||Gift Books The New Breed
by John Oughton
This season`s glamour titles aim to do good
as well as look good
GIFT BOOKS ARE A LUXURY that frequently offers a refuge from reality. They highlight beauty in the arts, civilization, and nature, while discreetly ignoring political and ecological bad news. One example: Roloff Beny`s book showcasing the crown jewels of lran`s Pahlavi dynasty, released not long before the Ayatollah Khomeini took power.
However, conscience is the trend for gift books of the `90s. The majority of the books mentioned below are warnings as well as celebrations, and put gloom beside glamour. Certainly all of those that focus on nature remind Lis how much of it is endangered by the combined growth and greed of humanity.
The most unusual is Erich Hoyt`s Seasons of the Whale: Riding the Currents of the North Atlantic (Nimbus, 120 pages, $2795 cloth). Unlike other whale books, much of this well-researched tome is narrated from a whale`s-eye view. Without falling into anthropomorphism, Hoyt lets Lis follow the lives of several whales, detailing their migrations, feeding patterns, social patterns, and even birth and death. Accompanying the narrative is a great deal of information on whale demographics and the extent to which several species of these great mammals are harassed -- even by non-whaling fishing vessels -- to the point that they are in danger of becoming extinct.
The accompanying maps and illustrations are clear, the photographs often magnificent. The maturity of the new breed of gift book is evident in the fact that photos of dead or dying whales accompany those of apparently healthy ones: one image of a tear falling from the eye of a beached and dying whale sums LIP the books melancholy message. A relative bargain for its size and quality, this Volume should appeal to whale-watchers, photographers, and anyone with some sensitivity to nature.
A similar combination of beautiful images and cautionary text appears in The Mighty Rain Forest (Sterling, 200 pages, $39.95 cloth). John Nichol details the destruction of rain forests around the world, and the appalling degree to which many governments actively encourage both their own citizens and foreign enterprises in this rape of the future, and then suppress -- sometimes violently -- any resistance or criticism. However, he balances the "doom" message with an emphasis on what is being and can be done -- by natives in the affected areas and by all of us -- to reverse the massive deforestation now occurring.
Although many of the species at risk in rain forests have not even been identified yet, others that have been classified as endangered have been saved thanks to a new program adopted by some zoos -- breeding species in captivity for re-introduction to safe habitats. This development is described in Zoo: The Modern Ark (Key Porter, 192 pages, $35.00 cloth), which features the work of 10 zoos, including Toronto`s. Colour photos by Franz Maier illustrate, often in appealing close-ups, many of the species that have been maintained by breeding in the zoo. Jake Page`s text provides some background for understanding this recent initiative by showing the various functions zoos have served through history, and by considering the successes and, failures of contemporary zoos in re-establishing endangered species.
China, as one of the world`s largest countries, has a tremendous range and variety of species, both endangered (the giant panda being a famous example) and thriving. The Natural History of China (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 224 pages, $29.95 cloth), with a text by the Chinese scientists Zhao Ji, Zheng Guangmei, Wang Huadong, and Xu Jialin, is a thorough and often intriguing introduction to the plants, animals, and landscapes that cover a sixth of the world`s circumference, yet are relatively unknown outside China.
This book offers a fairly scholarly view of a part of the global ecology that, due to political vicissitudes, has often been inaccessible to outside observers. After a general introduction to China`s geography, specific habitats are featured in each chapter -- grasslands, mountains, coastal areas, and so on. The considerable impact China`s vast population has had on many of the species, and recent attempts at conservation, are touched on throughout the text, although the primary focus is on the species themselves. The colour photography, largely contributed by Chinese scientists, is of variable quality.
Robert Bateman`s weapon for preserving wild animals is the brush rather than the zoo. The immensely successful artist`s newest coffee-table collection, An Artist in Nature (Viking, 190 pages, $60.00 cloth), combines a text by Rick Archbold on Bateman`s contributions to the environmental and conservation movements with large reproductions of -- you guessed it -
Robert Bateman nature paintings. Some earlier works and "uncharacteristic" paintings (portraits of people, for example) join the familiar animal and bird images.
The plates are accompanied by quotations from the artist about the paintings themselves and the species portrayed in them. Bateman`s technique and success are beyond debate, although I find some of his visions a trifle formal, bordering on the academic. However, the many Bateman fans who already have his earlier books;. will doubtless welcome this one onto their shelves.
One species that fortunately is not endangered is profiled in The Canada Goose (Whitecap, 96 pages, $17.95 paper). Kit Howard Breen contributed both the text and the photographs that celebrate this bird, which, as she re marks, `holds, a special place in many bird-watchers` hearts. Large, dignified, And -as elegant in the water as in the air, Canada geese herald fall and spring with their migration flights.
Breen`s photographs are excellent, and show her subjects in a wide range of seasons and habitats. Her text is very informative, particularly about the many geese subspecies and puzzles such as the birds` ability to fly in the right direction even in fog and snowstorms (apparently iron- rich deposits in their heads may act as compasses). I have a few quibbles with this otherwise enjoyable book: her captions tend towards the cute ("Mom and her gosling") or unnecessary ("Three geese flying" accompanies a clear shot of three geese flying); there is rather a lot of detail on American hunting laws for Canadian readers to digest; and a sizeable printing error blotted one page of my copy. Otherwise, this is a worthwhile addition to any nature library.
One of my favourite books among this years nature titles studies a specific ecology rather than a species. The Bay of Fundy lingers in visitors` minds for its beauty as well as its tides, and Tidal Life: A Natural History of the Bay of Fundy (Camden House, 168 pages, $24.95 paper) combines the passionate and well-researched writing of the Fundy native Harry Thurston with the richly detailed photographs of Stephen Homer. This is a good example of a nature book with real depth: we learn not only about the geological and biological features of the area, but also about their complex interplay with the human practices of fishing, transportation, agriculture, and even power generation.
His love for the area and its inhabitants clearly evident, Thurston alternates between good anecdotes -- describing a fishing boat at work, for example -- and factual information. He also details the impact of pollution and other problems on Fundy`s water and wildlife. Tidal Life makes a good present for both exiled Maritimers and students of natural history.
One way to protect nature is to grow it yourself. Marjorie Harris and the photographer Tim Saunders combine how-to information with a cross-country tour in The Canadian Gardener: A Guide to Gardening in Canada (Random House, 208 pages, $29.95 cloth until January 1, 1991, $34.95 paper). This is a beautifully produced and economically priced volume, but it seems to have an identity problem. It tries to be both a down-to-earth "how to" introduction to the special challenges of gardening across Canada, and a celebration of some individual gardeners` efforts, including those of the author and the photographer.
Experienced green-thumbers will thus find the more basic material of little use, although they may enjoy looking at what other people have done with their backyard plots or estates. Conversely, beginners may find it a bit overwhelming to see what advanced gardeners with substantial budgets and years of work have accomplished, when they are just learning the difference between what they planted and what nature has added in the way of weeds. With that major qualification in mind, it`s worth noting that this is a beautiful book that armchair gardeners are almost certain to enjoy.
Finally, two books that deal with humanity rather than nature. One of the best photo books that I`ve encountered during the last few years is Children in Photography (Firefly, 312 pages, $29.95 paper). The duotone and colour photographs, which span more than a century of the medium, were selected by the gallery owner Jane Corkin. She has not avoided work that is experimental or unsentimental, although none of Robert Mapplethorpe`s controversial studies of nude children appear here. Gary Michael Dault`s text generally illuminates both the technique and the vision behind each photograph, and together the images and words are a testament to the enduring magic and pain of childhood.
If you liked the movie Top Gun, you`ll love Canadian Wings: The Passion and the Force (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 208 pages, $39.95 cloth). The text and photos by John McQuarrie celebrate all the aircraft currently used by the Canadian Forces, from fighters to rescue helicopters. The descriptions, however, are largely verbatim statements by those who fly and fix these aircraft, presented with little explanation or documentation. Thus it`s hard to put many of the statements and stories into any context. There is, however, a wealth of dramatic shots of planes and choppers, and much detail on the machines themselves and the crews who operate them.