*blog posts: a quick explanation*

As a reader and writer of literary fiction, I find it worthwhile to study sentences. I love the layers and textures present in carefully crafted syntax, the way a single sentence can tilt the axis of the Earth and light the world anew. This blog contains some sentences that have—in structure and content—struck me. Please scroll down for the complete collection of posts.

Copywrite Note: The purpose of this blog is educational and the posts include direct quotations from a very small portion of the larger artistic work. All quotations are clearly attributed. My intention is to celebrate sentences and highlight the work of classic and contemporary writers.

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“Natural Disasters” by Alexis Schaitkin c. 2019 (pages 271-289 in The Best American Short Stories 2019)

In this short story, a young woman and her husband move to Oklahoma, where the woman suffers from isolation and mental illness. After a dramatic encounter with a tornado, she realizes that her marriage will fail. This story destabilizes the concept of authenticity—in people and in places, showing us that the neat and coherent stories we tell about our “natural” selves are often illusory, and that these illusions are stripped away in the face of “natural” disasters. 

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “We were living in Oklahoma ironically. Obviously it is not possible to live in a place ironically, but we were twenty-four and freshly married, so it was not obvious to us. It would not become obvious to me for a very long time; by then, by now, this clarity would be pointless, the thinly exhilarating aha! of a riddle solved at a cocktail party” (271).
  • “You see, I lived then guided by the unconscious notion that the story of my life as I was meant to live it was already written in a secret, locked away text. At the end, I would finally be able to open it and read the story that had been written there all along—its arc, its twists and turns, its motifs and themes, its most evocative lines. For a moment before death, I would know what the world had intended for me and whether I had gotten it right or gone terribly astray” (273).
  • “I spent a lot of time during this period driving through the prairie. I’d tell myself I needed to get out, that it would do me good to see some nature. The truth is that on those drives I stoked my growing terror of this place, of the on and on and on of it. Sometimes as I drove, the clouds above me would seem to coalesce around a brown center and then, suddenly drop. Sometimes the thing I was driving past—a mailbox, a swimming pool—would suddenly be coated in black, glossy oil. I had developed a twinned obsession with tornadoes, on the one hand, and oil, on the other. They seemed to me to be part of a unified system, connected by some mystical-sinister energy. The tornadoes funneled destructive force down from the sky, the oil wells pulled it up from the ground, and I was living where these forces met, on the perilous surface of the earth” (275).
  • “I had become a person whose job came with that most valuable perk: good anecdotes” (279).
  • “Often the women were about my age, with a baby on a hip, a toddler hanging from a leg. ‘Can you imagine having two kids?’ I would say to Steven at night, as if the idea were as lunatic as keeping wildebeests for pets. We would laugh together, delighting in our sense of ourselves as too urbane, too bright and scattered, to manage the exigencies of family life—exigencies about which we were intentionally very vague—at such a young age” (279).
  • “The competence of these women, the hardened shapeliness of their lives, terrified me. Though none was quite as appealing as Bethany, many shared a certain ineffable quality with her—a diamond selfhood, hard and translucent” (280).
  • “Sometimes when I was touring a house and the woman was out of view, I would pretend that her house was my house and her children were my children. I had been born here among the Radiant Assembly’s faithful. I was friends with Bethany and fistfuls of women like her, like us. If I could get deep enough into that imagining, my self would sweep cleanly away and a feeling would fill me that was like being dipped in cool, sweet water” (280).
  • “It was a cloudy, humid day, the air fuzzed with an electric tingling” (281).
  • “He was tall and leanly muscular and looked entirely sun made—skin darkened by it to the shade of toasted cashew, hair lightened by it to gold filaments” (282).
  • “In the years since that day I have lived in many places: Florida with its hurricanes, California with its earthquakes, and, for the past decade, Maine with its blizzards that bury cars and houses in stunning, sinister white. If you stop and think about it, the idiosyncrasy of these forces is astonishing. A vortex of clouds kissing the earth. The solid ground splitting and rippling. You could never imagine such things, if you didn’t already know they were possible” (285).
  • “In that moment, in a storm shelter in Oklahoma, with my hair hanging around my face in wet strings and Mac Follett, round-shouldered in the lamplight, promising that I was safe, I had the exhilarating sense that for the first time I was living a page from the secret text of my life. It was obvious, suddenly, that the storm raging on the other side of the shelter door was here for me, to catalyze my life with its force. I was supposed to be here, and here I was, and the purpose behind my being here was effortlessly legible. I could see what would happen in this moment and the next and the next just as I had seen all of the houses along the length of Redtail Road at once” (286-287).
  • “Maybe you think all of this is easy to interpret. A girl left the city and learned a thing or two. A silly young woman hoped to be ravished by a man who was not her husband. A marriage fell apart, and afterward a wife was wiser, though in some ways no better, than she had been before. Maybe it is only my personal stake in the matter that makes me want to believe it was not that simple. All I can say is that when I pulled up to the house on Redtail Road I thought life was one thing, and when I drove away I knew it was another. I knew, quite simply, that a life is not a story at all. It is the disasters we carry within us” (289).
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“Audition” by Said Sayrafiezadeh c. 2019 (pages 255-270 in The Best American Short Stories 2019)

“Audition” centers on a young man who, seeking life-experience and legitimacy as an actor, gets high with a co-worker at his father’s construction site. Larger themes of isolation and economic inequality resonate in this cinematic short story.

 Sentences Worth Studying

  • “The more I dreamed, the more vivid the dream seemed to be, until it was no longer some faint dot situated on an improbable time line but, rather, my destiny. And all I needed to turn this destiny into reality was to make it out of my midsized city—not worth specifying—and make it to LA, where, of course, an actor needed to be if he was to have any chance at that thing called success. But, from my perspective of a thousand miles, LA appeared immense, incensed, inscrutable, impenetrable, and every time I thought I had enough resolve to uproot myself and rent a U-Haul I would quickly retreat into the soft, downy repetitiveness of my hometown, with its low stakes, high livability, and steady paycheck from my father” (256).
  • “When lunchtime arrived, I’d sit around with the other general laborers, thirty of us on upturned crates in an unfinished living room with a spring breeze blowing through the glassless windows, eating roast-beef sandwiches and talking about money problems, home problems, work problems. My problems were not their problems, but I wished they were. Their problems were immediate, distinct, and resolvable; mine were long-term, existential, and impossible” (257-258).
  • “Now all that history was inconsequential, pulsed inside the blender of collective toil. No one would have been able to tell me apart from any of the other general laborers I sat with on my lunch break, smoking cigarettes amid exposed crossbeams. Just as no one would have been able to tell I was the boss’s son. To the latecomer entering the theater, I was indistinguishable from the whole” (258).
  • “Through the windshield, our midsized city crawled past at a midsized pace. Midsized highways with midsized cars. Midsized citizens with their midsized lives” (259).
  • “We drove beneath an overpass that led into a down-and-out neighborhood of weather-beaten, two-story, redbrick homes, a hundred of them in a row, every one identical, just as the homes in my father’s subdivision were identical, but at the other end of the economic spectrum. This was a neighborhood of odd jobs and no help, where people shopped for dinner at the local convenience store . . . This was outsized struggle in a midsized city” (261).
  • “It would be a shame to go home as I always did, lie in the bathtub, have another night of living life through the soggy pages of screenplays, getting closer to twenty years old, my time line unraveling like a ball of yarn” (261).
  • “On his dresser was a Magnavox TV, twenty-five-inch, with a built-in VCR, presumably left on all day, tuned to ESPN, where the announcers were oohing and aahing over, who else, Michael Jordan, who was doing, what else, winning. He glided down the court. He floated through the air. He elbowed his defender in the chest. Everything he did had style, even his mistakes. He was the perfect blend of beauty and power, of grace and aggression. No one would have dared tell Michael Jordan, ‘It takes as long as it takes’” (262).
  • “We bantered, we joked, we lit one another’s cigarettes, we pretended we were not consumed with insecurity and competitiveness. To help pass the time we talked about classical and postmodern theater. If I had gone to college, I might have known what I was talking about” (265).
  • “I was aware that I had been waiting for Duncan Dioguardi to invite me to party again, but no invitation had been forthcoming, and to broach it myself seemed as though it would traverse an essential but unstated boundary” (267).

“The clarity that I thought I’d had moments earlier had not been clarity at all but, rather, its opposite, delusion, which was now being usurped by an all-encompassing awareness, horrible and heavy, through which I understood at once that I was not talented, had never been talented, that my life as a general laborer was proof of this lack of talent, and that being cast in a role with zero lines was not a step forward toward fame but a step into insecurity in a midsized city. Who but a fool agrees to move through space for three acts without saying a word?” (269).

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The Overstory by Richard Powers c. 2018 (502 pages—Norton)

A sweeping, polyphonic story that follows the lives of eight central characters, all of whom have a connection to trees. The prose borders on poetry and the writing celebrates nature without being overwrought. The branching complexity and interconnectedness of trees finds techno-utopic parallels in the sections featuring Neelay, a computer programmer. At this point, we know that computers are failing to create an earthly utopia, and Powers makes a strong case for a utopia that—in our staggering ignorance—all but the “crazy” have failed to see.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “A thing can travel everywhere just by holding still” (3, 500).
  • Trees even farther away join in: All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations” (3).
  • “The generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call story happens outside his photos’ frame. Inside the frame, through hundreds of revolving seasons, there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early middle age, growing at the speed of wood” (16).
  • “When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts, lifting its lower limbs and shrugging its ample globe. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of midwestern winter skies” (23).
  • “Time was not a line unrolling in front of her. It was a column of concentric circles with herself at the core and the present floating outward along the outermost rim. Future selves stacked up above and behind her, all returning to this room for another look at the handful of men who had solved life” (35).
  • “But she can do this—clean up the backyard carnage forever. Cleaning, she becomes another thing. The wind loosens her hair. She looks at the bloodied paving stones, the bits of soft tissue that housed his ideas. She sees him by her side, amazed by the flecks of his own brain lying in the grass. Look at the color! You ask how people rise or fall in this life? Like this” (42).
  • “That’s when Adam realizes: Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives” (56).
  • “She knows already the precise worst buttons she can press in him, right there in their first week together. Criminally responsible, this man. Pathologically accountable to the hopes and expectations of his kind” (65).
  • “Life counts down. Nine years, six jobs, two aborted love affairs, three state license plates, two and a half tons of adequate beer, and one recurring nightmare” (84).
  • “A great truth comes over him: Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible” (89).
  • “Any one of these gangly seedlings could push out millions of cones over the course of its life, the small yellow males with their pollen that floats across entire states, the drooping females with their mouse tails sticking out from the coil of scales, a look he finds dearer than his own life. And the forest they might remake he can almost smell—resinous, fresh, thick with yearning, sap of a fruit that is no fruit, the scent of Christmases endlessly older than Christ” (90).
  • “His seven-year-old brain fires and rewires, building aborized axons, dendrites, those tiny spreading trees. He grins, cagey but uncertain” (93).
  • “There are trees that spread like fireworks and trees that rise like cones. Trees that shoot without a ripple, three hundred feet straight skyward. Broad, pyramidal, rounded, columnar, conical, crooked: the only thing they do in common is branch, like Vishnu waving his many arms” (95).
  • “At first, the point of coding is to give everything away. Pure philanthropy. He’ll find a marvelous seed program in the public domain. Then he’ll flesh it out, add new features, switch on his 1200-baud modem, dial in to a local bulletin board, and upload the source for anyone who wants it to grow some more. Soon his creatures will propagate on hosts across the planet. Every day people around the globe add new species to the repositories. It’s the Cambrian Explosion all over again, only a billion times faster . . . The more he gives away, the more he has. From his vantage, stranded in his wheelchair in the basement lab, whole new continents swing into view. The gift economy—free duplication of well-shaped commands—promises to solve scarcity at last and cure the hunger at the heart’s core” (107).
  • “She works all day in the woods, her back crawling with chiggers, her scalp with ticks, her mouth filled with lead duff, her eyes with pollen, cobwebs like scarves around her face, bracelets of poison ivy, her knees gouged by cinders, her nose lined with spores, the back of her thighs bitten Braille by wasps, and her heart as happy as the day is generous” (123).
  • “Looking at all this glorious decay, a person might be forgiven for thinking that old meant decadent, that such thick mats of decomposition were cellulose cemeteries in need of the rejuvenating ax. She sees why her kind will always dread these close, choked thickets, when the beauty of solo trees gives way to something massed, scary, and crazed” (135).
  • “Words of hers that she has all but forgotten have gone on drifting out on the open air, lighting up others, like a waft of pheromones” (137).
  • “She takes his shaking hand in the dark. It feels good, like a root must feel, when it finds, after centuries, another root to pleach to underground. There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things” (144).
  • “Soon the beautiful brainstorms come, the ones that link up in the front of her eyes and make the whole mess of human history so lovely and self-evident” (150)
  • “Here’s the thing about an apple: it sticks in the throat. It’s a package deal: lust and understanding. Immortality and death. Sweet pulp with cyanide seeds. It’s a bang on the head that births up whole sciences. A golden delicious discord, the kind of gift chucked into a wedding feast that leads to endless war. It’s the fruit that keeps the gods alive” (162).
  • “Out in the yard, all around the house, the things they’ve planted in years gone by are making significance, making meaning, as easily as they make sugar and wood from nothing, from air, and sun, and rain. But the humans hear nothing” (168).
  • “The sun cuts starbursts in the needles’ verdigris, a thousand scones of astral light. The great dinosaur plates of the trunk turn shades of orange, terra-cotta, and cinnamon” (182).
  • “The switchbacks up Sand Hill Road, harrowing at noon, are deadly in the dark” (196).
  • “They lie in bed, side-by-side, leg-to-leg, but with hands firmly on the pages in front of them. Falling asleep, he reads the same paragraph a dozen times; the words turn into twirling things, like winged seeds spinning in the air” (210).
  • “The [UCSC] campus is an enchanted garden perched on a mountainside overlooking Monterey Bay” (235).
  • “He sees it first: a grove of trunks six hundred years old, running upward out of sight. The pillars of a russet cathedral nave. Trees older than movable type. But the furrows are spray-painted with white numbers, like someone tattooed a living cow with a butcher diagram showing the various cuts of meat hiding underneath. Orders for a massacre” (254).
  • “Here, as sundown blankets them, the feel is primeval, darshan, a face-to-face intro to divinity. The tree runs straight up like a chimney butte and neglects to stop. From underneath, it could be Yggdrasil, the World Tree, with its roots in the underworld and crown in the world above” (260).
  • “In the dark-paneled courtroom, her words come out of hiding. Love for trees pours out of her—the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety and surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature” (284).
  • “Yet on such a night as this, as the forest pumps out its million-part symphonies and the fat, blazing moon gets shredded in Mima’s branches, it’s easy for Nick to believe that green has a plan that will make the age of mammals seem like a minor detour” (292).
  • Can you feel it lift and disappear? That standing wave of constant static. The distraction so ubiquitous you never even knew you were wrapped in it. Human certainty. The thing that binds you to what’s right here—gone” (294).
  • “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story” (336).
  • “Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered” (348).
  • “But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died” (358).
  • “Twenty springs is no time at all. The hottest year ever measured comes and goes. Then another. Then ten more, almost every one of them among the hottest in recorded history. The seas rise. The year’s clock breaks. Twenty springs and the last one starts two weeks earlier than the first” (374).
  • “The sight fills him with a horror inseparable from hope. Somewhere in all these boundless, swelling canyons of imprinted paper, encoded in the millions of tons of loblolly pine fiber, there must be a few words of truth, a page, a paragraph that could break the spell of fulfillment and bring back danger, need, and death” (380).
  • “The books diverge and radiate, as fluid as finches on isolated islands. But they share a core so obvious it passes for given. Every one imagines that fear and anger, violence and desire, rage laced with the surprise capacity to forgive—character—is all that matters in the end” (382-383).
  • “Civilized yards are all alike. Each yard is wild in its own way” (384).
  • “Past retirement age, Patricia works like there’s no tomorrow” (388).
  • “Standing in the vault, Patricia gets the strangest feeling. She’s in one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, surrounded by thousands of sleeping seeds, cleaned, dried, winnowed, and X-rayed, all waiting for their DNA to awaken and begin remaking air into wood at the slightest hint of thaw and water. The seeds are humming. They’re singing something—she’d swear it—just below earshot” (389).
  • “There are trees that flower and fruit directly from the trunk. Bizarre kapoks forty feet around with branches that run from spiky to shiny to smooth, all from the same trunk. Myrtles scattered throughout the forest that all flower on a single day. Bertholletia that grow pinata cannonballs filled with nuts. Trees that make rain, that tell time, that predict the weather. Seeds in obscene shapes and colors. Pods like daggers and scimitars. Stilt roots and snaking roots and buttresses like sculpture and roots that breathe air. Solutions run amok. The biomass is mad” (390).
  • “More annihilated memories percolate up from below, so many moments, recovered and lost again in this loop of looking. Hydra-like, multiplying memories longer than the lives that made them” (403).
  • “Six more shovelfuls, and it’s his again. He opens the box, unzips the bag, and holds the hundred-year stack of photos in his hands. Too dark to see now, to flip through them. He doesn’t need to. Holding the stack, he feels the tree spiraling up into the air like a corkscrew fountain, watched over by generations of Hoels” (408).
  • “The night is warm, the windows of Patricia’s cabin bang in the breeze, and the sturgeon moon rises over the lake like a pale red penny” (423).
  • “One passage keeps springing back, every time fear or scientific rigor makes her prune it. Trees know we’re close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes their leaves pump out change when we’re near . . . When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. So many wonder drugs have come from trees, and we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the offerings. Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear” (424).
  • “Next week he’ll teach his undergrads about Durkheim, Foucault, crypto-normativity: How reason is just another weapon of control. How the invention of the reasonable, the acceptable, the sane, even the human, is greener and more recent than humans suspect” (432).
  • “People need dreams of technological breakthrough. Some new way to pump poplar into paper while burning slightly fewer hydrocarbons. Some genetically altered cash crop that will build better houses and lift the world’s poor from misery. The home repair they want is just a slightly less wasteful demolition. She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she’d get an ovation” (436).
  • “In ancient island temples on the other side of the Earth, thousand-year-olds, molten and blasted, close to enlightenment, swell to incredible girth, their elbows growing back down from giant branches to re-root into new trunks of their own” (441).
  • “She sees in the chestnut’s branching the several speculative paths of a life lived, all the people she might have been, the ones she could or will yet be, in worlds spreading out just alongside this one” (443).
  • “A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapse. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware” (453).
  • “It strikes her that she envies him. His years of enforced tranquility, the patience of his slowed mind, the expansion of his blinkered senses. He can watch the dozen bare trees in the backyard for hours and see something intricate and surprising, sufficient to his desires, while she—she is still trapped in a hunger that rushes past everything” (458).
  • “The pain wakes him. A huge moon hangs low over the Hudson. Every steel-white pockmark in its face shines telescope clear. The prospect of life in prison does wonders for his eyesight” (462).
  • “The coders tell the listeners nothing except how to look. Then the new creations head off to scout the globe, and the code spreads outward. New theories, new offspring, and more evolving species, all of them sharing a single goal: to find out how big life is, how connected, and what it would take for people to unsuicide” (482).
  • “He’ll die of idealism, of being right when the world is wrong” (491).
  • “He stares off into the north woods, where the next project beckons. Branches, combing the sun, laughing at gravity, still unfolding. Something moves that the base of the motionless trunks. Nothing. Now everything. This, a voice whispers, from very nearby. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end” (502).




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“Creative Types” by Tom Bissell c. 2018 (pages 85-102 in Pushcart Prize XLII) originally published in The Paris Review

This short story centers on a married couple’s effort to reawaken passion lost to life changes (i.e., a baby) by having a three-way with an escort. Set in a single evening, Bissell artfully reveals people’s biases, complexities, and fixations through this interaction.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “He was about to hit send when Brenna, proofreading over his shoulder, announced that his use of ‘normal’ was, in this context, ‘problematic’” (85).
  • “For as long as he’d known her, Bren had worried about classism. These days, of course, he and Bren were doing well, perhaps even embarrassingly well. However, their many years of doing less well had made Bren afraid of succumbing to the thoughtless consumption patterns of their friends, such as Annabelle and Isaac, who recently built a thirteen-thousand-dollar outdoor pizza oven with imported Umbrian stone” (85).
  • “Bren was breathing hard; her hand was taloned around the knob of Reuben’s shoulder” (90).
  • “They wouldn’t tell Haley about the many times, before the birth of their son, that they’d privately mocked those couples with children who succumbed to literally knee-slapping laughter when asked if having kids adversely affected their sex life. They wouldn’t tell Haley about how confidently they’d reassured each other that their sex lives wouldn’t be so easily assassinated. They wouldn’t tell Haley about the night, five years ago, when one of Brenna’s on-set friends, Gemma, who was actually sort of Bren’s subordinate (which: cue future problems) and going through a messy divorce, stayed late after a dinner party and somehow started kissing Bren, whose record of staunch heterosexuality had gone hitherto unblemished, which ultimately led to the three of them—Reuben, Bren, Gemma—groping on the couch and then retiring to the bedroom, and how this unsought but nevertheless astounding arrangement went on for a few weeks until Bren realized that Gemma, whose messy divorce that involved drug use (hers) and infidelity (her husband’s), was actually in love with Bren, or at least thought she was, and how after a couple of weird incidents Bren told Gemma she felt obliged to report the whole sordid affair to their supervising producer, after which a duly mortified Gemma apologized and left the project, and how upsetting the whole thing was in the aggregate (the weird incidents included Gemma’s seeming threat—feigned, thank Christ—that she’d recorded their ménages), what did Reuben and Bren go back to, what did they talk about and relive in so much of their sex that followed, including that which, he was pretty sure, conceived their one and only son? Of course, they talked about and relived those strange, silvery nights with loony Gemma and how utterly crazy they’d been for what they did to her separately and together” (90-91).
  • “‘Drugs are fun,’ Bren said, in answer to Haley’s question about cocaine. ‘For a while. Then you get old and discover Netflix’” (91).
  • “Haley walked over to the couch, removing her green satin blouse as she went, dropping it like a big shimmery lily pad on their fake hardwood floor” (92).
  • “He wasn’t sure if Bren would be relieved or horrified to know that all he’d written for the last three years was poetry. Was it good poetry? Unclear. Really, how was he supposed to even know? Like any sensible person, he disliked poetry” (94).
  • “Haley finished her water and set the glass on the floor. Her eyes were flickering everywhere, two water bugs trapped in the tiny ponds of her face. Thoughts seemed to tumble around in her skull’s unwashing machine of drug logic, mismatched and unassociated. Finally, she stood” (100).
  • “Beyond their bedroom window, Hollywood streetlights burned as bright as a forest fire. Even in the dark, all their things were illuminated and revealed” (102).


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Friendswood by Rene Steinke c. 2014 (398 pages—Riverhead)

Set in small-town Texas, this novel chronicles the way in which different characters respond to a central environmental crisis. The lead protagonist is Lee, a mother who, after losing her daughter to cancer, embarks upon a lonely crusade against the moneyed special-interests (real estate and oil). The destruction of land and body are two key motifs in this novel. Many of the residents of Friendswood die of cancer, yet there are also other, more insidious, varieties of destruction: those produced by sexual violence (in this case the rape of a young girl named Willa) and those produced by self-inflicted violence—be it through addiction to alcohol, drugs, or food. The novel grapples with questions about voice, power, and the negotiation of personal identity.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “The rain came down, a tattered curtain closing over the world, or sometimes like a million tiny glass doors. One had opened to Willa just before the storm blew in, and she’d seen behind it, an old man in a black cowboy hat calmly sucking on a cigarette as the wind lashed through the trees, his legs cycling in a haze of silver just before he evaporated” (20).
  • “She was rattled, maybe because of Jess’s struggle with algebra last night, the way she’d moaned over her homework, all those less-than and greater-than marks, like open mouths. The opaque spells of the equations” (26).
  • “Dex knew he had an inside self that was still unfamiliar to him, a shadowy thing he glimpsed while driving straight on the highway” (40).
  • “Willa had written a poem about Susanna on that journey, calling up the landscape to help her—the flat, needling horizon, scrubby grass grown brown in the heat, bluebonnets covering a field like a flock of sparrows, and the vast, secretive space with only God behind it” (58).
  • “There was a totality to these nights too, the huge black sky, the unblinking white lights, the band’s horns and drums, which made the field seem heavy and fraught—the enormity of the past and the infinity of the future about to crash together any moment” (73-74).
  • “That she wanted him, but more than that, she wanted to go through him, into the vine unfurling on the barbed wire fence, into the branches holding green fruit like small charms” (84).
  • “She looked out the window at the clouds, wishing for the hole in them to widen and pull her up into it. If she didn’t remember, how could it possibly be her fault?” (156).
  • “She listened for roaring winds, for the gallop of horseshoes on concrete streets, for monstrous locusts, or a rubbery kind of stretching silence. In the dark outside, beyond her window, she sensed a swirling preparation, a kind of angelic weather” (190).
  • “His demeanor was earnest, but his tentative mouth and bland face made him seem like an unfinished person” (194).
  • “The meanings of the poems seemed to move as soon as she thought she’d found them” (224).
  • “She drove down 2351 in the dark humidity, highway lights like perfect white fish in an aquarium, and hovering over them, the stars bright flecks of algae. Soupy, her mother would have called this weather” (235).
  • “The walls of the trailer were squeezing in to make a smaller tunnel, a smaller life, as his dad and the rest of the world grew larger, louder, forgetting about them” (244).
  • “She had an awkward beauty, falsely bold in the eyes, mouth shy and small in a way that made youth spill from her. Lee had almost forgotten what it was like to talk to a teenager, to feel the neediness” (268).
  • “Practically all of them wrote [poetry], and it was mostly bad, but at least they tried to make something out of their cyclones of feeling, tried to tame it instead of letting it blow them away” (269).
  • “The pool had been drained and the bright blue surface was flecked with weeds and old leaves. / It was like a pure sculpture of sky, nearly the same color, its stunning emptiness useless in a way that made you look at it more closely” (301).
  • “He looked at the pale sky, the smell of car exhaust everywhere, the rectangular grays of the Houston skyline in the distance. He’d reached the end and God wasn’t there” (327).
  • “The darkness softened, turned felted and warm, all the ugliness hidden under the bowl of star-flecked sky, the slopes of trees in the distance” (357).
  • “She carried Jess with her everywhere, even here, worked to keep her alive by staying alive herself, heart thumping now under her bra, stars blinking just under her skin. All of Jess’s faces, her gestures, things she’d said, still alive inside of her” (359).
  • “The Milky Way wheeled overhead, a neatly arranged arch beyond the leafy trees, all other stars holed up in the night, not telling yet what they knew” (385).
  • “They walked past a coffeehouse, filled with faces, weary or cheerful or bored. Cars whizzed past, cartoonishly loud, blowing a hot wind against them. No one recognized her here . . . On the sidewalk, her anonymity felt magic” (389).
  • “Just above the skyline, a faultless darkness seemed to flow from the world’s center. A motel sign at the end of the street lit up its blue neon letters, but she could just see the edge of it, which said STAY” (390).
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“Zombie Sister” by Kristine Ong Muslim c. 2016 (pages 67-71 in Age of Blight)

Age of Blight is a short collection of dystopic slipstream stories. In “Zombie Sister” a dead girl returns to her family as a shell of her former self, unable to partake in any normal activities.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Every family had one. / So when my sister came back from the dead, we accepted her. When she came downstairs for breakfast, we acted as if everything was normal” (67).
  • “‘Let me know if you are ready for the formaldehyde treatment.’ It was father who said this to Beth. It was father who was schooled in the inevitable reality of irreversible entropy in classical thermodynamics” (68).
  • “Happy endings are just curses told evasively” (69).
  • “That’s the one true quality that defines life—the compulsion to draw something: an essence, a lesson, anything—from others” (70).

“She kept on looking out of the tinted glass windows of her empty room, observing with a clinical detachment, which could be mistaken for curiosity, the children playing on the street. The children who rolled the glittery red things, the children who thought they could still live forever, the children who did not know that it could someday happen to them” (71).

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Thirst by Benjamin Warner c. 2016 (283 pages—Bloomsbury)

NOTE: THIS SUMMARY CONTAINS SPOILERS. This book is classified as “cli-fi” (fiction about climate change), although the mysterious catastrophe—a sudden loss of power and water (singed trees, dry riverbeds)—is not explicitly linked to climate change in the novel. Eddie and Laura, the central characters, both react to this crisis in different ways. Eddie wants to horde what he has, while Laura seeks the role of good Samaritan (in an effort to atone for earlier sins). The novel brings up ethical questions about the strength of various social institutions and our obligations to each other. In the end, after accidentally killing a man and witnessing the death of several neighbors, Eddie escapes to a cooperative area where people are pooling their resources and talents. During his difficult journey, he regularly hallucinates, which makes it difficult to interpret what’s happening when filtered through his third-person limited lens. He ends up losing his wife, yet there is very little reflection or interiority—partially because he’s dying of thirst, but also because he seems emotionally stunted. Additionally, the tone of the novel is reminiscent of Hemingway’s tough-guy style. The narrative is taut and action-based, but the driving question in the novel (What the heck happened?) remains unanswered.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Where were the cops? The ambulances? Still, he heard no sirens. But the running did him good. With each stride he felt his anger dissipating like dust beaten from a carpet” (2).
  • “Just up ahead, an aluminum guardrail along the side of the road opened up into a path, and he took it, walking carefully down an embankment where a trail ran into the park. He’d crossed into the park before, using stepping-stones to traverse a small tributary. Now the stones were dry” (6).
  • “He got the sense that the stars were swirling toward a single point, as if going down a drain—that even the air resting on his face was pulling in that direction” (18).
  • “Eddie made it to the far lane and saw on the asphalt the green diamonds of shattered glass. A minivan had its windshield spiderwebbed from a blow to the passenger’s side. He understood that the world could mirror the inside of his mind—that there were enough broken pieces and enough whole pieces to exhaust his racing thoughts” (30).
  • “He walked back to the street and stretched his shoulders looking up into the night sky. It was not hard to imagine that he was lost between the reflection of the stars and the concrete beneath his feet—though whether he’d projected himself into space, or had cast itself down on him, was not as clear” (69).
  • “He could feel the ash on his body where he hadn’t been able to wipe it away. When he ran a fingernail across his eyelid, it was filmy. He was falling asleep, too, and sleep came softly and soundlessly. The ash had filled his ears. He was walking through it in the cold” (76-77).
  • “Staying low, he took the bat and crept to the back of the house. The air around him was as taut as the skin of a balloon, and it made his breathing shallow” (107).
  • “She began to sing. She had a low, somber voice, and when she used it with any seriousness, it could make Eddie weak. Her previous life apart from him was still so mysterious—a childhood he could never really know, textures he could only touch the surface of. The singing brought it out of her somehow” (115).
  • “He walked upstairs with a spike of pain in his head, and when he opened the door, the heat draped around him like a blanket. The street was empty, and he ran to the end of it. Then he ran back in the other direction. He ran on past the bigger homes, closer to Route 29—the homes of lawyers and doctors, maybe. He went up walkways and pounded on doors, which no one answered” (151).
  • “She was not who she’d been the week before. She was his wife, yes, but she was also someone else, and Eddie was afraid—for the first time—that he was already gone” (162).
  • “When he shut his eyes he could feel the asphalt beneath his shoes, could feel himself running through the night—that old buoyant joy of sprinting through late-summer streets” (179).
  • “He felt things. Tremors, currents—an incubating heat. It filled him up, just touching her like that. On the other side of this, they would be a family” (204).
  • “He couldn’t move. If he moved, they would see. She was almost invisible on her own. The air around him tightened like a rope being pulled. A shout was rising in his chest and made a pressure in his throat he could barely keep within” (227).
  • “The woods were like a fresh and blacker night to step inside. The group of voices softened behind them. There were words, but they had no edges” (228).
  • “Through the trees, Eddie watched the sky slide down like a patch of oil. It was amber at the horizon. Black shadows swam through the limbs and gave the impression of people running” (244).
  • “When he woke, he was in another part of the woods. The dark swirled around him like hot oil, scalding his imagination. He would die here, he thought. Or he was dead already” (251).
  • “He lay on his back and, without the trees obstructing, he could see the sky. It had the weight of thickening custard, as if the days were no longer repeating infinitely, but getting older—and that today was of a denser quality than the last” (253).
  • “Points of light began to strike the inside of his skull like static against a screen. His skin was alive with itch, and when he scraped his nails along his arm, he thought he’d rip it open” (274).
  • “Something had extinguished deep inside him, and he felt the hiss in the looseness of his mind, saw steam floating in thin gray columns that flattened and broke and disappeared along the horizon” (277).
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