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Oklahoma Stories and Storytellers #06: Mack to the Rescue by Jim Lehrer
Oklahoma Stories and Storytellers #06: Mack to the Rescue

NShatt6783, February 15, 2009

Mack to the Rescue
Jim Lehrer
University of Oklahoma Press
Hardcover/ Fiction
202 pages

Those who’ve known journalist Jim Lehrer mostly as the low-key, long-time, sober-sided host/moderator of the PBS News Hour may be surprised, as I was, at the extent of his diverse literary out-put, including 18 novels. This one is eighth in a series based on the character “One-Eyed Mack,” mild mannered and straight arrow lieutenant-governor of Oklahoma who is, to his misfortune, harnessed to the loutish governor, “Buffalo Joe” Hayman.
Though one-eyed due to a childhood accident, Mack is more than able to see past the Guv’s preposterous facade to the true (and potentially mischief-making) foolishness within.

Hayman, it seems, suffers from chronic “foot in mouth” syndrome which strikes while he’s a guest on a right-wing talk radio show and in the grip of a particularly severe case of “motor mouth mania.” In the confluence of the rabid atmosphere within the studio and an onset of his personality afflictions, “Buffalo Joe” off-handedly blurts out his intent of privatizing most of the state’s offices, functions, and services. Of course, this pronouncement of a pending bureaucracy-free Oklahoma is catnip to Sooners sharing Ronald Reagan’s animus toward “big guv’ment.”

Finding the concept shaky, to say the least, Mack sets out to get the governor’s gaffe quashed even as he finds himself suffering through a freak and harrowing medical dilemma. With help from his shrewd, smart, and devoted wife Jackie, a successful, self-made entrepreneur with a purse-ful of state-of-the-art communication devices plus a private a helicopter always at the ready, Mack manages to extricate Oklahomans from what real-life neo-cons have long viewed as nirvana – virtual non-governance.

The book has its charms as a quick, pleasant read – within the category some consider “on-the-beach” or “airport-waiting-time” diversions. There’s nothing damning in different reads for different moods, motivations, and situations, yet reader disappointment can kick in at signs that a series may have gone stale, run out of steam. Clues to a series gone limp include a book’s seeming “tossed off,” too formulaic, or simply lacking a plot with sufficient enlivening pizzazz. Perhaps, too, at this particular time Lehrer’s core plot material -- comic-opera politicians, talk radio blow-hards, and crass-to-the-max power players – can’t help but seem pale in comparison to the gaudy reality that was our long, long immersion in the 2008 presidential election. The book appears, too, to be mis-categorized: not a “mystery” as it’s described, nor a “satire,” The humor is more of the droll, sly-pokes-in-the-rib variety, as in Mack’s recollection of an apparently pivotal, pre-pubescent moment:

“Mr. Eisenhower had played a small but important part in my life. At a YMCA camp outside Chanute when I was twelve a counselor was able to put aside some serious fears of perversion for me and my seven cabin mates. He said wet dreams were completely natural. All males had them, he said. And that included even people like Roy Rogers and Dwight David Eisenhower.”

“Mack to the Rescue” is part of a University of Oklahoma Press project called “Oklahoma Stories & Storytellers.” Lehrer, born in Kansas, surely benefits as a contributing author from a bred-in-the-bone knowledge and appreciation of his fellow heart-landers – geography, speech patterns, folkways. Should he again contribute, I would hope for greater heft to the plot, sharper honing of the humor, and added energy enlivening the whole.

Copyright, Norma J. Shattuck. 2008

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Where Light Takes Its Color from the Sea: A California Notebook by James D Houston
Where Light Takes Its Color from the Sea: A California Notebook

NShatt6783, July 2, 2008

Where Light Takes Its Color From The Sea: A California Notebook
By James D. Houston
Heyday Books
Hardcover/ 270 Pages

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, sun-bathe, 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 over-riding 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.
Copyright, Norma J. Shattuck, 2008
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Murder in the Rue de Paradis (Aimee Leduc Investigation) by Cara Black
Murder in the Rue de Paradis (Aimee Leduc Investigation)

NShatt6783, April 21, 2008

Murder in the Rue de Paradis
By Cara Black
Reviewer, Norma J. Shattuck

Aimee Leduc once again survives a perilous investigation (though not without physical and emotional battering) in the eighth of Black’s series set in Paris. This was my introduction to the tough and intrepid Leduc, but Black infuses enough catch-up tutorials for newbies like me to get a picture: that Leduc’s gamine persona --big, kohl-rimmed eyes, spiky hair, and garbed in thrift shop finds --- suggests she’s a Goth-prone Gallic gumshoe. She is also, to her peril and possibly to the point of exhausting some readers more used to plots with a less break-neck pace, the Energizer Bunny (er, Lapin) of private eyes.

Though a more than credible business-woman, she clearly shuns dress-for-success tailored suits in favor of retro-flash. Example: “a ‘60s minidress composed of tiny black, mirror-like sequin rectangles.Vintage Carnaby Street.” She wears the latter, by the way, not for sleuthing along dark streets and among the under-classes
but to seal a lucrative deal with a corporate client needing her firm’s security services.

That end of the business, we learn, is the specialty of her partner, Rene Friant -- a highly skilled and creative computer geek who happens to be a dwarf but, nevertheless, stands tall and totes a trusty Beretta when acting as Leduc’s back-up when a case turns dicey and dangerous. He drives a beloved vintage Citroen which seems to survive above-average, case-related battering, as do they.

Spring-board for the complicated plot is 1995’s world climate riven by terror attacks, ethnic violence, poisonous political/religious divisions, and fanatacism-fueled plotting and counter-plotting. We are plunged into that morass immediately after enjoying the tenderly written romantic episode in which Leduc is reunited with her lover, Yves Robert, an investigative journalist just returned from a risk-laden undercover assignment in Turkey. The very morning after their tryst, Yves is found dead. Certain clues convince her that his brutal dispatching was linked to his work, though a more sordid explanation appears to satisfy the city’s Brigade Criminelle. From that point on, Leduc, having been briefly but poignantly revealed as an emotionally vulnerable woman in love, is driven to sublimate this side of herself in order to identify who killed the man she had, only a few hours before his death, pledged to marry.

However, with so many rancor prone sub-communities in which to search -- expatriate Turks, Kurds, ex-French Legionnaires, et al –-how could she succeed? With a sharp mind, shoe leather, and honed detecting skills. Puzzlements: could the concierge with the Turkish accent seen sweeping a courtyard near the time of Yves’s death have glimpsed his murderer? Did the security guard in the porcelain and crystal showroom note anything amiss that morning? Was Yves’s doom tied to a note written in Turkish and found in his wallet; if so, did it correctly suggest the planned assassination in Paris of a Kurdish woman newly elected to power? Was it too preposterous to imagine a seemingly kind and conscientious nanny morphing into a dedicated assassin toting bomb components in place of her little charge’s Lego blocks?

In its complexity, Black’s plot can confuse and/or intimidate the reader in the way that Americans have been discomfited by those jumbo-sized French restaurant menus with section after section of possibilities printed in a language not our own. If she were a chef, Black might be advised by a boggled patron to do a soupcon of menu-trimming.

As to Leduc herself, she emerges intrepid even after suffering genuine emotional trauma and taking physical battering while picking through the slew of possibilities tied to Yves’s death. She is, at novel’s end, back at her desk: “She had a business to run.” That healing may be in the near future, however, is suggested by the more than casual interest she takes in a telephone message from Guy, the surgeon who’d saved her eyesight but walked away because “she couldn’t settle down.”

Obviously moved, “She stared at the rosy sunset spreading over the Louvre’s Cour Carree, bathing the gray-tiled rooftops in a last burst of light. The gray of Guy’s eyes. . . “

Vive Leduc!

Copyright Norma J. Shattuck, 2008

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The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt
The Sorrows of an American

NShatt6783, April 21, 2008

The Sorrows Of An American
By Siri Hustvedt
Reviewer, Norma J. Shattuck

“I’m so lonely,” is a cry that the psychiatrist narrator of this truly engrossing novel admits to uttering at times, apparently addressed to himself and emanating spontaneously.

It possibly functions as Dr. Erik Davidsen’s safety valve, since he serves as the reliable, compassionate, wide-shouldered counselor/comforter to his mother Marit, sister Inga, and niece Sonia, whose unresolved grief at the death of family patriarch Lars roils them, piled upon previously existing angst. All the while, he must continue serving the disparate needs of his patients, some of whom are quite unpleasant.

Then there is a newly-acquired burden: his yearning for Miranda, the beautiful, Jamaican-born single mother of a remarkable five-year-old daughter called Eggy, for whom he has become a fond father-substitute (her own father being an erratic-artist-turned-scary stalker). Mother and daughter live in the rental unit of his Brooklyn brownstone, so disturbingly close that his wound of unreturned love has scant chance to heal. In Eggy, Hustvedt may’ve set a new standard for a believable, fascinating child character. She is, in her precocity and creative means of expressing feelings, a pint-sized jewel.

Within a plot with highly diverse elements, family history and current complex relationships loom large. Lars’s survivors come to realize that the hitherto skimpy Davidsen annals may need not only augmentation but revision following discoveries such as a diary of Lars’s searing World War 2 combat experiences. Some added lore comes from quizzing mostly ancient relatives in the Minnesota town where Erik and Inga grew up as descendants of Norwegian immigrants. A waspish crone in their gene pool grudgingly receives Lars’s survivors. She and her odd care-giver, it seems, have a bizarre mode of recording events: meticulously creating and selling by mail-order a line of funereal dolls memorializing mis-fortune. The visitors are shown a girl doll with leg cast and crutches who “fell down the stairs” . . . an old woman doll “on the day she died” . . . and a middle-aged male doll holding a miniscule letter reporting the war-time death of his son. Is it cold-hearted schadenfreude or simply a way to garner needed income from well-to-do doll collectors?

In the contemporary New York segments (and within the family history motif) are Miranda’s anecdotes of her years in Jamaica, including the violent death of a beloved uncle which still haunts her. Here, also, the Davidsens interact with a fascinating, creatively conceived panoply of characters. One of these might have been crafted by the author while Dickens was looking over her shoulder and chuckling in approval.

Bernard Burton had been a medical school colleague of Erik’s who “even then was a fat, waddling red-faced person . . . His chief trouble, however, wasn’t his looks but his moistness. Even in winter, Burton had a steamy appearance. Bubbles of perspiration protruded from his upper lip. His forehead gleamed, and his dark shirts were notable for the great damp circles under the arms. The poor fellow gave the impression he was humid to the core, a peripatetic swamp of a man with a single vital accoutrement – his handkerchief.”

It requires a strong central character to over-arch such a labyrinthine plot with its many compelling characters. Yet Erik more than meets the test. Physically imposing at 6-ft, 5-inches (a legacy from those Norwegian forebears), he appears also to possess a reservoir of character strengths: compassion, an unwavering sense of responsibility for those who lean on him, and an acute awareness of his own vulnerabilities.

The latter includes the drain on himself because of the family’s emotional dependence, his divorce that ended a bitter marriage, and his inability to reach a point where the lament, “I’m so lonely,” no longer applies. In this age of flawed fictional males – too often puerile and narcissistic partial-people -- he towers both in worth and height. Yet he is no Atticus Finch. For one thing, saintliness would blunt his sex appeal which so reveals itself throughout that this exasperated reader is moved to wonder why Miranda is so oblivious to the sizzle, considering that his psychiatrist colleague and sometime bed-mate Laura Capelli expressed this enthusiastic, if nearly sub-lingual, reaction to their first coupling: “Good god, Erik. good god!”

Clearly, if amplified and spun off, certain yeasty subplots and characters in this novel have potential to encore in subsequent books. I would rush to read a sequel. Yet Siri Hustedt has, I am certain, many other stories to tell too. Bring them forth!

Copyright, Norma J. Shattuck, 2008
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Cold Comfort Farm (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) by Stella Gibbons
Cold Comfort Farm (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

NShatt6783, April 21, 2008

Cold Comfort Farm
By Stella Gibbons
Reviewer, Norma J. Shattuck

The best satire delights by using wit, a love of words and well honed skills in choosing them to point up how feeble and fumbling most of us really are. Writer D. H. Lawrence called attention to a lesser acknowledged aspect of the form (often thought merely barbed and mean-spirited) by noting, “For even satire is a form of sympathy.” And sympathy turns out to be a quality possessed by young London sophisticate Flora Poste after she moves in with unknown kin in the country, motivated by a miniscule income and a sense that neither society nor conscience would be troubled by her choice to “impose upon one’s relatives.”

And what, if not sympathy is behind Flora’s satisfaction, later, at her actual feat of master-minding miraculous transitions within the near-stone age set of relatives inhabiting (some might say infesting) Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex? “Really,” she marveled “when she thought what they had all been like” when she arrived. As one member of the clan had confided, “See, we’m violent folks, we Starkadders. Some on us pushes others down wells. Some on us dies in childer-birth. There’s others as die o’drink or goes mad . . .”

This re-issue of a satiric gem first published in Britain in 1932 demonstrates how it holds up under 21st-century scrutiny. It’s benign (as opposed to slashing) and broad-brush in its sly send-ups of both Flora’s “set” in London and of the rurals with whom she elects to reside. The city sophisticates spoofed include a woman friend who amasses a vast collection of brassieres which, the hope is, “would be left to the nation” and a male acquaintance who visits her in the country and, during shared walks, monotonously points out features of the landscape he declares phallic or suggestive of “large breasts.”

To Flora, “imposing” on her rag-tag relatives involves discovering paths by which the abysmal brood can be led out of their mire of generations of uber-dysfunctionalism. Thus, she reasons, they may move up the evolutionary ladder and she may live more peacefully among them (though, at the end, she’d developed second thoughts about the latter). Like Charles Dickens, Gibbons obviously relished concocting bizarre names, for the Cold Comfort farm line-up includes Adam Lambsbreath, Aunt Ada Doom, Urk Starkadder, and Agony Beetle. The cows -- called Feckless, Graceless, Aimless, and Pointless – reflect certain core traits of the humans for whom they provide milk and income.

At worst. Flora soon understands, the farmhouse harbors near-lunacy, as in Aunt Ada’s lifetime fixation on having seen “something nasty in the woodshed” and in distant kin Rennett’s tendency, under the purported spell of the sinister sukebind plant, to jump down the well or try to choke the hired girl. Wisely, Flora does not waste her efforts on re-directing the merely weird, as in cousin Urk, whose free time from farm toil seems mainly spent in “hanging over the well up at Ticklepenny’s, talkin’ to th’ water-voles.”

An amazingly fresh (after nearly 75 years!) send-up of a Hollywood mogul emerges in a character named Earl P. Neck, arrived from Beverly Hills to assemble his “annual batch of England’s best actors and actresses” – a form of intercontinental talent poaching that exists still. One of the book’s choicest scenes pits Neck against an intellectually pretentious pursuer of Flora:

“Have you ever seen ‘Alexandre Fin’? asked Mr. Mybug. “I saw him in Pepin’s last film . . . very amusing stuff. They all wore glass clothes, you know, and moved in time to a metronome.” The dealer-in-photogenic-flesh is unimpressed: “If your frog friend had to fill fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of movie seats every day, he’d have to think of a better stunt than a lot of guys wearin’ glass pants.”

It’s a long established fact that British authors and entertainers are practiced at the art of satire -- think P. G. Wodehouse of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves renown then, later, Monty Python, a TV series whose free-form, frenetic style broadened the boundaries of the form. From the beginning, Cold Comfort Farm shows itself as the product of a writer whose acute powers of observation allowed her to see hilarity within all segments of British society. Though she wrote widely and in various genres, it may’ve been Gibbons’ years as a journalist which served best in fueling her fiction, especially satire. Later books linked to this one include the novel Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (1949) and a short-story collection, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (1959).
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