Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category




Frances H. Kakugawa’s Latest Book Features ‘Poetry for the Ageless”


Kevin Y. Kawamoto

Special to The Hawai‘i Herald


Reading Frances Kakugawa’s poems in her latest book, “Dangerous Woman: Poetry for the Ageless,” is like cozying up with an old friend and talking story. This particular friend has lived a long life and traveled far, literally and in her imagination. Along her journey, she wrote poems. In this, her 14th book, she shares a collection of those poems that she selected for the reader — some of this and some of that, like a literary hot pot — which, when consumed as a whole, offers a complex mix of tastes and flavors.

The poems in the 215-page volume published by Watermark Publishing are divided into five sections: A Poet’s Life, The Enemy Wears Many Faces, The Fifth Season, Collected Poems, and Dangerous and Ageless. They are not arranged in chronological order. In her introduction to the book, Kakugawa writes that to arrange the poems chronologically “would give a false impression that the things I wrote about were happening in some logical sequence, each poem somehow leading to the next and then the next, or building off the previous. The reality is that any of these poems could have been written when I was twenty-one or eighty.”

Those familiar with Kakugawa’s writings through The Hawai‘i Herald know that she has a special place in her heart for caregivers and care recipients. She demonstrates this in books such as “Mosaic Moon: Caregiving Through Poetry,” “Breaking the Silence: A Caregiver’s Voice” and “I Am Somebody: Bringing Dignity and Compassion to Alzheimer’s Caregiving.”

“Dangerous Woman,” however, addresses a much broader swath of themes. Kakugawa has also written memoirs (“Teacher: You Look Like a Horse! Lessons from the Classroom” and “Kapoho: Memoir of a Modern Pompeii”), children’s books (“Wordsworth the Poet,” “Wordsworth Dances the Waltz,” “Wordsworth! Stop the Bulldozer!” and “Wordsworth, It’s In Your Pocket!”) and poetry (“Sand Grains,” “White Ginger Blossom,” “Golden Spike” and “The Path of Butterflies”).

“Dangerous Woman” has the feeling of a retrospective, looking back at a diverse body of work developed over a long period of time. Her first book of poems was written when she was in her 30s. “Fifty years later, I am still here,” she writes in her most recent book. In “Dangerous Woman,” you don’t always know what period of her life a poem is from, but that — in Kakugawa’s own words — is what makes them ageless.

“Our passionate desire for answers to life’s existential questions, the need to understand our relationship with nature and the world beyond the self, do not diminish with time,” she writes in the introduction.

Kakugawa’s ability to interweave the past, present and future comes through powerfully in her poem “Obaban,” an affectionate Japanese term for one’s grandmother. “My eighty-year-old grandmother stood / On the sidewalk in Hilo, facing Kress Store. / “I wonder,” she said in Japanese, “how / Hilo will look long after I’m gone. / I wish I could stay.”

“Had I been wiser, I would have said — / “Obaban, what if eighty years ago, your mother / Said this to you. She couldn’t stay / So she gave her eyes to you. / Now it’s my turn. I will be here. / I’ll take pictures, Obaban.”

“I stand where she once stood / With my broken promises. Kress Store is gone. / Hilo Drugs is gone. There are no photos. / But I wrote these poems. / Just these poems. I wrote them.”

In three stanzas, Kakugawa takes us back to a bygone time by simply invoking Kress store, the five-and-dime retail department chain that was familiar territory to many of us who grew up in Hawai‘i during a certain era. As Obaban surmised, how times would change. While Kress and Obaban may be long gone, the past becomes the present and the future through the eyes of the young. Like so much in the world, it is an ongoing cycle of life. Kakugawa transposes memories to words through so many of her poems so that current and future generations may see.

Kakugawa has devoted time in her life to not only writing poetry, but also encouraging others to do the same, even if they have never thought of themselves as being poets. In the past, she has written about the healing that can occur when caregivers open up to pen and paper and let the words and feelings flow. To her delight, they did. In “Dangerous Woman,” Kakugawa shows the wide range of themes and topics that can be addressed in poetry: love, fear, disease, nature, regret, hope, history, relationships, places, existence, identity, an awakening of the self . . . and then some.

The poems are of different lengths and styles. Some are only a few lines, like this one titled “Bamboo.”

“Like a man. / It reaches out. / The higher it grows. / The lower it stoops.” Of course, like many poems, there could be multiple interpretations beyond — or underlying — the literal one. Here is another short poem, ever so brief and yet packed with evocation: “He snuffed out his own candle / Left us all in darkness.” Other poems are longer, taking up a full page or more in the book.

The Romantic poet William Wordsworth described poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” The phrase succinctly captures the poetry-writing process, as poets often find a quiet time and space to write about “life’s existential questions.” But some poems are more existential than others, exploring the profound questions of an individual’s reason for living. Why are we here? What are the meanings behind our experiences? These questions should be relevant at any age, true enough, but perhaps take on greater urgency as one ages.

In all, Kakugawa offers the reader almost 200 poems from her large body of work developed over a handful of decades. She hopes there is a poem for everyone in the book, regardless of age.

Readers will have to discover for themselves why the poet titled her book “Dangerous Woman.” The answer lies somewhere in those pages. (When it comes to poetry, sometimes it is best to not explain too much. Let readers excavate their own gems from the treasure chest of words.) It is an interesting title, to say the least, for a Japanese American woman who spent much of her adult life as a teacher. She is fortunate to have amassed 60 years of writings that she can now review and reflect upon, each poem a window into the world as she viewed it at one point in her life. By publishing these collected works, she allows the reader to look through those windows with her, not only to see the world as she saw it, but also to put our own interpretation to that view, indeed to sharpen our own vision.

“Dangerous Woman” has a feeling of culmination to it. In formal education, there is often a class referred to as a “capstone” course — the class taken near the end of a certain segment of one’s educational journey. It is meant to be a culminating experience — that is, to allow the student to integrate a lifetime of learning (up to that point) into one big final project before moving on to the next stage in life. It also allows the teacher to assess whether a student has been able to apply knowledge and skills learned from a variety of courses over time to a project that is meaningful and significant. When this feat is achieved, there should be a feeling of mutual satisfaction shared between teacher and student, as well as, oftentimes, a bit of melancholy, because the successful completion of a culminating project means the student will be moving on, one hopes, to bigger and better things.

Frances Kakugawa’s prolific output as a thinker, writer, teacher, public speaker and caregiver is well known to many. She has not shied away from putting herself “out there,” exposing her soul to the world through both poetry and prose, in published works and in public speaking. She has not played it safe. She has not lurked quietly in the shadows. She has taken risks, and she has lived. In doing so, she experienced, intimately, what it means to be vulnerable and what it means to look back and say with confidence: I did it. And, for that, she has earned the distinction of calling herself “a dangerous woman,” a title she apparently wears with both pride and provocation. In one of her poems she invites you, too, to be “a dangerous woman.”

Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.




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When I’m reading in the middle of the day instead of doing chores or writing, I know I’m in a good book. Here are some of the titles not necessarily current:

A Little Life (read it twice)

Little Paris Bookshop (read it twice)

Hillbilly Elegy


Smilla’s Sense of Snow (read it twice)

Shakespeare Saved My Life

The Underground Railroad

The Bell Jar (had read this in my youth..enjoyed it differently this time).

Am rereading Magic Mountain by Mann because of a funny story attached to this book. I organized  a book club for residents in the condominium where I lived in Honolulu over a dozen years ago. I began with Winnie the Pooh and it was a great success with a math professor, a chemist, a fireman, a high school teacher, a marine biologist, a micro-biologist among others. Other children’s classics followed and discussions were heavy with philosophy and the intellect along with our inner child, until the micro-biologist began to complain and insisted on Magic Mountain for our following month’s selection. So we did. I read the book and appreciated the introduction to this book.  No one showed up at our next meeting except for the micro-biologist and that ended my book club.

Hey, anyone for the Magic Mountain?

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You want me to read this story about a mouse poet? You must be kidding!


Hmmmm…not bad for a mouse.. . although I think my poetry’s better.


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It’s been a long time since I came across two novels so riveting and binding. I consider The Last Samurai a work of genius and so, in my mind,  the author must be a genius, too. A story of a single mother and her 3 year old who searches for his father. Mother uses the film The Seven Samurai as a backdrop to become her son’s male role model.So I had a hard beginning: After a chapter, I emailed friends to get this book. After a few more pages, I sent out another email retracting my email. Then Red suggested I read it like a poem and am sooo glad I did. This is a  brand new copy and look what I did to it. I gobbled it up like my last supper.

On a Red-eye to NY recently,  I was the only one reading, couldn’t put down A Little Life. I met a young man in NY quite by accident and when he began to tell me his story, I told him to read A Little Life because he is one of the characters. “Read the book”, I told him, “and tell me which of the characters you are.” I bought and sent him the book. Four young boys attend college in NYC, they form a friendship that will make you weep. They each pursue their dreams but their journey is one that will touch all your senses and emotions.And leave you stunned and reflective.

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swim book
This review is from: The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory (Hardcover)
The amazing part of this review is, author Checkoway emailed me to thank me for my review and we have even made plans to meet in Sacramento. I can’t believe this. I’m still flying high. To members of my book club, shall we select this book for our next round of titles and I assure you, I will invite the author to  join us over our monthly dinner.
Here’s my review:
I sent this email to all my nieces and nephews and to their children:
I highly recommend this book to all of you.
I see why my publisher recommended this book to me. I feel we all need to read this to see how it was with the Japanese Americans way before you and I were born. I also think people born on Maui ought to read this book, along with the non-Maui born residents, so they will appreciate and honor the history of that place.

It’s about Soichi Sakamoto, swimming coach who trained plantation kids to go national by letting them swim and practice in the ditches on Maui. Interestingly, I grew up with his name Sakamoto, Keo Nakama, and others mentioned in this book, yet they were in their prime before I was born so they had become legends by the time I could read. Then the story continues after Pearl Harbor. This is a touching part of our history if you are Japanese from Hawaii, Okinawan, Haole( Caucasian), or  just a human being. I’m sure you’re one of these…ha.
Sakamoto ended up at UH as swimming coach. Won’t tell you if his dream of sending one of the kids from the ditches to the Olympics ever became a reality.

In the book, the author mentions how people were named by their character. One swimmer was called Halo Hirose…pronounced hallow because sometimes he seemed to act as though his brain was filled with too much space.
Reminded me of how my own village Kapoho folks were also called. Our Uncle Jun was called Pe-lute, a Filipino word meaning throwing up from drinking too much. One man was called ke-sha…train in Japanese because his teeth protruded like the front of a train and these became permanent names. So one doesn’t have to be from Hawaii or from Maui to be able to find one’s own history in the story.

At the end, one is left with this feeling that one’s own humanity to another is still, why we are here.

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Yes, please clear your book shelf for the 4th Wordsworth. He is arriving on January 11th. Poor Wordsworth, all his friends are hooked to their electronic gadgets. Can he bring nature and humanity back into the lives of his friends  with that “something” in his pocket? Or are they lost to becoming robots?

Pre-order at Amazon.com or Watermark Publishing at 1-866-900-BOOK or http://www.bookshawaii.net

Or ask for him at your favorite bookshop.

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Thank you Isabel Allende, noted writer whose work is all on my book shelf. Her most current book, The Japanese Lover, was a page turner. There was only one section that led me to write to Ms. Allende. Here is the email sent to her agent:


Please inform Ms. Allende of one error stated in her book.
She stated that the Japanese Americans weren’t interned in Hawaii. Our neighbor was taken away in the middle of night.MPs searched our homes for all things Japanese. There were internment camps on Maui and Oahu and many were shipped off to camps on the mainland. I have helped to translate and publish a collection of their poetry written in Japanese in these camps. So for her second printing, she may want to make this correction.
Thank you for your attention.
frances kakugawa


The following day, I heard from Ms. Allende:


Dear Francés

Thank you for pointing out my error in The Japanese Lover. I will tell the publisher.


Isabel Allende


Dear Isabel,
I have not been able to get my feet back to the ground after receiving your email. Thank you so much for accepting my input. I have bought The Japanese Lover for my publisher and other friends after being so impressed with your story. I will add your email to show off our correspondence.



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