MARK ABLEY,JOHN BARBER,John Bemrose,6 more...December161985
A celebration of printed pleasures
As sumptuous as holiday feasts, the season’s gift books appeal primarily to the senses. But their heavy paper stock, dazzling illustrations and sheer bulk often accompany texts rich in thought. Among this year’s bounty are gift books that also offer serious reading—or even practical applications for travellers, cooks and gardeners. Some of the books, chronicling vanished ways of life, leave a bittersweet aftertaste. Others carry the tang of exotic places. Altogether, they constitute a visual banquet whose delights remain long after the holiday tables have been cleared.
For pragmatists, the best gifts are those that indulge and instruct at the same time. A fine complement to the gastronomic pursuits of the season is Cynthia Wine’s Across the Table, An Indulgent Look at Food in Canada (Prentice-Hall, $29.95). The 65 clearly printed recipes that Wine, a former contributor to Maclean’s and food critic for Homemaker’s Magazine, has collected—from mud-baked pickerel to classic butter tarts—make the book as comfortable in the kitchen as it is on the coffee table. Meanwhile, Wine takes the reader on an entertaining and tantalizing culinary journey through private kitchens, farmers’ markets and church bake sales across Canada, where she has found an underground of superb regional cooking. Accompanying her wry, authoritative commentary are graceful, sunlit watercolors by Newfoundland painter Mary Pratt, which admirably capture the visual appeal of simple, home-cooked food.
Sometimes the best presents are unpredictable treasures that people would would not buy for themselves but which friends know will have the power both to surprise and charm. One of the season’s most entertaining books is Canada: The Missing Years (Stoddart, $24.95), with a text by Patricia Pierce—a collection of blackand-white photographs which shows a
young and untamed land poised on the brink of sudden growth into nationhood. Discovered in London’s British Library in 1979, the photographs date from 1895 to 1924, when the British Colonial pffice required Canada to send copies to Britain of all material
registered for copyright with Ottawa.
The book includes such historically important subjects as Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, as well as evocative photos of ordinary people enjoying daily pleasures. But its most arresting pictures feature native Canadians—including a pregnant Siwash Indian with a pipe and a Cree brave in magnificent buckskin and fur. Such images capture the last vestiges of a traditional way of life. By 1900, forced onto reserves, Indians had launched their first legal fights for land claims.
Wrote Pierce: “The expressions on their faces sum their lives and future in a way words could not.”
Those themes also haunt the pages of Edward S. Curtis, The Life and Times of a Shadow Catcher (Raincoast Books, $50), a collection of works by one of the most celebrated photographers of North American Indians. The book contains previously unpublished pictures as well as a biography. Around 1900 the Seattle photographer turned his back on his thriving society-portrait business and poured his energies into capturing on film the survivors of the once-great tribes of the United States and Canada. His photographs are undeniably romanticized—Curtis usually coaxed his subjects to pose in traditional clothing —but they convey with extraordinary power the dignity of the first North Americans. The faces of the aged war chief Gerónimo and the serenely beautiful Mósa, a young Mohave girl, linger in the mind long after the volume has been closed.
The human face is also the source of fascination for Gisèle Freund, who has worked as a photographer in Paris for 50 years. Her collection of color portraits of famous writers and artists, Gisèle Freund: Photographer (Prentice-Hall, $63), presents more than 100 talents glowering, glaring, smoking cigarettes or gazing dreamingly off into the distance. Although the photography seems strangely pedestrian, many of the faces are fascinating: writer Jean Cocteau looks like a man who needs a drink. Apparently, Freund lacked an ingratiating way with her subjects; Virginia Woolf, who looks decidedly pained in her portrait, later described the photographer as a “devil woman” in her diary. Freund’s text is cursory; her collection makes a better archive than an art book.
A more satisfying marriage of photographs and text is Ansel Adams: An Autobiography (McClelland and Stew-
art, $70), which the 82-year-old photographer wrote shortly before he died in 1984. The result is one of the season’s most generous gift books. Adams was a spellbinding photographer as well as a writer, adventurer, environmentalist, musician and, whenever possible, life of the party. He had a knack of capturing magic moments, not just in nature but in friendships; his anecdotes about working with master photographer and crank Alfred Stieglitz and camping in Yosemite National Park with friends including Stieglitz’s wife, painter Georgia O’Keeffe, are as lively as his pictures. Although the book’s images are familiar—a cold moon over dark water, snow sifting off a mountain peak— their effect is as fresh-spirited as ever. Adams’s writing, like his photography, is luminous, tender and exact.
For her part, O’Keeffe receives her due in the lush flower paintings and austere landscapes reproduced in The Art & Life of Georgia O'Keeffe (General Publishing, $46). The pictures reveal far more about the pioneering American artist than author Jan Garden Castro’s text does. Beginning with O’Keeffe’s birth in rural Wisconsin in 1887, Castro traces her rise as one of the first prominent female Western artists. Unfortunately, the author provides little insight into O’Keeffe’s complex personality or her stormy marriage to Stieglitz. Still, the artist’s fierce spirit emerges in the book’s illustrations. Her closeups of flowers demonstrate O’Keeffe’s mastery of intense colors and sensuous lines.
Almost every year, because of the perennial appeal of the Impressionists, some judicious publisher brings out a lavishly produced gift book featuring their work. This year one major offering is Monet, A Retrospective (Collier Macmillan, $86.95), edited by Charles F. Stuckey, curator of 19th-century European painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Its 122 color plates include a striking, almost garish work, The Japanese Woman, and four fold-out reproductions of Monet’s Water Lilies series, illustrating the imaginative breadth that he brought to that single subject. While one work features luminous, blurry blues to recreate still reflections, another uses swampy earth tones and vigorous strokes to suggest a body of water teeming with life. Still, what makes the book particularly interesting is its text, an anthology of commentary by Monet’s friends, contemporaries and critics. One of the most memorable remarks is by the master himself: “I would like to paint the way a bird sings”—and, indeed, his paintings’ interplay of light and color is as great a tonic to the spirit.
Monet’s garden at Giverny, a hamlet 85 km from Paris, is the most chaotically beautiful and overgrown of the gardens featured in Visions of Paradise: Themes and Variations on the Garden (Stoddart, $45). A beautifully photographed book, it is aimed at those who are fascinated by peeking over someone else’s walls—from the
delicate floral abundance of Giverny to British author Vita Sackville-West’s stone settings for purple and white thyme in Kent, England.
Swiss-born photographer Marina Schinz, renowned for her work in such U.S. publications as House & Garden and House Beautiful, clearly has the eye and passion of a true gardening
enthusiast. She is dedicated to capturing what she calls the “moment of perfection” in the Western world’s finest gardens, from modest cottage plots, rose bowers and herb and kitchen gardens to the symmetry of sculpture, fountain and terrace gardens dating from the Italian Renaissance. The text, written by New York landscape architect Susan Littlefield, rambles through a history of horticulture, with interesting side trips into the Asian origins of the eggplant and the fact that the rose was made fashionable in France by Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon. One of the book’s flaws is that the text is too often out of step or unrelated to the adjacent photographs.
The quest for botanical exotica is both the source of delight and the liability of one of the season’s most unusual picture books, The Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages (Yale University Press, $140). It is a sumptuous, twovolume collection of the paintings and drawings made by the official naval artists who accompanied the great 18th-century explorer on his first two trips to the Pacific. The artists’ works are full of such surprises as the strange stone hats that used to sit atop the Easter Island statues. Particularly impressive are William Hodges’ colorful renditions of the huge, ornate war canoes cruising against the sultry drama of the Tahitian landscape. But the lengthly text assesses the art in exhaustive, scholarly detail. The sophisticated production is only for the most
dedicated of armchair adventurers.
The alchemy that transforms travel fantasists into ticket-buying tourists is the subject of a thought-provoking book by film-maker and author T.C. McLuhan, daughter of communications theorist Marshall McLuhan. Dream Tracks: The Railroad and the American Indian 1890-1930 (Prentice-Hall, $55) is particularly strong when it focuses on how the Santa Fe Railway’s advertising department exploited emerging enthusiasm for the western wilderness to promote tourism in New Mexico and Arizona. Most of the book’s illustrations of Indian life, as well as the region’s now-famous scenery, are taken from the hand-colored lantern slides that the railway used to entice tourists onto its luxurious “Indian detours.”
At times, McLuhan’s accompanying prose glows as unnaturally as the painted photographs. But in the main her account of how tourism reduces culture to what she calls “scenic pageantry”—and the book’s arresting images—makes Dream Tracks challenging as well as handsome.
Packaging the romantic appeal of the rails has been a Canadian tradition at least since Pierre Berton’s chronicles found their way into wrapping paper. This year a choice gift book is Railway Country: Across Canada By Train (Key Porter, $39.95), which depicts the national rail network as a vibrant force. Photographer Dudley Witney’s 150 photographs have a rugged poise that lifts Railway Country above easy nostalgia. He is alert to the odd beauty of industrial objects and finds it in such unexpected places as the sliding door of a freight car. Unfortunately, neither author Brian D. Johnson nor Witney do justice to the elusive beauty of the Prairies. But Witney’s robust color pictures of Atlantic Canada nearly justify the book’s price.
Exquisite prose and imagery, the best elements of a gift book, come together in Isak Dinesen’s Africa: Images of the Wild Continent from the Writer’s Life and Words (Douglas & McIntyre, $40). After returning to her native Denmark from the Kenyan coffee plantation where she had lived until 1931, Danish Baroness Karen Blixen was haunted by memories of Africa’s beauty. Taking the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, she described her 18-year sojourn in the “still country” in Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. Excerpts from the writer’s elegant work provide a text that includes moments of magic: Dinesen recalls a rainy African night as “soft, deep and pregnant with benefaction.” With 30 black-andwhite archival photographs and 100 color images by several photographers,
the book is a tribute to the splendor of a lost home.
The intimacy of artist and nature has long characterized the works of the Inuit. Kenojuak (Firefly Books, $49.95) is a retrospective of the visionary work of the 58-year-old Cape Dorset artist. The facsimile of a 1981 limited edition, it contains 160 elegant reproductions of Kenojuak’s prints, drawings and sculpture, including the pert, generously feathered, stone-cut owl prints that have made her worldfamous. Kenojuak is at her best in her printed mazes of sinewy animal and human figures which express the bonds between the Inuit and the creatures who share their barren land.
Unfortunately, Jean Blodgett’s plodding text does little to explore that mysticism. Kenojuak’s own autobiographical notes, which open the book, offer readers a closer understanding of a woman scarred by the tragic loss of her youngest children and guided by her unconscious. Almost unaware of her prowess, Kenojuak frets, “You have to have a lot of brains to be an artist.” But heart is essential, too, and her ability to communicate pleasure in a snowbound land offers a valuable seasonal message.
-MARK ABLEY, JOHN BARBER, JOHN BEMROSE, ANGELA FERRANTE, PETER GIFFEN, PATRICIA HLUCHY, MARNI JACKSON, VAL ROSS, ANN WALMSLEY
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