best Vancouver books

On MOV’s spring-reading list: architecture, The Sylvia, Suzuki

Every spring and fall, book catalogues start arriving at the Museum—where they are promptly devoured and dog-eared. With so many publishing houses based in Vancouver, there’s never a shortage of new books exploring local topics and ideas and/or written by local writers. Here’s what’s on our spring reading list (so far):

On the eve of his foundation’s 20th anniversary, environmentalist  Dr. David Suzuki has a number of titles coming out with publishing partner Greystone Books. Some are new, some are revised editions, all have a pressing, uplifting, and important call to action. Among them: Declaration of Interdependence, which is based on a pledge he wrote for the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This hardcover edition features incredible art by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. Here, his distinctive Haida Manga style is used to interpret world cultures to beautiful, powerful effect. Read an excerpt here.

The blog has been on the contemporary architecture beat lately—I’ll broaden my horizons shortly, promise!—but here’s just one more hit: next month, Douglas & McIntyre publishes A Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Vancouver, their third book in a series of architectural guides to major Canadian cities. The Vancouver installment is co-authored by Christopher Macdonald, director of UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and Veronica Gillies of HOK and the Architectural Institute of B.C., and explores on the city’s built form from 1986 to the present. The book is as well-designed as the buildings it features: pocket-sized and crammed with 200+ photographs and sketches. A perfect souvenir.

The West End’s storied Sylvia Hotel has served as muse to many Vancouver writers, offering respite from the polish of other downtown hotels and a window into the neighbourhood’s past. Poet George Fetherling has just penned a new collection of works about the place and tonight at 6 p.m., he’ll read from it—at The Sylvia, naturally. (The Sylvia Hotel is located at 1154 Gilford St. Call 604-681-9321 for additional details on this free event.)


Books Every Vancouverite Should Read: Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley


When I was an undergrad, one of my housemates papered the walls of his room with maps, mostly of Europe and North America. A history major, he relied on them as a visual reference of the places he studied: “the story of those places in a nutshell.” I didn’t fully appreciate this idea until I read Derek Hayes’ Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley, which tells the story of the region through a collection of maps categorized as “faithful to reality, fanciful, or strictly promotional.” Certainly, most locals know the west was settled by real estate speculators, but many need the blanks filled in. Here’s your filler. Hayes documents most major historical issues and events from settlement to 2005 (the year of publication), relying always on maps, posters, and photographs. It’s an excellent, unsurpassed introduction to the Lower Mainland’s spatiality.

The most entertaining chapters are the early ones, which chronicle the race to become the region’s preeminent city, starting in the 1850s. It’s a tale of land speculation hot spots, among them: Ft. Langley/Derby, New Westminster, and Port Moody, the would-be terminus of the railway, where “land sales began before surveying was finished.” Somewhere in there, Hayes writes, a wise exec at CPR realized they could profit from the real-estate craze instead of private investors, and so inked a deal with the province in 1886 to extend the line to Coal Harbour in exchange for 6,000 acres. Here, a map tells the story far better than the numbers or words (see Map 117 on page 62). The first transcontinental train pulled into Vancouver on May 23, 1887. The rest is history.

Historical Atlas of Vancouver and Lower Fraser Valley is published by Douglas & McIntyre. Details linked here.

Books Every Vancouverite Should Read: Vancouver, Stories of a City

Committed readers of the Vancouver Courier will be well-acquainted with the material in Lisa Smedman’s Vancouver: Stories of a City. The 12 essays that form the basis of the book are based on a series the newspaper ran in 2006 and 2007. What began as a look at how prominent Vancouver streets got their names evolved into a detailed history on the settlement of city neighbourhoods. If you want to know why Kingsway slashes through the city’s grid pattern, or to read excerpts of Gassy Jack’s letters home, this is the book.

Let us not mince words: it is not a lite read. It’s capital-H history, written and designed as though for a high school history class. Lisa Smedman is an old-school reporter. Much of the material was extracted from interviews on record at the Vancouver Archives and much of it appears in its original form, barely edited (Major James Skitt Matthews, Vancouver’s “original archivist” should get a co-author credit; he is thanked profusely). A strong editor would have made the text easier to wade through, but the intention appears to have been a more original, rough presentation. Overall, it’s a compilation of historical documents, simply described and accompanied with grainy archival photos, postcards, and maps. Vancouverites often complain about the city’s lack of history; Smedman proves we have plenty, you just have to work to find it. She’s done her part.

Vancouver: Stories of a City was published in 2008 by CanWest Publishing. Ordering information is linked here.

Books Every Vancouverite Should Read: City of Glass

Is this an obvious choice? Absolutely. Can’t be helped. City of Glass continues to capture the zeitgeist of this place (well, minus the bit on “monster houses”; that battle has been fought and lost). With compelling photos, graphics, and illustrations, author Douglas Coupland has efficiently catalogued what makes Vancouver, Vancouver. Fleece as uniform. Sushi as fast food. Grouse Grind as singles bar. And how the city can stand in for just about anywhere on film. These things are now cliches, liberally quoted. This is the original source material.

My favourite lines are these: “My own theory about Vancouver is that we’re at our best when we’re experimenting with new ideas, and at our worst when we ape the conventions of elsewhere. Vancouver is, literally, one of the world’s youngest cities. Some day we’ll be old and creaky, but not now—right now is for being young.”

City of Glass is published by Douglas & McIntyre. A revised edition is out later this month. Click here for details.

Books Every Vancouverite Should Read: Vancouver Matters


Vancouver Matters is less a book than a bound exhibitwhich may partly explain its appeal to us. Using photographs, illusrations, and short essays, the various writers (mostly artists, and students and faculty from UBC’s School of Architecture + Landscape Architecture) present Vancouver as an unfinished work rather than an accomplishment (a subtle dig at “Vancouverism” proponents?).

Each of the 16 chapters explores a particular material condition—stucco, hedge, sugar, blackberry—and explores its imprint on the city’s built-form and culture. The opening chapter on andesite stone, for example, details the history of the Haddington Island quarry—stay with me—and how the stone was brought to Vancouver and used to clad key financial and government buildings that called for a resilient, permanent character. Picture the Royal Bank building at 675 West Hastings St., the former Provincial Court House (now the Vancouver Art Gallery), and City Hall. That many of these structures still stand in a city where redevelopment is very much a part of our identity, may indicate their intended goal has been met.

Beyond history lessons, it’s a beautifully rendered portrait of the city that presents the familiar in a bright new way.

Vancouver Matters was published in the fall of 2008 by Blueimprint, a division of the local publishing house, Simply Read Books.

Books Every Vancouverite Should Read: An online series




So, summer has run its course. The air has changed. Kids in school uniforms have reclaimed the city buses. And here at Museum, the fall book catalogues have arrived, something that always prompts lively conversations about the most compelling books about Vancouver, set in Vancouver, written by Vancouverites—or some combination of the three.

Our fall reading list includes Douglas Coupland’s highly anticipated Generation A (if you haven’t watched the clever promos for the book yet, proceed directly to iTunes. The shorts come up when you search the author’s name). On the non-fiction side, there’s A Thousand Dreams, a look at the current state of, and future of, the Downtown Eastside, and co-authored by Vancouver mayor-turned-Senator Larry Campbell, Vancouver Sunreporter Lori Culbert, and SFU professor and criminologist Neil Boyd. Lastly, Charles Demers’ Vancouver Special promises an irreverent take on the state of the things. We’re intrigued.

But what of those books in the back catalogue? Those takes on the city we continue to refer to years after the first printing?

We’ve assembled a shortlist of our favourite titles, recent and not so recent, that we’ll be presenting in a series of blog posts over the next couple weeks. Undoubtedly some of your favourites will be missing, so, do send in your comments.

Books Every Vancouverite Should Read: Stanley Park

When it was first published in 2001, Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park reached bestseller lists and received national acclaim. But its nuances are lost on anyone who hasn’t lived in Vancouver; reading it is much like watching a movie filmed here. You strain to place buildings, intersections, and characters based on actual people. (Some names are barely disguised. There’s reference made to photographer “Malcolm Perry” and architect “Arthur Erikson”). The book is as much a postcard as it is a compelling assessment of the city’s best and worst qualities. Taylor reminds us that Stanley Park may be the city’s green heart, but it’s also full of shadows.

The story follows chef Jeremy Papier, a French-trained chef who opens a restaurant in Crosstown (how very 2001) with a local, simple menu he describes as “high-end urban rubber-boot food.” Meanwhile, his anthropologist father has taken to camping in Stanley Park to connect with the city’s homeless, and to solve a decades-old murder case. Both characters are desperately searching for authenticity, approaching it from very different angles, by different means, finally coming together at the end.

Several MOV staffers recommended Stanley Park for this series. Executive Assistant Beverly Faryna explains: “Jeremy takes you on a walking tour of Vancouver every time he ventures out the door. From the kitchen of his restaurant, The Monkey’s Paw, he ventures across ‘the density of downtown,’ and on into the trails of Stanley Park. The fact that I live next door to Stanley Park Manor, the place Jeremy calls home in the West End, adds to its appeal.”

Stanley Park is published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada.

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