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Zigzag: A Life on the Move

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In April 1962, clutching a surprise parting gift from his Inuit friends and hunting companions, James Houston flew south to a new life. A few days later (after the unfortunate Montreal incident with the U.S. Immigration officer in the Ladies? Room), he was living and working in the heart of Manhattan.

His passage there was eased by his powerful patron Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., the head of Steuben Glass, and by Houghton?s wife, his secretary, ...
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Overview

In April 1962, clutching a surprise parting gift from his Inuit friends and hunting companions, James Houston flew south to a new life. A few days later (after the unfortunate Montreal incident with the U.S. Immigration officer in the Ladies’ Room), he was living and working in the heart of Manhattan.

His passage there was eased by his powerful patron Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., the head of Steuben Glass, and by Houghton’s wife, his secretary, his butler, and his driver. But it was a huge and difficult life-style change, shrewdly captured here in the series of short vignettes that James Houston has used to tell his tale. Punctuated by his own black-and-white sketches, they follow not only his blundering attempts to take Manhattan, but also the incredible zigzags that his life has taken ever since, including twenty-six trips back to his beloved Arctic.

In the following pages you’ll meet a Master Designer with over one hundred valuable glass sculptures to his credit, a New England sheep farmer, a bestselling novelist, a Harlem art teacher, a Pacific salmon fisherman, a Hollywood scriptwriter, a prizewinning author of seventeen children’s books, an Arctic film producer, a man who designed National Geographic Magazine’s 100th anniversary Award (not to mention the flags of two Canadian territories), and the owner of Whistler’s Mother’s house.

James Houston, of course, is all of those people.

True to the book’s title you’ll also meet him as a world traveller who found himself skulking among leopards in equatorial Africa at night; drinking toasts in the Russian Arctic with a Kommissar who stripped to hispink underwear; slipping out of his own underwear on a snowy night in Japan under the eyes of many curious Japanese ladies; cruising the Mediterranean on a luxury yacht while kings came aboard; wrestling with a flustered walrus about to drown him in the Bronx Zoo; improving his sketching in Paris while drunks wandered in to check out the nude models; or tarpon fishing among sharks in Florida with a group so well connected that President Johnson dropped in by helicopter to join them, accompanied by his favourite Scotch.

James Houston is such a modest man that fear of name-dropping made him reluctant to tell some of his best stories. But it is clear that in the range of his experiences and of his achievements (although, significantly, none of his honorary degrees, and few of his many prizes and awards, are mentioned in these pages) he has led a life more interesting than almost any other Canadian who springs to mind.

Clearly, this is a man who never said no to a new experience, whether it was singing duets in the shower with an unknown Manhattan neighbour (a soprano); or rounding up Inuit friends to act the role of their great-grandparents in the film The White Dawn (all did not go well – hence the line “What do you mean he’s gone hunting?”); or helping Nelson Rockefeller’s wife over a lull in the dinner party conversation; or agreeing to design the central seventy-foot sculpture in the main hall of Calgary’s new Glenbow Museum, then driving the one thousand delicate prisms of his “Aurora Borealis” piece across the country; or acting at a Sotheby’s auction bidding for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, armed with invaluable bidding tips; or working at the Corning Glass Works, side by side with the gaffers who wrestle with molten glass at “the glory hole” to give shape to the designer’s blueprint creations (a process well illustrated in Fire Into Ice); or helping an Arctic ship’s mate to remove a seal to whom the captain had grown attached; or wooing and winning the courageous Alice, the Yale professor’s daughter who now shares his life. Or rather, lives.

This memorable book by an engaging storyteller with a dozen lives behind him will set you reading his Arctic memoirs Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, and eagerly seek out his book about his life among the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands, Hideaway.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Having spent years living among the Inuit (an adventure recounted in Confessions of an Igloo Dweller), Houston left his Baffin Island home in 1962 for Manhattan, to become a designer for Steuben Glass. In this unpretentious sequel, the versatile documentary filmmaker, explorer, novelist, painter, sculptor and champion of Eskimo art ("Yes, people in Alaska gladly refer to themselves as Eskimos") re-creates the twists and turns of his full life. Part of his memoir's charm lies in its wry record of a Canadian's encounter with American culture. He found New Yorkers outspoken, impolite and far more territorial than the cooperative Eskimo hunters he left behind. He also chides Canadians for a lack of drive and being too tight-fisted with money, and he blames satellite television and Canada's government-sponsored boarding schools for disrupting Inuit society. There are personal adventures galore, as he shuttles back and forth to the Canadian Arctic; supervises filming of his novel The White Dawn; restores an 18th-century Rhode Island farmhouse; zigzags from East Africa's Olduvai Gorge to Japan's Hokkaido island to Venezuela's Orinoco River; and rubs elbows with Nelson Rockefeller, Mortimer Adler, Dale Chihuly and LBJ. His joie de vivre and optimistic faith in humanity make his journey (illustrated with his own jaunty drawings) a refreshing one. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A discursive memoir from Canadian filmmaker and writer Houston (Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, 1996) of his post-Inuit years, mostly a thin gruel of name-dropping and social climbing. Houston had secured his reputation as the man who brought Inuit art to the world marketplace and as an artist of high Arctic images, when, in 1962, he was invited to join the Steuben Glass Company in New York City as a design director. Next thing he knew, he was hobnobbing with the swells in the social whirl. But these events get such glancing treatment, as does his purchase of farmhouses in Rhode Island and Connecticut and the designs he creates for Steuben, that it is difficult to suppress a yawn as Houston flits from one rich-and-famous moment to another: there was that trifling embarrassment with Bill Blass at Grace Mirabella's party, and the time Howard Payne from the National Geographic Society called him to design the society's centennial award, and the tarpon fishing at Boca Grande with Arthur Houghton when LBJ kept dropping by. Houston pretends to be just a rube among the giants, but that doesn't wash, nor does it excuse his witless stories, such as the time, ho ho, when he thought the Chicken Delight delivery man was saying "checkin' d`lights," to which he replies: "Beat it, will you? Our lights are fine. One more ring out of you and I'll call the cops!" Mostly, it's all one charmed existence, recounted like the ticks of a metronome—on safari with the Explorers Club, getting a personal tour of the cave paintings of France and Spain, salmon fishing at his little hideaway in the Queen Charlotte Islands, then off up the Orinoco for a touch of adventure—but the experiences arenever treated with the kind of appreciation that gives them meaning and elevates them above trophies. Houston's remembrances, drained of context and maundering, hold as much fascination as seeing your neighbor's vacation photos for the third time. (48 b&w illustrations)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780771042089
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
  • Publication date: 10/24/1998
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.23 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

James Houston, a Canadian author-artist, served with the Toronto Scottish Regiment in World War II, 1940-45, then lived among the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic for twelve years as a Northern Service Officer, and the first Administrator of west Baffin Island, a territory of 65,000 square miles. Widely acknowledged as the prime force in the development of Inuit art, he is past chairman of both the American Indian Arts Centre and the Association on American Indian and Eskimo Cultural Foundation Award, the 1979 Inuit Kuavati Award of Merit, and the 1997 Royal Geographic Society’s Massey Medal, and is an officer of the Order of Canada.

Among his writings, The White Dawn has been published in thirty-one editions worldwide. That novel and Ghost Fox, Spirit Wrestler, and Eagle Song have been selections of major book clubs. Running West won the Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year Award, while his novel, The Ice Master, also appeared in Spanish translation. Author and illustrator of seventeen children’s books, he is the only person to have won the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award three times. His most recent children’s book is Fire and Ice, about creating glass sculpture. He has also written screenplays for feature films, has created numerous documentaries and continues to lecture widely.

His drawings, paintings, and sculptures are internationally represented in many museums including the St. Petersburg Museum in Florida and private collections including that of the King of Saudi Arabia. He is Master Designer for Steuben Glass, with one hundred and ten pieces to his credit. He created theseventy-foot-high central sculpture in the Glenbow-Alberta Art Museum. In 1999 Canada’s National Museum of Civilization devoted its show “Iqqaipaa” to the art of the Arctic in James Houston’s time, and he played a central role in organizing the exhibition.

He and his wife Alice divided their time between a colonial privateer’s house in New England and a writing retreat on the bank of a salmon river on the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, where he has written a large part of his trilogy of memoirs, Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, Zigzag, and Hideaway.

James Houston passed away in 2005 at the age of 83.

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