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Lester Higata's 20th Century

Lester Higata's 20th Century

4.0 1
by Barbara Hamby

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“Lester Higata knew his life was about to end when he walked out on the lanai behind his house in Makiki and saw his long-dead father sitting in a lawn chair near the little greenhouse where Lester kept his orchids.” Thus begins Barbara Hamby’s magical narrative of the life of a Japanese American man in Honolulu. The quietly beautiful linked


“Lester Higata knew his life was about to end when he walked out on the lanai behind his house in Makiki and saw his long-dead father sitting in a lawn chair near the little greenhouse where Lester kept his orchids.” Thus begins Barbara Hamby’s magical narrative of the life of a Japanese American man in Honolulu. The quietly beautiful linked stories in Lester Higata’s 20th Century bring us close to people who could be, and should be, our friends and neighbors and families.

Starting in 1999 with his conversation with his father, continuing backward in time throughout his life with his wife, Katherine, and their children in Hawai‘i, and ending with his days in the hospital in 1946, as he heals from a wartime wound and meets the woman he will marry, Hamby recreates not just one but any number of the worlds that have shaped Lester. The world of his mother, as stubbornly faithful to Japan and Buddhism as Katherine’s mother is to Ohio and conservative Christianity; the world of his children, whose childhoods and adulthoods are vastly different from his own; the world after Pearl Harbor and Vietnam; the world of a professional engineer and family man: the worlds of Lester Higata’s 20th Century are filled with ordinary people living extraordinary lives, moving from farms to classrooms and offices, from racism to acceptance and even love, all in a setting so paradisal it should be heaven on earth.

Never forgetting the terrors of wartime—“We wake one morning with the wind racing toward us like an animal, and nothing is ever the same”—but focusing on the serene joys of peacetime, Lester populates his worlds with work, faith, and family among the palm trees and blue skies of the island he loves.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Poet Hamby's fiction debut (after Babel, her latest poetry collection) is a story collection that begins with the last moments in the life of Lester Higata, a second-generation Japanese head of a small Honolulu family, before working backwards through time to unpack his romances, friendships, and personal history against the backdrop of an ever-evolving Hawaii. In the opening story, "Lester Higata's String Theory," Hamby lyrically marks Lester's death as "the house disappeared along with the roads and all the buildings," leaving him "moving through the jungle that had covered O'ahu before it had that name." And while Hamby evokes the peculiar rhythms of island patois and effortlessly conveys the modern and ancient aspects of the cultural and physical environment for a mainland reader, the collection's finest moments deal with the complex work of defining racial and cultural identity, from the prejudices of elderly Japanese in "Sayonara, Mrs. Higata," to the smalltown venom of his wife Katherine's mother, who, in "Invasion of the Haoles," implores her daughter to do the right thing and return to Ohio. Hamby's Hawaii is less than a paradise, more than a postcard, and definitely worth the trip. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“Oh my this is a very great collection. Innovative in structure but deeply accessible in every pitch-perfect moment, Lester Higata’s 20th Century brilliantly explores the yearning that is central not only to most great literary narratives but also to every life lived on this planet: the yearning for self, for identity, for a place in the universe. Barbara Hamby has for some time been one of America’s finest poets; with this book, she has become one of our finest fiction writers as well.”—Robert Olen Butler

“Barbara Hamby loves her characters and trusts them, and it shows on every page of these deeply imagined and beautifully rendered stories. Each story seems like a gift, and the collection as a whole leaves the reader feeling as if these people are his own brothers and sisters, cousins, lovers, and friends, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers—one’s own extended family—which, after all, Hamby seems to reveal, they are.”—Paul Harding, author, Tinkers

Library Journal
This collection of 12 linked stories, winner of the 2010 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, begins in 1999 with Lester Higata talking to a vision of his dead father, a sure premonition of his own death from lung cancer. Lester soon joins his father, and the stories about his Honolulu friends and family begin. Mr. Manago treasures his mango trees, but when he falls ill, his shallow son, Roland, destroys them and paves over the lot. Lester's son, Paul, helps rebuild the Imamoto family house after a fierce tropical storm. The Imamotos never knew their neighbors until the remodeling brings everyone out to help. The last story takes place in 1946, the year Lester's life really begins. That's when he meets his future wife, Katherine, at a military hospital while recuperating from a war wound. Poet Hamby fills her stories with humor as well as compassion both for the older generation, which continues to practice traditional Japanese and Hawaiian customs, and for the rudderless younger Hawaiians. VERDICT Readers who enjoy diversity and the enchantment of thoughtful storytelling will appreciate these family-centered stories steeped in the history, lore, and magic of Hawaii. Essential and enthusiastically recommended.—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO

Product Details

University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
Iowa Short Fiction Award
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Hamby was raised in Hawai’I and is writer-in-residence in the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Babel and All-Night Lingo Tango. She is also co-editor of the poetry anthology Seriously Funny. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, Mississippi Review, Southwest Review, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology 2001 and was recently awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.

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Lester Higata's 20th Century 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Hayyan More than 1 year ago
I don't usually read short stories. I like to sink into a book and live it for a while. That said, I really do love intertwined short stories - separate tales with both new characters and characters from other stories in the book. It allows the author to tell us lots of stories but to still have character development of those in the book, even when they are not at the forefront. The author is very adept at this and the collection is a pleasure to read. The characters are interesting and real. Hamby writes beautifully about Hawaii - giving the reader a taste of how wonderful the place is and how living there can be, about how even in the most picturesque places, life is still very real and messy. It was interesting to have the stories go backwards in time - an unusual approach perhaps but it works very well. A great read that I would recommend to anyone who likes beautiful prose, short stories or is dreaming about a trip to Hawaii.