Vancouver: Two Tales of a City [Book Review]

Aerial approach to Vancouver showing, Richmond, Kitsilano, Downtown, Coal Harbor and the North Shore mountains.

Flickr | ecstaticist

Vancouver is a city of contrasts and contradictions:

  • It is an urban hub set in natural surroundings.
  • It celebrates both the lush and organic and the cutthroat commercial;
  • Its politics are progressive and populist;
  • Its architectural is both historical and modern;
  • Its heritage is both WASPish and Asian;
  • It is home to external wealthy and abject poverty;
  • It is both a unique city and every city.

Two Tales of a City

It is because of these dualities that I can highly recommend two books on Vancouver that couldn’t be more different. these books are Douglas Coupland’s City Of Glass and Charles Demers Vancouver Special. City of Glass reminds Vancouverites why we live here, and tells guests why they should visit. Vancouver Special tells an authentic story of Vancouver, warts and all.

The differences  comes through in the physical form of the book themselves. City of Glass is bright and colorful—reminiscent of a sunny day in the city. Its cover is even colored in the omnipresent green and blue of Vancouver’s branding. On the other hand, Vancouver Special is austere and colorless, filled with stark, black and while photographs. It is reflective of another image of Vancouver—the overcast drizzle that is all too familiar to residents.


City of Glass: Reflecting the Vancouver Ideal

City of Glass book cover

The title of Coupland’s book comes from Vancouver’s large number of skyscrapers with glass or mirror fronts. Like the glass of it’s title, Coupland’s book reflects his personal memories of the city he loves.

Inspired by Japans underground ‘zines’, the book is an illustrated collection of vignettes and reflections on Vancouver. it takes readers on an alphabetical tour,  from BC Ferries to YVR. Along the way, Coupland drops a lot of personal observations, historic trivia and often overlooked facts.

The revised edition of the book also includes a report of Coupland’s essay, “My Hotel Year,” previously published in Life After God. The essay is a nice intermission from the vignettes. It provides readers with a glimpse beyond the glass and into a gritty reality that is also part of Vancouver.

Interspersed throughout the book are some photographs of Vancouver at it’s best and pictures of Vancouver, ephemera such as Campbell’s soup cans with trilingual Cantonese/English/French labels and a salmon ‘cloud fan.’

Vancouver Special: An Authentic Exploration

Vancouver Special book cover

Vancouver Special refers to the much maligned houses production houses that were built in droves between the late sixties and early eighties. Their homely, boxy shape has been the butt of many jokes. Despite the these jabs, Vancouver Specials have become a nostalgic favorite of many Vancouverites. They may be homely and have many shortcomings, but they are authentic and they are ‘ours’. As such, it is a perfect title for a book that highlights the cities many shortcomings, but nonetheless conveys that authors love of the city.

Demers book is a much more weighty look at the city. Like City of Glass, Vancouver Special also takes readers on a tour of the city. But instead of providing short vignettes, it provides longer essays. After an introduction sets that stage, Demers takes readers through several Vancouver’s neighbourhoods in the first section  The second section looks at the various cultures and races of people that live here.  The third section is where it get most interesting.  Here Demers takes an in-depth look at various aspects of culture that define the city, from pot to peace

Like City of Glass, this book is filled with great photography. The difference is that instead of glossy brochure type picture, Vancouver Special contains some haunting black and white shots of everyday life in the city.

Some Common Threads

Despite their different tones and styles, both books display and deep, earnest love for the city. Coupland’s is the glowing love of a proud son of the city . Demers’ is more of a parent disappointed in some of the choices their child has made.

Another notable similarity is that both authors agree that Vancouver isn’t really part of Canada. Coupland comments the “genuine sense of disconenctedness from the Rest of Canada that we feel here.” Demers notes that city is “the least Canadian of the country’s cities.”

Final Thoughts

City of Glass is the book you leave in the guest bedroom to inspire and delight out-of-towners. Vancouver Special is better suited for the bathroom—where we are at out most introspective. If Coupland treads too lightly on the challenges facing Vancouver, Demers more than makes up the slack with his unflinching leftist take on the challenges Vancouver faces.

Read both. Whether you agree will everything our not in these books, each provides you with interesting perspectives on this amazing city called Vancouver.

Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.

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