Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea
James D. Houston
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Buy *Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea: A California Notebook* by James D. Houston online

Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea: A California Notebook
James D. Houston
Heyday Books
306 pages
April 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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The discerning eye and attuned sensibility of a painter or writer or gifted actor appear able to detect subtleties and nuances which freshen and sharpen their work. James Houston’s collection of essays of place (with a few pieces of short fiction added) argue for his possessing such inner gifts. Also, his being a native son with a passion for his subject matter surely was helpful in the flow and felicity of his words, culled from essays and short fiction spanning 1964 to 2006.

“I have lived other places and traveled quite a bit – in Europe, in Asia, in Mexico, and among the Pacific Islands. But I have always come back to this region I call my place, this long string of places.”
As acute observer of the state’s lures and long a resident of Santa Cruz, located in what is one of California’s truly geography-blessed region, it could be he has come close, within this collection, to suggesting that the famously bedazzling light may be one reason his birthplace has always drawn devotees:
"A lot depends on the light here. It shapes the mountains and draws a mossy green from those high meadow patches that never turn brown . . . It catches eucalyptus leaves with their undersides up, like a thousand new moons."
If quality of light is said to inspire artists, might not such unique glow serve also to focus the sensibilities of more plebian pilgrims - the humble masses? Perhaps, but many, many more – like the author’s parents and my own – were drawn not to gawk at scenery, sunbathe, or exclaim at the light and the roiling Pacific Ocean but to get jobs, for such were scarce to non-existent in the bleak, sad, played-out places which our respective elders determined to flee in the crisis times of the 1930s-40s.

Subject of one essay is Santa Cruz, the fun-and-sun mecca where he has lived the writer’s life for more than 40 years and where I first gawked with a child’s awe and near disbelief at the Pacific Ocean, then took a giddy ride on the boardwalk’s classic, still-spinning-today carousel. Through his eyes we sense a town with an odd blend of time-tested, tacky beach/ boardwalk lures (dating back 100 years) and a population mix of big-domed professors (from the local campus of the octopus-like University of California system); counter-culturists; dogged environmentalists; just plain folks; and raffish hangers-out who might seem the product of a film crew’s casting service. Yet overriding anything that might seem too tiredly Californian about the town is its breath-taking geography:

“Nowadays I can walk down to the sandstone bluffs a block from where we live, and, across the waters of Monterey Bay, I can see the outlines of the region they call ‘Steinbeck Country’ . . . And, as it happens, on almost any day of the year I can see the low place in the shoreline, the broad delta where the Salinas River spreads out and meets the bay. I can see the mountain ranges he describes in the early pages of East of Eden, representing for him the polarities of light and shadow, the sunny Gavilans to the east of his home valley, and to the west the Santa Lucias, shaded in the afternoon, less knowable, more foreboding.”
In describing the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that challenged and roiled the region, Houston makes clear that his town of choice is comprised of more than such fine views. Though outsiders might perceive a certain level of feyness within the populace, it seemingly co-exists with the qualities required for rebounding and re-building after the “most ruinous disaster in its history.
“Buildings fall, but the spirit does not die. Half the downtown is in rubble. And I grieve for what has been lost, the lives lost, the links to heritage and history. . . but the buildings themselves came later. First there was the place itself. . . I believe the spirit resides right there, in the continuing dialogue between a place and the people who inhabit it.”
In another essay, Houston details his search for forebears – surely a common instinct among those who themselves pulled up roots and settled in California, never to return, or had elders who did. Such seekers of family connections long lost have probably always abounded in California, where, Houston notes, “the blood relatives tend to be few and far between.”

Among short fiction in the collection is “Gasoline,” written in 1980 and based on the Carter-era outbreak of what might today be called “gas pump rage.” It not only works as fast-paced fiction but is startlingly relevant to our current populace’s rising panic at soaring gas prices.

Like his literary mentor, the late author/academic Wallace Stegner, who for years honed and influenced striving writers at Stanford University, James Houston seems able to spin fresh evocations even of locales much written-about. One hopes that his mastery of the prose of place will continue to be recognized, gain new readers, and satisfy a common yearning: to experience, even if vicariously, magical, nature-blessed landscapes like those that abound in his native Golden State.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Norma J. Shattuck, 2008

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