The Sun, Sy Safransky Editor

I subscribe to a fair number of literary magazines, far more than I can read, to be honest. Mostly I cycle around, subscribing to different ones, but there are a couple of standards that I'm not willing to give up, even for a year. One of these is The Sun.

Proudly ad-free, The Sun always repays my attention with excellent writing and strong insights. It starts with an interview, which I'm sometimes tempted to skip over it, but I've learned that there are always at least a few nuggets that will make me sit up and pay attention. The rest of the magazine is full of strong, personal stories. Most are nonfiction, but one or two are fiction. There are a couple of poems, lots of striking black and white photos, and a section called Reader's Write, where readers send in short pieces on a particular topic.

I'm choosing one recent issue to discuss—November 2011—because it seemed particularly outstanding to me. The cover is a gorgeous photo by Gary Harwood taken at a dance competition. Shot from above, one woman in perfect focus appears to be standing still,looking up, her skirt a mandala around her, while other dancers are a spinning blur. Her expression outdoes the Mona Lisa as she stares into your eyes with an inscrutable expression.

The interview with Michael Meade centers on the need for stories. He says that “We have a seeded self that begins to germinate at birth. Our true goal in life is to become that self.” He talks about working with a group of young people, telling them stories about initiations and young people “finding their souls.” A dance was to follow his talk and he told them, “‘understand who you are in the midst of the dance. No one else is dancing the same way you are. So be in the big dance of life, but also be yourself in the big dance.'” Then when the music started, the young people started dancing up to him saying “‘I'm showing you who I am.'” Gave me chills.

I liked the poem “Loving a Woman” by Ellen Bass. In just a few lines, she recreates a day and places me right in it. She uses unexpected words and strong verbs: “The day was warm, / a thrum of insects, budding of cells, / the fat leaves opening their pores . . .” I felt the water of the stream washing over me and felt the sun “pouring into the mouths / of the leaves as they stirred . . .”

My favorite piece is by Brian Doyle, someone who turns up regularly in these pages. “Elson Habib, Playing White, Ponders His First Move” starts with Elson considering the queen's pawn and remembering his grandfather's advice. And from there, the middle of the first sentence until the end, we are plunged into the voice of the grandfather, talking to the child Elson as they play. The grandfather talks about pawns and sly bishops, describing people he has played such as a man from Alexandria who “would sacrifice pawns on purpose sometimes to set himself an imbroglio.” He is a romantic, saying “Imagination is the great secret of chess, not experience.” Doyle stays in character beautifully as the old man imparts life-lessons slant-wise, talking about slurping tea from a saucer and light that falls like golden dust. Doyle also uses repetition effectively, repeating a phrase just often enough to add depth to the character.

Another piece, excerpted from Nietzsche's Untimely Meditations reminds me that people have a tendency to laziness and timidity. “In his heart every man knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only once and that no imaginable chance will for a second time gather together into a unity so strangely variegated an assortment as he is: he knows it but he hides it like a bad conscience — why? From fear of his neighbor, who demands conventionality . . . We are responsible to ourselves for our own existence . . we want to be the true helmsman of this existence.” But he adds that “it is a painful and dangerous undertaking thus to tunnel into oneself.”

The essays, being true, often plumb these dangerous depths, prompting some readers to complain in letters to the editor that the magazine is too dark. One in this issue hurt me to read, but I was glad I did. “Baby Lollipops” by Jaquira Diaz, is about a dead toddler in the local news when Diaz was a young girl just after her parents divorced. At first she and her little sister live with her father and his mother, but then they are stolen by their mother, a drug addict. Diaz can't stop thinking about the toddler, who had apparently been killed by his mother. “We are supposed to love our mothers. We are supposed to trust them and need them and miss them when they're gone. But what if that same person,the one who's supposed to love you more than anyone else in the world, the one who's supposed to protect you, is also the one who hurts you the most?” I thought of the lovely essay my friend Fernando Quijano wrote about his mother; it too is about how we find and create a way to go on and still see beauty and still be able to love.

That's why I keep reading this magazine. Try it. Just one issue and you'll be hooked.

Blind to the Bones, by Stephen Booth

Set in the brooding moorland of England's Peak District, the story concerns the murder of young Neil Granger and the disappearance two years earlier of his friend, nineteen-year-old Emma Renshaw. DC Ben Cooper, temporarily assigned to the Rural Crime Unit, works the murder as well as a rash of thefts while DS Diane Fry is given the missing persons case, revived by the discovery of Emma's blood-stained cell phone. One name keeps coming up when the talk turns to crime and the small town of Withins: the Oxleys. They are behind the pranks, the fires, and—some believe—the burglaries. Anything bad going down in the Withens area must have the incorrigible Oxleys behind it.

This is the fourth book in the series featuring Fry and Cooper which includes One Last Breath. I'd actually read this book before, but it's been long enough that I didn't remember the details. Listening to the audio version added some layers I hadn't been quite so aware of before. The accents used for different characters placed them firmly within the class structure that persists in England and reinforced the story. Every time she spoke, Diane Fry's accent reminded me that she was from a lower class than Ben Cooper, contributing to the defensiveness natural to a woman succeeding in the man's world of the police force. Even without their reputation, the Oxleys' accents would have aroused prejudice. Sure that no one in authority would listen to them, it was no wonder the Oxleys operated outside the law. They have their close-knit family and their traditions, reminding me of the Ozark families in Winter's Bone.

What I did recall about the book was that morris dancers were involved, both Cotswold and Border morris. Morris is a traditional performance dance from the English countryside. It was mentioned in Shakespeare and was part of the traditional village life that Hardy memorialized in his Wessex novels. The dance predates written records, so no one knows its exact origin. It is thought that the name derived from the term for Moors, due to the old custom of dancers blacking their faces. Booth worked closely with a local team to get his details right, and his research pays off in accurate descriptions of the dances, the traditions, and even the good-humored rivalry between Cotswold and Border dancers. Booth's accuracy is important to me because I am a morris dancer. Jane Austen and others wrote about the traditional social dances—country dances and quadrilles—but it's rare to find a mention of the performance dances in literature. It's a comfort to stumble across something so familiar in the course of your difficult day, like suddenly seeing a friend or hearing your favorite O'Carolan tune. Your heart just opens.

Not that you need to know anything about morris dancing to enjoy this book. The pacing is good; the characters interesting; and the setting spectacular. This time through, I especially enjoyed the scraps of the region's history, the navvies who dug the huge tunnels for the trains and their deplorable living conditions. Perhaps “enjoyed” isn't the right word. Reading about the decision to continue using men to dig the tunnels even after machines became available because men were cheaper made me sad and furious. These tunnels in particular had the highest death rate for navvies, from accidents and cholera and malnutrition. Thinking of the 99% and the Occupy movements, it seems nothing has changed. People's lives count for nothing against the possibility of making a fortune. I think of all those railroad barons with more money than they could ever spend, and all those who died building the railroads.

I take comfort from Booth's rounded presentation of the Oxleys. They are neither stereotypical louts nor the saintly poor; simply people using their limited resources to do what they think best. And I take comfort, too, from the way—as in all the best mysteries—chaos resolves into the order of a satisfying conclusion.

The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, by Marion Winik

Since my memoir came out last summer, I've been teaching some memoir writing workshops, and one question I always hear is How do I start? There are several answers to this question, but one of my favorites is to write little bits as they come to you and then after a while see what you've got, see what makes you want to write more. In the future, I will recommend they read this book.

Winik gives us brief portraits of people in her life who have died. While Spoon River Anthology is her model, these are all real people, and the stories are from the author's point of view rather than that of the dead person. No names; instead each person is identified by some trait, such as The Skater or The Mah Jongg Player. In just a few pages she gives us a strong sense of the person. Each chapter is quite brilliant, though some are more wrenching than others: she writes of her first husband's death, her first child's.

Writing a whole book seems overwhelming. Writing a single scene or a character sketch feels much more manageable, but in fact writing a short piece well is much more difficult. I always find it much easier to write five pages about something than to condense it to one paragraph. Winik succeeds by providing vivid snippets and not falling into a formula. Sometimes she recounts an incident to bring a person to life, sometimes description, like The Jeweler who looked like a Bavarian elf, sometimes just a brief summary. But always her details are vivid and a bit wacky like this summary of The Bon Vivant's background: “He was the youngest of three boys raised in the swamps of East Texas by a Jewish salesman of women's clothing, and all three emerged from that thicket with elegant Southern manners, true modesty, and rare taste.”

Although The Graduate and The Last Brother made me cry, I think my favorite is The Queen of New Jersey who had everything until “As in a fairy tale, everything went wrong.” I think I like it because I've known so many people like this, people whom I thought had it all figured out when it turns that they just haven't been tested yet.

Because of the consistent narrator, this collection of short pieces add up to a memoir, a bit impressionistic perhaps, but the sense of a life. It is this sense of life that keeps the book from being depressing. If we live long enough, we all enter what Jane Smiley calls “The Age of Grief”. People we know have died. People we love have died. And each death marks us in some way.

In the Author's Note Winik says that the book started as an exercise in a writing workshop. Beginning to write about The Jeweler and how he died, she says, “I felt my brain begin to crowd up, as if tickets to a show had just gone on sale and all my ghosts were screeching up at the box office.” Every writer, if she's lucky, knows that feeling.

Sketches from a Hunter's Album, by Ivan Turgenev

A writing acquaintance recommended this book as one of the best at providing a sense of place. I have to agree with that assessment. Here the place is the Russian countryside where Turgenev grew up. A member of the gentry just prior to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, Turgenev's concern with the plight of the peasants he encounters fuels these stories.

Even though a journeyman writer—these are his earliest published writings—Turgenev succeeds brilliantly at writing fiction that reveals a political slant while preventing the politics from overwhelming the story. This is always a difficult task. As Orwell said, “All art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art.” How Turgenev does it is twofold. First, influenced by Gogol and Dostoevsky, he writes in a realist manner, depicting the peasants, their meagre huts, and the injustices they suffer in a straight-forward manner. Secondly, his narrator is simply an observer, rarely taking an active role or even commenting on what he sees or is told. He lets the peasants and their circumstances speak for themselves.

I guess they spoke pretty loudly: after the book was published in 1852, Turgenev was arrested and then exiled to his estate.

Prior to being collected in book form, these stories were published in The Contemporary, a Russian journal. They do read a little like writing exercises—a character sketch here, a nature description there—so I could almost see him preparing to write a novel. I'm not interested in hunting—I agree with the peasant nicknamed Flea who says of undomesticated beasts and birds, “and a sin it is to be killing such a one, it should be let to live on the earth until its natural end . . .”—but there's actually very little about that. Mostly Turgenev writes about people and places.

The injustices, recounted in a matter-of-fact tone by peasants who expect no more, infuriated me. For instance, there's the farmer Ovsyanikov who when prompted by the narrator as to whether the old days weren't better, says he has no reason to praise the old days. The narrator, he says, is a landowner but not the kind of man his granddad was. Ovsyanikov mentions a patch of land and says, “Your granddad took it off us. He rode up, pointed, said: ‘That's my property,' and took it.”

There are other fascinating characters: two friends, one blustery and one shy, who support and care for each other; an older woman with simple tastes who indulges her artistic nephew; Old Knot whose masters kept moving him from job to job: coachman, cook, fisherman, shoemaker, pageboy, even an actor in his mistress's theatre. Most touching of all is Lukeria, whom the narrator finds in a shed when sheltering from a storm. She had once been a maid in his mother's household, the most beautiful and lively of them all. But now she has fallen prey to a wasting disease, cannot move, can barely eat. Yet she does not complain, but speaks gratefully of the kindness of the villagers who care for her and feed her. She dreams and prays and, when she has the strength, she sings.

Most of all I love the descriptions. As promised I found myself walking through the woods with the narrator, among the “wispy pink runners” of wild strawberries and mushrooms in “tight family clusters.” We lie on our backs and watch the peaceful play of the entwined leaves against the high, clear sky . . . and then suddenly . . . these branches and leaves suffused with sunlight, all of it suddenly begins to stream in the wind, shimmers with a fugitive brilliance, and a fresh, tremulous murmuration arises which is like the endless shallow splashing of oncoming ripples.” Or we go driving on a country road under newly washed willows with larks rising by the hundreds overhead. “On an upland beyond a shallow valley a peasant is ploughing. A dappled foal with short little tail and ruffled mane runs on uncertain legs behind its mother and one can hear its high-pitched neighing. We drive into a birch wood . . .” I could linger here for a long time.