THE WAYS ARE NUMBERED

In dutiful recognition of Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” the Ten-Point-Plan for plotting a speech, lecture, or story of my longtime writers’ workshop partner, Leonard Tourney, and more than a little admiration for Jim Alexander’s MJ cause célèbre, “Thirteen Ways to Tell If You’ve Hired the Right Gardener,” I offer herewith:

A Dozen Cosmic Verities

1. The best jam is red. Never mind marmalade; too bad for blueberry. The best jam is red. 2. The way home takes longer. 3. Among the passengers on a Greyhound bus going anywhere, a baby is throwing up and a teenager is listening to an iPod. 4. Male waiters in Chinese restaurants wear white sox. If your male waiter in a Chinese restaurant is not wearing white sox, he is substituting for someone who does. 5. By the year 2066, no one will hate Hillary Clinton and by 2045, only half those who think they do really will. 6. The greatest risk of a spot or stain appearing on a clean item of clothing comes within a half-hour of the item being worn. 7. Resistance to “Moby-Dick” has nothing to do with whales. 8. No one else’s nightmares are as scary as your own. 9. If you are truly serious about coffee, you need to get over Starbucks. 10. Whoever tells you something for your own good is speaking for his own good. 11. “They,” whoever they might be, are always running behind schedule. 12. When things happen, they happen all at once. When things don’t happen, they don’t happen all at once.

Another observation, a potential thirteenth addition to the list of cosmic verities: lurking in residence within every storyteller is a poet. Take a writer of fiction who has anything approximating an agreeable or intriguing voice and what we euphemistically call a way with words, and the first thing we say of such a writer is that he or she is a poet. In a metaphorical sense, poets live in the mother-in-law apartment of the writer’s house.

Fortunately, more venues for poetry are emerging, presenting emerging and established voices that come from outside the mainstream.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of writing an introduction for Paul Portuges’s “The Flower Vendor,” from Firebird Press. Now at hand is yet another form of delight, “Disking Deep,” a collection of poems from the novelist and storyteller Barbra Minar, published in attractive format by FootHills in New York. The “disking” of the title is explained straight off by the cover illustration of the author, perched on a disc harrow that has clearly prepared a chunk of earth for the reception of something that will grow.

These 42 poems, of varying length and theme, reflect the author’s instinctive grasp of the elements of story and, at the same time, her mischievous impatience with the medium of story as a conveyance of emotion-laden bundles of information. Many of the poems, “Easter Bread,” for instance, reflect Minar’s faith in the mysteries and promises of things spiritual. Others, notably “Return of the Black Dog,” and “The Bathroom,” reflect the miracle of the ordinary, found in quotidian life. My own favorite, “Radio Jazz,” evoked on first reading the memory of a boyhood friend, the late, splendid alto saxophonist, Sonny Criss, who died way too soon.

she loosens her braid arms stretch over her head honey soaked fingers stroke the air she moves like silk swaying her round body and it ends with the tender reminder: love only a breath away.

The author’s intent for the title of the collection is given its own stage in the poem “Disking Deep.”

In “Lamper’s Meadow,” her novel for young readers, Barbra Minar won me over with her delicious sense of humor, her narrative inventiveness, and her memorable characters. In “Disking Deep,” she has the effect of the old trick of blowing a paper bag full of her breath, twisting the top closed, then sneaking up behind us to pop it, startling and delighting with the effects of the poems that burst forth.

Our local mystery/suspense resident-in-chief, J.F. “Jerry” Freedman, was recently scheduled for a one-day seminar in suspense writing at UCLA. Thinking I’d enjoy looking at the syllabus for his presentation – he was right – Freedman e-mailed it to me for a quick read. His notes included a suggested reading list containing authors well known to me: Harlan Coben, James M. Cain, “anything by Jim Thompson,” Michael Connolly and Jerry’s own “Against the Wind.” Included in the list was one I hadn’t known, Kate Atkinson.

“She any good?” I e-mailed Jerry.

Guillaume Doane has had on occasion to remind me that this is a family newspaper, and so I will not undertake to quote Freedman’s response in all its affirmative splendor. Suffice it to say a copy of Atkinson’s 2004 thriller, “Case Histories,” was waiting for me when I appeared for the Saturday writers’ workshop at the Montecito Library.

Newly released in a trade paperback, Kate Atkinson’s chilling and engrossing work sets a retired English cop – and now a private detective – into a maze of three separate cases, each by degrees more bizarre, horrific and compelling than the other. The private detective, plagued throughout the course of this novel by a roaring toothache, is the only character of any substance who is thoroughly likeable. And such are Kate Atkinson’s gifts for narrative that we are made to care about the others, some of whom are simply dotty – as only the Brits can be dotty – and others caught up in the cause of self-justification.

It is no easy thing, being a private detective who is retained by a woman whose estate is overrun with cats, but our Jackson Brodie manages to cope. It is not a simple matter to have a client of about Brodie’s own age who is obsessed with fondness for his daughter, nor is it less than disconcerting to begin to suspect that a nun in a cloistered community may have had a hand in a murder. And without in any way spoiling the intricate plotting and un-anticipated outcome, I can venture on Brodie’s behalf, is it at all comforting to know that you are being stalked by someone bent on doing you the ultimate bodily harm, only to realize that you have actually sat down to afternoon tea with that individual in recent times?

Simply put, Kate Atkinson is a wonder and so is Jackson Brodie. Both are returning in a new work due this fall. But in the meantime, to whet your appetite, there is “Case Histories.”

A post script on this: To judge from the bio of her in “Case Histories” and from what I was able to glean from her website, Kate Atkinson would make a splendid character in one of her own novels.