Greener Than Eden
trade paperback $22.95
A Certain Respect for Tradition: Mark Miller on Jazz
trade paperback $19.95
Greener Than Eden came out last fall to generally positive reviews—a promising start for a new novelist, Michael Kohn, seemed the consensus. Now that we've had a few months with it, we'll see if the colour has faded yet.
The title is a small play upon words— "green" referring in the novel to an inexperienced worker in the tree-planting outfits in northern Ontario. Noah Abramson becomes a tree-planter after being thrown out of university in Toronto for protesting the cutting down of a tree on campus.
Green author Kohn, who now works as a teacher-librarian in Etobicoke and whose bio includes graduating from York University and working several stints as a tree-planter, obviously knows the tree-planting life. It's a culture I was not aware existed.
We get loads of information about the job as Abramson learns the trade: the somewhat simple process, the rates of various workers, the rivalries among teams to complete their lots, the pay, the sleeping and eating arrangements in the wild, the contest with bears and (worse) flies, the whole company-town set-up. Probably more than we need.
More importantly of course are the relationships among the individuals on the teams—especially of the men with a young woman they pick up. Cass was found running from another camp and has obviously been abused by both men and nature. She joins our protagonist's group of tree-planters. Of course our protagonist falls for her, despite her stand-offish attitude. But so do others, including one of the men Noah's closest to.
These relationship issues take far too long to work out though. Between their convolutions and repeated descriptions of the daily work, the novel drags through the middle portions.
It only really picks up with a forest fire that threatens lives, calls forth heroic efforts on the part of our protagonist, and resolves long smoldering problems. Not only the male-female relationship but some of Noah's repressed issues seem to be cleared up. I'm not sure exactly how, except that this is what is supposed to happen after traumatic and climactic incidents in novels and movies, I suppose. Then an idyllic conclusion, a Hemingwayesque chapter with our two survivors fishing together and not much else. Ahhh.
I'm being a bit unfair. There's a lot more going on in here. More characters, subplots, action. But not a lot of emotional heft to them. That bit of damning Kohn with faint praise as being "promising" is right on the money. Greener Than Eden is full of parts that I'm sure I've read elsewhere. Not plagiarism, but adopting other writer's attitudes to add significance to experiences that maybe weren't all that dramatic—in a literary way—in the first place. Or that the author doesn't have the confidence yet to treat in his own voice?
Still, a not-bad read. A novel that makes you look forward to the author's more mature work.
The character and characters of jazz
Being a newspaper writer can be depressing if you think about how fleeting your work is: each instalment of your finely-polished prose is read (hopefully) and forgotten as soon as the next issue appears. That's why so many yearn to collect their daily or weekly insights in book form—to provide a little more durability.
Tricky though. Much of what seems brilliant in newsprint is shown to be superficial and passing when placed between stiffer covers. I expected this to be the case with former Globe and Mail writer Mark Miller's collection of pieces on jazz from 1980 to 2005. I mean, concert reviews and interviews with musicians republished years later? Many of them after their subjects' careers—and sometimes lives—have ended?
Moreover, not being a fanatic jazz follower, I wondered if I could care about the B-list figures who make up much of A Certain Respect for Tradition.
Turns out I could. I think only now, reading this collection, could I appreciate how good Miller's work was. For I found myself repeatedly dipping into this book (no need to read this one start to finish) to get his take on the characters. And most of them are characters, whether the big names in music like Grappelli, Corea, McFerrin, Vaughan and Bennett, or the myriad lesser-knowns who have come through town over the past two decades to ply their honest trade.
Miller's writing is always from a perspective. Not to say that it's all about him, or ever about him. But he always finds a unique angle from which to view each jazz musician. Freed from newspaper demands, his pithy titles for each piece give an idea of the quirkiness: "Short", "Cocky", "Edgewise", "Entirely mad", "Why now?", "Old dude" and about 90 others.
Much as the short articles made for great dipping, the longer pieces are more engrossing. Nine pages on Cecil Taylor are well spent in trying to understand what the avant garde pianist was getting at in his bizarre sessions at the Banff Jazz Workshop. You don't have to be a jazz fan to appreciate this writing.
Miller's stodginess, as expressed in the unfortunately dull title of this book, sometimes comes through in his portraits, but he seldom lectures. Instead he opens up ways for the reader to enter the worlds of his subjects— which is a well-respected tradition in good literature of all kinds.