Honolulu: A Novel

Honolulu: A Novel

by Alan Brennert

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312606343
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/02/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 116,463
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.22(h) x 1.21(d)

About the Author

ALAN BRENNERT is the author of Moloka'i, which was a 2006-2007 BookSense Reading Group Pick and won the 2006 Bookies Award, sponsored by the Contra Costa Library, for the Book Club Book of the Year (over My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult; The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson; and A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey). It appeared on the BookSense, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Honolulu Advertiser, and (for 16 weeks) NCIBA bestseller lists. Alan has also won an Emmy Award for his work as a writer-producer on the television series L.A. Law and a Nebula Award for his story "MaQui." He lives in Sherman Oaks, California.

Read an Excerpt

When I was a young child growing up in Korea, it was said that the image of the fading moon at daybreak, re­flected in a pond or stream or even a well, resembled the speckled shell of a dragon’s egg. A dragon embodied the yang, the mascu­line principle of life, and it was thought that if a couple expecting a child prayed to the dragon’s egg, their offspring would be male. Of course, every family in those days desired a son over a daughter. Only men could carry on the family line; women were merely ves­sels by which to provide society with an uninterrupted supply of men. So every day for months before I was born, my parents would rise before dawn, carrying offerings of fresh-steamed rice cakes to the stone well behind our home, as the sky brightened and snuff ed out the stars. And they would pray to the pale freckled face of the moon floating on the water’s surface, pray that the child growing inside my mother’s womb would be a boy.
In this they were to be disappointed. On the third day of the First Moon in the Year of the Rooster, their first and only daughter was born to them. In those waning days of the Yi Dynasty, new­born girls were not deemed important enough to be graced with formal names, but were instead given nicknames. Often these repre­sented some personal characteristic: Cheerful, Pretty, Little One, Big One. Sometimes they presumed to be commandments: Chastity, or Virtue. A few—Golden Calf, Little Flower— verged on the po­etic. But too many names reflected the parents’ feelings about the birth of a daughter. I knew a girl named Anger, and another called Pity. More than a few were known as Sorrow or Sadness. And ev­eryone had heard the story of the father who named his firstborn daughter “One is Okay,” his next, “Perhaps After the Second,” the third, “Three Laughs,” and the last, “Four Shames.”
As for me, my parents named me “Regrettable”—eventually shortened to simply Regret.
Koreans seldom address one another by their given names; we believe a person’s name is a thing of intimacy and power, not to be used casually by anyone but a family member or close friend. When I was very young, Regret was merely a name to me, signi­fying nothing more than that. But as I grew older and learned it held another meaning, it became a stone weight in my heart. A call to supper became a reminder of my unfortunate presence at the dinner table. A stern rebuke by my father—“Regret, what are we to do with you?”—seemed to hint that my place in the family was impermanent. Too young to understand the real reasons, I won­dered what was wrong with me to make me so unwanted. Was I too short? I wasn’t as tall as my friend Sunny, but not nearly so short as her sister Lotus. Was I too plain? I spent hours squinting into the mirror, judging my every feature, and found them want­ing. My eyes were set too close together, my nose was too small, or maybe it was too big; my lips were thin, my ears flat. It was clear to see, I was plain and unlovely—no wonder my parents regretted my birth.
In truth, my father was merely old-fashioned and conservative, a strict adherent to Confucian ideals, one of which was the inher­ent pre ce dence of man over woman: “The wife must regard her husband as heavenly; what he does is a heavenly act and she can only follow him.” I was a girl, I would eventually marry and be­come part of someone else’s family; as such my existence was sim­ply not of the same consequence as that of my three brothers, who would carry on the family line and provide for our parents when they became old.
But I knew none of this when I was young, and instead decided it was due to the shape of my nose or the color of my eyes; and for years to come I would fret over and find fault with the girl who looked back at me from the mirror.
I have traveled far from the land of my birth, and even farther from who I was then. More than forty years and four thousand miles separate us: the girl of sixteen who took that fi rst unwitting step forward, and the woman in her sixtieth year who now, in sight of the vast Pacific, presumes to memorialize this journey in mere words. It is a journey measured not in time or distance, but in the breadth of one’s soul and the struggle of becoming.

Excerpted from Honolulu by Alan Brennert.
Copyright © 2009 by Alan Brennert.
Published in February 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Reading Group Guide

Recommended Reading

Sunset in a Spider Web, adapted by Virginia Olsen Baron and translated by Minja Park Kim, contains many lovely sijo poems of old Korea by the kisaeng Hwang Chini and others.

The Trembling of a Leaf by W. Somerset Maugham collects some of his short stories set in the South Seas, including "Rain." It's worth noting that although Maugham later spoke unflatteringly of his bawdy rooming-house neighbor, May Thompson's fictional counterpart Sadie is the most winning character in the story and the author clearly intended for her to win the reader's sympathies as well. Maugham was too fine a writer to let his personal animosity get in the way of a great character.

Think of a Garden and Other Plays by John Kneubuhl showcases three stage plays set in Hawai'i and the author's native Samoa (where his parents, who owned a trading post on Pago Pago, met Maugham and May on their rainy stopover). Kneubuhl was a preeminent playwright on Polynesian/Pacific themes, as well as a prolific writer for television in the 1950s and 60s.

And for anyone curious about modern Honolulu in the years after Jin's story ends, I highly recommend My Time in Hawaii by Victoria Nelson, a beautifully wrought memoir of "her time" in Honolulu, spanning the years from 1969 to 1981.

Reading Group Questions

1. How do you feel about Jin's decision to leave Korea? What might you have done in her place? How do you regard the various decisions she made after learning the truth about her fiancé in Hawai'i?

2. How would you interpret the poem by Hwang Chini on page 26 within the context of the novel?

3. Korea and Hawai'i were both small countries, in strategic locations, that came to be dominated by more powerful nations. In what other ways were the Korean and Hawaiian societies of the time both similar and different?

4. Compare and contrast the lives of a Korean kisaeng and an Iwilei prostitute.

5. How does the author weave real people and events into the lives of his fictional characters, and how do they contribute to your understanding of Jin's circumstances? If you were already familiar with any of the historical figures, how do you view them after reading the novel? For example, the author is uncertain of May Thompson's fate in real life—what do you think she might have done after leaving Honolulu? What do you think about the Governor's decision to commute the sentences of Lt. Massie and the others convicted in Joe Kahahawai's death?

6. How have Americans' attitudes toward immigrants changed—or not changed—since the 1900s?

7. The biography Passage of a Picture Bride describes its real-life subject as having a "positive outlook and broad-mindedness, unusual traits among Korean women" of that time. How does this statement apply to Jin and her fellow picture brides?

8. What binds Jin and her "Sisters of Kyongsang" together, other than the kye? What purpose do they serve in each other's lives?

9. What is the significance of the patchwork quilts not just to Jin's life, but to the life of Hawai'i itself?

10. At the end of the novel, Jin says "Hawai'i has often been called a melting pot, but I think of it more as a ‘mixed plate'—a scoop of rice with gravy, a scoop of macaroni salad, a piece of mahi-mahi, and a side of kimchi. Many different tastes share the plate, but none of them loses its individual flavor, and together they make up a uniquely ‘local' cuisine. This is also, I believe, what America is at its best—a whole great than the sum of its parts." What do you believe? What is gained and what is lost—both in Hawai'i and in the U.S. as a whole—in becoming a multicultural society? How might this be particularly relevant to Native Hawaiians?

Customer Reviews

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Honolulu 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 174 reviews.
TimmyTam More than 1 year ago
As a lover of the Hawaiian Islands, I've been so happy to discover Alan Brennert's novels. I haven't run across much quality fiction about Hawaii and it's people, so I was excited when Mr. Brennert's first novel "Molokai" appeared at the book store. And I was doubly thrilled when "Honolulu" was published. Both books are excellent. I particularly appreciate the fact that the author has put alot of time into research in order to give an accurate portrayal of the lives of his Hawaiian characters. I've always been interested in the authentic Hawaii - it's history, the people who have populated the islands, and the cultures they have brought with them to make Hawaii what it is today. These two stories are each an absorbing read and an easy way for anyone to learn some Hawaiian history. "Molokai" tells the story of a little girl torn from her family and sent to live in the leper colony. My heart ached for this little girl. She has all the same dreams and yearnings as any other, but she's ostracized by a fearful and ignorant society. It's a story of courage and resilience and the right to live a full and happy life despite one's circumstances. You'll learn much about Kalaupapa through her story. "Honolulu" is set in the more recent past and tells the story of a young Korean teenager taking a chance at a new and more liberated life. She defies tradition, leaves her family and travels to Hawaii to marry a man she's never met. No matter how many setbacks, she never gives up. I think this second book is really more a story about Honolulu, using the life of the main character as the vehicle to tell the story. I would have liked it if some of the emotions of the character had been more richly explored, but it's a minor point. These are good reads, great for book clubs, and keepers in my home library. Now I just want Alan Brennert to write another!
songbird27 More than 1 year ago
My mother had lent me this book and I was slightly skeptic about reading it. She loves the Hawaiian islands so I thought she may be exaggerating how good the book was with her bias. And the simple title of "Honolulu" did not sound like it was going to be all too interesting. But she was spot-on! This novel swept me up into a another time and place, and I hardly wanted to put the book down. The history is well researched and the characters are likable, each with a distinct voice. The story is a lovely historical epic and you can't help but feel what Jin, the protagonist, feels and see her life through her eyes. I bought my mother Brennert's other novel, "Moloka'i", for Mother's Day and she loves that one too- and I'm anxious to read it as well. Hope to see more from this gifted author!
Schubidoo More than 1 year ago
Earlier this year I read "Moloka'i" which blew me away. I assigned it to my book club, and it was one of the few books in our 12 years of existence that everyone loved. So with great excitement I pre-ordered "Honolulu" and just read it now as a holiday treat to myself. Yes, I know I shouldn't compare... but what a disappointment. Where it succeeded was in telling me of the history of Honolulu in the 19th century, especially the trials and tribulations that are inherent in a melting pot of cultures. (Now I want to research photos of early Honolulu.) But I never really cared for the protagonist, Jin. She was too perfect... a friend to all... a living saint... I never felt like I got into her skin and it left me detatched. I didn't grow to love or care for any of her fellow picture brides, or Hawaiian friends, many who were brought to the page from newspaper archives. I think that the author chose a few specific historical events to outline and then develop, mainly that of prositution in early 1900, the growth and strength of the pineapple industry, a particular landmark rape crime and trial, and the birth of Hawaiian shirts. By the end I was quite eager to move on to another book.
Ireadallsummer More than 1 year ago
I was not particularly interested in the history of Hawaii but reading the story of a Korean girl's journey in and through her life on the islands was truly a joy. I love how Brennert weaves in real historical characters throughout the story. I was always "Googling" events and historical figures to verify and read more about them. Brennert is always "right on" with every event and every character. Loved it!
pjpick More than 1 year ago
3.75 stars! What a hard one to review! I say "hard" simply because I loved Moloka'i so much I figure that I would be unfairly comparing the two (which I probably did). This story was a little slower to get into and I later discovered this to be the pace throughout the novel, however, the story was a good one about an area of history of which I knew very little--picture brides. It has been a while since I've read Moloka'i so my memory may not be too clear but I found I appreciated the writing in Moloka'i so much more--the writing in this one felt much more...simple? and Brennert employed one of the techniques I dislike in books: a statement made at the end of each section/chapter that foreshadows the coming event. I don't know why this technique annoys me but it does and honestly, maybe he did this in Moloka'i and it just didn't bother me then. The main character was very likeable (albeit a little bit Mary Poppinsish for my taste) and I found that I really cared for the outcome of her story. I also appreciated the discoveries about Korean culture. I always enjoy a story about cultures. Brennert obviously has a great love for Hawaii and for its history, warts and all. I really appreciate the diversity of his Hawaiin stories and eagerly wait for another.(
Marcilet More than 1 year ago
It is very rare in life to find a story that can move you to be passionate. Even more so to inspired and honestly touched by words on a page. Yet, following this story I found myself seeing less ink on pages and more of a new and exciting world through the eyes of Regret. Regret exhbits an honest bravery rarely seen in book heroines, rarely seen in anyone really. She possesses a passion that outweighs all her fears and insecurities, and she follows it far from her traditional life in Korea to a new life and a new name. Starting over in Hawai'i as Jin she struggles to make something of her life even as all her hopes and dreams crumble around her. She suffers great tragedies and yet discovers immense joy in family and friends. Jin's "sisters" and all of the ecclectic people she encounters have thier own vivid tales which intertwine with Jin's touching account to create an expierence rather than just a book. This book follows Jin through many heartbreaking struggles which she endures, and shows a inspiring strength of heart and spirit. It paints a beautiful and complete picture of Hawai'i, showing many differnt sides that one cannot see of it just staring at a photograph. Most importantly this book, as well as Jin herself, lives up to the name of "Gem".
Bish22 More than 1 year ago
Brennert weaves thoroughly researched history and its details with seemingly realistic but fictional characters to create a gripping, can't put it down novel.
Newg More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed Honolulu! I live on Oahu so I like to read books related to Hawaii. I learned a lot of things that I didn't know about that time. It is a wonderful book!
8322515 More than 1 year ago
A beautiful story of personal growth and female friendship told against the backdrop of Hawaii's "glamour days." Any book that can both move me to tears and educate me on the history of Hawaii and its inhabitants wins. I would highly recommend this book to fans of historical novels and novels with strong female voices.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down!! Highly recommended
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love it. I could connect with gem even though we are so different. The writing pulled me in and held me.
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mystery53 More than 1 year ago
The book is way too busy. Because I learned much about the history of the times, I did give the book three stars.
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Wonderful,a page turner. Loved it
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cowsr4me2 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book very much. It was a nice mix of history and fiction. It moved along quickly and I cared about the characters and was sad to see it end.