Category Archives: literature

How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

UNDER CONSTRUCTION: If you’ve stumbled on this post, Iʻm still working on it. Check back later.

My favorite TV show by far is the BBC/Masterpiece show Sherlock, but as my previous attempts to write about TV met with little interest, I thought I’d write about what really interests me in Holmes: how he thinks. Indeed, many of my recent posts, I realized, have been about how to think (The Psychology of Mālama ʻĀina, Philosophy as Therapy, Reason’s End, Sovereignty and Mental Models). So it was with great interest that I read Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, which I heard about from a Big Think video, and planned to read this summer. The book allowed me to muse over my favorite TV show, but also over the workings of my own mind. I found that I’d unconsciously been doing a lot of things right all this time.


Konnikova compares Holmesʻs brain attic to Shel Silverstein’s conception – the light in this attic really can be turned on or off

The primary focus of the book is what Holmes (or more accurately, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) calls “the brain attic.” This attic is a flexible, but not infinitely flexible, physical space in this conception: “maybe it has a chimney …  maybe it doesn’t,” but according to Holmes/Doyle, a person’s brain “is  like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose” (Konnikova, 26). From a very young age, I chose my furniture based on importance – to me, there were four domains of important information: literature, philosophy, history and art (actually, that’s an updated version, but basically it was those categories). I know that Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs and Roger Maris hit 61 in a season, but there my sports knowledge ends (although I’ll admit I do know a lot of running stats). At age 9, while others were watching the world series or reading A Wrinkle in Time, I was reading Brave New World. I just had the feeling that this “furniture” in my mind would be of much more use someday than sports statistics or children’s books.

Thinking of the mind in this way is also helpful in reverse, allowing one to do what Sherlock is so good at: “guessing at the contents of a person’s attic from his outward appearance becomes one of Sherlock’s surest ways of determining who that person is and what he is capable of.” If you don’t know what I mean by this, just watch the video below.

This scene was modified from the original in The Sign of Four, but replaced a pocket watch with a cell phone.

1 Comment

Filed under film, literature, Uncategorized

On Writing

Given that I’ve been blogging for nearly three years – over 120 posts – and wrote many academic papers before that, I thought I’d share some of my tips on writing productivity and style. This first post is on productivity.


1. Blogging – I know this one’s not very shocking, but blogging has allowed me to produce work in stages, sometimes very short pieces that I combine into longer ones. I have a goal of blog-to-book, since I write about few enough topics I figure eventually Iʻll have enough in one or two topics for book-length manuscripts. Blogging also allows me to store ideas in the form of drafts, while I collect citations or ideas to make a “complete” post. Here’s my draft “bin” – which is also a sneak preview of upcoming posts:

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 10.55.09 AM

They say about blogging that “never have so many said so much to so few,” but in my case it’s worked.

2. Emailing myself – Ideas come to me everywhere, and with a smartphone, I can type them up and send them to myself for use when Iʻm at my computer.

3. Dictation – For my dissertation, I had at various times a tape recorder and a digital recorder in my car. I dictated ideas into them and typed them up later. Now, with Dragon Dictate, you can read your text right into your iPhone and email that to yourself. I’ve listened to books on tape or CD since 1990 and it frees up a huge amount of time for “reading” that wouldn’t otherwise be available – while running, driving or doing dishes. I’ve started to use this same driving time for writing.

4. Wake up early – Almost everyone knows that this is the key to writing productivity, but so few people use it. The way I finished my dissertation (with two, going on three kids, a dog, a full-time job and a commute) was to wake up at 4AM, 5AM on weekends. I figured no one – not even the dog – would bother me between 4 and 5:15, and I was right. More importantly, making writing the first thing you do everyday does two things. It sends a powerful message to your brain that writing is your top priority and it starts you on a streak. If I got that first hour in, Iʻd try to find a second and a third hour, and usually Iʻd succeed. I ended up averaging about 2 and a half hours per day, which I knew would be enough. One more thing on this point: I had a can of ice coffee on my bed stand.

1 Comment

Filed under literature, Uncategorized

Melville in Hawaiʻi

When E.L. Doctrow said on the Charlie Rose show that Moby Dick was the greatest American novel and that Melville had accomplished something truly monumental (which, of course, was not recognized in his time), I resolved to finally read the book. Along the way I developed something of an obsession with this introverted and under appreciated writer. I visited his home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts – the town next to the one my wife is from, and the one she was born in. I stood in the room where he had written the Great Book, and on the piazza where he had written The Piazza Tales. I stood in the house at Tanglewood – summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox and Stockbridge – which was rented by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a friend and supporter of Melville’s literary career, whom Melville would have visited around 1850.

Herman Melville, ca. 1860

Melville’s brief brush with fame, which allowed him to write Moby Dick, obviously stemmed from his experiences in the Pacific, but one of his lesser-known visits was to Hawaiʻi in 1843. It was an auspicious year, and Melville was privy to the Paulet Affair (which Iʻve written about in these “pages” more than once). On February 14th, 1843, Lord George Paulet seized the sovereignty of Hawaiʻi in response to complaints of the British Consul that the Kingdom had rescinded a grant of land (the 1840 Constitution held that the king controlled all land). His experiences were recounted in an appendix to Typee. Melville was present for the end of the affair, when Hawaiians in their joy reveled in what Melville described as a kind of “Polynesian saturnalia.” He tells of ten days of “universal broad-day debauchery” (see Stephen Sumida’s  And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawaiʻi).

What Melville (who has been lauded as a beacon of racial tolerance in part because of his autobiographical friendship with Queequeg – probably a Maori – in Moby Dick) failed to comprehend was Hawaiians’ periodic episodes of free and open sexual contact. Kaimipono Kaiwi has written, in bold defiance of received wisdom that Melville was a racist. Certainly his account of the first Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea (Restoration Day) throws his tolerant image into question.


Filed under literature, Mooolelo, sovereignty, Uncategorized

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Like Google Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s narrative in her new novel The Lowland zooms in to record the minutest details of life in India and Rhode Island, then zooms out temporally, skipping a decade or more, then flashing back. In an interview, Lahiri said the story is about two brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, who were involved with the Naxalite movement of the 60s, and with the same woman, the misanthropic Marxist philosopher Gauri. The plot line is based on an actual pair of brothers, who were killed in front of their parents for participation in the movement. But in the novel, only one brother sustains his participation the movement, and he dies early in the story, and for half the book there is next to nothing about the Marxist movement in India.

The New York Times had this to say of the book:

“The Lowland” is certainly Ms. Lahiri’s most ambitious undertaking yet, and it eventually opens out into a moving family story. It is initially hobbled, however, by pages and pages of historical exposition, by a schematic plotline and by a disjunction between the author’s scrupulous, lapidary prose and the dramatic, Dickensian events she recounts. It is only in the second half that Ms. Lahiri’s talent for capturing the small emotional details of her characters’ daily lives takes over, immersing us in their stories and making us less aware of the book’s creaky and often noisy hydraulics.

I was surprised that the book was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, but not surprised when it didn’t win, losing out to New Zealand’s Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries. It isnʻt even her best book. A writer mainly of short stories, Lahiri has not been able to extend her narrative powers over the novel length. Her Interpreter of Maladies deservingly won the Pulitzer Prize when she was only 31 years old. One line is etched in my mind, demonstrating her prowess with prose: “boys too young to shave but already missing teeth” opens up a panoramic picture of a harsh world in which these boys live – with only a phrase of text.

Her first novel The Namesake presented one of the exceptionally rare cases in which the film was, in my view, better than the book. This was mainly because her male protagonist lacked real depth and reality – a problem that continues with the males of The Lowland. It was also because of Kal Penn’s humanizing portrayal of Gogol/Nikhil. Both books touched on topics of genuine concern to me and drew me in, her prose both spare and lush, and descriptions of the bourgeois New England life resonate with her readers as much as her depictions of the unfamiliar territories it bridges to, especially India.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri’s interest in Marxism is curiously anachronistic, as even the characters themselves, as they go through life, begin to regard their activity as naive. The Party they belong to, for example, is called the Communist Party of India – Marxist-Leninist (CPIM). What is more complex is the web that emerges in the functioning of the Party’s activities, which include murder – not everyone knows what their role in the larger strategy is. Their roles become clearer as the plot progresses, flashing back and forward, even from past to present tense, but the historical backdrop of Indian Marxism does not.

But Lahiri has surprises. There may be things going on here that could be easily missed, but these are left cryptic. Is The Lowland a commentary on global warming? Of the two lowlands – one in Calcutta/Kolkata and the other, the state of Rhode Island – only one survives to the end of the book. And is her seemingly anachronistic interest in Marxism a commentary on global wealth inequality? Subhash’s move to the US for his career seems to create the lonely life of the expatriate rather than any visible abundance. The book begins at the Tolly Club, a former British country club, symbolizing the wealth and class divide of colonial and postcolonial India. Late in the book, Subhash is invited to the club, but his response is muted. There are also some literary nuances that leave one guessing. The result is a good novel from a great writer.

Leave a comment

Filed under literature, Uncategorized


In the 1970s the philosopher Michel Foucault asked “what is an author?”:

The disclosure that Shakespeare was not born in the house that tourists now visit would not modify the functioning of the authorʻs name, but, if it were proved that he had not written the sonnets that we attribute to him, this would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the authorʻs name functions … the name of an author is not precisely a proper name among others (Foucault, 1977, 122).

Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous puts us in this very position. When I studied Shakespeare at Harvard with Marjorie Garber, author of Shakespeare, After All, she had no qualms admitting that the works of The Bard were of a “collective” nature. They contained too much wisdom collected over the ages to be the work of one man. But Emmerich’s film says they were – of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who, according to the plot, was in line for King of England.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

There are certainly some holes in the received Shakespeare story. When he died he left his “second best bed” to his wife (though Bill Bryson explains that this was because the second best bed was the one that was actually slept in, while the best bed was put on display in the living room), but no mention of manuscripts is made in his will. None of the plays are written in his handwriting – though the film goes further, claiming that Shakespeare was actually illiterate. Shakespeare had a grammar school education, while the Earl had tutors for each of the classical subjects. The film closes by noting that the playwright Ben Jonson, the only person allegedly to have known the true identity of the Bard, dedicated his collected works to “the man we call William Shakespeare” [italics all mine].

But there are some problems with the film’s premise as well. The plays correspond fairly well with Shakespeare’s life (1564 – 1615). He had a son named Hamnet. One of the early books to consider the topic of Shakespeare’s identity was Shakespeare’s Lives in which Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe are also put forward as candidates. And let us not forget Malcolm X’s contention that Shakespeare was actually King James himself, since Shakespeare was a contemporary of the King James bible, and almost certainly an early reader/editor of it. Of course this theory completely neglects the fact that about half of Shakepeare’s output was under Queen Elizabeth (When James was in Scotland, a point the film makes clear), making him half Elizabethan and half Jacobin as a playwright.


Stephen Greenblatt summarizes the archival record of Shakespeare’s non-literary life in Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare:

Apart from the poems and the plays themselves, the surviving traces of Shakespeare’s life are abundant but thin. Dogged archival labor over many generation has turned up contemporary allusions to him, along with a reasonable number of the playwright’s property transactions, a marriage license bond, christening records, cast lists in which he is named as a performer, tax bills, petty legal affidavits, payments for services, and an interesting last will and testament, but no immediately obvious clues to unravel the great mystery of such immense creative power (Greenblatt, 2004, 12).

The film cleverly, and darkly, uses the motif of the play within the play. It connects many of the plays to the politics of succession. It incredibly suggests that Queen Elizabeth and de Vere had a child. It posits that Henry III was a device to get a mob to attack the Machiavellian advisor to Elizabeth. While this is all very clever, the characters are not wholly believable. While the three actors who portray Elizabeth lend her weight, and Rhys Ifans (Xenophilus Lovegood in Harry Potter 7.1) surprisingly plays de Vere in a dignified manner meant to convince the audience he is capable of such genius, Ben Jonson comes across as a tragic-comic action hero, and the hunchbacked villain Robert Cecil is a waspish walking cliche. The film portrays Shakespeare himself as something slightly above a bumbling idiot. After previewing and promoting the film, my bluish-collar neighborhood theatre didn’t run the film, and I missed it until its DVD release. This is a decent representation of the film’s appeal. It doesn’t succeed as action, or even drama, and leaves too many questions for the truly scholarly. But Derek Jacobi lends his considerable weight to reopening, or at least keeping open, questions over the man who Harold Bloom called the center of the Western Canon.

Update; April 23, 2014, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday:

In his book, simply entitled Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson makes a compelling argument that Shakespeare was in fact the author of the plays. Beginning with a genealogy of the idea that someone else wrote the plays, he shows the marginal origin of this theory, which only later attracted prominent proponents, such as Sigmund Freud. Bryson reasons away, credibly, the arguments that he simply had not enough education, background or rank to author such masterly works by noting that others such as Ben Jonson had similar backgrounds.

Then he positively obliterates the argument that Edward de Vere authored the plays pointing out that he died too early to have written the final plays. Proponents of de Vere have justified this quite scathing critique away, but not convincingly, as Bryson shows the mental acrobatics necessary to forward such a hypothesis. But the debate is not finally, entirely settled, as  youʻll see in the next post, written, appropriately, by anonymous.

Leave a comment

Filed under literature, Uncategorized

The Massie-Kahahawai Case – by John Rosa

(HONOLULU, January 8, 2012)  In Kalihi-Palama on School Street, just between the United Public Workers building and the bus terminal for Kamehemeha Schools lies the small Puea Cemetery where Joseph Kahahawai, Jr. is buried. I always show my UH Manoa students a photo of his grave marker and ask them, as good historical detectives in training, what they notice. Yes, the tombstone indicates he was born on Christmas Day slightly over a century ago in 1909, but when pushed a little further, students see that it reads “Killed Jan. 8, 1932” – a defiant statement indicating that a young man’s life was cut short much to early.

Eighty years ago the killing of Kahahawai brought about the second criminal trial in the well-known Massie-Kahahawai Case. Joseph Kahahawai and four other young local men had been accused of raping Thalia Massie, the twenty-year-old wife of a Naval officer stationed at Pearl Harbor. The rape trial against Kahahawai and his friends, Ben Ahakuelo, Horace Ida, David Takai, and Henry Chang had ended in a mistrial in the fall of 1931. Before a second trial could be convened, however, Thalia Massie’s husband, Thomas Massie, her mother, Grace Fortescue, and two hired Navy personnel kidnapped Joseph Kahahawai from the front steps of a courtroom in downtown Honolulu where he had been checking in daily on condition of his bail. The “Massie-Fortescue” group drove Kahahawai to a rented cottage on Kolowalu Avenue in Manoa and tried to coerce a confession out of him for the alleged rape of Thalia Massie. When Kahahawai refused to comply and asserted his innocence instead he was shot and then bled to death.

The Massie-Fortescue group tried to dispose of Kahahawai’s body near the Halona Blowhole, but Honolulu police had been following their automobile and caught them red handed. Photographers from both the English and Japanese-language newspapers were close behind the HPD, documenting the crime for audiences locally, in the continental U.S. and even internationally. The evidence against the Massie-Fortescue group seemed to provide an open-and-shut murder case in the spring of 1932. Territorial prosecutor John Kelley, in fact, defeated the well-known Clarence Darrow who defended the group. Then Thomas Massie, Grace Fortescue, Edward Lord and Albert Jones were found guilty of the lesser-charge of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years at Oahu Prison. In the end, however, as many keen observers of Hawai‘i’s history already know, Territorial Governor Lawrence McCully Judd – under tremendous pressure from the U.S. Navy and politicians in Washington, DC – commuted their sentences to one day. Many say that Thomas Massie, Grace Fortescue, Lord and Jones spent a mere hour in the governor’s office at ‘Iolani Palace, perhaps either sipping tea or champagne while signing paperwork and posing for newswire photographers.

The true crime details about the Massie-Kahahawai Case are by now, very well known – especially in the last decade with the appearance of books like Honor Killing (2005) by UH American Studies professor David Stannard and Hawaii Scandal (2002) by veteran newspaper reporter Cobey Black. But we also must recall that for decades, the event was deemed to painful, or at least too delicate a story to be repeated in public or in the press. By the 1980s, however, retelling the case in UH Manoa Ethnic Studies courses and eventually in high school curricula became ways to have students talk more openly about racial and ethnic relations, about tensions with a military presence in the islands, and about the need to have accurate and balanced media coverage regarding Hawai‘i and its peoples.

I first heard about the case, not in school, but through the Blood and Orchids television miniseries that aired in the mid 1980s. Like others of my generation from Hawai‘i who watched this fictionalized account while away for college, I was surprised to learn that the miniseries was based on true events. Some twenty years later, Kumu Kahua Theatre did a highly successful run of Dennis Carroll’s play, Massie/Kahahawai that had been painstakingly written by piecing together primary source writings and documents from 1931-32. Carroll, the recently retired chair of UH Manoa’s Theater Department, had originally written the play in the early 1970s, but threats of litigation from Thomas Massie himself caused him to shelve the play for three decades.

Because the Massie-Kahahawai Case involved the alleged rape of a white woman by non-white men of Native Hawaiian, Japanese, and mixed Chinese-Hawaiian ancestry, it is often seen as the first time that the term “local” was used in Hawai‘i with any salience. During the 1930s, during World War II, and onward, island residents of Hawaiian, Asian, and other immigrant descent often saw their working-class, local experiences as much different from – and even opposed to – that of a kamaaina, Big Five elite or representatives of the military or federal government. The case still retains much of that meaning today, but it is also a way to discuss whether local residents always have the power to determine what is right – what is pono – for themselves and the land that they live in. Will Hawai‘i always fight an uphill battle against people and places that do not understand it well, whether it be the “Mainland” or other nation-states in the Asia-Pacific Rim? Are the rights and needs of Hawai‘i and other islands in the Pacific ever to be addressed aqequately? Can justice be fairly and consistently administered, despite pressures from the outside?

Like any event in Hawai‘i’s history, the Massie–Kahahawai Case will continue to raise pertinent questions that current and future generations can think deeply about, seek to answer, and hopefully, resolve. Today (Sunday, January 8th), for example, a group led by Darlene Rodrigues will be going on a walk from downtown Honolulu to Puea Cemetery to call to mind the life of Joseph Kahahawai, Jr. and the continuing relevance of the case. When the group arrives at Kahahawai’s gravesite to offer their thoughts, prayers, and flowers, they will notice a slightly faded inscription on the tombstone that my students do not often see. The inscription is usually too difficult to see in photos, but it is nevertheless, important. It reads HOOMANAO – to remember.

This article was originally published on Jan 8, 2012 in The Hawaiʻi Independent @

UPDATE: John’s book, Local Story: the Massie-Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History, was released in May, 2014. I’ll be writing a “friendly review” shortly (I’ve known John for nearly 25 years and can’t possibly  be expected to be neutral).

John P. Rosa

John P. Rosa is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.


Filed under literature, Uncategorized