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.”
Set in Singapore in the 1920, “The Moonlight Palace” is a novella that explores the often blurry and always complex web of cultural heritage. Agnes, the young female protagonist, who is the last surviving member of her royal family, lives in a crumbling palace with a diverse cast of characters and an equally diverse set of suitors. Issues of loyalty, greed, and imperialism are explored in this story.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Unlike friends and schoolmates, who share exciting flying dreams, where they sail away over the tiled rooftops through surging gray clouds beyond tiny Singapore, in my own dreams I skim low through the rooms of the palace, barely above the ground. I see the patterned carpets, the wooden floorboards worn to the smoothness of satin. But never have I risen above the level of the palace ceiling, not even in my dreams” (1).
- “I had not finished my history assignment for the night, but I fell asleep with the book in my hand” (18).
- “If you think you have come to an unhappy ending, it is not the true end. Keep going awhile” (26).
- “No one had a better eye for beauty than the blind man” (32).
- “Wei’s face was bruised and swollen, and there was blood slowly seeping out of the corner of his mouth. He pressed a handkerchief to the wound, and every few minutes one of the guards brought him a fresh handkerchief and chips of ice. That was the strangest part, I thought—to do this to another human being, and then bring him clean linen and ice” (54).
- “I expected grandfather to stand up and walk away with Brown. I had forgotten that he was confined to that chair. So many facts of our life slipped from my mind that night—our extreme helplessness, our poverty, the impossibility of our whole situation” (59).
- “Because we never had a Christmas tree, all of our decorations were left over from Chinese festivals, complimented by a few bright items I managed to salvage from Deepavali” (71).
- “With our silly crepe paper hats on, the tips of the hats drooping, we looked like inmates at an imbecile institution, or an inebriate asylum. What a foolish holiday Christmas was!” (77).
- “Geoffrey, a handsome, pale specter, looked out of place among these Singaporean high-school girls. It was as if a man from inside a moving picture had stepped down among us, bringing with him all of the background noise and music, the white light of Hollywood, California” (103).
- “I learned for the first time that when we lose the people closest to us, we tend to become more like them—as if to fill immediately the unbearable lack they have left behind. We take on their habits, their mannerisms, sometimes even their style of dress” (114).
- “I lived in perpetual dread of my former suitor moving his oily self onto our property. Everything I’d found attractive in him now turned my stomach. The unnatural color of his eyes. His wavy yellow hair, which was probably dyed. The idea that he might have any claim against us made me ill. But I steeled myself for the confrontation that was coming. He would not simply skulk away, I knew” (117).
- “I slipped back into my accustomed place at the paper. Strangely enough, I found it comforting to work with grown men who ignored me almost completely. Ink-stained, disheveled, balding, foul-mouthed, sweaty, heads down, they rushed from story to story, deadline to deadline” (121).
- “They say that the ocean is always calm and still, many fathoms down, no matter how wildly it may churn on the surface. I discovered a similar calm in myself as I walked and walked around, in long, looping parabolas. And it’s a lucky thing, too, for one more hurdle lay just ahead” (131).
- “Holding the note, I strode to the front door and opened it, the fragrance of the mimosas rising up as fresh as mango, the two-toned call of the night bird, the koel, springing from the riverbank to Jurong Hill” (164).
A short story that illustrates the “Iceberg Theory,” as it manages to convey much using few words. The expansive arc of this story encompasses a girl growing up and going away, realizing a dark truth about her family in the process.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Back then the road they lived on was a dirt road and they lived on the end of it, about a mile from Route 4. This was in the north in the potato country, and back when the Appleby children were small and the winters were icy and snow-filled and there were months when the road seemed impossibly narrow. Weather was different then, like a family member you couldn’t avoid. You took it without thinking much” (306).
- “Her grandmother’s house was a small square house, and in the long white months of winter the house seemed stark and bare naked, the windows like eyes stuck open, looking toward the farm” (308).
- “When Annie was in the fifth grade, she began staying at Charlene Daigle’s house more. Anne was still lively and talked incessantly, but there had been an incident with the long-forgotten tape recorder—a secret she shared with Jamie—and ever since the incident it was as though a skin was compressed round her own family; the farm, her quiet brother, her sulky sister, her smiling mother, who often said ‘I feel sorry for the Daigles. He’s always so grumpy and he yells at the kids. We’re awfully lucky to have a happy family’” (309).
- “What Annie did not say was that there were many ways of not knowing things; her own experience over the years now spread like a piece of knitting in her lap with shadows all through it . . . She had recently, though, had fantasies of what they called ‘going normal.’ Having a house and a husband and children and a garden. The quietness of all that. But what would she do with all the feelings that streamed down her like small rivers? It was not the sound of applause that Annie liked—in fact, she often barely heard it—it was the moment onstage when she knew she had left the world and joined fully another. Not unlike the feelings of ecstasy she’d had in the woods as a child” (316).
- “She looked around the small kitchen, the wallpaper that had water stains streaking down it, the rocking chair their father had always sat in, the cushion now with a rip large enough to show the stuffing, the teakettle on the stove that had been the same one for years, the curtain across the top of the window with a fine spray of cobwebs between it and the pane. Annie looked back at her siblings. They may not have felt the dread that poor Charlene had lived with. But the truth was always there. They had grown up on shame; it was the nutrient of their soil” (318).
This inventive story connects the struggles of corporate-sponsored “researchers” to the dramas of deceased people existing in a magical city. During the book, it becomes clear that researcher Laura Byrd—who spends most of the novel alone in the Artic—is the common link shared by those in the city, and it is her mind, her memory, that places them in limbo, living in the space between life and death.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Andreas Andreopoulos, who had written code for computer games the whole forty years of his adult life, remembered leaping to pluck a leaf from a tree, and opening a fashion magazine to smell the perfume inserts, and writing his name in the condensation on a glass of beer. They preoccupied him—these formless, almost clandestine memories” (11).
- “She had the absurd impression—a dream, really—that she was living inside a jellyfish. Early in the morning, before she was wholly awake, she would lie in her sleeping bag listening to the watery lurching of the wind and imagine that she was pumping slowly across the floor of the ocean as millions of yellow diatoms sailed around her. Dreaming was easier than worrying, and worrying was easier than crying, which was what she knew she would be reduced to if she didn’t keep a hard eye on herself” (30-31).
- “Ever since she was a little girl, Laura had felt like a pioneer, passing over into the wilderness of the rest of her life. She remembered lying beneath her bed on her twelfth birthday, staring up at the orchardlike rows of the box springs and thinking how strange it was that she had no idea where she would be a year later, on the day she turned thirteen, and that she had had no idea where she would be today the year before, on the day she turned eleven. Certainly she could never have guessed that she would find herself lying underneath her bed staring at the box springs and wondering about the way time was put together. Why was it that everything that had happened to her in the past seemed so clear, but as soon as she turned toward the future, it all went dim and faded to nothing? Was that what it meant to be alive—moving from a brightly lit corridor into a darkened room at every step? Sometimes she felt that way” (54).
- “They began to giggle, and then to laugh, catching themselves in one of those loops in which they realized how meager the humor of the original remark was, found the meagerness itself funny, and laughed even harder than they had before. Soon they were laughing at nothing more than the fact that they were laughing” (96).
- “REPENT, FOR THE TIME IS AT HAND, his next day’s sign read, and he inscribed it, YOURS VERY TRULY, followed by his name, which was Coleman Kinzler, Ph.D. He had conferred the Ph.D. upon himself the same day he finished reading his Bible, at the age of thirty-three, for he knew that though he had never actually been to college, he was a doctor now in the eyes of the Lord” (105).
- “He and Joyce had never known whether to treat each other as friends or antagonists. Or maybe it was just that their antagonism and their friendliness had been so inextricably tied up with each other that it was impossible for anybody to tell the two apart. It was through their arguments, their bickering, that they expressed their fundamental goodwill toward each other, and they both took a particular pleasure in pretending they disliked the other more than they did. It was part of the game” (142).
- “His skin seemed to be coming loose from his skeleton, like a star casting off its final wobbling shell of gas. His eyes watered over and gradually lost their focus” (143).
- “She imagined death as a wonderful melting. The cold would pass out of her blood. She would be so much warmer. No one would ever find her or know what had happened to her, no one would ever see her again, and what difference would it make? The world was over anyway. She would never meet another living soul” (167).
- “For the past few weeks he had been conducting long conversations about the end of the world in his head. They were simple discussions that, if he wasn’t careful, quickly degenerated into savage arguments and then into swiftly moving imaginary debates in which various people, sometimes judges and prosecuting attorneys, sometimes just disembodied voices, accused him of bearing direct responsibility for the effects of the virus. Why didn’t you? they needled him. Why didn’t you do anything? But it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t. Fuck you. He was just a regular guy who happened to land a public relations gig with Coca-Cola” (185).
- “At some point, when you were fourteen or fifteen, before you reached adulthood or knew who you were, you had to determine whether you were going to be the sort of person who held tight to every single thing that passed through your life, no matter how insignificant it was, or the sort of person who set it all adrift. Life was easier on the people who were willing to relax their grip, but she had decided to be the other sort of person, the sort who wouldn’t let go, and she had done her best to live up to that decision” (196).
- “She shut her eyes and listened. Something unusual was happening to her. She was stretched around her heart, taut and firm like the skin of a drum, a perfectly sealed membrane that was beating, beating, beating. The heat of her blood was moving through her in millions of waves, more than she could possibly contain, and yet somehow she did contain them. She couldn’t hear anything else. The sound filled her until she shook, and then it filled the tent, and then it filled the world” (206).
- “This was the kind of thing he would say every so often, a tight little knot of sentences, like the coil of rubber at the center of a golf ball, that would burst open in a spray of contradictory implications as soon as he tried to pick it apart” (212).
- “And the spring came, with the sun breaching the horizon and the wind lifting the snow off the ice and the bay popping and cracking like the frame of an old house. Shoals of fish traced the open water and flocks of skua followed close behind them. Great chunks of glacier thawed and broke off into the ocean, carrying the blue-green ice of a thousand years ago. For a few hours each day the snow glistened like rubies in the drawn-out light of the sun, and for a few minutes, as the light grew stronger, it glistened like diamonds. No other spring in the world was anything like it” (223).
- “But why did he remember only the things in his life that had hurt him? Why couldn’t he remember the things that had given him joy or caused him to smile: the jokes he had heard, the songs that had made him lift his arms in the air, the people who had loved him, whose cheeks he had touched with his fingers?” (249).
- “When the walls came together and the bubble finally collapsed, this was where they would all end up: right here, between these benches and rustling trees. It would happen in a matter of days or weeks. There would be no way for them to avoid it. They would gather together in the clearing around the monument, however many thousand of them there were, and they would stand there shoulder to shoulder. They would listen to each other’s breath. And they would wait for that power that would pull them like a chain into whatever came next, into that distant world where broken souls are wrenched out of their histories” (252).
In this complex and cinematic short story, Carla tries to escape her husband (Clark) with the help of her older neighbor (Sylvia, who is a widow). “Runaway” explores questions of self-definition and of unequal power dynamics within relationships.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill” (3).
- “There was no way to avoid the puddles in the path or tall soaked grass alongside it, or the wild carrot which had recently come into flower” (15-16).
- “Back home, having left the note in the mailbox, Sylvia cleaned up the dishes that were still on the table, washed and polished the omelette pan, threw the blue napkins and tablecloth in the laundry basket, and opened the windows. She did this with a confusing sense of regret and irritation” (29).
- “There was enough of a wind blowing to lift the roadside grass, the flowering weeds, out of their drenched clumps. Summer clouds, not rain clouds, were scudding across the sky. The whole countryside was changing, shaking itself loose, into the true brightness of a July day” (31).
- “She recalled now how the sun was coming up behind them, how she looked at Clark’s hands on the wheel, the dark hairs on his competent forearms, and breathed in the smell of the inside of the truck, a smell of oil and metal, tools and horse barns. The old air of the fall morning blew in through the truck’s rusted seams. It was the sort of vehicle that nobody in her family ever rode in, that scarcely ever appeared on the streets where they lived” (32).
- “The fog was there tonight, had been there all this while. But now at one point there was a change. The fog had thickened, taken on a separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then condensing itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, hell-bent, something like a giant unicorn, rushing at them” (39).
In this framed short story that showcases Bass’s dramatic descriptions of nature and human consciousness, the narrator (who is among the few friends to whom Mary Ann has told her story) relays Mary Ann’s adventure with Grey Owl (a dog trainer) and a team of dogs in Canada during winter (twenty years earlier). Motifs of survival and isolation are present in this short tale.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Blue creeping up fissures and cracks from depths of several hundred feet; blue working its way up through the gleaming ribs of Ann’s buried dogs; blue trailing like smoke from the dogs’ empty eye sockets and nostrils—blue rising as if from deep-dug chimneys until it reaches the surface and spreads laterally and becomes entombed, or trapped—but still alive, and drifting—within those moonstruck fields of ice” (163).
- “The storm has knocked out all the power down in town—it’s a clear, cold, starry night, and if you were to climb one of the mountains on snowshoes and look forty miles south toward where town lies, instead of seeing the usual small scatterings of light—like fallen stars, stars sunken to the bottom of a lake, but still glowing—you would see nothing but darkness—a bowl of silence and darkness in balance for once with the mountains up here, rather than opposing or contemplating our darkness, our peace” (163-164).
- “They traveled across snowy hills on snowshoes, the sky the color of snow, so that often it was like moving through dream, and, except for the rasp of the snowshoes beneath them and the pull of gravity, they might have believed they had ascended into some sky-place where all the world was snow” (165-166).
- “All eight of them slept as if in a nest, heads and arms draped across other ribs and hips; and it was, said Ann, the best and deepest sleep she’d ever had—the sleep of hounds, the sleep of childhood” (171).
- “The ice was contracting, groaning and cracking and squeaking up tighter, shrinking beneath the great cold—a concussive, grinding sound, as if giants were walking across the ice above—and it was this sound that awakened them” (172).
- “What would it have looked like, seen from above—the orange blurrings of their wandering trail beneath the ice; and what would the sheet of lake-ice itself have looked like that night—throbbing with ice-bound, subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire? But again, there was no one to view the spectacle: only the travelers themselves, and they had no perspective, no vantage from which to view or judge themselves. They were simply pushing on from one fire to the next, carrying their tiny torches” (173).
- “I suspect that she holds that knowledge—the memory of that one day and night—especially since she is now the sole possessor—as tightly, and securely, as one might clench some bright small gem in one’s fist; not a gem given to one by some favored or beloved individual but, even more valuable, some gem found while out on a walk—perhaps by happenstance, or perhaps by some unavoidable rhythm of fate—and hence containing great magic, great strength” (176).
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).