GIFT BOOKS are like diamonds: they look impressive, cost a lot, and are advertised as a way to show the recipient how much you care. But they?also resemble the gems in that they have little intrinsic value under their glitter. Many $50 tomes are read once, and then repose in stately slumber on the shelves. In assessing this year's somewhat modest crop of coffeetable volumes, I'll pay some attention to whether their lures are superficial or lasting.
Books that reveal the scenic glories of Canada or other lands are mainstays of the Christmas book trade. The leader in this category, both for looks and for value as a reference book, is Canada: A Natural History, (Viking Penguin, 200 pages, $50.00 cloth). Its text by John Livingston, an environmentalist, accompanies photographs by Tim Fitzharris, one of our best nature photographers.
This substantial, well?designed and ?produced book considers Canada as a series of ecologies, moving from coastal areas to mountains and the Arctic tundra, Ibis book's depth is in its emphasis on the interrelation of plant and animal life with the landscape and with human activity. Whether close?ups of hawks shot after long, cramped hours in a blind, or' serene views of Canada's rolling prairies, Fitzharris's photographs are eloquent and lyrical. They make as strong an argument for the preservation of nature as do Livingston's words. A good present for amateur naturalists, photographers and conservationists.
Much less impressive is Gros Morne: A Living LandsCape (Breakwater, 120 pages, $24.95 cloth). This book attempts to celebrate the beauty of our easternmost national park, on Newfoundland's west coast. But it can't decide whether it wants to be a modest account of one woman's experiences in that park or a fullblown gift book.
The colour plates are too small, while the black?and?white images are grainy and low contrast. The typeface is an irritating semi?serif. One might forgive these production shortcomings if brilliant prose compensated for them. Pat McLeod obviously knows the park well, and does offer information of use to visitors, but she tends to rely on cliches and anecdotes about her dog rather than original responses to an obviously bleak and striking locale.
One way you can't get to Gros Morne is by sticking to the Trans?Canada Highway. Wes Rataushk logged 15,000 miles while researching and photographing Silver Highway: A Celebration of the Trans?Canada Highway (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 160 pages, $49.95) . Unfortunately, the results don't equal Trans?Canada Country (1986), Brian Milne's book, on the same theme.
Rataushk's pictures are combined with the inconsistent winners of a photo contest sponsored by Minolta Canada. Some of the images are stunning; others poorly exposed or focused.
The layout of the book is also questionable; a photo from Manitoba accompanies text about Prince Edward Island, and a shot from Ontario faces the piece on Nova Scotia. The virtues of the book are in its willingness to include human touches ? such as an interview with the proprietor of a New Brunswick tourist attraction consisting of more than 100 handmade dummies ? and pictures that capture the kitsch and pollution along the highway as well as roadside lakes and forests.
A better?focused (in both senses of the term) production is Watermills of Ontario, Quebec and Maritime Canada (McGraw?Hill, 148 pages, $39.95 cloth). With photographs by W. Stephen Cooper and text by him and his wife, Carol Shibuya, this book delivers what the title promises: a visual review of some of Eastern Canada's most historic mills, with an informative text. It's intriguing to learn that the words and phrases spinster, on tenterhooks, and showing his mettle all derive from milling terms.
The colour plates seem small, although they are well reproduced; the evocative black?and?white images are not quite sharp or contrasty enough. However, this book has some lasting value, both as a guide to historical points of interest for travellers driving through Eastern Canada and as a reminder of how important mills were to the nascent 19th?century Canadian economy.
The largest contender in the scenic category this year is A Day in the Life of Spain (Collins, 224 pages, $59.95). Pick Smolam and David Cohen have assembled six previous A Day in. . . books (including a 1984 one on Canada) that have sold a total of more than two million copies. Obviously they have a successful concept: hire a team of international freelance photographers (including Canadians Douglas Kirkland and Andrew Stawicki), have them bum up about 100, 000 frames of film in one day, and edit a book from the results, including a rather self?congratulatory section On 'The Making of the Book."
The latest shows a?land that combines tradition and change: the King flies a helicopter and punks wear live mice, while others dream of becoming matadors, There are many exceptional images, both purely as photographs and as documents of Spain (an armed member of the Guardia Civil walking his son home from school in a town in the Basque Provinces, which are plagued by separatist violence; workers squirting wine into their mouths from flasks during a lunch break in Al hightech factory). But then there should, be excellent shots: they had 100,000 to choose from. Is this product worth $59.95? That depends on how much Spain means to those on your gift list.
The next category embraces those tomes with historical or anthropological significance. The most impressive of these is From the Land of the Totem Poles (Douglas & McIntyre, 268 pages, $55.00 cloth). Aldona Jonaitis, an American anthropologist and art historian, here displays and annotates many of the wonderful objects in the largest single collection of Northwest Coast Indian art, that of the?American Museum of Natural History.
Dr. Jonaitis goes beyond simply describing the objects and their uses, telling the story of how peoples like the Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakiutl encountered whites, and how such early devotees of native art and culture as Franz Boas collected the items. These parts of the text are as fascinating and moving as the sections dealing with the museum's development are dull.
The beauty of the museum's collection is indisputable. However, the questions raised by Native Canadians about the exhibition titled The Spirit Sings apply here as well. Many of these objects have spiritual and mythic significance, and were acquired by tactics ranging from trading to outright theft. A power figure taken from a shaman's grave is wonderful to behold but doesn't it really belong back with its owner', or his heirs? Jonaitis does not address this issue, although she does acknowledge other tragic aspects Of the despoiling, of West Coast Indian culture by white settlers and collectors.
Easier to accept ethically, although less striking visually, is Part of the Land, Part of 'the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians (Douglas & McIntyre, 330 pages, $40 cloth). This history, also assembled by an American academic, Catherine McClellan, recounts the story of the Dene and Tlingit drawing extensively on the words of Indian elders. It touches on customs and rituals, anecdotes and myths, land claims and tall tales. In?the process it creates a rounded picture, of a culture little known to southerners.
The illustrations include photographs of native dances and craft,, portraits of many of the elders who were sources for the books, and historical snapshots, drawings, and, paintings. Well edited and produced, this volume isa satisfying cross between scholarship, and. folklore, giving onaccount that spans the years from pre?contact to the present
Another group of people who ?have survived a largely hostile climate in, an isolated area are the English of Quebec's North Shore., Descendants of Newfoundlanders, they number a few thousand and inhabit 13 villages stretching along the St. Lawrence from Blanc?Sablon to Kegaska. Louise Abbott, a freelance writer and photographer, documents her fascination with this community in The Coast Way (McGill?Queen's, 156 pages, $50 cloth).
Her fine black?and?white photographs and informal text create a vivid picture of the Lower North Shore, where electric power became available only in the. early 1970s, many of the inhabitants still make their living by fishing, and mummers occasionally make the rounds of houses. Although television, tape recorders, and other influences are changing the life of the society she documents and such skills as shipbuilding and snowshoe?making are now confined to the aged, Abbott shows a: world still distinct from urban anglophone culture in Quebec. Ibis is a fine introduction to a little?seen part of Canada; its only flaw is the price, rather steep for a monochrome production.
An interesting addition to the ,books that already document Canada's colonial history is Colonial Identities: Canada from 1760 to 1815 (National Archives, 236 pages, $24.95 cloth). Sure to fascinate your favourite history buff are the documents and illustrations reproduced in colour and monochrome,, including lithographs of battles, maps of military campaigns, posters, inviting settlers to Canada, letters, and fur?trade account books. The accompanying, text often adds different viewpoints or new details, useful to students of the events that helped form our nation.
War may be hell, Out it does produce a lot of gift books. The best entry in this group is Ken Bell's Tim Way We Were. (University of Toronto Press, 256 pages, $39,95,09th), As A young military photographer during World War 11, Bell accompanied Canadian troops throughout their European campaigns., His latest book contrasts images from that period, taken by himself, other Canadians, and even, a, few German photographers, with the same landscapes as they appear now.
The result is often startling; war?wasted towns and fields have regenerated almost miraculously. Placid sunbathers lie where the bodies of soldiers fell 45 years ago. Children play games in alleys where grim men once flushed out snipers and collaborators. Particularly poignant are scenes of Canadians visiting the towns they liberated two generations ago, or of local people decorating the graves of the Canadian troops they welcomed so frantically.
I The book's sole irritation is in the predictability of the captions. Once the theme has been established, we don't need to be reminded that "the gun is long gone" from the contemporary scene shown, or that . there's now "no cause for fear" in the town square.
Less affecting but not without historical interest is Muskets to Missiles: a Pictorial History of Canada's Ground Forces (Methuen, 252 pages, $29.95 cloth) I which not surprisingly reproduces a few of the same photographs used in Bell's book. This is the final volume in a series by J. A Foster, who has already documented the growth of Canada's navy and air force., Foster begins his account with the first militia in Canada, which was formed in 1627 by Quebec settlers who agreed to defend themselves collectively against the Indians.'
Etchings and drawings of campaigns during the War of 1812 and the Fenian raids give way to photographs of the Riel Rebellion and the Boer War. Faster's ?written summary of Canadian military actions is clear and concise, although some readers, may disagree with his contention that today's enemies include Palestinians. The most extensive sections deal with the two Great Wars. .To add to the book's usefulness as a reference tool, Foster includes a list of Canadian regiments in order of preference and a visual history of sidearms used by Canadian forces.
The heavyweight contender in the architecture category, is The Architecture of Arthur Erickson (Douglas & McIntyre, 228 pages, $75.00 cloth). Erickson's text accompanies often impressive views of major projects ranging from private homes to public buildings such as Simon Fraser University. Erickson organizes his progress as an architect into five stages, ending with "Renewal." The book includes models and conceptual drawings of projects that didn't win competitions as well as the many that did.
In the international sphere in which Erickson's firm now competes, even winning is no guarantee that the design will be built. He writes of an Algerian contract: "Other than getting a photograph of the Algerian president with our model, we heard no more. At last report, the Algerians had introduced major changes, Bulgarians were promising to execute the working drawings on the cheap, and the Chinese were going to construct it. " Erickson's designs are serene, filled with light, 'often strikingly futuristic. He is fond of reflecting pools that echo nature, but also loves complicated arrangements of beams and trusses that draw attention to a building's structural elements.
The one criticism one might level at his work, as represented in. this collection, is that its scale And glossiness often seem a bit cold, inhuman; even the living?rooms he has designed for his 0 or his private clients look complete Athout people in them, But posterity will judge the ultimate value of his work; certainly he has changed the Canadian urban landscape, and this book does an excellent job of reflecting and documenting that change.
A much more sardonic view of contemporary decor is offered 'by Occupied Territory (Aperture, 112 pages, $25 cloth). Lynne Cohen has been haunting North American interiors for some time, collecting deadpan views of deserted offices, waiting rooms, and ballrooms that contain ironies and paradoxes: ugly chairs made entirely of synthetics arranged in front of a mural of a forest, ghostly balloons hanging over a bandstand built into a fake castle wall with cardboard coats of arms, framed photographs of jocular businessmen in Elks regalia hanging over furniture that looks like a Bauhaus nightmare.
The inauthentic is a North American tradition, and Cohen nails it down with her unerring lens and clear black?and?white prints. Commentary by David Byrne, a popular musician, and William Ewing and David Mellor, who?are both curators and authors, completes the book. Give it to your favourite interior 4esigner or Aspiring architect. Cohen's visions might serve as a valuable purgative to the next generation of designers and decorators.
In a category all its own is Guts, Greed and Glory: A Visual History of Modern Canadian Business (Summerhill, 208 pages, $29.95 cloth). Assembled by the editors of Canadian Business magazine, this collection is more interesting than its title suggests. Over 800 illustrations ? photos, advertisements, artists' renderings, editorial cartoons ? give a sense of how Canada's economy has grown and changed since the Depression. Old friends like Black Label's Mabel and the mustachioed gentleman who used to adorn Canadian ,Tire catalogues join C. D. Howe and Lord Beaverbrook.
As a superficial but entertaining took at the successes ? and flops ?of Canadian private enterprise, Guts is a reminder of how Canadian consumerism and industry have changed with the years. With free trade looming, this book may soon have nostalgic value; perhaps the faces and products of Canadian business will no longer be distinguishable from the American variety.