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Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Ghost of Gatsby Will Rise Again: Book Review of The Dream Merchant by Fred Waitzkin

The Dream Merchant haunted me. A sort of modern Nick Carraway revisits his friendship over the years with one of those scary, seamy characters that Florida and the Keys seem to generate like waterspouts. In this case the buddy, Jim--met on a remote cay, bonded with on his yacht while warding off drug smugglers at night--is a master of business, able to recover from devastating failures to reinvent himself again and again. But it's a horrifying, not a heroic, tale--Jim is a mad spieler, a marketer of pyramid schemes, and he needs a woman at his side. So the story is of serial businesses and serial marriages and serial failures in which the woman is discarded so the man can start anew. It's so vivid it hurts to read sometimes.

This is a book written with fire and verve--it's as thrilling as a thriller, but a work of literary substance that refuses to weigh itself down with fancy writing, indulgences and failure of nerve. Can't say enough about it, but can end by saying: If you want to see how Jay Gatsby would be like in today's go-go world, this is your book.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

One Sexy Mashup: Review of Brayden Yoder's short Breakdown by Don Wallace

One Sexy Mashup

Breakdown is a sizzling Indian intrigue by a local director.


A squeal of brakes. A thump. A white face behind a Plexiglass visor appears in the darkness. An angry crowd forms around a dead man, an old man, in Pune–surely someone of no consequence in an Indian city of three million. And, in fact, when an English-speaking nightclub owner, Rajesh, appears at the elbow of Shane, the American whose motorcycle hit the man, the price he offers to clean up the mess seems downright reasonable.

Shane is afraid, disoriented and surrounded by an angry mob. He allows Rajesh to guide him into his nearby establishment and into even deeper trouble. Breakdown, the 24-minute film by Kailua-born Brayden Yoder, similarly escorts us through the chaos of India by using the tropes of genre film.

“It’s a big mashup of a Hollywood noir and a Bollywood film,” says Yoder, back home in Hawaii after five years in Pune and now teaching summer school at Punahou. “So there’s song, there’s dance, quite a lot of regional flavor, also the American protagonist and some of the noirish elements we think of when we see Chinatown or the films of the 1940s.”

The film’s start goes noir one better by immediately going meta with some sharp dialog that points up the reality of being a First Worlder in a Third World country. “They don’t care that I’m an American,” says Shane. “They should care. That I care.” Well, guess what, Shane–empathy and a quarter won’t even get you a cup of chai these days.

Similarly, his response to the nightclub owner’s brisk, “What are you doing here?” is our national whine: “It’s not my fault.” Whatever, Shane.

It was at this point that I had the thought: Folks, we’ve got a movie on our hands. And: We’ve got a talented new local director on the scene.

Played by Rob Tepper, who recently made the most of an auxiliary role in Argo, Shane is only beginning his journey when he leaves the scene of the accident. With those magic words, “I’ll pay you,” he’s headed down the rabbit hole. And so is Breakdown, as Yoder ushers Shane into a magical, seedy, musical grotto of swaying women–the Bada Bing Room without a pole and nary a Soprano in sight.

The moment Shane lays eyes on Janki, the featured dancer, he can’t stop looking; and neither can we, as film and television actress Amruta Sant embues her role with steam and style. Without a single word in English she evokes a complex character, on the one hand a powerless sex worker held in thrall by her birth, gender, poverty and marriage to Rajesh–but also someone who’s determined to make the most of the situation that Shane has created.

Yoder’s path to Pune is fascinating and follows in a directing tradition forged by military veterans Samuel Fuller and Oliver Stone. A history major at Santa Clara University, Yoder accepted an ROTC scholarship to pay for his studies. He was stationed in Germany when 9/11 changed everything, and ended up in Iraq in the second wave of the 2003 invasion. For 15 months he was a supply officer, often exposed to attack while moving materiel for Coalition forces in temperatures that reached 140 degrees. “I remember thinking, ‘If I survive this, I can do whatever I want to,’” he says.

With money saved from his service, Yoder took a masters in writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. “I decided to go into directing because I wanted to be the author of my own films, which meant learning the language of films, which meant going to film school,” he says. Following the advice of East Asian friends he made in Sydney, he enrolled at the Film and Television Institute of India. He’s only the second American to do so; the first, an actor, plays all the villainous imperialist/colonialist roles in Bollywood.

Part-Indonesian, Yoder bears a resemblance to the young Obama (a comparison he must hear often, judging from his cringe). But to judge from Breakdown he’s a unique and driven talent. A garden of forking paths, the film’s story cleverly leaves us guessing about the shape that Shane and Janki’s lives will take. It’s an ideal strategy for a short film intended to lure backing for a full-length feature. If the rest of the story follows through on the first 24 minutes, Breakdown will be Yoder’s breakthrough.

Yoder will host a 30-minute Q&A after screenings at Coffee Talk’s Film Friday series on June 14 at 7 and 8:30 p.m. Admission is free, the gingerbread recommended.

Coffee Talk, 3601 Waialae Ave., 737-7444

NOTE: This will be my last movie review for the Honolulu Weekly until further notice, as it has suspended publication. Thank you for reading these posts.

Here's what you write the moment after you finish your book

He wrote the last words, took a deep breath, scattered sand over the still drying ink and called for a candle and a tankard of ale. When the ancient old retainer tottered into the room he gestured to a bench by the fire. "Have a beer yourself, Old Stew. We've done it."

"That would be the book, sir?"

"It would."

"Much joy to you."

"And to you."

They clinked tankards, and drank deep. When he was done, he wiped his lip with a filthy sleeve and sighed heavily. "And now, for the morrow--we must discuss the marketing."

"We have been to the market only this morning, sir."

"Ah. Of course. Old Stew--may I ask--pray be frank--have you heard of this thing--I believe they call Twitter?"

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Barnes & Noble Closing in Honolulu leaves a community in the lurch: Article by Don Wallace and Donovan Colleps

Every Reader for Himself

Closing Kahala’s Barnes & Noble leaves a community in the lurch.


Confirming rumors, Barnes & Noble’s (B&N) Kahala Mall bookstore will close when its lease expires in January 2014. There are no current reports concerning B&N’s Ala Moana location, but it’s probably a matter of when, not if, management installs a T-shirt store. It’s also likely that our competitive real estate market will prevent any return of a new big bookstore.

Summing up the general reaction was the Ka Palapala Pookela award winner for The Queen and I, Sydney Lehua Iaukea: “Well, I think it sucks.” A recent UH graduate’s regret touched on the paradox at the heart of B&N’s fate: “I used to spend hours in there reading books without buying them,” said Will Caron, assistant editor at the Weekly. “In all those years, I never once felt pressured by an employee to move. They love books and love people who read books.”

The loss of a place for those book lovers affected a B&N employee, who chose to remain anonymous: “Our store has regular, longtime customers. We have a community here. Even authors come here to write.”

Community was the overriding concern of Island readers and writers. Where do we go from here? How will local enterprises pick up the slack? Is it going to be every reader for himself, fighting for table space at Coffee Talk and Starbucks?

Indies r forever

Local booksellers, not surprisingly, stressed that they aren’t going anywhere. “It’s a sad thing that Barnes & Noble Kahala is closing only because they’re not making money,” said Maile Meyer, owner of Na Mea Hawaii/Native Books. “It filled, like all bookstores, a real community need. But Native Books was around before big-boxes appeared, and we’re still around because we’re so intertwined and intermeshed with community. Communities need places to gather, and [to acquire] knowledge and to exchange knowledge.”

Local publishers tended to agree–up to a point. “Independent bookstores are amazing resources; I wish there were more small bookstores,” said Susan Schultz, editor and founder of local publisher Tinfish Press. She noted that larger stores rarely sell books not part of a distributor’s catalog, making the Kahala closure not as harmful to Tinfish’s local editions, such as the recent Jack London is Dead anthology. “Big-box stores tend to be destructive in places where there are also independents”–coming in, selling books the smaller stores sell, and at discounted prices, until those stores go under–“but in Hawaii, they’ve been a good thing.”

An employee at Costco’s Iwilei branch explained their “local books are purchased from local book distributors Booklines and Island Heritage by our corporate buyers in Issaquah, Wash. We do offer suggestions on what local titles to carry in our stores, but it’s pretty much up to the buyers in the corporate office.”

Having the buying decisions of one of the few remaining big-box stores made off-Island only increases the anxiety of authors and publishers. According to Bennett Hymer, his job just got harder. “We will have to work more intensely with the many places that still sell books and find it rewarding to do so,” said the publisher of Mutual Publishing, whose author Chris McKinney won the Ka Palapala literature award for his novel Boi No Good. “We feel for the devoted personnel who have to find employment elsewhere.”

Indie bookstores such as Revolution, Bookends, Jelly’s, R/D at Interisland Terminal and Covenant Books & Coffee can hope for an uptick in sales, but Meyer sounds more interested in the long haul: “Native Books carries on as a place for books about Hawaii and the Pacific, written by Hawaiians and people of Hawaii, and I am only going to recommit to that, and expand that concept of how we exchange knowledge in the year 2013 and beyond, because there will always be a place for Native Books in Hawaii.”

App happy

Is it reductive to lament the loss of free Wi-Fi and cafe tables when we’re writing an obit for a bookstore? Not really; people forget the revolution that B&N and Borders wrought by providing a safe, smart social space.

Could the stubborn ingenuity of Hawaii’s readers, writers and literary impresarios invent a substitute? We can’t count on the library system, extensive though it is; the hours of your friendly public library seem to have been designed to discourage the creation of future readers.

Could a nonprofit entity such as the Honolulu Museum of Art or Hawaii State Art Museum step up and add a few walls of books to go with the stock in their gift shops? It would fill a cultural need–and maybe bring in a few more patrons.

Of course there are those who say that as long as we have screens, there will be readers; the worry is that they will demand a literature of 142-character novels. For now, we can be grateful for the attractive []. Curated by Misty-Lynn Sanico, it’s a site where you can find many books published in Hawaii, as well as links and reviews. But you can’t get coffee there.

Nor can you sip from the free new Honolulu Book & Music Festival (HBMF) app, available year-round on Google and Apple. A brainchild of HBMF event coordinator Amy Hammond, the app has been created by wizard-like David DeLuca, a new HBMF board member as Director of Bess Press and President of the Hawaii Book Publishers Association. “Our intention is for [our app] to become a portal for all book and music news in Hawaii,” emailed HBMF executive director Roger Jellinek.

The app impresses as a way of extending HBMF’s weekend into a 24/365 service. But it’s also a way of combating the virtualization of virtually everything. “We see it as a potential response to the digital revolution in publishing that has severely eroded the one advantage Hawaii’s geographic isolation used to give local publishers,” Jellinek wrote.

What’s missing is the human element. Among the memories that co-author Donovan Colleps has of working in bookstores both in Hawaii Nei and the mainland are the plea of a single mother wanting to find a book on how to help her handle her at-risk teenage son, the quiet request of a disabled man wanting a literal hand to grasp that oversized book about watercolor techniques on the top shelf and the young woman who wanted to find books about lauhala weaving. Her grandmother had passed away a few days before. “Tutu was a great basket weaver,” she said, “but she never got to teach me how to make one.”

Colleps still remembers how it felt to place a large red book in her hands–the weight of it, the design, the way the pages felt between his fingertips. These things still matter, yes?

We must be careful how we answer, because it really is up to us. We already know what the practical people mindful of our tourism economy feel about the matter. To them, reading is best limited to two or three silk-screened words or, even better, a wordless logo.

For us, that’s not a world, that’s a prison.

Q&A with Paul Theroux by Don Wallace: A Traveling Light

A Traveling Light

A writer talks trust, foreign aid and the shield law.


We were out at Tongg’s surf break when the world’s best-traveled writer paddled past in a kayak. I said, “Paul Theroux?” Mindy nodded. Indeed, Theroux was using Hawaii as the staging area for 1992’s superb The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific. To us, the celebrated author seemed out of place. How wrong we were.
You first went to Africa when you were in the Peace Corps in 1963. Why go back now?

My intention was to revisit places in Capetown that I had visited in 2002 and to write an extension of Dark Star [the book about that trip]. Then I just wanted to go until I got to the end of the road. One way or the other.

You basically headed north into some very non-tourist places: the bush of South Africa, Namibia, Angola.

The way that I travel, I don’t have any contingencies. I didn’t know whether I’d actually make it. I was just hoping. In ’63, I learned Chichewa and [I] speak Swahili; that’s the way to get to know a place very well instead of just parachuting in. I travel alone. Just a very small bag that I can carry. And that’s it. I have money. When I first started traveling, I didn’t have any money. That’s a change.

You’ve done this in Patagonia, Siberia and China, among other places. Always alone. Unlike the reality shows such as Man vs. Wild, there’s nobody to save your ass. Except your fellow man, usually a complete stranger. Thoughts on trust and travel?

You need to trust. To a certain extent, you have to be very wary. But if you’re not somewhat trusting, you won’t go anywhere. I just need to keep my wits about me. Avoid circumstances that will sink you. You cannot walk around at night in big cities in Africa. You’re easy. You’re alone. You’re conspicuous. You’re a haole. You take a taxi to go two blocks to a restaurant, if someone local warns you not to walk. You listen.

In the bush: no taxis, it’s a very humble place. You have to listen to people. I’ve got an old watch, a $20 watch, a $30 pair of sunglasses. When I meet someone, I immediately ask myself, “Are there points of communication?” You need to be a kind of interior detective, look for certain signals. I find that even if you’re in a bad situation, you can make a friend, just by talking to the person.

It’s harder for women. An older guy–leave out the white–is invisible in some places. No matter what age, a woman is always visible. A woman alone has high visibility and will be followed.

You are less than charitable about foreign aid.

I don’t want to be the person who says no foreign aid. I would like people to be accountable. So much money has been poured into a rathole, and nothing has happened. The first thing to understand is, a lot of the countries we’re trying to help are wealthy countries. Yet we give them aid. South Africa? It’s full of multimillionaires. It has loads of resources. Yet purely from ego Oprah Winfrey builds a school. South Africa is completely able to build a school. There are agencies such as the HALO Trust that remove land mines. A great thing. But why is a British organization required to remove land mines from Angola, which is a wealthy country? The reason is, if you can get somebody else removing land mines, you can spend the money on yourself.

That’s the corruption from aid. Aid weakens people. The Gates Foundation gives medicine to people in Sierra Leone, and they end up selling the medicine. Gates runs health agencies all over Africa. Why, when these countries have a ministry of health? Why have a ministry of health when Gates is running your health service? It’s a weird thing, foreigners running the health service so people don’t have to do it.

One of your first transcendent moments was with the San, the people from the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. You then discover they’re acting out their vanished culture for tourists. I felt conned by the film. Your response is more nuanced.

It’s not any different from going to an Indian reservation or a place by the side of the road in New Mexico or Arizona, and you have people dressed as Indians selling handicrafts. In some cases, it’s the only way to make a living for some people, to dress up and act in ways that are culturally coherent. There are still fragments of belief clinging to these people, but the logic has been left behind.

But you are less forgiving, even harsh, about many of the African societies you revisit. They haven’t improved in 50 years; in some cases, they have gotten worse.

There’s no point writing if it’s all sweetness and light. No point in writing unless you’ve got something new to say. It’s like Hawaii: People come to write about gentle breezes and the sunset and the Mai Tais, and we know that’s not Hawaii. The truth of any place is often unflattering and difficult. But that’s the only stuff worth writing about.

If they let you. We just had our media shield law dropped, after some people in government tried to reshape it to target us and bloggers.

I think the Weekly is great. An alternative paper is what lets you know what other people are thinking and what you don’t hear from the powers that be. The kind of writing you do–talking about the Weekly and the First Amendment–you might as well give up if you can’t write the truth. But you have to write it well. It can’t just be the litany of abuse. This book was not just scribbled. It’s a public service, the Honolulu Weekly. Tell Mindy.

She’ll be thrilled. [Editor’s note: Yes.]

For Theroux’s 2012 Smithsonian Magazine article on Hawaii, see []

Hawaii by Mark Panek: Book Review by Don Wallace

Panek Point

Book Rips Cover Off Hawai‘i!


Calling this big fat novel Hawaii was bound to raise eyebrows. Hey, come run to the schoolyard to watch Mark Panek throw down! Pow! Right in the kisser of that other big fat novel named Hawaii, by whatsisname, the one everyone loves to put down (not literary! not local! haole! old fut!) that for better or worse (worse!) became the siren call for mainland millions to take a jumbo jet to Waikiki.

The author of two well-regarded books about sumo, Panek (not local! haole! but young! ana’UH-Hilo’professa!) shoulders his way into the ring, throwing a handful of salt over his shoulder. I edged forward in my seat. This was going to be good.

Now, James Michener’s Hawaii was not a bad book, as general midlist fiction goes–it just happened to be clumsy and patronizing and earnest. Its best moment, on the bestseller Richter Scale, was to introduce the good-sex-will-get-you-killed trope–mainland girl does it with beach boy and then they’re both nailed by a tsunami. The same trick later opens Jaws and serves as a plotline for later entire film franchises (Scary Movie!).

Panek’s sex is by hot young Japanese American professional women, in K-bars with gangsta Hawaiians and Samoans, last flings before joining “…the same I-married-a-dentist-or-attorney world where many of them were headed, cashing in on that flesh right around age 28 while it was still worth something in the Ewa Plantation Villages homeowner-and-two-kids-at-‘Iolani range.” Yes, he writes sentences like that–lots of them, all honed sharp as a Chinatown duck-shop butcher’s knife. Bam-bam-bam! He nails everyone. (Equal opportunity!)

Panek’s tsunami is money, development money. His theme is the utter corruption and democratic paralysis of Hawaii as the Great Wave finally sweeps away all objection and resistance to paving the island with second homes polka-dotted with casinos. This is not some half-hearted Occupy diatribe: His research and detail, and its delivery (important! gotta keep eyeballs on the page!), is entertaining and forceful. I kept slapping the book down and shaking my head.

The peak, literally, of the author’s vision comes when a young Japanese American fixer is taken to a private overlook, soon to be developed by an under-the-table partnership between what is obviously Turtle Bay and Envision Laie, and sees the future before him: a vast carpet of Mormon spec homes, intended for white retirees from Utah and Pacific Islander converts, one pure voting block, like the settlements that Orthodox Jews are erecting on the West Bank right now to force the Palestinians off their land permanently. Is young Sean dismayed? No. He’s panicked that he can’t get bars on his cell so he can call to make sure the deal goes down.

Now, about those parentheses and exclamation marks. As Panek declares in his intro, he’s proud to belong to the Tom Wolfe school of meticulously researched (deep tissue! no happy ending!) realistic fiction, and his details and characters (true to life! roman a clef!) are what gives Hawaii its heft and its aura of telling the One Forreal No-B.S. Truth. So am I saying this is our Bonfire of the Vanities? Yes.

But Panek also adopts Wolfe’s typographical tics. Be forewarned. There will be “Whrrr! whirr! whirr! whrrr! A-h! a-h! a-h! a-h! Ooooh-wEE! ooh-wEE! ooh-wEE!” which is a representation of the mental gear-shifting of a Professional Academic Hawaiian, Makana, as he sits in another department meeting, thinking how UH was ruined when it was “. . . overrun by California carpetbaggers who immediately added layer upon layer of administration positions for their carpetbagging friends.” That’s not Makana’s problem, though. He’s witnessed a murder, a Hawaiian-on-Samoan gang hit, payback for the book’s boldest stroke and opening gambit: the throwing of UH football games by a star player (with the coaches looking daoddaway!) which results in the heavy-betting Senate president getting in deep to the Samoan mob, which . . .

Do I need to say more? Get this book. Read it if you care at all about what really goes on in those Legislature back rooms, in the bedrooms of hot young Japanese Americans (Hello Kitty figurines! porn star moves!), in the Native Hawaiian and anti-development councils. Get it before the post-Inouye island power players figure out a way to ban it.

Mark Panek
Lo’ihi Press, 2013
Softcover, 551 pages, $16.95

Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux: Book Review by Don Wallace

Last Train to Ho’opili?

A journey through Africa illuminates our plight


One paradox of TheLast Train to Zona Verde, Paul Theroux’s 46th book and his latest about Africa, is that it’s also one of the best meditations on Hawaii you’ll ever read.

But first, why Africa? Because, writes Theroux, as a 1963 Peace Corp volunteer, “I was free in this great green continent, liberated from my family and its paternalism just at the time that many African countries had liberated themselves from the paternalistic hand of colonialism.” Sounds like many a haole, surfer-hippie, self-described adventurer in Polynesia, doesn’t it?

He’s been back to Africa since–and seen the promise of that liberation slide into tyranny and repression and worse, a loss of hope. But this trip is his summing up. At age 70, he will go as far as he can with just a credit card, a throwaway cell phone and a duffel bag: an old white man in shabby clothes, hopefully “invisible.” Maybe he won’t come back.

In fact he wonders if he isn’t asking fate for an ending, whether “I was setting off to suffer and die.” Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. Theroux goes alone from Cape Town, South Africa up to schizophrenic Namibia–99 percent miserable, but with an ultra-rich elite, an Angelina Jolie-funded celebrity birthing center and an Okavango Delta elephant reserve fantastic in price and exquisite in irony. From there he pushes on into war-torn and distinctly unfriendly Angola. Throughout Africa he sees populations of “. . . drunken men, idle boys and overworked women.” (A little too close for comfort, that one.)

One irony he will revisit often is how rich these “poor” countries are–in gold, diamonds, oil and minerals like rare earths–but how nothing trickles down. (See D.H. Horton, Ho’opili land grab; Parsons Brinckerhoff, rail and now the aiport; Hawaiian lands ceded and “gifted” to shopping centers, developments and the military.) Yet the U.S. federal government spends $67 million a year on building tourism in Namibia–and none, he notes, on Hawaii, Louisiana or Mississippi, places where poverty is just as real.

Aid, what Theroux calls “the virtue industry,” comes in for a scathing dissection. (See Q&A with Theroux is on page 23.) So does tourism. So does our willful blindness, preferring the mythic and totally wrong belief that the Bushmen in The Gods Must Be Crazy really exist in a state of nature, as if “Saving the Children” doesn’t sap communities of self-respect and self-government, in addition to ruining local economies and substituting ones built on bureaucrats and warlords distributing sacks of rice and cans of Spam. (Just as in Samoa, Guam, Tinian . . . and places closer to home.)

A low-profile resident of Hawaii for 23 years, Theroux writes not for sensation but for seeing. He goes places. He shuns the heroic pose and the weepy cri du coeur. As a result, we are all the wiser.

The Last Train to Zona Verde, Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
Hardcover, 368 pages, $27