The Colour of Canada

by Hugh MacLennan,
ISBN: 0316542547

Images of Flight

by Clive Hart,
ISBN: 0520061365

Canada, 1892:
Portrait of a Promised Land

by Peter C. Newman,
ISBN: 0670845752

Toronto Places:
Elements of Urban Design

by Marc Baraness, Larry Richards, Geoffrey James, Steven Evans,
108 pages,
ISBN: 0802028349

Treasures of the National Archives

by National Archives of Canada Staf,
368 pages,
ISBN: 0802050220

Homage to Heaven, Homage to Earth:
Chinese Treasures of the Royal Ontario Museum

by Royal Ontario Museum Staff,
256 pages,
ISBN: 0802058760

The Spirit of Africville

by Africville Genealogical Society, Africville Genealogical Society,
128 pages,
ISBN: 088780084X

Un Don a la Patrie: La Collection G. Blair Laing

by Charles C. Hill,
192 pages,
ISBN: 0888846193

Islands of Hope:
Ontario's Parks & Wilderness

by Bruce Littlejohn, Lori Labatt,
288 pages,
ISBN: 1895565103

Post Your Opinion
States of the Nation
by John Oughton

AS THE NATION recuperates from the referendum on constitutional reform and lurches through its 125th anniverary, many efforts are being made to shore up our sense of self and purpose. Gift books may be an unexpected source of such support, hut this fall's early crop seems to indicate that even coffee-table books have some sort of national conscience.

A heavyweight is Canada 1892: Portrait of a Promised Land (McClelland & Stewart /Penguin, 224 pages, $50 cloth), in which Peter Newman argues that 100 years ago Canada confronted many of the same challenges it faces today, notably regional discontent, Quebec nationalism, and free trade. He also maintains that 1892 was a crucial year in the formation of the nation's identity, both in the construction of emblematic edifices such as Queen's Park and the Chateau Frontenac, and in culture and politics. It was the first year after John A. Macdonald's death, and the debut of the Stanley Cup. Pauline Johnson gave her first public reading and Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott and others inaugurated the Toronto Globe's Mermaid Inn column.

While engaging in some of the generalizations that madden more academic historians, Newman makes a good case for his contention. He first reviews the political, social, and cultural currents of the year, and then examines the 1892 state of the nation from East to West. Illustrations abound: maps, political cartoons, art, and photographs of the era, as well as Peter Christopher's recent photos of enduring landmarks. Newman's style is as enjoyable as ever, but on the whole the book resembles the overstuffed Victorian living-rooms it describes: every square inch full of curios and art, when more space might have improved the impact of its best pieces.

Historical events leave a paper trail, and preserving ours is the job of the National Archives. Published to coincide with several anniversaries - Canada's 125th, and the National Archives' 120th - is Treasures of the National Archives of Canada (University of Toronto Press, 368 pages, $50 cloth). Some of its archivists' favourite holdings - including maps, documents, genealogical records, art, money and stamps, film and video, and photographs - are featured. This is a beautiful and well-produced book, although its intended market is not immediately obvious.

While some of the maps and historical photographs are fascinating, reproductions of land grant and marriage documents, however faithful, don't always excite the eye; "wanted" posters, however, do make for exciting reading. The scholarly text, while illuminating on the problems and methods of archiving, will not convince many readers that practising it is more fun than Sudbury on a Saturday night. However, those who enjoy history will find much to occupy them here.

The Colour of Canada (McClelland & Stewart, 128 pages, $20 cloth) almost belongs in the archives itself. Apparently Canada's best-selling non-fiction book, now up to the one-and-a-half-million mark, this collection of colour photographs and Hugh MacLennan's prose was originally published in 1967. In its fourth edition, about half of the plates have been replaced by more recent images. MacLennan's prose wears well, and at the current price this book is something of a bargain; but then how many Canadian households with book collections of any size do not already own it?

While The Colour of Canada celebrates the diversity of Canada's landscape, William J. Wheeler's Images of Flight: A Canadian Aviation Portfolio (Hounslow, 136 pages, $39.95 cloth) is more interested in its airspace. Canada has a modest but secure place in aviation history, to judge by this book. Wheeler, himself an aviation artist, has collected paintings by Canadian artists that commemorate such milestones as the flight of the June Bug Silver Dart in 1908 and the Silver Dart in 1909, both of which were built by the Aerial Experiment Association founded by "Casey" Baldwin, John McCurdy, and Alexander Graham Bell. Canada was close behind the United States in exploring powered flight, with Baldwin becoming the first British subject to fly a heavier-than-air craft, and the Silver Dart made the first powered flight by a British subject in the Commonwealth.

Thanks to a familiar Canadian problem - too timid governments and insufficient research funding - this country has not always been among the leaders in aviation since then. Remember the Avro Arrow? But there have been many high points both in military and civil (especially bush pilot) aviation, and the paintings in this collection generally recall them effectively. Aviation painting, as Wheeler points out, is a peculiar branch of art; its practitioners must master both a high degree of technical accuracy in representing the aircraft and a more impressionistic sense of light and space in the backgrounds. The artists in this book rise to the challenge, whether they are specialists such as Robert Bradford (who also contributed the foreword) or are better known for their efforts in other genres, such as the Group of Seven member Franz Johnston and Robert Munsch's favourite illustrator, Michael Martchenko. At $40, this book seems overpriced for its relatively small size (11" by 8 1/2"), but it should delight fliers, whether armchair or real stick-and-rudder types.

Islands of Hope: Ontario's Parks and Wilderness (Firefly, 288 pages, $35 cloth) turns its lens on the natural beauty of just one province. It also swells the ranks of the "green" gift book, since much of it argues passionately for the preservation and expansion of nature reserves in Ontario. Lori Labatt and Bruce Litteljohn, themselves conservationists and nature photographers, have collected photographs, articles, anecdotes, and poetry that touch on the history of Ontario's park system, the ongoing struggle between advocates of development and of conservation, and the value of wild areas to hikers, canoeists, and students today. In fact, for a gift book, this has quite a bit of text, certainly more than you can read in an hour after unwrapping it.

The photography and writing vary in quality, and the editors have included perhaps a few too many examples of their own photography in the overall mix. Some photos that offer cliches of the genre - slow-motion waterfalls, misty northern lakes - are balanced by stunning, original shots such as John Stradiotto's dramatically underexposed vision of Nym Lake in winter. In any event, the book's message is hard to argue with, and it is pleasing to note that this is one gift book that was printed in Canada. There are occasional imperfections in the colour plates, but they are minor.

Beauty is not exclusive to natural settings, according to Toronto Places (University of Toronto Press, 108 pages, $50 cloth), edited by Marc Baraness and Larry Richards. An international jury was asked by the City of Toronto to choose 25 of its buildings, details, or public spaces for inclusion in a "context" collection. Their choices are illuminated by historical plans and drawings, by colour photographs by Steven Evans and black-and-white plates by Geoffrey James, and less directly by short, evocative essays by Barry Callaghan, Austin Clarke, Katherine Govier, M. T. Kelly, and Josef Skvorecky.

Toronto is not blessed by a spectacular landscape (unlike, say, Quebec City), or by a pervading mythology like Los Angeles (with its ghosts from Hollywood and Raymond Chandler), or the historical depth of a Paris or Rome. Tourists are often most impressed by its negative virtues - its relative lack of the dirt, ghettos, unsafe streets, and other ills common to the modem metropolis. However, Toronto Places does confirm that the city contains urban places and spaces worthy of admiration, if seldom awe. The jury's choices are sometimes predictable (like Eaton Centre Galleria, Harbour Quay Centre, Union Station, Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion), but do embrace a commendably wide range of sites. The familiar downtown showpieces are accompanied by some less obvious selections: the Gooderham and Worts distillery, the Riverside Court Co-op, Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens. The CN Tower and Skydome, appropriately, do not make the list; this combination of the bulge and spear only proclaims Toronto's ambitions in the sports-and-convention market.

This is a very carefully designed book, with wide margins and sensitive placement of the text and illustrations. The only shortcoming in quality is the fact that the black-and-white photographs are consistently printed too light, so that the rich black tones that one expects in a book of this size and price are absent.

Toronto's bland landscape often makes its artists travel to find more paintable views. Few have gone further afield than James Wilson Morrice, who spent most of his adult life in France (during one return visit to Canada, he wrote a friend, "I am getting sick of snow ... this monstrous virtuous existence") and became one of our most charming and cosmopolitan painters. A couple of his works are very well known; a large reproduction of his Ferry Boat, Quebec hung in the recreation room of my parents' home, as it undoubtedly does in thousands of other Canadian residences and businesses.

Morrice: A Gift to the Nation: The G. Blair Laing Collection (National Gallery of Canada, 192 pages, $39.95 paper) celebrates the obsession of the Toronto art dealer G. Blair Laing, who tracked down, purchased, and eventually left to the National Gallery of Canada 83 works by Morrice, including 15 canvases and 61 oil sketches. Many of them celebrate the landscape and pleasures of Europe, especially French cafes and resorts. Whether Morrice, born in 1865, is really a "great" Canadian painter is open to debate: he certainly had a fine eye for colour, and occasionally used unconventional, camera's-eye-view compositions with half-figures at the edge of the frame. But his work is generally more engaging than essential, and placed beside that of the giants of impressionism - such as Morrice's friend Matisse - it does not seem as strong or full of individual vision as Emily Carr's or Lawren Harris's.

However, Morrice's work is certainly important in the context of Canadian art, and it reminds us that the Group of Seven were not the only - or even the first - Canadian artists to adapt the techniques of impressionism to the Canadian landscape.

Many gift books gloss over social problems in order to hightight landmarks and natural beauty. To its credit, The Spirit of Africville (Formac, 124 pages, $34.95 cloth, $19.95 paperback) takes a different tack. Edited by the Africville Genealogy Society, this collection of photographs, essays, and documentation examines the vanished African-Canadian community once at the edge of Halifax. Often impoverished, and denied basic civic services that the rest of Halifax received, Africville flourished for 150 years -until the city expropriated and then demolished its houses in the 1960s to make way for bridge footings and industrial land.

The book nostalgically recalls an unpretentious place whose Baptist Church was its "heartbeat," and which boasted excellent sports teams and visits by celebrities such as Duke Ellington and Joe Louis. Particularly fascinating is an oral walking tour through the community as it was when it was squeezed between three railroad tracks and the Bedford Basin. The book is not always clearly organized - a historical account of the first Black immigrants to Nova Scotia comes last, for example. But it is more than just a photo album of the past; it offers a multifaceted study of municipal racism and insensitivity, with accounts of Africville's expropriation hearings, the effect on residents, and reflections by retired officials who now realize some of the injustice that they perpetuated.

The most beautiful of this fall crop of treasure tomes does not contain a single image of Canada. Rather, it celebrates the outstanding collection of Chinese artefacts in the Royal Ontario Museum. The 140 sharp and excellently reproduced colour plates in Homage to Heaven, Homage to Earth: Chinese Treasures of the Royal Ontario Museum (University of Toronto Press, 284 pages, $95 cloth) reveal the incredible depth of Chinese art and civilization. A jade collar ring from the second or third millennium BC is a marvel of sophisticated design and fine workmanship made before the advent of metal tools, and other examples show how this balance of individual genius and respect for artistic tradition continued right up to the Qing dynasty, which ended in 1911. The works are divided into genres such as "Ceramics," "Jades and Hardstones," "Burial Figures and Models," and "Painting."

The accompanying text, packed with readable details, is by the ROM's Far Eastern department staff. Perhaps still smarting from the furore around the ROM's Out of Africa exhibit, the writers barely touch on the political questions that have recently arisen around many museum collections and exhibits. Most of the artefacts featured in this book were bought - rather than taken as booty or otherwise stolen - fairly and squarely for the times (between the two World Wars) by the merchant George Crofts and the missionary Bishop William C. White on behalf of the ROM. One could argue that pieces of this quality should be back in China, but the uncertain course of recent Chinese history - especially during the Cultural Revolution - makes that contention moot. Left in China, they might not all have survived.

In any case, Canadians are lucky to have such a collection on their own doorstep. Anyone who admires fine arts, crafts, or the Orient would welcome having someone else plunk down the more than $ 100 (with GST) that this book costs at list price. Certainly, it is the kind of gift book whose appeal should outlast votes on unity and other transient concerns.


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