Lately, without intending to, I've been reading novels about Hawaii. That is, when I read at all. Novels, once the bedrock of literature, now compete for shelf space with any number of things that aren't even books at Borders. And there's the gnawing sense in the age of Twitter, that if something can't be expressed in 160 characters, it's probably not worth expressing.
More than that, though, there's this writer thing. In my experience, a lot of writers are like surly bears. We're fine when napping or preoccupied, but if there's an unauthorized breech of our perimeter, we'd rather tree the culprit than discuss the matter further.
Hawaii is our perimeter. The shorter we've been here, the more territorially we try to roar. It only adds further insult to bruised egos to see the imprint of a major publisher on the hard cover of a volume by authors living in California or New Jersey signifying that they "get it" when it comes to the islands.
There. Now that I've gotten that off my chest, let me add that these books took me to unexpected new places in what I thought was such familiar territory.
"Bird of Another Heaven" (Knopf, $25.95) is by my old mentor and longtime friend, James D. Houston. Jim lives with his wife, Jeanne, in a Victorian landmark in Santa Cruz, Calif. If there were a dictionary definition of a Santa Cruz writer, it would have Jim's photo next to it. But some of his best work has its heart in the islands, including the scripts for most of Eddie Kamae's movies and a co-writing credit for Eddie's autobiography, "Hawaiian Son."
This time he tells of Nani Keala, a young woman who becomes companion, confidante and mistress to King David Kalakaua. The story crosses the sea from the California gold fields and Indian villages of the mid-1800s to the fragile kingdom of Hawaii. A nave newcomer to global politics, the realm was more at risk to newly arrived Yankee business interests intent on transforming paradise into plantations.
Unfolding from the vantage point of a contemporary California radio talk-show host whose own origins lie buried in the historical drama, the book is rich in elegant prose and resonant metaphors. There's also an unsettling explanation for Kalakaua's sudden death in the prime of his life.
The spell the islands cast on California writers is also obvious in Paul Malmont's "Jack London in Paradise" (Simon & Shuster, $25). Set in the early 1900s, this fact-laden fantasy follows a fading movie matinee idol and producer to Honolulu in a desperate attempt to enlist "The Cry of the Wild" author in a new writing project.
While general audiences will respond to Malmont's sunny, sultry sketches of island life in those lazy days, people who actually live here will be more attuned to the way he evokes the turn of the century in the islands' history.
Queen Lili'uokalani and Duke Kahanamoku are among the background characters traipsing across the stage, as London- a literary rock star of his time - tries to sort out the stirrings of his heart, his failing health, his fading ambitions and his precarious marriage, all in the Hawaii he so clearly loves.
My favorite of these books, though, is a little ditty called "Fluke" (Harper paperback, $13.95) by Christopher Moore. Actually, I haven't finished reading it yet; I keep getting derailed by gales of laughter in Moore's fanciful look at the misadventures of a ragtag bunch of Maui whale researchers.
Blending a modern version of the Bible's Jonah into his bubbling soup of psychedelic science fiction, Moore also sneaks in lots of actual science. Unlike literary interlopers, he's got a great comic eye for telling details of contemporary Maui life, from pot-smoking Paia Rastafarian-Hawaiian wannabes to latter-day pirates, profiteering off whale "research."
Anyone who observes "the coconut palms whipping overhead like epileptic dust mops" is a mighty writer - the sort who leaves us less talented bears searching for the nearest tree to send him climbing.
Obviously, for all the sunsets and hula-skirted fantasies, the well of inspiration offered by this place called Hawaii runs far deeper. Writers are especially susceptible, whether they live here or are just visiting.
Those writers come in all shapes, sizes and job descriptions, but Maui is losing a good one in a few weeks when Barbara Trecker leaves her job as marketing director of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center to join the Peace Corps for new adventures.
For the last five years, Barbara has provided a lot of the raw material that found its way into these pages, writing the copy that gave the MACC and its presentations their voice.
It's not novel writing - it's writing on deadline, according to specs. No ego, no excuses. The better it does its job, the more invisible it gets. It's not writing about a place - it's writing that becomes part of a place and makes that place better.
In other words, good writing.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.