The Best of Montreal & Quebec City:
A Guide to the Places, Peoples, & Pleasures of French Canada

by Martin Kevan,
320 pages,
ISBN: 0517582309

The Ultimate Guide

by Anne Smith, Brian Pel, Louis Fortier,
232 pages,
ISBN: 0614033144

Canadian Bicycle Tours:
Twelve Breathtaking Tours Through Quebec, Ontario, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, & Prince Edward Island

by Jerry Dennis,
240 pages,
ISBN: 0805014926

The Ultimate Guide to Toronto

by Margaret MacKenzie, Roderick MacKenzie,
240 pages,
ISBN: 0811801519

Come near at Your Peril:
A Visitor's Guide to the Island of Newfoundland

by Patrick O'Flaherty,
ISBN: 0968099815

Post Your Opinion
No Guiding Lights
by Stan Fogel

THE WORST THING about the Toronto Blue jays making the World Series (they're a dead cert) will be the capsule portrait (about the time it takes Ray Charles to chug from a Diet Pepsi can) of Toronto that will be offered by American television. First, there will be the CN Tower: "It's the world's tallest free-standing structure ... and it weighs more than 23,300 elephants." Then the image crew might toddle on over to the Ontario parliament buildings: "Rumour has it that the legislature was built on the site of a madhouse, which may explain some of the goings-on there today." That's a stock jibe to be sure, apolitical enough to make it into the second edition of Toronto: The Ultimate Guide (Douglas & McIntyre, 2 7 2 pages, $16.95 paper), by Margaret and Rod McKenzie, and updated by Deborah Hurst - a book that also sired the line about 23,300 elephants. Tourists who depend on the guide will, no doubt, stare perplexedly at billboard signs that feature the metaphorical mouth-frothing of some business groups whining about the NDP government.

Montrealers, every time their Expos foibles are exposed, can give thanks that an American TV network won't be savouring afternoon tea at the Ritz-Carlton where, to quote from Anne Smith and Brian Pel's Montreal: The Ultimate Guide (Douglas & McIntyre, 244 pages, $16.95 paper), "ducklings frolic sweetly" in the garden (until they are nouvelled stiffly and spiffily onto dinner plates).

If Torontonians are grinned at insipidly by tourists, they needn't be alarmed. The tourists are reacting to another item in the potted portrait: "the friendliness of the natives." (Honest, we're friendlier than 23,300 elephants.) And even though "cosmopolitan" is an attribute with which we're credited, the imagined (or real, I dunno) audience for official guides must be an American public that yearly selects unctuous Billy Graham as one of the USA's most respected men.

I wonder, though, how anyone could thrill to the Chamber of Commerce's Toronto: an eyeful of the CN Tower that leans in all its rectitude over the city, advertising a mayoral sweep that is as sterile as the drawing board it looks better on.

Attempts some years ago to rid the city of its graffiti for some international political event or other came from the same sanitation-department instinct to efface traces of marginal words and deeds - as well as the perpetrators of them. Vis-à-vis the CN Tower, no one has yet had the stomach to opt for the kind of dissent de Maupassant voiced in the face of the Eiffel Tower: he said he ate there each day not because he liked the food it was awful - but because it was the only place in town he could avoid seeing the Eiffel Tower.

Let's take a practice shot at describing an alternative Toronto, say, the city's illicit sex trade ... through which hordes seek raunchier ways of averting their eyes than de Maupassant offered. I might have said more pornographic ways, but what could be more lewd than a city hustling the almighty buck? Better someone (female or male) in heels. There's even a poetry and precision to the guys in their cars. They know every alley that circumvents every one-way-street sign the police erect to try to force relentless eyes onto the civic scene those eyes refuse to see. There's a ballet-like grace to the melange of attending to driving while attending to the bodies before them to attending to the police presence that might send them back to the suburbs with shame -instead of urbane - marking them.

Then there are the Beckett-like conversations that follow the prostitute's formulaic question, "Want some company?" The cruiser has to be evasive to ensure that he isn't shunted into a police cruiser - money, not sex, is the taboo topic. Edging towards touching becomes ... touching, a courtship to evade court costs. Even the transaction has its own grace. A city's faded industrial centre is littered with signs of temporary habitation. (The business community now hustles information, whose only sludge is on the computer screen.) The abandoned factory mazes become temporarily flecked by parked, softly purring BMWs whose owners operate consulting agencies in the clean-air parts of town by day. By night nostalgia draws them. Not the nostalgia for the unused railway ties that once vibrated with manufactured goods, but the nostalgia for "nooky," urgent moments easily urged, despite middle-aged inflexibility in cramped cars.

The above foray has moved us into the terrain of the idiosyncratic travel writer; a place official guides have no interest in mapping. If, indeed, one needs to answer Northrop Frye's "Where is here?" with a little bit of terra firma, such as Quebec City's Chateau Frontenac or the Silver Dollar Lodge in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, the books reviewed here are the kind of tomes one should have. Toronto: The Ultimate Guide and Montreal: The Ultimate Guide even contain whimsical lists such as "10 Top Toronto Food Experiences" by Bob Berman, the chef/co-owner of the Avocado Club, and "The Worst of Montreal." In The Best of Montreal and Quebec City (Crown, 320 pages, $17.50 paper), Martin Kevan intersperses city details with anecdotes such as the following: "The first Montrealer to be condemned to death was found guilty of 'committing unnatural acts.' Fortunately for him, the colony had no hangman at the time and the governor of Quebec condemned him to become the hangman."

Jerry Dennis's The Best Bicycle Tours of Eastern Canada (Henry Holt, 240 pages, $18.95 paper) hypes itself with the subtitle Twelve Breathtaking Tours. Although one is wheeled around the area in a detailed way, the prose is too dry for me.

Patrick O'Flaherty's Come Near at Your Peril: A Visitor's Guide to the Island of Newfoundland (Breakwater, 144 pages, $19.95 paper), though, lubricates that parched throat. Screech, one might say, has never read so well. Too formulaic and hokey a spiel makes a travel writer sound like s/he is hosting a Disney documentary. Too quirky a product and the reader is tempted to tour pages instead of ruins or scrubbed cities. O'Flaherty isn't "too" anything. Newfoundland, he lets you know, rhymes with "understand"; he also lets you understand that Newfoundland isn't simply grist for the tourist-brochure mill. A year in Newfoundland may be "glam," a lifetime in Newfoundland "tough." O'Flaherty makes you trust him to call the kitsch kitschy and the food served in much of Newfoundland fishy. He doesn't deface or inflate the rock that is Newfoundland; clearly, though, he knows and loves it.

O'Flaherty's guide notwithstanding, my sense of the glut of travel books is that we're overmapped. Perhaps it's time for a tactic of the Situationists: arm oneself with a map of Frankfurt and use it to navigate around Paris. Or maybe some self-scrutiny about whether we should be globetrotting at all is in order. In a recent article in Border/Lines, Haunani Kay-Trask provides a Native view of the commercialisation of Hawaii, closing with the following comment: "If you are thinking of visiting my homeland, please don't. We don't want nor need any more tourists and we certainly don't like them. If you want to help our cause, pass this on to your friends. Thank you."


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