Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Books for Christmas

Dec 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.