*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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“Ghosts and Empties” by Lauren Groff c. 2018 (pages 1-14 in Florida)

A privileged mother of two takes walks at night and considers the ease at which she moves through a world rife with problems. A haunting story about family, love, and loneliness.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing up my running shoes after dinner and going out in the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell” (1).
  • “On my nighttime walks, the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums. At times, I’m the silent witness to fights that look like slow-dancing without music. It is astonishing how people live, the messes they sustain, the delicious whiffs of cooking that carry to the street, the holiday decorations that slowly seep into daily décor” (3).
  • “During the day, when my sons are in school, I can’t stop reading about the disasters of the world, the glaciers dying like living creatures, the great Pacific trash gyre, the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of species, millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious. I read and savagely mourn, as if reading could some how sate this hunger for grief, instead of what it does, which is fuel it” (7).
  • “Witholding erotic pleasure for the glory of God seems an anachronism in our hedonistic age, and, with their frailty and the hugeness of the house they rattle around in, it has been decided that the remaining nuns must decamp” (9).
  • “It is shocking to enter the dazzling color, the ferocious heat after the chilly gray scale; to travel hundreds of miles over the cracked sidewalks and sparse palmettos and black path-crossing cats I dart away from, into this abundance with its aisles of gaudy trash and useless wrapping and plastic pull tabs that will one day end up in the throat of the earth’s last sea turtle” (12).
  • “I hope they understand, my sons, both now and in the future just materializing in the dark, that all these hours their mother has been walking so swiftly away from them I have not been gone, that my spirit, hours ago, slipped back into the house and crept into the room where their early-rising father had already fallen asleep, usually before eight p.m., and that I touched this gentle man whom I love so desperately and somehow fear so much, touched him on the pulse in his temple and felt his dreams, which are too distant for the likes of me; and I climbed the creaking old stairs and at the top split in two, and heading into the boys’ separate rooms, I slid through the crack under the doors and curled myself on the pillows to breathe into me the breath that my children breathed out” (14).
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“Freedom” by Rachel Cusk * c. 2018 (pages 170-184 in The Pushcart Prize XLII–originally published in The Paris Review)

Quiet and profound, this story is set during a single salon visit. In it, Cusk expertly explores issues of authenticity, aging, and loneliness.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “It was growing dark outside, and the rain against the salon’s big windows looked like ink running down a page” (170).
  • “The salon was a lofty, white, brilliantly lit room with white-painted floorboards and baroque, velvet upholstered furniture. The tall mirrors had elaborately carved white-painted frames. The light came from three big branching chandeliers that hung from the ceiling and were duplicated in dazzling reflection all around the mirrored walls” (171).
  • “At the other end of the room, the big glass door jangled open and a boy of twelve or thirteen came in out of the darkness. He left the door standing ajar and the cold wet air and roaring noise of traffic came in great gusts into the warm, lit-up salon” (172).
  • “Nothing too dark, he said; I’m thinking more browns and reds, something lighter. Even if it’s not what you naturally are, he said, I think you’ll look more real that way” (172).
  • “He liked his friends—he thought he might have given me the wrong impression earlier—though he knew plenty of people who were still carrying on at forty the way they had been at twenty-five: he actually found it slightly depressing, the spectacle of grown men frenziedly partying, still shoving things up their noses and whirling like brides on packed dance floors; personally, he had better things to do” (175).
  • “There was music playing, and the droning sound of passing traffic could be faintly heard from the street. There was a great bank of glass shelves against one wall where hair products stood for sale in pristine rows, and where a lorry passed too close outside, it shuddered slightly and the jars and bottles rattled in their places. The room had become a chamber of reflecting surfaces while the world outside became opaque. Everywhere you looked, there was only the reflection of what was already there” (178).
  • “He wandered around the rooms of his flat, noticing their cleanliness and order; he savored the peace of the place, his freedom to come and go as he liked, to return home after work and find it all just as he had left it” (180).
  • “With strange, lunging movements, the boy strode away from the chair toward the big glass door. His mother got to her feet, the book still in her hand, and watched as he yanked the door open and the black rainy street with hissing traffic was revealed. He had pulled the handle so forcefully that the door continued to revolve all the way around on its hinges after he had let it go. It traveled farther and farther, until finally it collided heavily with the tiers of glass shelving where the hair-care products stood in their neat rows. The boy stood frozen in the open doorway, his pale face lit up, his hair as though standing on end, and watched as the bank of shelves disgorged a landslide of bottles and jars which fell and rolled with a great thundering sound out across the salon floor; and then itself collapsed in a tremendous shrieking cascade of breaking glass” (181-182).
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My Antonia (and other works) by Willa Cather c. 1994 (508 pages—Random House)

An American classic set in Nebraska at the turn of the century (late 1800s, early 1900s). The narrative frame focuses on Jim Burden, a lawyer living in NYC, giving his friend a copy of a manuscript that he has written about their mutual acquaintance: Antonia Shimerda, an immigrant from what is now the Czech Republic (referred to in the book as Bohemia). As an orphaned ten-year-old boy from Virginia, Jim first hears of Antonia on a train, when both he and Antonia are heading west to begin their new lives. Although the novel is set in the Midwest, which Cather describes in her hauntingly beautiful way, this book is populated with diverse characters, hailing from different parts of Europe. Throughout the novel, we witness the bonds (by choice and circumstance) between people from different places—all of them growing and changing as they struggle for something better. The ever-evolving dynamic between Antonia and Jim propels the reader through the first and final books of the narrative. In the end, we realize that Antonia belongs to the country, while Jim belongs to the city, yet in their separate lives, they share a bond that transcends space and time.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it was like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvest; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron” (5).
  • “I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America” (9).
  • “I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheepfold down by the creek or along the white road that led me to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be” (11).
  • “The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadron around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great” (16-17).
  • “Misfortune seemed to settle like an evil bird on the roof of the log house, and flap its wings there, warning human beings away. The Russians had such bad luck that people were afraid of them and liked to put them out of mind” (36).
  • “We lay still and did not talk. Up there the stars grew magnificently bright. Though we had come from such different parts of the world, in both of us there was some dusky superstition that those shining groups have their influence upon what is and what is not to be” (37).
  • “We did not tell Pavel’s secret to anyone, but guarded it jealousy—as if the wolves of the Ukraine had gathered that night long ago, and the wedding party been sacrificed, to give us a painful and peculiar pleasure. At night, before I went to sleep, I often found myself in a sledge drawn by three horses, dashing through a country that looked something like Nebraska and something like Virginia” (41).
  • “I can see them now, exactly as they looked, working about the table in the lamplight: Jake with his heavy features, so rudely molded that his face seemed, somehow, unfinished; Otto with his half-ear and the savage scar that made his upper lip curl so ferociously under his twisted moustache. As I remember them, what unprotected faces they were; their very roughness and violence made them defenseless. These boys had no practiced manner behind which they could retreat and hold people at a distance. They had only their hard fists to batter at the world with” (52-53).
  • “When spring came, after that hard winter, one could not get enough of the nimble air. Every morning I wakened with a fresh consciousness that winter was over. There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only—spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted” (72).
  • “July came on with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world. It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odored cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green. If all the great plain from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a thermometer, it could not have been better for the yellow tassels that were ripening and fertilizing the silk day by day” (81).
  • “Next to Charley, I think she loved Nina best. Nina was only six, and she was rather more complex than the other children. She was fanciful, had all sorts of unspoken preferences, and was easily offended. At the slightest disappointment or displeasure, her velvety brown eyes filled with tears, and she would lift her chin and walk silently away” (92).
  • “The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify—it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then they wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: ‘This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and the shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth’” (103).
  • “Winter lies too long in country towns—hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men’s affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice” (107)
  • “Wick Cutter was different from any other rascal I have ever known, but I have found Mrs. Cutters all over the world: sometimes founding new religions, sometimes being forcibly fed—easily recognizable, even when superficially tamed” (125).
  • “The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark” (128).
  • “For the first time it occurred to me that I should be homesick for that river after I left it. The sandbars, with their clean white beaches and their little groves of willows and cottonwood seedlings, were a sort of No Man’s Land, little newly created worlds that belonged to the Black Hawk boys” (136).
  • “I believe that Gaston Cleric narrowly missed being a great poet, and I have sometimes thought that his bursts of imaginative talk were fatal to his poetic gift. He squandered too much in the heat of personal communication. How often I have seen him draw his dark brows together, fix his eyes upon some object on the wall or figure in the carpet, and then flash into the lamplight the very image that was in his brain” (150).
  • “My window was open, and the earthy wind blowing through made me indolent. On the edge of the prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky was turquoise blue, like a lake, with gold light throbbing though it. Higher up, in the utter clarity of the western slope, the evening star hung like a lamp suspended by silver chains—like the lamp engraved upon by the title-page of old Latin texts, which is always appearing in new heavens, and waking new desires in men” (152).
  • Antonia “asked me whether I had learned to like big cities. ‘I’d always be miserable in a city. I’d die of lonesomeness. I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here’” (183-184).
  • “As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cartwheel, pale silver and streaked with rose color, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world . . . We reached the edge of the field, where our ways parted. I took her hands and held them against my breast, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were, those brown hands, and remembering how many kind things they had done for me. I held them now a long while, over my heart. About us it was growing darker and darker, and I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant to carry with me; the closest, realist face, under all the shadows of woman’s faces, at the very bottom of my memory” (184).
  • “We turned to leave the cave; Antonia and I went up the stairs first, and the children waited. We were standing outside talking, when they all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight. It made me dizzy for a moment” (194).
  • “I’m never lonesome here like I used to be in town. You remember what sad spells I used to have, when I didn’t know what was the matter with me? I’ve never had them out here. And I don’t mind work a bit, if I don’t have to put up with sadness” (196).
  • “That moment, when they all came tumbling out of the cave into the light, was a sight any man might have come far to see. Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade—that grew stronger with time. In my memory, there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one’s first primer: Antonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Antonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father’s grave in the snowstorm; Antonia coming in with her work team along the evening skyline. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true” (201).
  • “Overhead the sky was that indescribable blue of autumn: bright and shadowless, hard as enamel. To the south I would see the dun-shaded river bluffs that used to look so big to me, and all about stretched drying cornfields, of the pale-gold color I remembered so well” (210).
  • Final paragraph: “This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny—had taken us close to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past” (210-211).
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A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl by Jean Thompson c. 2018 (320 pages—Simon & Schuster)

NOTE: This summary contains spoilers.

Set in the Midwest, this novel centers on three generations of women, each with her own set of problems, and each feeling similarly stuck. Evelyn (Laura’s mother) was pushed out of her role as a professor when WWII ended and resents the loss of her career. As a young girl, Laura feels the distance and disappointment of her mother and, in what seems to be a reaction to her own upbringing, becomes a woman whose life is based on service to her family. Both Evelyn and Laura marry self-centered men and have affairs. Grace (Laura’s daughter, who works in a health food store and has never left her hometown, having attended the local college) begins to understand her mother’s life only after her mother dies of cancer and she reluctantly assumes the role of peacekeeper between her brother and father. The novel climaxes when Grace finds her drug addicted brother (Michael) squatting in her grandmother’s vacant house. Fearing her brother’s future as an addict, she pleads for them both to leave their father and start a new life somewhere else. Unfortunately, this never happens and the novel takes a dramatic turn when Grace’s father (Gabe, an alcoholic) shoots and kills her brother. Grace grows to hate her father, whom she refuses to visit in jail, and, in what she believes to be an expression of self-hate, has a sexual relationship with a crass and unattractive man. Throughout the novel, flowers and trees serve as symbols of hope and beauty, so it’s fitting that, in the final scene, Grace raises money to create a community garden honoring her deceased family members. It is at an event celebrating the opening of the garden that she meets her biological father, and the generational cycles of loss and disappointment has a chance to be broken. Questions of free will and self-determination (especially as it exists in the lives of women) figure prominently in this novel.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “It was the end of lilac season, that brief, heady time. The long mid-western winter retreated, the sky was a blue vault unrolling forever, and the lilacs came on” (1).
  • “The war hung over everything, the excitement and the dread of what happened in those unimaginable places half a world away, where bombs fell and armies marched and there were so many dead that they too were a kind of army” (7).
  • “And yet history shifted underneath your feet, she knew that. The present was a dizzy perch that every so often began to spin and slide. If you built a plane you were also bringing into being the sheets of flame that sprang up in the bomber’s path, the ruined town, the ghosts that blew through it like rags of smoke, and then the town rebuilt and its memories put into museums. You held on to your life with both hands, you told yourself pay attention to this moment, the here and now. But one minute passed into the next, and then the next, and at some point you looked back and everything was over and people called it history” (9).
  • “She was tired of managing, coping, arranging, bearing up well. Maybe that was what real grief did, prostrated you, rendered you incapable of being so idiotically useful” (14).
  • If you lived in a small-to-medium city, like this one, for some number of years, or almost all your life, as Laura had, there were circles of people you knew, from the different layers of your life, different strata, like an archaeological dig. Fallen-away friends from middle school, old rivals, old sweethearts . . . People you’d forgotten all about, until they appeared at your door, selling lawn care services or running for city council” (26-27).
  • “They hadn’t seen any of it coming. How could you? There had been some of what was considered normal adolescent screwup trouble, then episodes of careless, sullen, evasive behavior. Then the all-out catastrophes, the confrontations, the promises made and immediately tossed aside. Who was he, or who had he always been, so practiced at lying, at anger, at horrible talk? Laura’s nerves were still shredded from all the emergencies and panics, and the effort of forgiving her son again and again” (32).
  • “Her notes were meticulous. The structure and sequence of her ideas were both logical and fluid. She felt she might distinguish herself, given time. There was a part of her that was deeply contented with such work, and only with such work. It absorbed her, but it also lightened her, freed her from herself” (45).
  • “Her ankles were cold; they were making her steps clumsy. Andrew had to slacken his pace to keep from bounding away from her. He often walked for exercise and was a believer in the curative powers of fresh air. It was another of his principles, maintaining good health. Wasn’t that admirable? Yes, but it was also infuriating, as were the entirety of his thought-through notions, his reasons for distrusting soft-cooked eggs and voting for Hoover, some number of which she had already heard and some unknown number of which she had not, at least not yet. This would be her life with him, or some portion of it: the receiving of opinions” (65).
  • “But it was not so entirely strange, in the drifting, fitful process of dying, with so much that was misleading or uncertain, like a dream you might still wake from, that she would go back to the time when all possibilities were hers. Driving into the storm, all amazement, the rain hitting the glass like a volley of diamonds” (67).
  • “She was a townie through and through, and she had all the townie’s comfortable familiarity and comfortable contempt, both at ease with and chafing against the place. Every block seemed to hold some of her history, her own personal bronze plaques: here she’d broken off a portion of a front tooth jumping from someone’s porch steps, here had lived a boy she’d had a crush on in sixth grade” (118).
  • “She drove back to work through the pretty, leafy streets where she’d grown up, the houses decorated with pumpkins and seasonal wreaths, or maybe flying the team flag for another doomed football season, or one of those gift-shoppy banners depicting autumn leaves. The same mass-produced, expected stuff you saw every year, and she thought for the hundredth time that she had to move to Alaska or Costa Rica or anywhere that people didn’t take so much pride in commercially available self-expression” (129).
  • “The store and the people who worked and shopped there made up a world of its own where people cared about fair trade and the treatment of animals and the genetic manipulation of crops and the loss of honeybee populations and everything else that was made to seem quaint, an amusing affectation, by people who ate fast food and spent their weekends at shopping malls” (157).
  • “Where did you go when you died? Anywhere? Maybe you turned back into atoms. Sparks like colored fireflies, like bits of light scattering overhead, chasing the music. Why was she thinking such a thing at such a time, with a boy’s warm mouth up against her ear, with small rippling explosions passing through her skin? Her hands were warm and stealthy. She let them go where they wanted to go” (164).
  • “What a wonderful invention, the body. This lovely cage of skin, with its tides of breath sifting in and out . . . It was an entire garden of sensations, the ordinary ones, and then you turned up the dial” (164).
  • “And wasn’t that just like her, to ignore a problem with her own health, while she worried and fussed about everybody else’s? It was exasperating, it was enough to make you angry, if you let it, for the backwards reason that she had not valued herself enough to spare the rest of them her sudden need” (180).
  • “Palliative care. There was no point in getting angry at the doctors. They were magicians who only had so many tricks” (187).
  • “Day after day it was almost spring, sometimes a little closer, sometimes a little farther away. Day after day, her mother wandered off, traveled back, disappeared again. The morphine made her float; an oxygen machine tethered her to earth” (193).
  • “I had another drink and so did he. And maybe another. We were sliding down a slope of blurry alcoholic conversation, of the kind that makes you feel like you must be saying really amazing things to each other” (200).
  • “Genuine true love, the tragic kind that comes with its own movie soundtrack? I couldn’t say. Of course we went on from there, and we settled into our grown-up selves, and somewhere along there you and your brother came along, and life filled up slow, if you measured day by day, and fast if you try to account for years. There was good and bad. Some things on both sides that shouldn’t have happened. But if you really want to know who loves you, look around and see who’s still standing next to you” (204).
  • “The sickroom had a smell that trapped you as soon as you walked in. In spite of all the efforts at hygiene and air fresheners, in spite of lilacs and candles and fans. The smell was of something stale, something burdened and heavy. The room was both personal and not so. The personal was being erased from it minute by minute. Death was impersonal. It pulled your loves and hates up by the roots. It rolled right over your likes and dislikes. It took as much as it could of history and memory” (208).
  • “The summer heat descended, humid and glassy. You got used to squinting, to the painful look and feel of car hoods, concrete, windows” (237).
  • “It was enough like all the other houses in the neighborhood to seem entirely unimaginative, a house that had always been at war with the imagination and determined to impose its functionality on those who lived there, to impress them with its hierarchies of closets and bathrooms” (259).
  • “Grace didn’t believe in ghosts or spirits, at least she didn’t think she did. But it was hard not to think of her mother as she moved from the sink to the oven and back again, tasting and chopping and doing her best impersonation of her mother. She felt, not a presence, exactly. Something more earthbound, a better understanding, perhaps, of her mother and the life she had lived. The endless small chores, the worries, never enough time, and always the barely movable obstacles of her husband and children” (265).
  • “She started in on her salad. It was hard to taste anything. She felt pointlessly sad, the way she had been sad as an adolescent, without any one particular reason and with no cure for it, unless the reason was the falsity of everything around her: the facsimile of family, the approximation of holiday cheer, the impersonation of Italian food” (279).
  • “Now she had to imagine trouble, the great flapping bat shape of it, the different varieties of dangerous and stupid. Dealing? Stealing? And which substance or substances in the witch’s brew of possibilities was he taking?” (288).
  • “The music was a scroll of sound unrolling, rolling, rising, swinging for the fences, connecting. Everyone hearing it felt themselves to be lucky. And Grace felt blessed, because for just this little while, on this particular day, there was no better place to be” (320).
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“Rib Night” by Will Mackin c. 2018 (pages 88-98 in The Atlantic)

A short story in which soldiers navigate surreal realities—killing people then coming back to base to have birthday cake. Mackin, the author, deftly weaves the mythic dreams of the narrator into the mundane and sometimes murderous realities of a combat soldier.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “A fight broke out on the far side of the dining facility, over by the milk. A fridge door slapped shut, followed by the sounds of shoving and punches being thrown. Soldiers dodged out of the way before a few brave souls went in to break it up. There were noises of slipped holds and flail, of tables and chairs scraping across the concrete floor. Then Digger’s voice rang out—I’ll kill you!—and for a moment it seemed like this night, a Friday, was about to transcend all its false promises. / Every Friday was rib night at this D-FAC. Soldiers spent all day making the sauce, marinating the ribs, and stoking mesquite embers in split oil drums. They baked a cake the size of a garage door” (88).
  • “Their faces were shiny with sweat, their eyes wild with heat exhaustion. Their laughter bounced off the tent’s taut skin, reverberated in its aluminum frame, and rattled the turnbuckles, S-hooks, and galvanized wire that held the whole thing together” (90).
  • “My dream went like this: We walked uphill into a village at night. A woman ran downhill, into our ranks, and searched the troop for me. I was the one wearing all the antennas. I was the one who’d talked to the plane that shot up her house. I could see smoke rising from her house on the hill. Inside, in a corner of a room, a dead grandfather held his dead grandson. It was the daughter/mother who found me. It was she who insisted that I come inside her house to see what I’d done” (91).
  • “Some called the pills, ‘time machines’; others called them ‘TKOs.’” They were tiny blue ovals coated in shine. Standard-issue was 10-pills per man, and no more, because they were addictive” (92).
  • “Frost hung in the air. Stars tangled in the bare branches of the tallest oaks” (92).
  • “Swells rose on the surface of the moonlit ocean. Silver clouds whispered by. I removed the plastic bag from my shirt pocket and took out a sleeping pill. It appeared gray in the moonlight. I swallowed it, then stayed at the window, waiting for it to take effect. / Honeycombs, checkerboards, and cobwebs spun before my eyes. The moon set, the sun rose. Clouds vaporized, and the sea turned red. I saw the city of Atlantis, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the pyramids of Giza, all covered in the gold of sunrise. I saw the Tower of Babel, its top spiraling toward the heavens. I knew these things were real, because I could press my hand against the jump door and feel the cold sky pressing back” (93).
  • “The steel walls of my shipping container turned to glass in my dream. I found myself alone on the barren steppe where Sharana once stood. The sun rolled backwards across the sky. Night fell, frost formed on the glass, and it began to snow. A glacier descended from the mountains to bury me in ice for an eon before the thaw delivered a millennium of floods and driving rain. Then, one day, the clouds broke and the sun shined down on a forest of petrified mulberries. That night, the harvest moon crashed into the Earth, smashing it to smithereens. I drifted in my glass box through space and time toward a tiny, oval-shaped star that shined blue in the distance” (94).
  • “Maybe Digger had thought that, as a killer, he was entitled to whichever box he wanted. After all, he hadn’t spent his day making barbeque sauce, or stoking fires, or baking a fucking cake. He hadn’t blown up balloons or hung streamers. Someone must’ve cut in front of Digger and taken his box of milk” (96).

 

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The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel c. 2018 (354 pages—Algonquin)

Warning: This summary contains spoilers.

The Optimistic Decade is set in the Bush Sr. era, with some flashbacks to the Reagan years. The main characters are teenagers and young adults, all of whom are engaged in a timeless rite of passage: the search for identity and purpose. At the center of the novel is Rebecca Silver, the daughter of two politically progressive parents who publish a “truth to power” newspaper. Rebecca, who worships her father, distinguishes herself among peers with her vocal expressions of leftist outrage. For most of the novel, she is a second-year college student at UC Berkeley, attending a remote summer camp in Colorado run by her older cousin, Caleb. Rebecca’s parents (Ira and Georgia), particularly her father, mock Caleb, who believes that his commune-like camp, where kids are “reborn” after a summer of roughing it, is ineffective in creating positive social change. However, when Rebecca attends this camp at Ira’s urging (sending his daughter away so he can publish his final newspaper without facing her), she begins to see the camp’s appeal, too busy to read Ira’s final editorial as she explores her developing sexuality and reconnects with her childhood friend, David (whose parents are close friends with Ira and Georgia). Rebecca and David are foils who represent an equally passionate response to the question: What is the purpose of a life? For much of the novel, Rebecca’s purpose is animated by her political activism and her dreams of becoming a journalist, whereas David is obsessed with his spiritual connection to Llamalo, going so far as to cast even the most mundane actions in religious language, the everyday “mitzvahs” of Llamalo, small actions or deeds that bring him closer to God. The name of the camp, Llamalo, is Hebrew for “why not?” and comes from Caleb’s last memory of his father, an itinerant man who committed suicide when Caleb was young. The name seems both significant and random, a possible clue to a central message: People are foolish to seek simplistic explanations when the world is complex and murky. Another salient message seems to be the danger of idealizing imperfect people, as Rebecca and Caleb both idealize (and even idolize) their flawed fathers, while David idolizes the egocentric and emotionally stunted Caleb. The main dramatic tension of the story comes in the conflict between Caleb and the previous owners of the ranch that Caleb turns into Llamalo: Don Sr., a quiet and hardworking man who lost his wife to cancer, and his son Donnie, a volatile young man who leaves his hometown after the oil bust and is brainwashed by right-wing conspiracy theorists, believing that the loss of his family’s land is the fault of leftist “eco-Nazis” (like Caleb) scaring away big businesses such as Exxon. This story finds a fitting ending when, after an injury lawsuit from David’s father, Caleb loses the camp and is hired to perform menial tasks by its new owner, a former counselor at Llamalo. In the end, it’s Rebecca’s mother, Georgia, who offers the wisdom and hope that refutes Ira’s cynical proclamation that people only have one “optimistic decade.” The final scene in the novel occurs at a California protest during the bombing of Iraq, when Rebecca hears (or imagines?) a protester asking her to storm a government building, his final word of ‘Llamalo,’ suggesting that the personal and the political are—contrary to what she’d always thought—inextricably linked, and that Rebecca, who is now an English major, might still end up committing her life to activism.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “It was April 1990, not even four months into the new decade, and already Nelson Mandela had been freed and Daniel Ortega defeated and the first McDonald’s opened in the USSR, which was about to drift apart, ending the Cold War, and still, although increasingly people chose to ignore this, everything was awful when it came down to inequality and Earth destruction and generally being fucked by capitalism. Rebecca Silver, thinking of all this, walked through residential Berkeley to meet her father for lunch” (1).
  • “She felt so adult, her backpack full of used books with colons in their titles that would teach her everything Ira already knew. She felt, even with her problematic hair, almost beautiful” (4).
  • “Until they arrived, Llamalo was simply a chassis—some wood, some dirt—and Caleb was nothing, just a man. He had nobody to whom he could point out the parabola of bird flight, nobody who needed to learn the word ‘junco,’ nobody whose life he could strip bare of causal comforts, nobody whose mind he could blow” (29).
  • “He wanted to confront her with grand medieval language: State your purpose and king! But all the eloquence he felt here had vanished under her gaze” (35).
  • “Outside, Rebecca often felt scared. There was a brutality to the exposure, an ominous wind much of the time, and when the wind stopped, the silence was freaky and the air thin and dusty” (37).
  • “She began to apologize. It was a true emergency, she said. Her mother was sick. Terribly sick. She said the word ‘cancer’ and then regretted it, seized by a certainty that her mother’s healthy cells would now turn malignant by a devious god that toyed with atheists by taking them literally” (40).
  • “At last, she felt like herself, the true Rebecca, holographically appearing on the plateau. War resister, Ira’s daughter, bearer of bad news. Let them stare. Let them listen. Let a shadow fall on their wide-open futures” (42-43).
  • “It had been like this since her arrival. She’d carefully chosen books to bring, but they weren’t interested in her reading aloud. She’d imagined intimacies, secrets shared, vulnerabilities laid out in front of her like offerings to the gods. She’d imagined guiding them from the pedestal of her nearly nineteen years, from the flashing lighthouse of college, but instead they sat on Tanya’s bed singing Top 40 songs she didn’t know” (52).
  • “They sped east on Sunset, past restaurants they would never try. Billboards, skimming by like shuffled cards, advertised movies they would never see. There was a different Los Angeles outside the sun-streamed studios and frozen yogurt and Brentwood Country Mart and Pappagallo espadrilles and everything Rebecca had heard about and didn’t understand. There was a true Los Angeles that only Rebecca and David knew, and it sang songs that would never become commercials” (59).
  • “Afterward, he took her outside to watch the moon rise over the final, most western of the Rocky Mountains. It shone a spotlight on Escadom’s snowy summit, slid light down the mountain’s royal alpine body, cast its white eye over the oceanic and unaccommodating desert, which began in the folds of the mountain’s kingly robes and spread out southward as far as they could see” (73-74).
  • “It was too warm in here to wait so long, too musty and moldy. Spores grew on paper, and there was plenty of that: tombstones of newspaper and columns of computer printouts and obelisks of spiral notebooks, and on the walls, yellowing cartoons, curling posters, against this, for that” (108-109).
  • “But Rebecca, in the barn, was otherwise occupied. If this was a kiss, this thing that never ended, this Mobius route through dark woodland, then what exactly had she been doing before? She was somewhere she’d never been, led here by David, whose tongue tasted of tomato and probed everywhere, encouraging her to do the same, to keep her own mouth open, until all her little pecks and nervous licks ran together like a river, dense and insistent” (156).
  • “Kayla was tiny and terrifying. She was a spiderweb and spider, all at once. She was a bouncy chair with a Winnie the Pooh pattern and a pink roses diaper bag and a bottle sterilizer and a white crib and pink bibs and pink pajamas and little pink dishrags that were not to be used for dishes, and diapers and a camo-print stroller, and this took up all the space in their apartment and all his money” (196).
  • “Caleb felt solemn to be so near these people, to brush up against their disaster, to examine the tables with their mammy cookie jars, Mixmasters, towers of plates, a congregation of teacups, buckets of wrenches, earrings, scissors, Bible figurines, piles of faded linens” (205).
  • “Nobody noticed that David was made from this place, his skin from the cracked clay ground, his legs from the branches of a Russian olive, his teeth from a king snake’s skull, his fingertips from the soft lobes of sage. The strange thing was, when he reached the edge of the cliff, he stepped onto the trail to the river, and the trail wasn’t there. He stepped into air” (258).
  • “Unshod, Caleb followed him into a large room with tatami mats on the floor and two blue ovoid meditation cushions, like the eggs of some passing dinosaur. There was no furniture other than a small shrine on a shelf in the corner with a stone Buddha who had a lei of dried marigolds at his feet” (260).
  • “When she’d met Caleb at the start of summer, she’d been surprised by his appearance. A tree of a guy with lines like bark on his face, he wore odd, ill-fitting jeans, a snap shirt, a cowboy hat. She’d wondered whether it was a calculated performance. Now, she knew that he simply lived outside the world of commerce, outside of culture and aesthetics, preference and reference. And after eight weeks at Llamalo, she was becoming like him. Everything here seemed antiseptic, unnecessary, funny. What was this greasy meat? These glossy red apples? This case of colored drinks? What were these walls? This TV? This roof? Why be inside at all?” (275).
  • “Word would spread and soon he’d be attracting other young people as well. College students on a semester off in their aimless years after graduating, when life’s purpose glowed brightly, but held no shape. Before they hardened. Before they were distracted by babies and debt, before they’d relinquished their plans of living a life of wonder” (282).
  • “Over the years, Caleb had learned that if you invited them the right way, people generally acted how you wanted them to act. If you made sure to invite them into something grand and purposeful. If you told them a compelling and urgent story into which they could enter. If you gave them a role, a small but crucial part” (286).
  • “Soon Caleb grew pleased with the sluggishness of his leg muscles and the blisters ballooning on his heels and toes. This pain meant that he wasn’t the same Caleb as he’d been in DC, when his body had felt nothing. Here, red crevices had been cut into the earth. Maybe he, too, was cut away, all that was distasteful about him, all he’d inherited from his mother—his worry, arrogance, pessimism, all eroded” (299).
  • “I’ve thought that maybe everyone has one decade, call it an optimistic decade, when the world feels malleable and the self strong. And then it’s over. It doesn’t come back” (326).
  • “Was the feeling of standing on Aemon’s Mesa a holy feeling if Caleb was standing there with synergistic entrepreneurs? Was there a mitzvah of modular modernism with a Western flair?” (335).
  • “Outside, the dazzling world mocked the gloom she’d felt in his room. Right in front of his fetid aquamarine building, grandly named the Sea Castle, where a multitude of delights: the bike path, a playground on the sand with swings and seesaw, circus sounds coming from the pier, the slow turn of the Ferris wheel at its end. ‘Behold!’ he said. ‘The sparkling ocean’ (346).
  • “She wanted to call David and explain. Whoever he’d been on Aemon’s Mesa—that boy; that beautiful and confident boy; was with him still. Just as Caleb was both visionary and deceitful. There was no line, fine or otherwise” (349).
  • “Placards bobbed like coral polyps from a reef. Banners swam eel-like in the current. She could hear whale calls from those giving speeches into bullhorns” (350-351).

 

 

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“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Anthony Wallace c. 2018 (pages 39-47 in The Pushcart Prize XLII–originally published in the Southern Review)

A short story set in a restaurant and centered on a couple who appears to have a baby with them. The mother, who attracts attention for being both beautiful and demanding, serves as the center of a story that explores themes of privilege, beauty, and class.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “A well-dressed couple entered the lobby of the Hotel Saint-Dominique, the young woman first, pushing an expensive-looking pram, the muscles in her slender arms and legs taut with purpose” (39).
  • “Beauty of this magnitude is the greatest agony, thought the professor, ordering two glasses of Taittinger Brut. Beauty is no antidote to suffering. Quite the reverse . . . There is something cruel in that, in the very nature of things, that beauty kills, and likes to kill—the tiger, the most beautiful land animal in the world, and the deadliest, though he knew such thinking was clichéd or worse. Beauty destroys and devours so that the world may live on. That seemed less trite, but not by much” (40).
  • “She wasn’t happy that she’d had to wait for the champagne in order to begin her first course, and she was even less happy that the champagne had arrived in saucers instead of flutes—hadn’t she mentioned that to them the last time?—but she was working on being less critical” (41).
  • “She was not an American and did not understand the democratization of roles that was an important aspect of American life, that a gas station attendant, for example, would not think anything of initiating a personal conversation with anyone who might pull up” (41).
  • “And it surprised her also, on this day when she’d been so happy, so ready to enjoy life, so full of energy and vitality, that in this place where they dined so often, and were known so well, that they should be sent a waiter who did not know them, their likes and dislikes, that she should have to explain what she had explained all too often, that there must be a responsible person to stand next to the baby when they both went up to select the next course, which she was now ready to do, and she would have to call him over, wherever he was, and explain all this, and how could you explain all this and not lose the timing—in her view that was the whole experience of dining, the timing—and now it would be ruined, there was no saving it, they should go, why didn’t they just stay at home if this was going to be the result” (42).
  • “Dealing with the public can make one terribly cynical. The hostess, who had an MFA in screenwriting and who’d written two screenplays she was unable to sell, was just such a cynical product of the service industry. To her way of thinking, there were only two kinds of people in the world: those who’d had their screenplays optioned, and those who hadn’t” (45).
  • “After dinner they would take their secondhand pies into the living room and he would tell her the story of the couple and their unusual baby girl. But what he would not tell her, what she would find out or not, as time went on, is that he had seen true beauty and originality and had been forever changed by his encounter with them, though in the near term, as is always the case, it was not possible to say precisely how” (46).
  • “The pram lay on its side in the barroom, the back wheel slowly turning. Pieces of the doll lay scattered about in a way that suggested an important human truth without revealing it” (47).
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