no one is required to work for survival, and people volunteer to work (free labor). “Work exists to make you happy.” People choose to work to gain a sense of belonging, recognition, glory, self-expression, even philanthropy. Without salaries to measure success, work is based on meritocracy and egalitarianism. Without the need for profits, companies provide services and function with open-source innovation to better humanity.
  6. Free-riding is not a problem. When groups of people deplete resources they share in common (fossil fuels, clean air, fresh water), it is in everyone’s best interests to curb their use of the resource. However, some individuals or governments will choose to continue their consumption, relying on others to curb their use.

“Trekonomics” is a fascinating look at how Star Trek’s economy could be achieved in our future. Saadia himself seems to be an incongruous mix of Star Trek fan and ardent socialist. He believes that we can choose to move towards a Star Trek economy with shared public resources (social democracy), yet he scorns space exploration for exploration’s sake, believing that it is better to use our resources to lift people out of poverty and gain more “human capital” (engineers, scientists, artists). He believes that “Interstellar exploration has no intrinsic economic value and therefore cannot happen until society is so wealthy that not a single person has to waste his or her time on coarse economic pursuits.”

And yet, many of us still dream of space exploration, and perhaps need the dream of an altruistic, optimistic Star Trek future.

“A Harvest of Hawaii Plantation Pidgin” by Myra Sachiko Ikeda

April 7, 2018

Spurred by the realization that erai means “tired” on Hawaii plantations, but means “great” or “excellent” in Japanese, Myra Sachiko Ikeda’s interest in Pidgin English began in the 1970s. She began to focus on the use of Pidgin English on Hawaii Island sugar cane plantations in the Japanese communities.

“Plantation talk was community talk,” Ikeda writes. She describes Pidgin English as a language that grew out of a need to communicate quickly between different communities, made of shorted or contracted words or phrases, built from many languages, characterized by rapid speech, and with many spelling variations. Pidgin English is not “broken” English, but rather “the foundations for the communication which helped build and forge the strong bonds among the people on the plantations,” Ikeda states proudly. “Pidgin is the language which identifies Hawaii as it reflects the shared knowledge and experiences of its people.”

Ikeda’s research is compiled in “A Harvest of Hawaii Plantation Pidgin: The Japanese Way” (2015), illustrated by Jeffery Kalehuakea DeCosta, which explores Pidgin English and its impact on Japanese people and the assimilation of lifestyles and cultures.

Ikeda describes plantation camp names, nicknames, children’s games (the enduring jan ken po gets its own chapter), plantation terms, food, and anecdotal stories, and includes a glossary of words and phrases in Pidgin, English, and Japanese.

She makes categorical distinctions between Japanese generations: issei (first-generation immigrants), nisei (second-generation), sansei (third-generation), yonsei, and gosei. She stresses that the Japanese people have a strong cultural identity, but that Japanese culture was “frozen” in the time of the Meiji Era, while the Japanese language in Hawaii has constantly evolved – or been suppressed during World War II, when Japanese language, culture, customs, and clothing disappeared.

My favorite parts of the book were the humorous conversations, with Pidgin English misunderstandings and mis-hearings. Thought my mother grew up on the Big Island, most of the Japanese words and Pidgin English in the book are unfamiliar to me; I don’t think she taught me the Pidgin English she might have heard growing up.

The one thing that seems enduring is jan ken po. I grew up with the rhyme “jan ken na po, I canna’ [cannot] show.” I didn’t even know that there were other verses! It didn’t surprise me to learn that my son learned this rhyme from his classmates, another generation of jan ken po players.

“The Art of Tough” by Barbara Boxer

March 3, 2018

From community organizing for better conditions, to her first campaign as Marin County Board of Supervisors, then to the California State House of Representatives and US Senator from California, Barbara Boxer’s career is extraordinary.

“The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life” (2016) gives us an insider look into “the everyday, behind-the-scene struggles that move our nation toward ‘a more perfect union.’” It is “a no-punches-pulled personal memoir about the personalities and shenanigans of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”

Boxer shares anecdotes from her childhood and reveals “the core values I’ve carried with me throughout all of my political career.” The first value she talks about: Never compromise about doing the right thing. And the guideline that matters most: Be authentic and stay authentic. Her love of singing, and the poetry and lyrics that she wrote, show us her more personal, everyday side.

Idealistic, passionate, and energetic, she writes candidly of personal victories and failures, as well as political allies and opponents. One of her biggest legislative accomplishments is federal funding for after-school programs. I admire her courage in taking a stand on unpopular issues and her conviction – even if I don’t always agree with her policies or her clear partisanship. Boxer rarely acknowledges the good choices or good intentions of Republicans, while highlighting Democrat achievements and downplaying their mistakes.

Throughout the book, Boxer offers practical advice for novice political candidates, as well as business and community leaders:

1) Don’t take defeat personally – run for election again.
2) Personal relationships matter in getting support for bills.
3) Keep your word, but listen very carefully to what others say – or don’t say. Listen for “yes.”
4) Be patient – it can take years for a bill to become a law.
5) Thank colleagues, share credit, and be gracious in victory.
6) Keep your sense of humor, especially when dealing with apparently intractable problems.
7) Don’t respond to your opponent’s garbage by slinging it back even harder.
8) Be forgiving and be willing to take risks working with colleagues.
9) When you hold a minority position on an issue of conscience, it’s your duty to speak out, even when you’re taunted, even when it looks hopeless.
10) Even after an emotional disagreement, we must come together for the good of the country.

In some ways, “The Art of Tough” is Boxer’s legacy autobiography; she includes her top 50 legislative accomplishments. She vows to continue to be active in public service, outlining a long list of “legacy issues” that she is committed to since her retirement from the US Senate in 2017.

For more information about “The Art of Tough,” visit the website at

“The Healers” by Kimo Armitage

February 3, 2018

“The Healers” (2016) by Kimo Armitage is a young adult novel about birth, death, transformation, faith, kindness (“kindness not wanted to unkindness”), the healing power of prayer, and learning that “as bad as the pain gets and as hard as the lesson is, if we succeed, the reward will be great.”

It tells the story of a family of healers: Mary Lei, Tutu (grandmother) who raised Keola and Pua; her twin brother Hanalei, the guardian of the family aumakua Kaleihepule, who accepted that it was his time to die (“He never regretted that he was a Hawaiian, and he knew that made all the difference in the world”); and cousins Keola and Pua, who were raised by Tutu to learn Native Hawaiian healing. Keola and Pua learn the healing effects of prayer, a connection with nature, and the power of hope (“if there is no hope, there is no cure”). Their paths diverge as Keola goes to Waianae for further training and Pua falls in love with Tiki and gets pregnant.

Set in contemporary times, there are stories within stories, as Tutu tells of Kawanana and Kealo of Waialua, who had faith in the gods; and her cousin Laka of Kalaupapa, who was born without arms and legs. Their stories are part of Keola and Pua’s history, giving them a connection with the past.

Their story is juxtaposed with the story of Tiki, the young man who falls in love with Pua. Tiki’s grandmother loved him so greatly that she saved his life by sacrificing his future wife and child. Tiki was never taught to connect with his healing abilities or his aumakua, and he shows both an angry, vengeful side and a devotion to Pua, as love makes him want to be a better person.

The writing is poetical, nostalgic, with a strong sense of spirituality, a connection with nature, and the truth of dreams. We see the importance of children who are a gift. We see the devastating impact of leprosy on families, as family members were exiled to Kalaupapa. We see how being disconnected from family and nature can lead to anger and vindictiveness.

There are Hawaiian chants and interpretations, which give us insight into the poetic and symbolic quality of the Hawaiian language. For example, Keola chants: “I am without a house, it has fallen in Luhi./The ridgepole is unsteady,/ The thatching has been undone by the Ahiu wind./There is no pilo grass, no sennit.” In this part of the chant, “He also gives the listener a reason for his visit: Keola was looking for a teacher. He was looking for someone who could repair a house. A man is a house and a house is a man.”

There is also insight into the symbolism of nature for healing: “Keola placed slips of morning glory in the car. He also placed fingers of bananas, coconut cordage, octopus, and spiderwebs in various gourds on the back seat. He was coming back with these symbols of knowledge. Kanaloa represented this deep knowledge. The physical shape of these things represented the connections that one makes in learning. A length of cordage between two people or between one person and knowledge was a pathway.”

Just as story-telling is a connection between two people, teaching understanding and possibilities.

“Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson et. al.

January 6, 2018

I don’t like confrontation. I have never asked for a raise – not because I think I don’t deserve one, but because I’m uncomfortable bringing up the subject. And I have never bought a car on my own – not because I don’t know which car I want, but because I’m not comfortable negotiating for it. I’m usually the peacemaker in my family and at work, too.

So I was very interested in reading “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High,” Second Edition (2012) by the co-founders of VitalSmarts, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. I wanted to learn how to handle risky situations, like asking for a raise, suggesting a change at work, or talking with a family member.

“Crucial Conversations” is a practical, easy to read handbook to help people identify and initiate crucial conversations, those day-to-day conversations that have a big impact on your life, where there are opposing opinions, high stakes, and strong emotions.

The book is based on two beliefs: first, the only person we can change is ourselves; and second, we create our own emotions. In effect, we are the ones who make ourselves angry, insulted, or uncomfortable, and we have the power to change how we feel.

With examples and scenarios, the authors lead us through a 7-step plan so that we can keep calm, keep others calm, and have successful crucial conversations.

  1. Start with heart: focus on what you really want. Don’t get distracted by winning an argument, punishing someone who disagrees, or keeping the peace. Look at challenges and skepticism as opportunities to convince others.
  2. Look for the moment a conversation becomes crucial. Lean to pay attention to your own physical, emotional, and behavioral signals, and watch for times when people react with aggression or silence.
  3. Make it safe to talk. When we react with aggression or silence, it is a sign that we feel unsafe. We can make people feel safe by apologizing when appropriate; using contracting don’t/do statements, like “I don’t want to suggest that the problem is yours. I do think it’s our problem;” and asking “Why do you want to do that?” to find the real reason why the two of you disagree.
  4. Separate fact from story. We tell ourselves stories about other people’s actions, often turning ourselves into victims (“It’s not my fault”), others into villains (“It’s all your fault”), or believing ourselves to be helpless (“There’s nothing else I can do”). Instead, stick to the facts and ask, “Why would a reasonable, decent person do what they are doing?” Then focus on what you really want and ask, “What would I do right now if I really wanted those results?”
  5. STATE your facts. Facts provide a safe beginning and are the more persuasive and less threatening than opinions.
  6. Explore others’ paths by asking what other people want. Use four listening tools: ask (“What do you mean? I’d really like to hear your opinion on this”), mirror (“You say you’re okay, but by the tone of your voice you seem upset” or “You look nervous. Are you sure?”), paraphrase (“Let me see if I have this right”), and, as a last resort, prime (“Are you thinking that maybe…?”).
  7. Move to action. Decide how you will decide (command, consult, vote, or consensus); assign specific tasks and deadlines, including what you don’t want; document decisions; and then follow up.

The sample scripts are really helpful and made me feel more prepared for stressful moments. For example, in response to criticism or negative feedback, you might say, “You know what? We need to talk about this. I’m glad you asked the question. Thank you for taking that risk. I appreciate the trust it shows in me.” Or when talking with an unenthusiastic patient or client, you might say “It sounds like you had a problem of some kind. Is that right?” Or when you disagree with someone else, you might say, “I think I see things differently. Let me describe how.”

There are also links to online videos and exclusive content, including Style Under Stress test (I scored about what I expected: high on silence, low on violence). The book ends with 17 tough cases and ways to change our reactions to those situations.

So far, I’ve had two chances to practice crucial conversations techniques. At work I suggested a business change and at home I attempted to mediate between two arguing relatives. Neither conversations turned out as I hoped (one was interrupted and the other was hijacked by the need to repeat their opinions), but I’m working on it. I just need to practice more crucial conversations skills.

“Uprooted” by Albert Marrin

December 2, 2017

“Our government failed in its duty to protect the rights of everyone living in the United States,” declares Albert Marrin, author of “Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II” (2016). “Uprooted” examines how the influences of history, racism, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 led to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. He also acknowledges philosophical questions about balancing liberty and security, and whether “the end justifies the means.”

The book begins with a brief history of Japan and the Pacific from the 1100s, including the rise of modern Japan in the 1860s with the abolition of the samurai class and the devastating effects of opium addition in China. Historical facts come to life with historic photos and newspaper headlines, poignant descriptions of war and imprisonment, bleak poetry, drawings by uprooted Japanese Americans, and photos of “sanitized” internment camps.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. In Hawaii, 1,037 “enemy aliens” were arrested, but the book downplays the effects of internment in Hawaii and doesn’t mention Honouliuli Internment Camp in Hawaii at all, commenting that internment was less severe in Hawaii because Japanese Americans were needed as laborers and skilled engineers. On the West Coast, 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced to relocate, while other persecuted minorities (Jews, African Americans) focused on their own situations and did not speak out.

There are honest and unflinching recitations of prejudice, intolerance, fear-mongering, and a denial of humanity; racism sees only the collective, not the individual. Marrin is blunt about the prevalence of racism on all sides: In Japan, where they controlled information and speech, and used propaganda in schools to indoctrinate racial superiority (the Yamato Race); and in the West, where non-White races were inferior, interracial marriages were illegal, Native Americans were dehumanized, and Chinese immigrants were barred from citizenship.

Marrin shares stories of inspiring Hawaii-born nisei heroes, like Sergeant Hoichi “Bob” Kubo, a linguist who rescued 122 civilians who were captives of Japanese soldiers at Marpi Point, Saipan in 1944. He talks about Merrill’s Mauraders in India under General Frank D. Merrill; the 100th Infantry Battalion, with 1,432 Hawaii-born nisei who battled at Monte Casino, Italy in 1943; and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, with 2,686 Hawaii-born Nisei and 1,200 mainlanders, including Captain Daniel Inouye (later a US Senator from Hawaii).

What really struck me about the “uprooting” was the power of words to shape reality. Words can be used to spare someone’s feelings or to deceive. The American government used innocuous names like “assembly centers” where Japanese Americans gathered, and “relocation camps” where Japanese Americans were imprisoned – which in reality were “concentration camps” or “internment camps,” surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

Marrin writes, “History is not destiny; it describes the past but does not decide the future.” Was your family impacted by the Japanese internment camps during World War II? Did learning about the internment camps change your perspective about individual rights and public safety?