Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative


Books for Christmas

December 9, 2018

I want to mention three very fine books that I've read recently. Any one of them would make a good addition to your Christmas want list, or an appreciated gift for someone near and dear.

The first is for the marine mammal lovers among you. Orcas, of course, are the poster animal of the BC west coast. Jason Colby, from the University of Victoria, has published an absorbing history of the bad old days when they were hunted down for live capture and shipped off to aquariums and oceanariums around the world. Called Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean's Greatest Predator, Colby's book explains how the first orcas came into captivity in the 1960s and how live capture helped to transform our ideas about the nature of the animal, and perhaps the nature of nature. The story is expertly told, with lots of dramatic episodes and contentious characters. Academic in the sense of being authoritative, but very readable.

Next is Ross King's latest, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies. King is a Canadian art historian who lives in England. His book tells the story of Giverney, Monet's beautiful home north of Paris where he painted his famous water lily canvases. It also examines his friendship with the politician Georges Clemenceau and is very good on France during World War One. Perhaps the fact that I visited Giverney several years ago makes the book especially fascinating but I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in art history, or the history of France.

Quite a different story of France is told in Priscilla, by the novelist Nicholas Shakespeare. The subject of this biography is the author's Aunt Priscilla and his determination to find out the secrets of her life. I thought I was going to be reading about the derring-do of the resistance during World War Two but ended up discovering something very different, a nuanced account of one woman's attempt to survive in occupied Paris when everyone made their own compromises with the enemy.

Enjoy, and have a happy holiday.

December 7, 2018

The always reliable Christopher Moore reports that the Governor General's History Awards will be going ahead in January with Gov. Gen. Julie Payette's involvement. (Here is the link to Chris's post: http://christophermoorehistory.blogspot.com/2018/12/history-of-gg-not-be....)

This is excellent news. I have participated in the awards ceremony twice -- once as a runner-up and once as a...

November 21, 2018

Congratulations to Bill Waiser, this year's winner of the Governor General's History Award for Popular Media, better known as the Pierre Berton Award. Waiser has written many fine books and blogs regularly about the history of Western Canada.

Earlier in the year it was announced that the history awards would not be handed out by the Governor General herself, as has been the case for years. Too bad. The GG is apparently rethinking her priorities.

Nonetheless, the award is a...

October 30, 2018

Congratulations to Darrel McLeod whose memoir, Mamaskatch, has won the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

I cannot help noting that each of the five finalists for this year's award is a memoir. I am not sure what that says about non-fiction writing in the country, if anything. Several years ago I was a member of a jury deciding on Canada Council grants to non-fiction writers and I recall how many of the applicants were writing memoirs. Where were the historians, the...

October 27, 2018

Here in British Columbia we are voting, again, on possibly changing the way we vote. In this context, I keep reading that London, Ontario, was recently the first Canadian municipality to use a ranked ballot system in its civic election.

This is not true. Vancouver introduced such a system, briefly, almost a century ago. And bad news for those on both sides of the current debate who argue that, for better or for worse, a ranked ballot would result in significant change: it didn't...

September 28, 2018

My initiation into political campaigning came in the 1969 BC election when I canvassed door-to-door on behalf of Tom Berger, then the new leader of the provincial NDP. He lost, his party lost, and I left town (for unrelated reasons). But politics' loss was the legal world's gain and Berger went on to have a distinguished career as a lawyer and judge. I still own a well-thumbed copy of his landmark report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland ...