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 great writers, all of which should qualify the quoted sentences as “fair use.”
A reflective story in which a first-person narrator strings together “slices of life” to paint a poignant picture of loss and death and youth and love.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “There are other things besides death to notice, of course, at the beginning of summer, a time notorious for school thoughts rising, and diminishing, in the heat. Just before I hear the news, I’m tanning on my mother’s back deck, facing the yard, the tilting split-rail fence, the maple trees, thick and green—on a clear day, you can see the ocean’s inlet through the branches. I see it now. And there is calm” (213).
- “Maybe it’s because I know I will never know him again that I cling to what I remember and form something more, a sculpture of a new Sam. Before I met him, his existence was formed by rumor anyway. The girls in my class said he was hot. The boys said he was cool. Somehow they’d caught glimpses, gleaned information—but when?” (214).
- “As the body moved quickly, the mind slowly drained. I ran until I was empty, which took much speed and time . . . Maybe it was the endorphins, but those short moments just after a run would expand so beautifully. With my body doubled over and my hands on my kneecaps, I’d look up at the sky and breathe deep; there was just the cool wind on my cheeks. I felt it as the waking of my former self, brushing past before dying down” (217).
- “I will be a runner forever, I said to myself one day, in a just a flash of one of those moments—doubled over in hot breath, my hands on my knees, looking up at the sky; my lungs were tight, and I inhaled. I liked it that way, how after running really hard it felt like inhaling the whole world, a globe in the throat” (218).
- “The wells of memory from which we drew were shallow; moments in time floated like leaves upon still water” (220).
- “Everything behind the glass shrank into its infant form, as though being funneled backwards in time: the pond became a puddle, the dogs became puppies, and the horses were ponies; the weeping willows diminished to weeds; and a man who was our father, a man who sometimes hit our mother in the eyes, was just a boy, miniaturized by space between us that grew until he was gone” (222).
- “I let the skin of my fingertips blister, heal, callus, and strengthen against steel wires that, if I wrangle them right, if I practice enough, I know I can translate how I feel in my soul to the world outside” (229).
- “This is why he wanted to close the door; he didn’t want to ruin the surprise. I am sixty percent disappointed he was never intending to make out, and forty percent eager to learn how to juggle” (234).
- “We will not all be millionaires. We will not all win. We all fall out of touch, when, after I begin high school, my father makes a decision. We will never know if it was lucid or manic. What we know is he lifted a revolver to this mouth with his right hand, cocked the hammer, pulled the trigger, and pulverized the place where thoughts come from” (235).
- “A part of me comes alive, but it doesn’t reach the part of me that moves my body, changes my expression, or pushes me to speak. The glow in my heart is too low to spark my brain” (237).
In this captivating short story, the protagonist Hollingsworth suffers from his own isolation and seeks to subdue and control the two other major characters in the story: his father Buzbee (who is a virile seventy-seven-year-old man who lives in the wilderness) and Jesse, an elite cyclist that takes a break from riding and loses his edge, much to the delight of Hollingsworth. What’s most interesting about the story is the sympathy that the protagonist generates and the way in which the reader is forced to reconsider his/her earlier feelings about Hollingsworth.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Hollingsworth had called in to Crystal Springs and had the asphalt truck come out and grade and level his gravel, pour hot slick tar down over it, and smooth it out: it cooled slowly and was beautiful, almost iridescent, like a black snake in the bright green grass; it glowed its way across the yard as if it were made of glass, a path straight to the store, coming in off the road. It beckoned” (50).
- “He didn’t use a stopwatch the way other cyclists did, but he knew he was getting faster, because just recently he had gotten the quiet, almost silent sensation—just a soft hushing—of falling, the one that athletes, and sometimes other people, get when they push deeper and deep into their sport, until—like pushing through one final restraining layer of tissue, the last and thinnest, easiest one—they are falling, slowly, and there is nothing left in their life to stop them, no work is necessary, things are just happening, and they suddenly have all the time in the world to perfect their sport, because that’s all there is, one day, finally” (52).
- “He kept a fire going continuously, to keep the mosquitoes away, and as he caught more and more of the big fish, he hung them from the branches in his clearing, looped vine through their huge jaws and hung them like villains in his little clearing, like the most ancient of burial grounds; all these vertical fish, out of the water, mouths gaping in silent death, as if preparing to ascend: they were all pointing up” (55).
- “The moon came down through the bare limbs of the swamp-rotted ghost trees, skeleton-white, disease-killed, but as he got higher above the swamp and closer to the town, near daylight, the water moved faster, had some circulation, and the mosquitoes were not a threat” (56).
- “Buzbee had a knife in one hand and a sharpened stick in the other, and he almost wished there would be an attack, so that he could be a hero” (65).
- “Part of him [Jesse] wanted to be as he had been, briefly: iron, and fast, racing with the fastest people in the world, it seemed—he couldn’t remember anything about them, only the blaze and rip of their speed, the whish-whish cutting sound they made, as a pack, tucking and sailing down around corners—but also, he was tired of that, and it felt good to be away from it, for just a little while” (67).
- “Moths fell down off the porch light’s bulb, brushed his [Jesse’s] shoulders, landed on the pages of his book, spun, and flew off, leaving traces of magic. And the wind began to stir harder. Stars were all above him, and they glittered and flashed in the wind. They seemed to be challenging him, daring him to see what was true” (79).
Despite its magical elements—secret doors as portals to other countries—this novel strikes the reader as a real and very relevant commentary on xenophobia, violence, and the refugee crisis. While addressing these weighty issues, Hamid also manages to write a moving love story, as he focuses on the evolution of two characters: Saeed and Nadia as they flee an unnamed location—traveling first to Greece, then to England, ending up in Marin, CA—when the novel ends.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days” (3).
- “Saeed’s mother had the commanding air of a schoolteacher, which she formerly was, and his father the slightly lost bearing of a university professor, which he continued to be—though on reduced wages, for he was past the official retirement age and had been forced to seek out visiting faculty work” (10).
- “Refugees had occupied many of the open places in the city, pitching tents in the greenbelts between roads, erecting lean-tos next to the boundary walls of houses, sleeping rough on sidewalks and in the margins of streets” (26).
- “So he was unprepared for the feeling of awe that came over him, the wonder with which he then regarded his own skin, and the lemon tree it its clay pot on Nadia’s terrace, as tall as he was, and rooted in its soil, which was in turn rooted in the clay of the pot, which rested upon the brick of the terrace, which was like the mountaintop of this building, which was growing from the earth itself, and from this earthy mountain the lemon tree was reaching up, up, in a gesture so beautiful that Saeed was filled with love, and reminded of his parents, for whom he suddenly felt such gratitude, and a desire for peace, that peace should come for them all, for everyone, for everything, for we are so fragile, and so beautiful, and surely conflicts could be healed if others had experiences like this, and then he regarded Nadia and saw that she was regarding him and her eyes were like worlds” (46-47).
- “Deprived of the portals to each other and to the world provided by their mobile phones, and confined to their apartments by the nighttime curfew, Nadia and Saeed, and countless others, felt marooned and alone and much more afraid” (57).
- “One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come” (71).
- “Saeed prayed a great deal, and so did his father, and so did their guests, and some of them wept, but Saeed had wept only once, when he first saw his mother’s corpse and screamed, and Saeed’s father wept only when he was alone in his room, silently, without tears, his body seized as though by a stutter, or a shiver, that would not let go, for his sense of loss was boundless, and his sense of the benevolence of the universe was shaken, and his wife had been his best friend” (80).
- “They were dressed in accordance with the rules on dress and he was bearded in accordance with the rules on beards and her hair was hidden in accordance with the rules on hair, but they stayed in the margins of the roads, in the shadows as much as possible, trying not to be seen while trying not to look like they were trying not to be seen” (88).
- “Saeed desperately wanted to leave his city, in a sense he always had, but in his imagination he had thought he would leave it only temporarily, intermittently, never once and for all, and this looming potential departure was altogether different, for he doubted he would come back, and the scattering of his extended family and his circle of friends and acquaintances, forever, struck him as deeply sad, as amounting to the loss of a home, no less, of his home” (94).
- “But Saeed’s father was thinking also of the future, even though he did not say this to Saeed, for he feared that if he said this to his son that his son might not go, and he knew above all else that his son must go, and what he did not say was that he had come to that point in a parent’s life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one’s child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection, it can only pull the child down, and threaten them with drowning, for the child is now stronger than the parent, and the circumstances are such that the utmost of strength is required, and the arc of a child’s life only appears for a while to match the arc of a parent’s, in reality one sits atop the other, a hill atop a hill, a curve atop a curve, and Saeed’s father’s arc now needed to curve lower, while his son’s still curved higher, for with an old man hampering them these two young people were simply less likely to survive” (96).
- “It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side, trembling and too spent at first to stand, and she thought, while she strained to fill her lungs, that this dampness must be her own sweat” (104).
- “Saeed and Nadia knew what the buildup to conflict felt like, and so the feeling that hung over London in those days was not new to them, and they faced it not with bravery, exactly, and not with panic either, not mostly, but instead with a resignation shot through with moments of tension, with tension ebbing and flowing, and when the tension receded there was calm, the calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be” (138).
- “She came and went unruffled through the crowded rooms and passages, unruffled except by a fast-talking Nigerian woman her own age, a woman with a leather jacket and a chipped tooth, who stood like a gunslinger, with hips open and belt loose and hands at her sides, and spared no one from her verbal lashings, from her comments that would follow you even as you passed her and left her behind” (149).
- “A thriving trade in electricity was underway in dark London, run by those who lived in pockets with power, and Saeed and Nadia were able to recharge their phones from time to time, and if they walked at the edges of their locality they could pick up a strong signal, and like so many others they caught up with the world this way, and once as Nadia sat on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone across the street from a detachment of troops and a tank she thought she saw an online photograph of herself sitting on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone across the street from a detachment of troops and a tank, and she was startled, and wondered how this could be, how she could both read the news and be the news, and how this newspaper could’ve published this image of her instantaneously, and she looked about for a photographer, and she had the bizarre feeling of time bending all around her, as though she was from the past reading about the future, or from the future reading about the past, and she almost felt that if she got up and walked home at this moment there would be two Nadias, that she would be split into two Nadias, and one would stay on the steps reading and one would walk home, and two different lives would unfold for these two different selves, and she thought she was losing her balance, or possibly her mind, and then she zoomed in on the image and saw that the woman in the black robe reading the news on her phone was actually not her at all” (157-158).
- “Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us” (186).
- “When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to, and it was so important to express it, and somehow he was able to express it to the preacher’s daughter, the first time they had a proper conversation, at a small ceremony he happened upon after work, which turned out to be a remembrance for her mother, who had been from Saeed’s country, and was prayed for communally on each anniversary of her death, and her daughter, who was also the preacher’s daughter, said to Saeed, who was standing near her, so tell me about my mother’s country, and when Saeed spoke he did not mean to but he spoke of his own mother, and he spoke for a long time, and the preacher’s daughter spoke for a long time, and when they finished speaking it was already late at night” (202-203).
- “We are all migrants through time” (209).
- “All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields, and slipping away from Saeed, and Saeed from Nadia” (213).
This short story centers on the random events that impact the protagonist Freeman Gottschall, who was a student of the famed Edward Lorenz, known in popular culture for chaos theory and the “butterfly effect.” Although the story is short, it nevertheless references big themes such as the theodicy problem, determinism, mental illness, and interconnected systems (to name just a few). The plot, which is wonderfully absurd, consists of events that depict Freeman trying to understand causation, make sense of the 9/11 attacks, save his dog, recover from his divorce, and reunite with his daughter.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “He jumped at the sound of the splintering and began to act with the frenzy of an ambushed soldier at the realization that a bullet had just whizzed by, near his head; although he would consider, during calmer moments, that bullets do not announce themselves except at the report of the firearm. There is only origin and termination; alpha and omega; initial condition and future event, depending on which terms we wish to use to couch it” (153).
- “He drove like a drunkard, not that he was especially erratic, but his mind was occupied with tasks other than driving, which was something his brain controlled with little effort, leaving him space for daydreaming: attention drifts elsewhere, tasks at hand dissolve into broadly swept reality, which to the daydreamer seems a finely manicured dream” (154).
- “As natural catastrophe to the Vatican or animal instinct to the fortune teller, a truly random event is to the mathematician potentially damning—or it is to one of Freeman’s stripe: he the student of Ed Lorenz, he the researcher of chaos, he the mapper of double pendulums. Sometimes he dreamed of those long nights in his office searching for exactitude, for explanations, for a certain largesse provided by the abstract and theoretical equations, but he discovered only paranoia. His equations suffered from too much noise” (156).
- “Dr. Ojo Spectral spent a good deal of time attempting to diagnose Freeman, and at great length had failed to arrive at any definitive clinical category that could contain his wild brain” (157).
- “He spoke slowly and his voice sounded to Freeman like America: made of gravel and lubricated with whiskey” (159).
- “Against Dr. Spectral’s advice, which slithered through his mind—an electric eel through a dark ocean, presenting itself here and there—Freeman spoke. ‘Well, what if what they call God is just a genesis, and what they call ordination is just a natural flowing of events, and nothing happens that hasn’t been set down since, say, the Big Bang?” (160).
- “When she showed him her feelings, he felt that she was extending him small gifts of trust, little treasures held out on her dainty hands that he stored away, brought to mind when she was colder to him, little pieces of hope for him to hold away, to revisit, as though these moments were letters written from some faraway place” (169).
- “The news program recounted the recovery of the body of a priest who had given last rights to a dying firefighter only seconds before he met his own death, being crushed by the falling body of a man who’d decided to hurry his fate” (174).
- “During the drive, Freeman saw a man walking near a strip mall, crying for no obvious reason. It was as if sadness had been distilled into a liquid and the reservoirs filled with it, flowing from water mains into faucets, ice makers, shower heads, garden hoses, making everyone drunk on sorrow, causing men and women to walk slowly, deliberately, viewing every piece of their lives through the lens of the week’s earlier tragedy” (175-176).
Set primarily in NYC during the subprime mortgage crisis, Mbue deftly shows the intersecting stories of two very different families: the Edwards and the Jongas. The Edwards are stoic Americans who want to maintain their lifestyle and keep up appearances. The Jongas are passionate Cameroonians who are seeking opportunity and upward mobility in the States. Questions concerning value(s)—both monetary and moral—are central to this novel. Both families and both countries are depicted in complicated and even contradictory ways, which is what makes the novel seem more realistic than didactic. Both Clark Edwards and Jende Jonga (whose biggest break comes when he becomes Edward’s chauffeur) are hardworking men who want to provide for their families, yet both men misread their wives’ (Neni and Cindy) emotional states on numerous occasions. In the end, after Clark loses his job and Jende faces deportation, it is the women who assert themselves and take the most dramatic action.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “These days she sang more than she had in her entire life. She sang when she ironed Jende’s shirts and when she walked home after dropping Liomi off at school. She sang as she applied lipstick to head out with Jende and Liomi to an African party: a naming ceremony in Brooklyn; a traditional wedding in the Bronx; a death celebration in Yonkers for someone who had died in Africa and whom practically none of the guests knew; a party for one reason or another that she’d been invited to by a friend from school or work, someone who knew the host and who assured her that it was okay to attend, since most African people didn’t care about fancy white-people ideas like attendance by invitation only. She sang walking to the subway and even sang in the Pathmark, caring nothing about the looks she got from people who couldn’t understand why someone could be so happy to go grocery shopping” (31).
- “The silence in the apartment was like a celestial choir, the perfect background music to her study time—no one to disturb her, interrupt her, ask her to help do this or please come over right now. No sound but the faint noises of Harlem in the nighttime” (53).
- “He looked out the window at the people walking on Amsterdam Avenue. None of them seemed concerned that the day might be one of his last in America. Some of them were laughing” (60).
- “She dragged herself through the city, from work to school, to home, because she needed to carry on as if nothing had changed, as if their lives hadn’t just been opened up to unravelment. She couldn’t summon a smile, sing a song, or string together two thoughts without the word ‘deportation’ finding its way in there, and yet she propelled herself forward the morning after the news, dressed in pink scrubs and white sneakers for a long day of work, an overloaded backpack strapped on her shoulders so she could study at work while the client slept” (62).
- “Most people were sticking to their own kind. Even in New York City, even in a place of many nations and cultures, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, preferred their kind when it came to those they kept closest” (95).
- “The city that summer overflowed with the hot and thirsty: panting on subway platforms, battling the sun with wide hats and light clothes, rushing to scaffoldings for shade, dashing into department stores not for the sales advertised on windows but for the AC” (108).
- “From the moment they shook hands in the portico until Cindy left for her dinner, the madam was enveloped in an air of superiority, standing tall and keeping her shoulders back as she walked in long strides, slowly enunciating every word when she spoke, as if she had the right to take as much of the listener’s time as she wished” (115).
- “Both men were silent again as the car crawled through the midtown madness of tourist shoppers and harried commuters and street vendors and city buses and yellow cabs and black cars and children in strollers and messengers on bikes, and too much of everything” (205).
- “After a shower and a dinner of Chinese leftovers, he had sat by the window in the common area, wrapped in his twin comforter and looking outside: at the weather so dull; at the people so colorlessly dressed; at the happy day slipping away so quickly and crushing him with longing” (240).
- “She wanted to say that in spite of their circumstances, they should be happy because there was so much happiness in the world and because all of humanity was one. She wanted to say all this and more, but couldn’t, because she wasn’t sure if she believed it” (254).
- “Gone were the moments of tender embraces in the kitchen, minutes of stolen passion in the bathroom while the children slept. They were now in two separate universes, each certain of his or her rightness and the other’s senselessness” (332).
- “He would never become an American Wonder, one of those mbutukus who went to America and upon their return home spoke with laughable American accents, spraying ‘wannas’ and ‘gonnas’ all over sentences. They strutted around town wearing suits and cowboy boots and baseball caps, claiming to understand very little of Cameroonian culture because they were now too American” (355).
- “In Limbe, Liomi and Timba would have many things they would not have had in America, but they would lose far too many things. / They would lose the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers” (361).
- “On the cab ride to the airport, she stared out the window in silence. It was all passing her by. New York City was passing her by. Bridges and billboards bearing smiling people were passing her by. Skyscrapers and brownstones were rushing by. Fast. Too fast. Forever” (379).
“The Mare” is told chronologically from multiple (first-person) perspectives, a structure which drives the narrative. The main protagonist, Velvet, is a mixed-race girl from a tough neighborhood in New York who forms a deep, yet complicated, relationship with a childless white woman named Ginger. At Ginger’s house, Velvet learns how to ride horses and forms an emotional attachment to an abused mare—“Fiery Girl” (renamed from “Fugly Girl” by Velvet). The renaming of this horse is significant, as all characters are attempting to heal and remake themselves by overcoming past trauma.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “For a second, everything was hard and clear and pounding beautiful” (6).
- “The singer’s voice is thin and fake, but it’s pretty, and somewhere in the fakery is the true sadness of smallness and failure and believing in things that aren’t real because that’s the only way to get through” (11).
- “At night Paul and I would both sit on her bed and read to her and her eyes would go from alert to enchanted to blurred, sweet and private as she slowly stepped down to sleep” (45).
- “I saved that moment. I did the right thing. I was the adult. But I never knew from one moment to the next if I was or not. Being this kind of adult was like driving a car without brakes at night around hairpin turns. My body tensed and relaxed constantly. I was always nearly ruining dinner or forgetting to pick something up. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to drink—really wanted to, for the first time in years. Was this what parenting was like 24/7? My God, how did anyone do it? How did her mother do it, in a foreign country, in a bad neighborhood where she didn’t speak the language?” (62).
- “It was barely light when I woke up the next day. I didn’t wait; I got dressed and walked over. There was mist in the air and it was soft, and the sky was soft too, but with bright clouds. There was so much space, and green too, green and green” (116).
- “That night I dreamed of horses running together like they were water with a brain that could decide where to go. Except you could see their faces and their feet and tails coming out and then going back into the water of themselves” (148).
- “The woman had a powerful body, a hard, blunt voice, and an insane Her eyes were simple mentally, but emotionally snarled, aggressive and shrewd . . .” (169).
- “[B]eing on the mare happened on another planet, somewhere beautiful but with outer space all around it. I couldn’t even tell it to anybody. I was locked away from everybody. I couldn’t even beat on the door because there was no door” (185).
- “And on that horse I saw the world: sky, trees, buildings, streets going in different directions. My life going in different directions” (189).
- “I remembered his eyes when he was holding Brianna and looking at me over his shoulder, sharp like the arrow in the valentine, sharp in my heart, my real heart, like in the science chart of your body, the heart-muscle in the dark of my body. Soft/sharp. Love” (259).
- “They were all younger than Velvet, much younger, with quick, animated faces, confident that they belonged and were loved above all, and they flashed around Velvet like she was a rock while right in front of me she became one. My heart sank” (277).
- “It was so gentle, like something young springing from inside age, smiling and sweet like I was never able to be in middle school, or high school, or when I knew this man nearly two decades ago; in that foolish moment, the hard glass of my girlhood became flesh as if for the first time” (296).
- “I went into Penn Station to get a hot chocolate and walked around drinking it. I stared at the jumbled food nooks and windows filled with cheap shit: crazy-print panty hose, boxes of chenille gloves and hats, teddy bears, glass roses, Empire State knickknacks, magazines crammed with exhausting opinions and worthless pictures it cost thousands of dollars to take. Pretzels. Pizza. Squashed sandwiches and big, biliously iced cookies. Lights buzzing, music pumping, people yelling orders and wiping surfaces; so much honest effort put into so much ugliness, everyone worn out by it but still doing their job to push it out the chute. All of it probably overrun by rats at night. A crazy guy pointed at me and laughed” (307).
- “The train came in screaming. We go on it pushing. Huge tired people pushed in between me and my family and I faced the flying tunnel out the back door of the last car, hiding my hit face” (317).
- “Cheating. Of course I know why they call it that. I hate it, but I know. So much of what happens between people is comparable to a game. There is a deep, soft core that everyone longs for, too deep for games or even words. But to get to that, you have to play and play well. Art, society, relationships, simple conversation—I couldn’t understand how to do any of it. I don’t know what was wrong with me. I tried, and when I was young and good-looking it could at least seem like my failure was actually an interesting artistic version of some special game” (360).
- “It’s dead now, my adolescent longing, and even so I can’t help but press it against my cheek one more time, hoping to bring it alive again” (381).
- “For a strange and active moment I felt my house close around me—water pipes and wires and slow-speaking wood with insects living in it, wallpaper and rugs and furniture, emotions and odors, the air beating with thoughts—all of it, all of me so far away from the girl on the other end of the phone, even though she had slept and ate and cried here” (396).
- “She didn’t cry. But I could feel the pain beating inside her body like it was too big to get out without breaking her. It made me hold her tighter, and she hardened against my grip” (409).
Dark and poignant, this book explores issues of bias, bigotry, love, and violence. The protagonist, Deep Singh, who was born in the US, feels the force of dislocation and dis-belonging—caught between his parents’ homeland of India and his current life in 1980s, conservative NorCal farm country. While his bother suffers from mental illness and his mother and father continually fight, Deep seeks to escape with his complicated muse, a married woman named Lily.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “A winding drive took me along blank boulevards with their cross-eyed strip malls and condos screaming in a pastel-colored language all their own. I punched the lighter, waited for it to pop, and lit a cigarette” (1).
- “When they arrived, they knew less about America than I had ever known about India, which meant they knew practically nothing. They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education; they were the other Indians, the ones who don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written—the children of farmers, not even farmers themselves when they left. It was history with a small h—the kind that happens to ordinary people, not to countries—that tossed themselves like a handful of pebbles across the map of the world” (2).
- “I turned and looked around the diner . . . There it was, in everyone’s face, the unspoken sorrow of daily life. My own small troubles deserted me and I was filled with an odd sorta love for these strangers and the daily hardships of their lives” (4).
- “Was this Spinoza’s perfect world? I wondered that night as I sat watching Dad grunt at the television. For that’s what the dead philosopher meant: that they world is perfect, exactly as it is. There was only one response, Spinoza wrote, to such perfection: moderation, plain and simple, as passive regulation of emotion in the face of all of life’s upheavals” (20).
- “I wondered then if this was some kind of test—a love test—and if it was, whether I’d passed it or not. A wild thrill ran up my body as I nosed the car through the afternoon traffic, then out onto increasingly deserted boulevards heading east. People had money on this side of town, and the lawns unrolled to the curb like great green tongues. If you took a wrong step around here, you were liable to be swallowed up and eaten” (27).
- “The heavy bass beat of a Frankie Goes to Hollywood number started up and I was left trembling in the frenetic cathode ray half-light of the video. An indentation on the sofa remained where Jag had sat, as if a ghost Jag were still there, staring at me, whispering that word. [Die]” (38).
- “The terror I’d expected to feel, lying out in the open, exposed to the elements, prey to an animal or criminal, didn’t materialize. Something different happened. A feeling of security wrapped around me. There I was, at the mercy of the universe. Never before in all my life had I felt more protected” (44).
- “If you looked at Jag sideways, out of the corner of your eye, there was always the desert prophet visible rattling around inside him, the wild man in the wilderness preaching to tumbleweeds and prairie dogs, speaking equal measure of gloom and salvation” (48).
- “A couple times Lily and I caught the matinee at the dollar theater and I felt, in that closed-up, dark hall, the ferocity of her physical presence, as if I were being sucked down into the heart of a dark star” (68).
- “His name was a minefield, and I kept stepping on the trigger. I was also useless at pronouncing my own, which no one had told me before. I was glad when we reached home and I could lock myself away and think about Dylan Thomas and my future life as a drunk” (76).
- “I marveled at how we seemed to circle certain spots: the same row at the dollar theater, the same booth at the diner, the same winding roads through the hills. It was as if we were spinning on an actual orbit and our lives were nothing but an expression of its track through the heavens” (85).
- “As Jag’s silence deepened, Mom’s prescriptions grew in number and the bag of pills I brought home grew larger, with longer and stranger names, odder shapes, and brighter colors. / I tried a couple and spent the day sailing through a gauzy haze. Everything felt soft and pastel colored. I wondered if this was how Mom now saw the world. If felt like being continually pummeled with a fist made of cotton wool” (128).
- “Lily and I would found our own nation, hidden in the heart of this world, fight for it and die if necessary. / If I squinted I could almost see it, a shadowland in all this light, beyond the highways and the flattened towns, high up in the mountains, or near the ocean, not even a dot on a map, but somewhere placeless, out of tune with the world around it, where even orphans might find a foothold” (152-153).
- “The old poets, the dead ones I would come to read, wrote that tragedy is born from a defect in character, that our fates are twinned with the deepest impulses of our souls. I would learn something different. The birth of tragedy is silence, and the birth of silence is failure to see” (156).
- “Weeks later, as I wandered lost, an outcast on the desolate northern coast, little more than an orphan, I’d think back to that afternoon as I retreated out of the diner and ask myself if it was my rage that day, and in the days to come, that left me blind” (157).
- “I pulled away and stood, and a sudden, surging hatred blasted through me. It had been him, all these years, around whom we had all circled, the great silence around which our own petty silences were built” (170).
- “I passed the evenings driving along Valley roads with no destination in mind. One day, bored with flatlands, I took the road north, where the untamed switchbacks were a revelation. They rose above the mist and swept out over the water so it felt like you were going to be shot out into space, then whipsawed back into the land and the canopy of trees on either side. I’d hit the pedal, spin the wheel with one hand, slam the brake, twist, let the wheel slide out between my fingers, crush the clutch and shift down and punch the accelerator once more, and all the while the wide ocean lay at my feet and I felt like a small-change god or a great eagle soaring over his domain” (192).
- “Maybe if I had fought harder, shouted louder, insisted that Jag get help, he would be alive today. None of us was blameless—we all contributed to the silence—but that didn’t exonerate me. Banishment, as ancient a punishment as there ever was, seemed fitting for so ancient a crime as killing your brother” (236).
- “Grief fades with time, it dies, or transforms, and becomes a hum at the back of the mind, and even that loses its power, and soon you wonder at the young man you were, who stared back shell-shocked every morning from the bathroom mirror, a ghost’s ghost, for whom it was torture to lift his razor to his cheek” (237).
- “There are no countries, there are no nations, only people, the dead and living, and to be among the living is to owe a great debt to the dead” (243).