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Great books on British Columbia


VANCOUVER – Lists by their very nature are arbitrary and subjective just as they are inclusive and extensive. They are also opportunities for navel-gazing and hand-wringing; mindless chatter or serious discussion. Imperious deliberation might ensue, or a cavalier rattling off of personal favourites could occur. It’s usually once a list is finalised that the real work happens. The deconstruction and/or destruction of a list might occur—where one is placed as opposed to another, or why something was neglected altogether. As books are a significant source of discussion on this website it’s worth noting a couple of lists being culled and cultivated.

Alan Twigg, the editor of BC Bookworld has recently published his own list as it were, The Essentials: 150 Great BC Books and Authors (Ronsdale, 2010). I interviewed Alan on the book (http://thecommentary.ca/ontheline/555-alan-twigg/ [1]), and we discussed who made his list of 150 authors, and who didn’t. Invariably, it’s Twigg’s list, and a good one at that, but also a wonderful place to begin a survey of BC writers and books. It’s also worth noting that it is the fourth volume of Twigg’s Literary History of British Columbia, a remarkable achievement worth reading on its own.

Canada’s 100 Greatest Books is a list put together by Stephen Patrick Clare and Trevor Adams for the purpose of a book that is to be published in the fall of 2011. The website for more is at: http://www.wix.com/novamedia/Canadas-100-Greatest-Books [2]. On their site you can see their criterion: that the book, either fiction or non-fiction must be written by a Canadian or involve Canada. Readers are invited to submit their selections via e-mail, and a one book-one vote system will be used to compose the final tally. It’s an ambitious project, and Sean Cranbury has already written about its flaws [3].

In British Columbia, Linda L. Richards and David Middleton are editing a book that’s also to be published in the fall of 2011, The Greatest 100 Books of British Columbia. In recent months they’ve made their presence known on Facebook [4] and Twitter [5], calling for suggestions, nominations, and generally discussion on what books should be included. The editors are seeking lists from readers, and they say if enough people write in with the same book, it’ll surely make the list.

One hundred books on BC seems manageable, however when I thought of my own list for Richards following her appearance on the program this past May [6], I thought of the books others would list, and I suspect Richards and Middleton will have much work ahead of them to whittle all the submissions to a list of a hundred.

I owe Linda Richards a list of books and here goes. The list is Vancouver-centric, and for reason: I haven’t lived elsewhere.

Fascinated by Vancouver history, one of the authors I’d read early on was Chuck Davis. His The Greater Vancouver Book (Linkman Press, 1997) was always fun and fascinating read, and today it remains an invaluable resource. Davis has always been an inveterate historian, and the news of recent weeks of his terminal cancer and death has urgently showed us what an invaluable historian he has been to this city and this province.

Another book by Davis, Top Dog! A History of CKNW (Canada Wide, 1993) was commissioned on the occasion of the radio station’s fiftieth anniversary in 1994. Other than a chronicle of the radio station’s memorable stories and personalities, it’s also one of the only popular histories of the media in BC, specifically radio. As well, it’s a good look at the sort of culture of the Lower Mainland in the years between 1944 and 1994.

W.A.C. Bennett and the Rise of Modern British Columbia (Douglas & McIntyre, 1983) by David Mitchell is not only one of the best books on Bennett, but also a wonderful primer on BC politics from the post-war era of the 20th century, up to the 1980s. Surprisingly enough, there isn’t another serious book on the long-serving premier, and as such this is it. It’s still an outstanding achievement.

Jean Barman’s The West Beyond the West (University of Toronto Press, 1991) is a standard text in many of our colleges and universities. It’s out of date by about 15-20 years, but it’s still the best sweeping overview of the province and its people, as well it’s accessible enough for reading outside an academic setting.

Daniel Francis has written many notable books on the history of the country, the province and the city of Vancouver. Two books he’s written are on my list, though another of his books, the biography of Vancouver mayor L.D. Taylor could be added to my list as well. The two books on my mind are: The Encyclopedia of BC (Harbour Publishing, 2000), which he edited, and Red Light Neon: A History of Vancouver’s Sex Trade (Subway, 2006).

The Encyclopedia of BC is a standard resource in the province’s schools and libraries, though because of its price it’s unlikely in many homes in the province. As well, the internet has made the idea of encyclopedias somewhat superfluous. Yet, it’s a wonderful resource to have, and I find myself from time to time, getting lost in its pages meaning to look up something, yet engrossed by something else I’ve come across.

Red Light Neon is a fascinating history of the sex trade in Vancouver, and at once a social history of the social mores of a developing big city. It’s also a great street level history of a Vancouver that existed and exists, though we try not to acknowledge it. As well, it’s a bit of an entry point to the Downtown Eastside, what with the Pickton matter.

Bruce Hutchison was a legendary journalist in this country, and especially in BC. The lifetime achievement award given out by the Jack Webster Foundation to journalists is named in his honour. He wrote some 16 books, and I understand that the Vancouver Sun columnist and Hutchison’s protégé Vaughn Palmer is currently working with Douglas & McIntyre to reissue some of Hutchison’s books. The one book I consider quintessentially British Columbia, is his The Fraser (Rinehart, 1950).

The author and comedian Charles Demers points out in his remarkable Vancouver Special (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010), that some of Hutchison’s writing was less than tolerant. That’s what’s great about Vancouver Special, is that it not only provides a wonderful view of Vancouver today and in recent years, but it also goes back and shatters (in the case of Hutchison’s work) some ideas we have of ourselves. Vancouver Special though is a great BC book because it shows how Vancouver is viewed within its own confines, but how it’s viewed by people outside of the city especially. It’s not sentimental or emotional, but it makes you remember Vancouver both positively and not so positively.

The 100-Mile Diet (Random House, 2007) by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon is on my list, because it’s seemingly spawned a new sort of culinary fad, though many a gourmand I talk to say it’s simply a reality of today’s world. It reflects something about British Columbia, that an idea can come from here and take the world by storm. And not just that, both Smith and MacKinnon are wonderful writers, whose skill is evident in this book that’s delightfully written and crafted.

Patrick Lane’s memoir There Is a Season (McClelland & Stewart, 2005) is raw and emotional, and just a wonderful book despite some of the harrowing episodes in Lane’s life.

Bowering’s BC (Viking, 1996) by George Bowering is a great book. It’s not your traditional history book, like say the Jean Barman book mentioned earlier. But it is very much a readable, exciting and entertaining look at this province and the colourful folks from the past.

Vancouver (Doubleday, 1970) by Eric Nicol, like Vancouver: Milltown to Metropolis (Mitchell Press, 1961) by Alan Morley were books written decades ago, and though now incomplete and dated, were books that attempted to write the history of Vancouver up to their time. In some parts though, they remain relevant, and though the two authors are completely different, they remain skilfully written works worth revisiting.

Bull of the Woods (Douglas & McIntyre, 1980) by Gordon Gibson is an autobiography by the prominent BC business leader, who was also a BC Liberal MLA in the 1950s. He made his fortune in logging and a lot of the stories in this book are delightful reads.

Fifty Years on Theatre Row (Hancock House, 1980) is a memoir written by Ivan Ackery, who was a noted theatre impresario and promoter in Vancouver, who also managed the Orpheum from the 1930s to the 1960s. It’s a fascinating look at the many celebrities who came through Vancouver in that time period, as well a view onto the entertainments Vancouverites enjoyed in those years.

Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs (Douglas & McIntyre, 2007) by Grant Arnold and Michael Turner is a visual record that’s aesthetically pleasing, but also a necessary documentation of how Vancouver was in the years that Herzog actively captured it with his camera.

Looking back at Strangers Entertained: A History of the Ethnic Groups of British Columbia (Evergreen Press, 1971) by John Norris is fascinating for two reasons. First, it’s a nearly comprehensive look at the people who came to BC up to the early 1970s. After that time though, when the book was published, it a stark reminder of how the province has changed, and I would suggest for the better.

Stephen Hume is a gifted and thoughtful writer. Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2008), his book on Fraser’s journey to BC grew out of a series of columns he wrote for the Vancouver Sun, where he’s a columnist. Collected and expanded in this volume, it’s just a tremendous achievement, as it’s a great book on Fraser, but a needed look at how this province was and is today in some form or another.

Hume is also a contributor to a collection of essays published in 2004, A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming (Harbour Publishing, 2004). When Rafe Mair was on the radio daily talking about the ills of aquaculture, people viewed him as a bit of a bleating bore, or an alarmist. Thankfully today, salmon farming, especially the variety off this coast is viewed rather dimly. Like with Hutchison’s The Fraser, a lot of us now view our resources and our seascape with a little more care. This collection opened a lot of eyes. In fact, in an episode of the American television drama Boston Legal, set in BC revolving around aquaculture, the characters played by James Spader and William Shatner are seen reading this book.

The subtitle of Pacific Press (New Star Books, 2001) by Marc Edge is ‘The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver’s Newspaper Monopoly.’ It didn’t get very many reviews in the papers in this country, because it was an indictment of the convergence model that was to be in vogue in Canadian media in the first decade of this century. A lot of people viewed Edge as some sort of fear-monger, or disgruntled ex-employee of Pacific Press out to settle a score. In fact, the book grew out of Edge’s dissertation, and many that read it found it surprisingly readable. It’s got gossipy stories, but it’s also a great history of our media in British Columbia, and a view onto journalism in this country from this part of it.