Books bring a season's worth of insights
Whether made from digits or dead trees, books still offer some of the best pop for your holiday buck. For sheer lasting enjoyment, a couple hundred quality pages can blow away a box of chocolates, no matter how nice the bow. And they won’t make you fat.
For those who wish we all wore hats more often
Has interest in Vancouver’s history ever been higher? It seems the faster the city changes, the more we feel some half-conscious need to look back. Local history is in the air, as an amazing variety of new books shows.
Not only is there Fred Herzog: Photographs (Douglas & McIntyre), a beautiful collection of the pioneering photographer’s images of Vancouver streets as they were a half-century ago. There’s also Diane Purvey and John Belshaw’s brand-new Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960 (Anvil Press), a look at crime, corruption, and conformity in that hard-edged era. The full-colour volume Stan Douglas: Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (Arsenal Pulp) assembles essays, archival photos, and production stills focusing on the acclaimed local artist’s re-creation of the infamous Gastown Riot.
And, of course, the Vancouver 125 Legacy Books project, run by former municipal poet laureate Brad Cran and a group of B.C. publishers, has rescued 10 out-of-print gems from obscurity. Among these are Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter’s indispensable oral history Opening Doors (Harbour) and Rolf Knight’s Along the No. 20 Line (New Star), a series of recollections about mid-20th century life on the city’s working waterfront.
Pulling up alongside, like one of the great steamships that once came to those docks, is The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver (Harbour), the heavily illustrated 600-page tome representing a lifelong labour of love by the late broadcaster and local historian. This fact-packed, upbeat chronology runs from George Vancouver’s sailing routes to Gregor Robertson’s bike lanes, and presents a gull’s-eye view of a fast-expanding city’s births and deaths, openings and closings, firsts and lasts. Amid the necessary items about politics and social change (not to mention the many about fires, floods, and bridge collapses—lots and lots of bridge collapses), there are regular glimpses of the truly odd: Mark Twain laid up in bed with a cold during an 1895 visit, or commandos training on Kits Beach in 1943. Strange place, strange times.
For the puck-possesed
The Hockey Hall of Fame is without question the hockey nerd’s dream vault. (Its French name carries the full religious weight: le Temple de la renommée du hockey.) If you count yourself among those nerds but can’t make the pilgrimage there—or won’t, because it would mean visiting Toronto—the plush new coffeetable-ready volume Hockey Hall of Fame Treasures (Firefly) offers a good simulation, filled with high-res photos of the relics that mark out a history as rich as any in sport.
It goes without saying that the hard-core Canucks fan won’t run across many happy memories of their franchise here. The team’s index entry leads quickly to a collection of nine landmark pucks from Wayne Gretzky’s career, three of which have a Canucks logo on them—meaning that a Vancouver crowd had to sit and watch as they travelled from the Great One’s stick to the back of a Canucks net, and from there into the record books. But there’s also the puck Sid the Kid drifted past Ryan Miller to win Olympic gold here last year, as well as racks of uniforms, sticks, trophies, and even empty champagne bottles associated with the great figures and moments of the game.
For fans of the muses
You won’t find a bigger picture of human inventiveness than A History of the World in 100 Objects (Allen Lane) by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. This handsome little brick of a book does exactly what it says on the label: for each artifact selected from the museum’s vast collection, MacGregor writes a compact essay about the beliefs, ambitions, accomplishments, and pressures that governed entire eras. The time frame is that of the species itself, beginning with a two-million-year-old chopping tool and ending with a common credit card. While MacGregor recognizes the inherent randomness of the task—the fact that, as he puts it, “a history of objects…can never itself be fully balanced because it depends entirely on what happens to survive”—each stop on this fascinating tour sheds light on a whole culture.
Creativity can also be studied in the special case. At an imposing 900-plus pages, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s new opus Van Gogh (Random House) delves into a biography that’s become a template for artistic life, as popularly imagined—rebellious, bursting with inspiration, strapped for cash, and self-destructive. The authors, who won a Pulitzer in 1991 for their equally hefty biography of Jackson Pollock, wade into archives of previously unpublished documents to build a portrait of a man who believed that everything he painted, from skies to empty rooms, reflected his stormy inner world. As part of the forensics, they even manage to raise doubts about the nature of the story’s tragic coda, Van Gogh’s death by gunshot at the age of 37. Was it really suicide, as legend claims?
Despite what romantic conventions say, artistic genius rarely works alone. Even Van Gogh had his Gauguin. The truly big innovations usually come from some crowded intersection, some point on the map where, almost by fluke, the right conditions fall into place and revolutionary ideas begin ricocheting from one creative mind to another. The proof is in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever (Faber and Faber) by Will Hermes. The veteran critic and NYC native tracks Gotham’s music scene between 1973 and ’77, a ridiculously fertile time across a whole range of popular forms. In one neighbourhood, the New York Dolls and Ramones hammer out the early basics of punk. In another, Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash invent hip-hop, literally from scratch. Elsewhere, Philip Glass and Steve Reich overhaul the very idea of orchestral music. Similarly huge changes sweep across jazz, salsa, and soul, which is mutating into the disco soundtrack for a new galaxy of dance clubs. All the while, the city itself sinks into a mire of bankruptcy, garbage strikes, arson epidemics, and serial-killer-induced panics. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire shows how marvels form even as things fall apart.