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Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai'i Hardcover – February 18, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Moore (In the Cut; One Last Look), born in Hawai'i to a mother plagued by mental illness, recalls the two salvations of her childhood—the sea and books. Lying in the shade of a coconut grove that was said to have been planted by the king in the 19th century, she read Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, Treasure Island, To the Lighthouse. She relished passages about the sea, copying her favorites into her journal and eventually excerpting them here. In her own life as well as her voyages through literature, she knew the sea as a playmate, a menace, a protector and an undertaker. In her youth in the 1950s and '60s, just before jet air travel brought mass tourism to the state, the mysteries of islands dotting the waters awed her, as did the alluring mishmash of cultures and classes (Moore's family were members of the haole elite). Now an island dweller of another sort—a New Yorker—she mourns losing her beloved southern seas, once-constant companions for which the Atlantic is no substitute. Moore's premise is intriguing, and her prose elegant, with quick, vivid sketches of her island girlhood; however, with the inclusion of well over 30 passages of seafarers' musings from canon literature, Moore's memoir makes for an excerpt-heavy read that's regrettably light on her personal vision. (Mar.)
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From The New Yorker
When Moore, a novelist, was growing up in Hawaii, in the early fifties, it still took five days to reach the islands by sea from San Francisco. Yet life there for haoles (foreigners) was not unlike that of bluebloods summering in Maine: Moore and her four siblings roamed the landscape at will, while their mother, prone to nervous breakdowns, attempted to outfit them in seersucker shorts. Moores recollections are faithful to a childs purview; she was shocked to learn, later, that "only haoles were allowed to live in the most desirable neighborhoods." Interwoven in the text are excerpts from Darwin and Woolf, among others, although the most memorable line comes from an early-twentieth-century visitor to Hawaii, who reported that nearly no one was left alive who could play the nose flute "as it should be played, to the excruciation of every nerve in a Caucasian body."
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Top Customer Reviews
Moore employs an unusual format for this book. Following each brief chapter is at least an equal number of pages filled with excerpts from classic tales of the sea, the constant companions of her youth. In her first chapter she says "One summer when my mother was recovering from a breakdown, we lived on the beach..." but never goes into any detail. Later she writes "I was overcome by the idea of shipwreck. I suspect the unconscious was doing its work. My family, while high-strung, was not a shipwreck quite yet, but I divined its coming." With voyeuristic lust I raced through twenty pages of shipwreck tales from Daniel Defoe and John Fiske, anxious to get back to Susanna's own story, only to find that it never really materializes.
In the next chapter, there is one brief mention of her father being a doctor, but nothing about his role in the family dynamics. Instead I learned about the Hawaiians themselves, and their attitude towards life. Moore tells us "One of my Hawaiian friends insisted that Hawaiians were not working class. The working class wanted televisions and motorboats, but Hawaiians didn't want anything." Following that, I waded through eighteen pages of excerpts from Herman Melville, Charles Darwin, Joseph Conrad and Herodotus, searching for a unifying theme that would tie into the chapter, but never finding one. This was the pattern for the remainder of the book.
Although I came away with a very clear picture of Hawaii, the "ravishing little world...redolent with romance" but also "an hierarchical, snobbish and quietly racist society," my picture of Susanna Moore remained fuzzy, and each chapter left me wanting more. While doing some research on the Internet, I discovered that she wrote an earlier memoir, titled I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai'i. Perhaps I should have read that one first.
by Becky Lane
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women