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Letters to Editor

Critical Abilities

I WAS PLEASED to see that Douglas Glover, in his September letter, has set the record straight on his credentials for reviewing People of the Pines by Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera. If he had not done so, readers of his review would never have known that he did indeed grow up six miles from the Six Nations reserve, and that he often played and fought with Iroquois kids in "sandy laneways" and behind "tobacco kilns." The value of firsthand knowledge of any sort can never be underestimated.

With regard to secondhand knowledge, I was reassured by Mr. Glover's comment that he has also "read some books as well" - a characteristic I find particularly admirable for a reviewer these days. I don't know why York and Pindera would call into question the critical abilities of a reviewer with such qualifications as Douglas Glover. Then again, like other readers, they surely had no way of knowing the special details of Mr. Glover's childhood years either (unless they had telephoned him first, as he so warmly reminds them in his letter).

I just wish that someone (whether the reviewer or the writers themselves) would clear up that most irritating question of false-face masks. Are they cut from live trees or not? And does it really matter how old the trees are? Perhaps a person of confirmed Iroquois descent could clarify the issue speedily. Dale Lakevold Brandon, Man.

Socks and Knocks

YOUR REVIEWER Richard Perry ("On the Right Track?", September) seems confused about the purpose of Summer Cottages, the book that John de Visser and 1 produced for Boston Mills Press/Stoddart. In his review he questions "who is selling what to whom in this book?" as if there was no precedent for this genre of coffee-table book. Is he not aware of the enormously successful series of "style" books - French Style, Scandinavian Style, Santa Fe Style - best sellers all? Not to mention the popular magazines like Architectural Digest in the United States and City & Country Home in Canada that, every month, take their readers inside the homes of the wealthy for a good voyeuristic peck.

Perry's comment that we should have included "smelly sweat socks on the floor" and "rainy-day doldrums" suggests that he doesn't understand what dreaming is all about. Or good design. But if he thinks he can sell a book on cottages with photos of sweaty socks and mildewed walls, let him go to it.

Judy Ross


RICHARD PFRRY's keen observations in his review of Summer Cottages left me wanting to answer his question regarding the absence of smelly socks. It could be because publishers are little more than inhibited city dwellers whose imagination can't reach beyond sparkling, over-zealously stuffed rooms, owned by wealthy cottagers.

It's hard to believe that the antique knick-knacks and room decor are what one rejoices in, rather than the view of a shimmering lake before breakfast or at dusk, the smell of pine needles heated by the hot sun, or the exhilaration of handling a sledgehammer while splitting birch logs. Check out the fragile and resistant layers of skin from a slice of white birch and witness the delicate colours. And these are barely the beginning.

Edward Wierzba


RICHARD PERRY, in his review of seven photographic books, gives us first of all a litany of economic and political woes in Canada today. He then suggests that, because of the depressing state of the world, "Perhaps [he] can be forgiven for finding much to be gloomy about in these pretty books." Well, no.

We are certainly not in the habit of responding to unfavourable reviews of our books and naturally we don't expect that everyone will like everything we publish. But we do expect reviewers - especially in a book-review magazine as fine as Books in Canada - to have sound, well-argued reasons for panning a book.

It is unjustifiable as well as misleading to subject authors, publishers, and potential readers alike to unfavourable reviews simply because the reviewer is feeling melancholy. How can Mr. Perry possibly cite poor job opportunities for university graduates, high taxes, and the depletion of the ozone as reasons to dislike a wide range of books from a number of different publishers? It seems highly unprofessional - and downright unfair -for a reviewer to pan a bunch of books because he's feeling pessimistic!

In the case of Harvest, he seems to have missed the point of the book entirely. This collection of colour photographs documenting the harvest season on one family farm is intended to be - indeed, is subtitled - A Celebration of Harvest on the Canadian Prairies. Perhaps it is the reviewer's own cheerless outlook that is revealed in his choice of a quotation from the text by Sharon Butala, which gives the impression that the book focuses on the tensions, long hours, worries, and hard work of the annual grain harvest. In fact, Sharon goes on to say that "there is also the wonderful sense of relief, of joy, and of gratitude to the forces that govern the world when the crop is at last 'in the bin."'

Mr. Perry also says that Todd Korol's photographs are "somewhat matter-of-fact in content and composition, but nevertheless luminous." This seems a backhanded compliment. What does Mr. Perry expect documentary photographs to be, if not factual?

Reviewers and others here in the Prairie provinces have responded to this book with enthusiasm, and many have said that the pictures of harvesting bring back a flood of warm memories for anyone who was raised on a farm. The harvest season is the most intense, demanding, and rewarding part of the farming cycle, and many would say that the family farm is still the heart and soul of our agricultural system. Mr. Perry's suggestion that the depiction of life on a family farm in Harvest is "morbid" does this book - and your readers -an immense disservice.

Caroline Walker

Fifth House Publishers


Editors' Note: Richard Perry will reply in our next issue, but we would like to point out that the word "morbid" never appears in his review, which read:

Harvest ... portrays the bringing in of the sheaves on a Saskatchewan farm. Todd Korol's colour photographs are somewhat matter-of-fact in content and composition, but nevertheless luminous, and Sharon Butala, in prose redolent of Prairie flatness, annotates the toils and pleasures of family farm life, the struggle against insurmountable economic odds, and the political insensitivity to the central importance of rural life. (How paradoxical that the population of the second-largest country in the world, and a country known to excel in "communications," increasingly huddles in a dozen or more urban centres.) Although "unseen and nebulous forces from around the world seem to be banding together to destroy" them, farmers persevere; "harvest goes on, year after year, with its tensions, its long hours, its worries, and its hard work."


BRUCE WHITEMAN's review of Reflected Scenery from Where My Eyes Should Be (Poets' Corner, September) contained barely enough faint praise to make the rest of his hatchet job credible. In light of Whiteman's gleeful trashing of the essentials of my book, from title to publisher's blurb, I would appreciate an opportunity to respond to your readership.

Whiteman is sloppy; I am a professor of applied mathematics, not physics. Whiteman's carelessness is evident in the rest of his review as well. His offhand dismissal of the Jewish content of my poems is inexplicable; nearly half the poems (and an entire central section) in the book address Jewish themes and issues, though often from unconventional perspectives. Individual poems in the collection previously appeared in North American Jewish literary outlets such as Viewpoints (literary supplement to the Canadian Jewish News), Midstream, and Jewish Frontiers.

Whiteman's characterization of the poems as "workshoppers" and "various bits of personal history by a part-time poet" is a malicious misrepresentation of both me and my work. A substantial majority of the poems in Reflected Scenery have been published in respectable places over the last 16 years, including the Antigonish Review, Canadian Author and Bookman, Grain, Matrix, and Quarry. The oldest poem in the collection ("Kiddush HaShem") was published in 1976 in Mother Jones when Denise Levertov was still poetry editor. "From Daylight Pass ...... the poem Whiteman chose to excerpt as an example of my "uncertain ear," was deemed decent enough writing to appear in This Magazine in 198 1, and, subsequently, to be reprinted in Origins (Red Kite Press, 1987), an anthology of Ontario poets. Two of the poems in Reflected Scenery, which appear in print for the first time ("Under the Hawthorn Tree" and "Madness in Miramare"), were prize-winners in the 1990 Forest City Poetry Contest.

Workshoppers my ass, Whiteman.

Vic Elias

London, Ont.

IN HIS DISMISSIVE review of Vic Elias's Reflected Scenery from Where My Eyes Should Be, Bruce Whiteman refers to Elias as a "part-time" poet, a qualifier which seems redundant at best. Does Whiteman have any idea of just how many poets in this country can afford to devote themselves full-time to their poetry?

And what on earth does he mean by the statement that "most of the individual poems sound depressingly like workshoppers"?

The fact that Whiteman resorts to quoting the publisher's blurb in a review of only 166 words suggests to me that he hasn't read the book with the attention it deserves. Otherwise, he would surely reserve his criticism for the contents of the book rather than the cover.

According to Whiteman, a part-time reviewer, Elias's poems "are shipwrecked on an uncertain ear." Anyone who can come up with such an ill-conceived metaphor is obviously tone-deaf. Too bad, because Whiteman missed both the intense lyricism and the profound depth of a superb first collection of poetry. Reflected Scenery from Where My Eyes Should Be deserved better.

Barbara Novak London, Ont.

Like It or Not

PROFESSOR Douglas Barbour's friends and colleagues will he pleased to know that if he ever refuses to review one of their books, it will be because he neither likes nor understands it (Letters, September). Most reviewers, 1 expect, will continue to review what they are sent, whether they like it or not, on the basis that authors should not expect their works to be judged solely by well-wishers, acolytes, and publishers' representatives.

Michael Darling

London, Ont.

Socialist Rhetoric

I WISH Sharon Butala had read Paul Jackson's and my book, Battleground, before writing it off as a "dud," in her feigned review in your September '91 issue. Rather than a "shameless paean," Battleground tells what Grant Devine found when he took over government and how his government responded. Saskatchewan was a province of unmeasured resources and unbounded promise in the early 1930s, the third most populous in Canada. But then, hammered by depression and drought, the people tried Tommy Douglas's socialist experiment. Yes, it drove out capitalism but failed to create jobs. The kids left. The province languished.

Butala repeats the oft-proclaimed socialist lie that Blakeney turned over a debt-free province. Battleground shows that the NDP legacy was a crushing $3 billion debt hidden in the formula pension plans, billions more in the Crowns.

We showed, via a Saskatchewan Department of Finance chart, that in the prosperous '70s, Blakeney lost a historic opportunity, failing to attract investment. On Devine's election, interest rates of 20 per cent had sent investment slumping ever further. But despite disastrous wheat, oil, potash, and uranium prices, Devine's Open for Business program saw investment soar to $668 billion in 1990, several times higher than Blakeney's best.

As a Saskatchewan writer, Butala should know that Devine's program went far beyond "opening up the province's resources to international business," a line straight out of socialist rhetoric. Battleground itemized his actions. He ended the $91,000-a-day haemorrhaging of the Crown corporation, Papco, and the purchaser Weyerhaeuser invested another $250 million to build a world-class paper mill. Devine also privatized SaskOil (selling it to the public, not to evil "international. business") which then raised $370 million from both inside and outside the province to fund new growth. He privatized Crown-owned SaskPotash, which he calculated had cost Saskatchewan taxpayers $3 billion since Blakeney's arbitrary takeover, again selling it to the public, not to "international business." He gave the Crown corporations new management and new mandates. SaskPower alone pared its $2 billion debt down to size, and strengthened the province by increasing its in-province purchases from about 30 per cent to 85 per cent of its annual needs.

Battleground also reported the runaway success of the Saskatchewan exhibit at B.C. Expo; Devine's steps to strengthen medicare and to reform education and to get unprecedented farm support from Ottawa as wheat prices plunged; his imaginative programs to support manufacturing-processing firms in smaller communities; his program that saw oil and gas drilling more than double in 1983 alone, and countless others.

Devine also supported the province's ore-rich uranium industry, and had Ottawa's agreement to bring Canada's nuclear industry to the province. If he had won the 1991 election, it would have been the province's next giant step forward.

We documented all this. The story is true -it's the heart and soul of Saskatchewan. How Butala doesn't understand it baffles me, but it may help explain why, as she says, there is "a nagging sense among the electorate of things not being what they seem to be, as facts are obscured or even obliterated in a steady stream of Tory claims and opposition counterclaims." If many Saskatchewan people are depending on Butala's reports, how could they understand?

Don Baron


Software Solution

I AM WRITING in response to Stan Persky's essay, "A Curious Neglect" (September). Mr. Persky raises some interesting issues, the most important of which is who gets to review books and what do reviewers get to say. What really got Mr. Persky's dander up was the treatment that his pal Brian Fawcett's book received at the hands of my friend and colleague Douglas Bell. Truth be told, Mr. Persky's essay didn't do much for Doug's mood, either, the morning he saw it....

I have a solution that should cheer everybody up. So that some day Messrs Bell and Persky can be friends (after all, their bylines share the same page in the Globe sometimes), what we need is some ingenious programmer to devise the perfect book-review software. Then we wouldn't have to worry about Mr. Fawcett not getting the fair shake that Mr. Persky thinks he deserves.

As an aside, I must confess that I am adapting a pirated notion here. Two writers, Jim Cormier and Douglas Coupland, deserve the royalties. Mr. Coupland suggested that there should be a computer program called McTwang that could write all those godawful cookie-cutter country-and-western biographies. Mr. Cormier added that McTwang could be augmented by something called Vivitone, which would insert the obligatory heavy drinking, incestuous womanizing, and prison terms - part and parcel of every C&W saga. But I digress....

Let's hope that our software writer will invent a program that can simply apply all of Mr. Persky's requirements to every book review, so we wouldn't have to worry about a critic's judgement being influenced by personal prejudices, individuality, Or, God forbid, taste - all the terrible things that poisoned Mr. Bell's review. And I think we ought to call the program Persky. Sounds computerese, wouldn't you say?

Peter Carter


Not Guilty

ELIZABETH HAYNES, in her September letter, suggests that I did not attend to the text of Judy Millar's The Rules of Partial Existence, and that my review "dismisses the whole collection as 'incomprehensible."'

I never used the word.

Dayv James-French



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