GIFT BOOKS, usually, are books only in the most general sense of the word. Shiny, big books held up by coffee tables. Books too bulky to take to bed. Gifts of substance for special occasions. Books bought to be admired but, too often, not to be read.
It is a relief, then, that on this year's gift-book list there are picture-books with something to say. Peregrine Falcons (Douglas & McIntyre, 145 pages, $35 cloth), by Candace Savage, is lush, with 100 extraordinary colour photographs -- peregrines nesting on remote rock faces, swooping across Arctic tundra, riding the updraft over skyscraper cliffs -- and the extended essay that accompanies the images brings intelligence and insight to what might otherwise be pretty but forgettable pictures. The peregrine falcon, whose Latin name means "the wandering falcon," is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, with nests on every continent except Antarctica. Yet in the early 1960s, its
numbers suddenly dropped: one area that had Supported 18,000 nests in the 1940s contained only 648 breeding birds 30 years later. Savage skillfully unravels the mystery of the peregrines' steep decline, which was caused by DDT and the organochlorine insecticides adopted so enthusiastically by agriculture after the Second World War. She describes the ban on DDT, scientific efforts to reintroduce peregrines bred in captivity, and the continuing research into the birds' reproductive health, which, given their extensive range, is proving a bellwether for the environmental well-being of the entire globe. "The peregrine falcon provided the emotional and scientific heart of the anti-DDT campaign, particularly in Canada and the United States," writes Savage. "The peregrine is on the wing again throughout much of its range, in numbers that may soon approach natural levels. But it would be a mistake to take too much comfort from this happy ending. In particular, it would be foolish to conclude that we can
go on making reckless errors in Our use of synthetic poisons, as we did with the organochlorines, and get away scot-free."
Another gift book that celebrates Success while gently wagging a cautionary environmental finger is Guardians of the Whales: The Quest to Study Whales in the Wild (Whitecap, 192 pages, $34.95 cloth), by Bruce Obee and the photographer Graeme Ellis. Both Obee and Ellis grew up in British Columbia and participated in the whale-bashing acceptable in the pre-environmentalist age. Obee writes:
As a Youngster on Vancouver Island I didn't question the killer whale's unattested infamy .... A whole squadron Would glide in from Juan de Fuca Strait, their ominous dagger-shaped dorsal fins slicing the sea like periscopes. With pockets full of rocks we'd clamber tip the headlands and scan the seaward edge of the bay, watching, listening for that unmistakable gush of air exploding from their lungs. Any that surfaced within firing range were met by a volley of stones from our slingshots.
Obee and Ellis have since come a long way, and so has the science of whale research. Killer whales have gone from being considered bloodthirsty oceanic predators to being everybody's buddy. With the help of Ellis's crisp and often haunting photographs, Obee adroitly maps the turnabout, profiling the whale researchers who first recognized the limitations of using captive whales as research subjects and took to tracking them in the wild. In a poignant foreword, the book is dedicated to Michael Bigg, one of the world's foremost authorities on killer whales and an early, vigorous advocate of non- intrusive field research, who died of cancer in 1990.
After the lively, enlightened prose of Obee and Savage, Cougar: Ghost of the Rockies (Douglas & McIntyre, 156 pages, $35 cloth) is a disappointment. The writing is sentimental and anthropomorphic, the sort of thing Audubon published 40 years ago. Produced in conjunction with a television documentary by the filmmaker Jim Dutcher and his researcher and partner Karen McCall, Cougar is the story of a year in the life of a mountain lion living in a five-acre enclosure in Idaho's White Cloud Mountains. The 70 photographs are magnificent, but the text reveals that these are not animals in the wild, as they seem, but quasi-pets named Catrina, Casper, and Spook. There is too much poetic description and not enough natural history about cougars, and nothing at all about Canadian cats.
The Magdalens: Islands of Sand (Nimbus, 88 pages, $27.95 cloth) is similarly lush without being enlightening. Thumb through it for George Fischer's pretty, predictable images of brightly painted houses, fishing boats, and grottoed coastline, but don't expect to learn much about the Magdalens.
There is hardly a face among Fischer's photographs, a criticism that can never be leveled at Karsh. Canada's most famous photographer is such a marketable commodity that only his name appears on the cover of his latest book of portraits: the title has been pushed to the spine. American Legends (Little, Brown, 157 pages, $60 cloth) is quintessential Karsh: startling, sensitive, full-page mug shots (44 duotones, 44 in full colour) of famous North Americans (posing among Charlton Heston, Ralph Nader, Martha Graham, and Elie Wiesel is a lone Canadian -- Gordie Howe). As well- mannered and composed as four-o'clock tea at the Chateau Laurier, this book is worth the price if only for the photograph of Mickey Rooney impersonating Humpty Dumpty.
It is too bad the same production values could not have been lavished on the portraits of David Neel, an extremely talented young Canadian photographer of Kwagiutl descent. Our Chiefs and Elders: Words and Photographs of Native Leaders (UBC Press, 192 pages, $35.95 cloth) is a stunning collection of 60 portraits of British Columbia Native leaders, relaxing at home and in ceremonial dress. A healthy antidote to the legacy of Edward Curtis's Native portraits, Neel's images are prefaced by the words of the men and women he photographed, as well as memoirs and reflections on Native life, Native rights, and the country we share. The design of the book is unfortunate -- paragraphs run into each other and so do the memoirs, forcing readers to flip to the portraits to get a distinct vision of each speaker -- but that is forgivable in a book so visually and verbally satisfying.
Neel's book is a rare glimpse of the Native artistic vision. Maria Tippett's By a Lady (Viking, 226 pages, $60 cloth) celebrates another vision that has been too rarely seen, that of Canadian women artists. Amid the Paul Peels, Tom Thomsons, and Riopelles, there have always been women resolutely expressing their world with clay, pencil, and paint, yet art-history books have largely bypassed or dismissed their contributions. Tippett writes in her afterword:
If women artists chose to work in more advanced styles than their male counterparts, their work was either ignored or harshly criticized; see, for example, the pre-First World War paintings of Kathleen Munn, Emily Carr and Henrietta Shore. If, on the other hand, women artists worked within the dominant male genre, as did the interwar landscape painters and post- war followers of non-objective art, they were accused of producing second-rate, watered-down versions of what men were doing. For whatever reason, women simply could not win the approval that their work deserved.
Tippett's book is a worthy attempt to set the record straight. From Florence Carlyle's turn -of-the -century social commentary The Tiff, through the controlled, high-keyed Dark Girl of Prudence Heward, to the brash Les demoiselles de Banff of Therese Joyce-Gagnon, By a Lady presents image after image of women by women. Joyce Wieland's phallic Artist on Fire, which is reproduced on the cover, signals that male anatomy comes in for some exploration, too, particularly in Charlotte Wilson Hammond's aptly named Frank, and Badanna Zack's polished Tumescence and Detumescence. Albeit academic, Tippett's accompanying text is readable, insightful, and pointed without being strident.
The last of the big gift books is by no means the least. Charles Pachter (McClelland & Stewart, 176 pages, $90 cloth) is a retrospective of the artist's work punctuated with three essays: a foreword by his friend and collaborator, Margaret Atwood; a somewhat formal biography of Pachter by the art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov; and a diary-like memoir by the artist. The entire production -- from Mooseplunge I and 11 to Pachter's 1955-59 entry on Miss Hudgins's art option, "Well dear, you have pudgy fingers and no co-ordination, but you tried" -- is infused with the wit and acuity that is Pachter's trademark. "It's no accident that this culture produced Mackenzie King, a prime minister noted during his lifetime for his intense blandness and celebrated after it for the fact that he was discovered to have been ruling the country through his dog, who he thought contained the spirit of his dead mother," writes Atwood. "It's no accident either that it produced Pachter."
Finally, a little gift book that can, and perhaps should, be read in bed. Sabine's Notebook (Raincoast, unpaginated, $21.95 cloth), by Nick Bantock, is a peek into the sketchbook-cum-scrapbook of the tortured Griffin, who is on the lam -- around the world and back in time -- from Sabine, the creature of his imagination. (The characters were introduced in last year's Griffin & Sabine.) Exquisitely, intricately illustrated, and cryptically, wittily written, this is a gift book that even readers will be pleased to receive.