*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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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens c. 2018 (368 pages—Putnam)

Alert: This summary contains spoilers.

Set in North Carolina in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s, this novel is part bildungsroman, part murder mystery. The protagonist, Kya Clark, lives on the margins of society as “Marsh Girl,” her young life defined by loneliness as her siblings, mother, and alcoholic father all abandon her. She finds love and comfort in the character of Tate, who also deserts her when he attends college. Throughout her life, Kya finds solace in nature and becomes an expert observer and, eventually, a published author. The suspensive elements of the plot are due to the initial frame of an unsolved murder, in which Chase Andrews, a rich kid and local football hero, is found dead in a swamp on the first page of the novel. The story then flashes back seventeen years to Kya’s childhood. The plot structure and writing about nature make this novel worth reading; however, with the exception of Kya and Tate, the characters are largely flat. Themes of class and race are touched upon, but not explored with any depth or nuance. Sadly, Jumpin’ Joe and Mabel, the two Black characters in the book, fall into the dated trope of “selfless negro.” Additionally, the feminist messages that might be conveyed via Kya’s self-sufficiency are lessened, as she seems to rely on Tate as her savior. Parallels between human behavior and nature abound in this novel, and many passages suggest that the actions of living things have a deterministic element, as living creature act in accordance to their natural tendencies. This motif raises interesting questions about accountability. In the end, it seems that Owens represents Kya’s murder of the abusive character of Chase as “natural” and thus permissible.

Book Club Discussion Questions

  1. Who’s the most heroic character in the book?
  2. Who’s the most interesting?
  3. What was your favorite scene? Explain what you liked most about this scene.
  4. Was the plot believable?
  5. How does the alternating chronology and choice of a third-person (limited and omniscient) narrator shape the novel? Would you have made the same authorial choices as Owens?
  6. If you were Kya, would you have forgiven Tate?
  7. Was Kya justified in murdering Chase?
  8. Is it believable that Kya won her court case?
  9. Do the characters in this novel possess autonomy or free will, or are they simply acting in ways that they were conditioned to act based on their environment? (Do you blame Ma, Jodie, and Tate for leaving Kya? Or were their actions based on their natural instinct for self-preservation?)
  10. Jodie reveals that Ma suffered with mental illness after she left her children. Is this explanation acceptable? Should people with mental illness be held to a different standard of behavior?
  11. What did you think about the representation of Black characters in the book? Are they stereotypical or complex? Round or flat? Are racism and classism represented similarly in this text? Is Owens’ depiction of these social ills problematic and/or unrealistic?
  12. What does the novel say about self-reliance and dependence on others? Are the two mutually exclusive or can one depend on others while still maintaining autonomy and individuality?
  13. Does Kya eventually find acceptance and success in society or does she remain an outsider?
  14. Was the ending of the novel satisfying? Did you interpret it as happy or sad?
  15. What’s the theme or deeper meaning of this story?

Possible themes . . .

  • True love endures, even when people hurt each other and make poor choices
  • In the end, people get what they deserve
  • People are fickle, but nature is constant
  • It’s possible to gain acceptance while living on the fringes
  • People—and all living creatures—are programmed to react to stimuli in predetermined ways

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat . . . There are sounds, of course, but compared to the marsh, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is celluar work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death beginning life” (3).
  • “The shack sat back from the palmettos, which sprawled across sand flats to a necklace of green lagoons and, in the distance, all the marsh beyond. Miles of blade-grass so tough it grew in salt water, interrupted only by trees so bent they wore the shape of the wind. Oak forests bunched around the other sides of the shack and sheltered the closet lagoon, its surface so rich in life it churned” (7).
  • “Maybe it was mean country, but not an inch was lean. Layers of life—squiggly sand crabs, mud-waddling crayfish, waterfoul, fish, shrimp, oysters, fatted deer, and plump geese—were piled on the land or in the water” (8).
  • “Kya sat down fast in her seat at the back of the room, trying to disappear like a bark beetle blending into the furrowed trunk of an oak” (29).
  • “Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land that caught her” (34).
  • “Each time Kya stepped off the porch, she looked down at the lane, thinking that even though the wild wisteria was fading with late spring and her mother had left late the previous summer, she might see Ma walking home through the sand. Still in her fake alligator heels” (67).
  • “Sand keeps secrets better than mud” (71).
  • “Sycamore and hickories stretched naked limbs against a dull sky, and the relentless wind sucked any joy the winter sun might have spread across the bleakness. A useless, drying wind in a sea-land that couldn’t dry” (73).
  • “Ma had said women need each other more than they need men, but she never told her how to get inside the pride” (80).
  • “No longer did she daydream of winging with eagles; perhaps when you have to paw your supper from mud, imagination flattens to that of adulthood” (87).
  • “As evening fell, she took her blanket and slept in the marsh, close to a gully full of moon and mussels, and had two tow bags filled by dawn” (97).
  • “Her impulse, as always, was to run. But there was another sensation. A fullness she hadn’t felt for years. As if something warm had been poured inside her heart. She thought of the feathers, the spark plugs, and the seeds. All of it might end if she ran” (98).
  • “Before the feather game, loneliness had become a natural appendage to Kya, like an arm. Now it grew roots inside her and pressed against her chest” (100).
  • “Part of her longed to touch his hand, a strange wanting, but her fingers wouldn’t do it. Instead she memorized the bluish venison the inside of his wrist, as intricate as those sketched on the wings of wasps” (104).
  • “His soft words, sounding almost like poetry, taught her that soil is packed with life and one of the most precious riches on Earth; that draining wetlands dries the land for miles beyond, killing plants and animals along the water. Some of the seeds lie dormant in the desiccated earth for decades, waiting, and when the water finally comes home again, they burst through the soil, unfolding their faces. Wonders and real-life knowledge she would’ve never learned in school. Truths everyone should know, yet somehow, even though they lay exposed all around, seemed to lie in secret like the seeds” (113).
  • “The other words Tate didn’t say were his feelings for her that seemed tangled up between the sweet love for a lost sister and the fiery love for a girl. He couldn’t come close to sorting it out himself, but he’d never been hit by a stronger wave” (123).
  • “Now, every new word began with a squeal, every sentence a race. Tate grabbing Kya, the two tumbling, half childlike, half not, through sourweed, red with autumn” (126).
  • “She waited the next day. Each hour warmed until noon, blistered after midday, throbbed past sunset. Later, the moon threw hope across the water, but that died too. Another sunrise, another white-hot noon. Sunset again. All hope gone to neutral. Her eyes shifted listlessly, and though she listened for Tate’s boat, she was no longer coiled” (142).
  • “By the end of August, her life once more found its footing: boat, collect, paint. Months passed” (146).
  • “A clutch of women’s the most tender, most tough place on Earth” (150).
  • “On some level he knew she behaved this way, but since the feather game, had not witnessed the raw, unpeeled core. How tormented, isolated, and strange” (156).
  • “Kya stood and walked into the night, into the creamy light of a three-quarter moon. The marsh’s soft air fell silklike around her shoulders. The moonlight chose and unexpected path through the pines, laying shadows about in rhymes. She strolled like a sleepwalker as the moon pulled herself naked from the waters and climbed limb by limb through the oaks. The slick mud of the lagoon shore glowed in the intense light and hundreds of fireflies dotted the woods” (157).
  • “The shack stood silent against the early stir of blackbird wings, as an earnest winter fog formed along the ground, bunching up against the walls like large wisps of cotton” (189).
  • “The marsh beyond lay in its winter cloak of browns and grays. Miles of spent grasses, having dispersed their seeds, bowed their heads to the water in surrender. The wind whipped and tore, rattling the coarse stems in a noisy chorus” (196).
  • “Tate was more than her first love: he shared her devotion to the marsh, had taught her to read, and was the only connection, however small, to her vanished family. He was a page of time, a clipping pasted in a scrapbook because it was all she had. Her heart pounded as the fury dissipated” (198).
  • “The notes floated with the fog, dissipating into the darker reaches of the lowland forests, and seemed somehow to be absorbed and memorized by the marsh because whenever Kya passed those channels again, she heard his music” (206).
  • “Having lost all sense of symmetry and pattern, slate-colored waves broke from every angle” (211).
  • “Drifting back to the predictable cycles of tadpoles and the ballet of fireflies, Kya burrowed deeper into the wordless wilderness. Nature seemed the only stone that would not slip midstream” (215).
  • “Jodie felt the lonely life hanging in her kitchen. It was there in the tiny supply of onions in the vegetable basket, the single plate drying in the rack, the cornbread wrapped carefully in a tea towel, the way an old widow might do it” (239).
  • “Tate. The golden-haired boy in the boat, guiding her home before a storm, gifting her feathers on a weathered stump, teaching her to read; the tender teenager steering her through her first cycle as a woman and arousing her first sexual desires as a female; the young scientist encouraging her to publish her books” (248).
  • “She imagined taking one step after the other into the churning sea, sinking into the stillness beneath the waves, strands of her hair suspending like black watercolor into the pale blue sea, her long fingers and arms drifting up toward the backlit blaze of the surface. Dreams of escape—even through death—always lift toward the light. The dangling, shiny prize of peace just out of grasp until finally her body descends to the bottom and settles in murky quiet. Safe” (284).
  • “Suddenly, she felt she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t sit here any longer, her head too heavy to hold up. She sagged slightly, and Tom turned from the sheriff to Kya as her head dropped onto her hands” (333).
  • “No one in the room had ever experienced this collective heart pounding, this shared lack of breath. Eyes shifted, hands sweated” (346).
  • “Like a migrating tern who has flown ten thousand miles to her natal shore, her mind pounded with the longing and expectation of home . . .” (349).
  • “Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core” (363).
  • “Walking into the shack—as she always called it—Tate felt the walls exhaling her breath, the floors whispering her steps so clear he called out her name. Then he stood against the wall, weeping” (365).
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The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel Jose Older c. 2019 (325 pages—Imprint)

Alert: This summary contains spoilers.

A tale told through a third-person limited omniscient narrator, who happens to be a ghost. Marisol, originally from Cuba, inhabits the mind and soul of her nephew, Ramon, an overweight DJ and hospital security guard. Through him, she tries to piece together her revolutionary past and recall what happened to her and her beloved sister Isabella and reconcile the hate she has for Ramon’s mother, who betrayed her and her sister to protect their parents, a sacrifice Marisol finally accepts in the end.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “We watched and we waited, processing, sometimes judging. Sometimes we dithered inwardly or sneered, that faraway crinkle in the fabric of the world you sense. We cringed when everything goes wrong or exalted in some sweet conflagration” (2).
  • “Because I am vanishing further, becoming even less than the barely there that I already am. It doesn’t seem possible, but this most fragile of holds I have on reality is about to give—I feel its tender fibers stretched to shatter point. It’s as if the collective mass of ether I emerged from has already swamped me with those heavy coils of emptiness, will soon drag me back into that nothing” (4-5).
  • “There are things I’m sure I never knew in life that are clear to me. The simple physics of emptiness and the thick lines around it offer up whole libraries of information I never could’ve imagined—histories, both banal and grand, and the flow and sweep of emotions that trail behind each of us in elegant, phosphorescent capes. I understand the great movements of people across oceans, the rise and fall of kings and tyrants. But I cannot fathom what it is about this woman, this woman who was my sister, that calls forth such a rage within me” (13).
  • “They came in boats and airplanes, armed with false documents and holy terror and a grinding wariness of what they would find. They came and breathed sigh after sigh of relief, closed their eyes, and put trembling hands to foreheads. They came and settled into these flashy modern digs, cursed at the atrocious weather, renamed streets without English’s sharp consonants, erected bakeries and memorials and three-star restaurants that reminded them just enough of home not to trigger nightmares . . . Each brought along a cord that stretched all the way back to the island and when they slept, each prayed the cord would send along news from home until slowly, each one came to call this place home and the cords wavered beneath the weight of the present tense” (18).
  • “We’re leaving the chaos of downtown, turning down a quiet street, with no pulsing electrical currents, no screaming advertisements, no towers. No towers that always watch. I gently let myself shatter, collect the pieces, and slide into a dark corner beneath Ramon’s seat” (35).
  • “I can see him go in and out of panic, trying, trying not to let it rule him. He’s a giant and carries a fire inside, a walking volcano and he knows, I know, we all know, if he loses it now it’ll be the end: the end of everything” (49).
  • “His lifeforce flickers, faltering toward oblivion with each rattly breath. His heart keeps shivering with useless fibrillations between every couple of beats” (52).
  • “Padre Sebastian treats language like a lover; he caresses it and wonders about it, turns it over and over in his mind, lets it change his whole world as he explores it deeper” (65).
  • “I am beautiful, back then. So young and pulsing with the certainty of God’s love and all my tiny inventions, my ever-unwinding imagination of how things will turn out, all lies, broken fantasies ripped from all those books I kept my nose in. I think this was the year I began to realize how hard things could be; the shadows had started tiptoeing around the edges of our house, but they hadn’t taken over yet” (77).
  • “This, then, is how I died: It’s cold, the wind blowing in from the ocean wraps around me and I pull my shawl close and the city is a rippling splatter of pastiche and crumble around me. Down of the street, uniformed men swarm like ants, building to building, and when they get to my apartment and bash in the door they just find a cup of coffee on the table, still warm, and a cigarette half smoked in the ashtray and the screen door leading to the balcony open, wide open, and the cool ocean breeze making the curtains dance like spirits in the empty room. / I can see it all like it happened right in front of me; it’s all right there: crisp and achingly true” (81).
  • “These are memories that wait for you to be having an off moment and then come settle into your bones, wrap their tentacles around your arteries and veins and creep along toward your heart, poisoning everything they touch” (95).
  • “Her fingers tremble and her brow is furrowed in concentration, her lips pursed into a frown, eyebrows arched. Ignoring things is hard work and a lifetime of it is showing in the lines on her face” (125).
  • “The girl was wrong to lash out, of course, but somehow the thought of her wasting away in the dingy psych ward for who knew how long sat like a poisonous rock in his stomach. The whole terrible system seemed like a setup sometimes. You crack slightly in the face of a world not built for you, and they load you up with medications till you can’t feel anything, and then they act surprised when your body and mind rebel and the rebellion is an explosion outward instead of another suicide attempt” (137).
  • “They come here to smoke cigarettes away from the endless hum of ambulance engines or watchful, snickering gazes of other doctors or floor supervisors. Here they step away and catch a moment of peace from the dying and the already dead, the gradual suicides and desperate to hold on, the denial, the doubt, the body parts” (147).
  • “This is when I’m supposed to scream, but I can’t. This is the most alone, the most free I’ve felt since before everything went to hell, or maybe still but I can’t let out the rage. Because what if what if what if a hundred thousand what-ifs, a million unforeseen consequences of a billion tiny actions, a gesture, a scoff, the unintended eye-roll causes offense, raises suspicion, and suddenly your family is under siege and they’re waiting outside your door and breathing on the other end of your telephone and smirking at your most sacred memories and then one of us falls and then another, because even to mourn a loved one is an act of rebellion, so whole families get enveloped, suffocate, and die. And so it begins” (163).
  • “All the grace and wonder they worked so hard for at the beginning of the night is gone and they’re just wobbly flamingos, little girls unsteady in Mommy’s too-big shoes and the dark patches of someone else’s vomit decorating their skirts” (167).
  • “It doesn’t take long for the flames to catch the velvet curtains draped on either side of the stage. They’re ancient, a holdover from the days when this palace was a movie theater, all tassels and fanciness, but now flames devour their creases, burst upward in impossible lashes, unabated, unchecked, sinister. It would be so beautiful if not for the guarantee of death and wave after wave of panic sweeping through me, this room, everyone in it” (170).
  • “I lean in close. He smells like the forest and the night and sweat and the danger and drudgery of so many days on the run. He smells like he wants me, to devour me whole and he smells like Man” (176).
  • “These are still my streets. I still know their secrets better than any bearded soldier from the campo” (182).
  • “And then: fast footsteps on pavement, a frantic run, the pursuit not far now. Yells in the distance, closing. An impossible clutter of crossroads, alleyways, storefronts. Some unfamiliar neighborhood, and the gnawing sense that one of those streets surely leads to another that leads to another that will bring me to some part of this haunted city by the sea that I do know, somewhere familiar, safe. But no: Instead, the approaching boots get louder and the yells to stop feel like they’re right in my ear . . .” (184).
  • “She listens, eyes wide, and whatever last part of himself he’d been holding in reserve, trying to play it cool, crumbles in the telling” (187).
  • “I just nod. I’ve lost track of time again, as days bled into months, years. My wounds healed. I got some new ones, although none as bad as the first, and those healed too. And that’s become the new timekeeper: how long the body takes to replenish in order to prepare for more brutality. One day, I know it won’t bother, and we’ll all just be walking bruises, bleeding the last of our lives into our broken hearts” (226).
  • “Kacique leads them up a stairwell between two buildings that look like they’ve been collapsing in slow motion for at least a century. Maps of peeling paint savage the sun-soaked stucco walls” (228).
  • “I speed faster across the ocean, pass snarling waves, some fish burst up into the air near me and collapse back down; seagulls dive. A few fishermen smoke and chat with each other, gaze at the dancing lights marking the edge of water, and begin turning their rickety boats around for the journey home” (240).
  • “My song encompasses even the songs of others the dead that linger, voiceless, in recesses of each other’s memories, and it keeps getting louder, fuller, fiercer with each building note. This night, this memory, has birthed something new in me. I am alive. I live. Even if my body is broken and buried, even if I’m dead, I live” (244-245).
  • “My call pauses at the ocean and whirls back again through the streets, now frantic, a wailing terror, harsh night zephyr, catching in the tobacco-stained throats of old watchmen and upsetting wind chimes into a senseless jangle” (251).
  • “The ocean is close now, I can feel its impossible hugeness infringing on the edges of the city. Lion statues snarl from a dark pillared building next to a dilapidated solar” (253).
  • “Panic wraps around me, squeezes. Tesoro has his directions confused, he’s a spy, he’s gone mad. A million possibilities. I will die before we reach the boat, of heartbreak or the shock of actually still having a heart. Or of a bullet, which will break the skin just above my clavicle and enter my flesh, forcing tissue and blood vessels out of its way and bursting through my lungs, destroying, devouring and then collapsing luxuriously in the chambers of the heart I hadn’t even realized I possessed until milliseconds before it was shattered” (274).
  • “Our feet touch the rocks, the rocks nestle into the sea, the endless sea. We are shadows on the shoreline, tiny beneath the greater shadows of the trees. The trees that reach into the soil, the soil that slopes beneath the rocks into the sea” (281).
  • “His name a tiny prayer, just like mine. It was the first time I’d said it out loud” (293).
  • “We fought each other because we trusted each other and no one else, and knew as hard as we screamed and as horrible as the curses we could come up with would become, we’d always find our way back. And we fought each other to stave off that cool empty feeling of defeat, having fled, having left so much behind: the feeling of nowhere to turn. So we turned toward each other, sometimes with rage, mostly with love” (302).
  • “The irony, the sick, demented irony of escaping one kind of prison only to slip into the grasp of an entirely other one—it festered inside me, inside all of us, and then boiled over one hot day when they tried to bulldoze an abandoned community garden” (310).
  • “And this is when I realize that the book of lost saints never stops being written. Every day, there are new saints who step into our lives out of the blue, who have been there all along. And if they become a saint one day, then they must’ve always been one, even when they’re betrayed you and almost got you killed” (321-322)
  • “Behind us, the slowly marching souls of the past flush forward through the present, stern, unflinching, to be part of this one last act of grace, whatever it may be” (324).
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We, the Survivors by Tash Aw c. 2019 (326 pages—Forth Estate)

Set in Malaysia, this novel centers on a working-class man named Ah Hock. The frame of the narrative creates a sense of uncertainty and distance surrounding the story of Ah Hock as he is interviewed by a well-meaning journalist who’s trying to understand the plight of working people and the way in which this plight has resulted in what seems to be a grave injustice: the imprisonment of Ah Hock for a hazy crime that, according to the narrator, was the end result of his relationship to Keong, an unsavory character whom he befriends, then tries to avoid. The irony of the story is that—in the end—Keong finds success within society while Ah Hock is in jail. The detachment of the narrator is reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault in “The Stranger,” and, as in Camus’ text, the narrative questions our understanding of bias, causality, and individual responsibility.  

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “You want me to talk about life, but all I’ve talked about is failure, as if they’re the same thing, or at least so closely entwined that I can’t separate the two—like the trees you see growing in the half-ruined buildings in the Old Town. Roots clinging to the outside of the walls, holding the bricks and stone and whatever remains of the paint together, branches pushing through holes in the roof . . . A few miles out of town, on the other side of Kapar headed towards the coast, you’ll find a shophouse with the roots of a jungle fig creeping down the four pillars of the building, the entire structure swallowed up by the tree—the doorway is now just a shadowy space that leads into the heart of a huge tangle of foliage. Where does one end and the other begin? Which one is alive, which is dead?” (3).
  • “It was late, but not so late that there wasn’t any traffic on the highways beyond, and on the bridges overhead. Their headlamps would sometimes illuminate the tops of the trees above me, and suddenly little details would leap out at me, things I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d been walking there in the daytime—kites with smiley bird faces snagged in the branches or plastic bags, lots of them, hanging like swollen ghostlike fruit” (5).
  • “Their voices were soft and rich and deepened each time they said the word Please. The sound of the word made me feel as if I was stepping off solid earth and falling into an abyss. I wanted it to stop” (9).
  • “And I thought, of course he’s changed. All those years in prison, when I went through phases of either sleeping all day and night, or lying awake all day and all night—phases that lasted weeks and broke down my sense of time, my resistance to the idea that every day should be different—during that time, Keong was changing himself” (16).
  • “In that moment, I suddenly got the feeling that all the things I’d ever known—my family, my home, the trees, grass, water, food, the bare earth, the huge, huge sea: everything—were strange and foreign, as if I’d never known them at all” (24).
  • “Imagine that—you come all the way from China, you leave behind war, famine, getting in and out of small boats drifting on the ocean for months, eventually land in some tiny town in Indonesia, find some way of earning a living, working the land or the sea. You think you own that tiny bit of scrubby jungle or marsh or wherever it is you’ve landed, you think you can start a family, start a new life. Then, just when your days and weeks start to feel normal, when your notion of time begins to stretch into a year, two years, a future—when you look at the place you’re in and it no longer feels as if every tree, every blade of grass is out to hurt you, you have to move again. More war, more boats, more swamps” (28).
  • “The very presence of such a vehicle in the village made everything else look shabby and poor. The smooth curves of the silvery body were beautiful and effortless and powerful—like a shark cutting through water. All around it, our houses looked tired” (31).
  • “When life evolves like that, one small gift coming on top of another, you start to feel strong. Your salary, which surprises you at the beginning—because its regularity is astonishing, because it keeps coming to you even when you think it might stop abruptly at any moment—starts to feel as if it has always been there. An unshakable part of the universe, like atoms or the cells in your body” (40).
  • “But she was shouting too loudly, one question layered on top of another, and I couldn’t keep up, the sentences in my brain never stitched together to form a clear line of defense. I wanted to scream all kinds of swear words, smash the glass cabinet in front of me with my bare fists, kick down the shelves of paint and screws and weighing scales, see all that cheap shit fall to the ground. But instead I grinned” (42).
  • “They didn’t understand that it wasn’t the pay that destroyed the spirts of these men and women, it was the work—the way it broke their bodies before they could even contemplate the question of salaries. The way it turned them from children to withered old creatures in the space of a few years” (44-45).
  • “I looked out at the men working so hard in the yard, listened to the sound of the shovels against grit, the soft rumble of the cement mixer—all of it was like a rhythm of a strange music , lulling me to sleep as I sat in front of the files” (47).
  • “Suddenly I would be aware of my speech, the difference between the crudeness of my voice and the polish of hers, always under control, never too loud or too soft” (56).
  • “In the end it wasn’t his brush with the police that ended his brief career as a gangster, it was his mother” (66).
  • “Maybe it was simply that he wasn’t one of us. Or maybe that without knowing it, we were bored by the regularity of our lives—scared by the way our fate was determined by the weather and the tides, the way the slightest change in the moon’s position could mean that we would have little to eat for the next month. With Keong, the equation was so much simpler” (70).
  • “He needed me to be his audience even more than I need to be entertained by him—without me, his memories of the city would have shriveled and dried in the salt and sun of our coastal village. We all have our own way of surviving and telling stories was his” (72).
  • “He was drifting through life, experimenting with things that would lead nowhere—what else could he have done, to be fair?—but I was wasn’t ready for that in-between life, the fun always shadowed by fear. We’re young, he once said, Life is long. But he knew that wasn’t true, that people like us didn’t have time on our side” (89).
  • “When fancy people turn up, it’s better not to greet them with half-dried cement on your hands, walking around barefoot with your trousers rolled up to your knees like a peasant, so I learned to keep a spare set of clothes in case of emergencies” (108).
  • “But paperwork and me, we’ve never gotten along, and I knew that the answers I was looking for were not going to surrender themselves to me, no matter how hard I searched” (109).
  • “But she wouldn’t even turn to look at me, and in the moment of hesitation an invisible curtain fell between us, a small separation, and I’d suddenly be afraid to touch her in case she felt it was inappropriate, given how hard she worked all day. I know it sounds stupid—we were husband and wife, weren’t we? But I became aware of a space that belonged only to her and not us, and I didn’t want to intrude into it” (118).
  • “I realized that we’d all been living completely separate lives, each family tucked away in their little two-bedroomed single-storey house, linked to each other by walls less than a foot thick, yet also divided by that same thin layer of brick and cement” (122).
  • “I had never seen the other man before that night. He wasn’t one of the migrants who drifted in from the plantations seeking work along the coast. You saw them often, skinny red-eyed Bangladeshis with patches of skin on their arms and faces rubbed raw from all the pesticides they sprayed. Always on the move. Always giving you the impression they were in search of something, yet always slow in their movements, as if the air around them had turned to water and they were wading through the world. Swim-walking. The oxygen sucked out of their world so they were forever in motion, but never making progress” (130).
  • “My father was in another country, earning a living far from his family, but that was another form of love. Distance is love. Separation is love. Loneliness is love” (156).
  • “He’d look up briefly without acknowledging me and turn the volume up even louder on the TV, so that the gunshots and explosions of the cops-and-gangsters shows he liked would vibrate through the walls. Even when I shut the door I’d hear the screeching of brakes, the crunch of metal on metal as if there were real-life car chases going on just outside, threatening to smash their way into my room at any moment” (168).
  • “At that age—four, five, six—you don’t understand every word, and you don’t remember what you hear, but you sense the impression of the voices. Brightness. Jealousy. Affection. Danger. And when people spoke to my mother it was almost always with a sort of tenderness mixed with surprise, as if they were intimately tied to her, and their meeting on the street was a special occasion, even though they saw each other all the time” (171).
  • “In only five years, his land—a small vegetable plot and two fish ponds—had turned wild, reclaimed by nature so you couldn’t tell it had recently been home to a human being. Long grass obscured the shape of the land, the prickly shrubs he’d planted as boundaries had meshed together, and small trees had taken root, blending into the forest beyond. The ponds were shrouded by weeds and looked like puddles of marshy water” (183).
  • “As I began to see the boundaries of our piece of land—began to see bare earth and water now that the thorny scrub had been cut back—I started to feel a sense of permanence that I’d never experienced before. A feeling that I was connected to an unchanging place that belonged to me. A place that owned me. The sea was always restless, constantly twisting and warping, flowing away from us or overwhelming us. We were never certain of anything with the sea, but the soil—our soil—was solid. It would not leave, not even after we had left it” (188).
  • “I looked up at the sky. Rain clouds had gathered out at sea—thick and slow-rolling, the color of coal, blotting out the sun and casting a twilight glow across the land, even though it was the middle of the afternoon” (198).
  • “He’d point out things he remembered from the past, from way back in the nineties—a stretch of jungle that flooded one year, when the rains didn’t stop for three days and nights, and the rivers and monsoon drains overflowed. For a few days afterwards, under heavy grey skies, the trunks of the trees were submerged, with only their leaves protruding from the muddy water like giant origami decorations floating on the surface of a pond” (208).
  • “I pause and look at her. She smiles. That same smile that transforms not just her face, but the entire room, scrubbing out any possibility of sadness” (219).
  • “I saw that all the time in our village, the bright girls who should have moved away to the city and never come back, but instead chose to stay behind to run the household while their kind, slow brothers fished the empty seas and brought no money home. Pity” (236).
  • “He exhaled slowly, and I could imagine his face, the way his eyes narrowed as he blew out the cigarette smoke. As if life was hazy and somewhat beautiful” (238).
  • “If you wanted to find your way around without driving in a huge loop you had to know how to read the differences in the landscape—the way the palm trees were of a slightly different age and height, how some estates were older or newer, the way the roads faced the sun in varying ways, the villages that were each different or maybe the small surau or Hindu temple that lay obscured by the trees—a tiny landmark that you could easily drive past unless you knew it was there” (234).
  • “At times it felt as though a sickness had settled over the entire state, carried downstream by the two rivers that drew all the maladies from the populated hinterland before meeting at the port and spewing them out to sea, where even the salt water was not enough to kill the infection, which then spread up and down the coast, spawning mysteriously and releasing itself back into the air. I know that’s not the way it works, I know that science wouldn’t back up that view, but that’s how it felt. There was a disease upon us, and it wasn’t going to lift” (258).
  • “I watched his Adam’s apple move in his throat—a small lump that seemed unnaturally hard and jagged, rolling back and forth as if it was a living thing. It’s liveliness disgusted me” (265).
  • “He continued to stare at me for a few moments, and that was when I experienced, for the first time, that curious sensation I would encounter later that week, and again during my time in prison—of time slowing down, folding in on itself, almost as if it had taken a physical form and was collapsing, just like the buildings around us” (273).
  • “We were going to save up for a proper honeymoon—a week or two abroad, somewhere nice like Taiwan where we’d put on smart clothes and pose for portraits in Alishan or Sun Moon Lake: pictures we could then frame and use as decorations in our living room the way other people did. We’d talked about Phuket, too—we had visions of ourselves dressed in flowing white outfits that blended into the perfect sand on the beach, snaps of ourselves doing star jumps against the backdrop of a sea so brilliantly blue and green that no one would believe it was real” (284).
  • “As I drifted back to sleep I wondered whether I’d simply dreamed it; that maybe the sharpness of the lightning strike, the loud booming of the thunder—all that had occurred in my mind, and nowhere else. I get caught in this state sometimes, trapped between two worlds, not knowing if I’m fully awake and present in one, or if I’ve actually passed into another. Sleeping, running, raining, burning” (295).
  • “Migrants who were so weak they were dying and still they had to dig graves. Their own graves. So when they died the smugglers could just push them in. No strength to fight, just enough strength to die” (306).

 

 

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“The Third Tower” by Deborah Eisenberg c. 2019 (pages 67-82 in The Best American Short Stories 2019)

According to Eisenberg, this is “a story set in the near future or a parallel present, about a girl—a young laborer—whose imagination, curiosity, vitality, and quality of experience are being purposefully reduced . . . That third tower might suggest, for example, the Freedom Tower, a triumphalist tourist magnet erected ostensibly as a monument to those murdered on September 11, 2001, or the first of horrifyingly proliferating skyscrapers (this tower, that tower) signifying, above all, money or just an abstract tower representing surveillance or domination. / So it turned out what had interested me about that phrase, the third tower, were matters concerning the systemic opportunism of power and money: catastrophe as a rationale for increasing economic inequalities, as a rationale for invasions and resource appropriations and wars and oppression that benefit only the powerful; catastrophe utilized as an instrument to make the population compliant or inadvertently complicit—incapable of significant dissent or incapable of even comprehending what is happening to it” (351-352).

 

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Julia found it in a pile of old stuff. She didn’t want it, so she said she would give it to Therese. / What was she supposed to do with that? Therese said—a beaten up old book with nothing in it but blank paper” (67).
  • “It looks like it has some tales to tell, hidden in those blank pages. She runs her fingers over the thick, rough paper, as if to awaken it . . .” (67).
  • “Of course, they’ve all seen it a million times in movies and magazines—the brilliant air, the glistening towers and monuments, sailboats gliding from serene harbor out toward the endless horizon—the gorgeous, gorgeously dressed men and women, the broad white boulevards, banks of flowers, grand restaurants, magnificent shop windows—great, heavy strands of gems twinkling away on velvet . . .” (68).
  • “She plays a brand new game on the seat screen, featuring zooming blobs that look like candy. Glossy! You shoot the blobs, and if you hit one just right, it emits a shower of gold coins, and then new blobs zoom in to try to eat the coins before you shoot them too” (69).
  • Fugitives—the word erupts from its casing, flaring up like a rocket, fanning out, fracturing the air into prisms and splintered mirror. Therese snatches up her book and pen, and rapidly writes something down. / She’s sweating. She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths before she looks at what the book says. . .” (70).
  • “In other words, she understands, nothing to set her off. There’s no mirror, there are no curtains on the window, just metal shutters that are kept closed to shield her from the glittering sound of the city, from the sunlight, from the mysterious moon” (72).
  • “Her teachers said she’d grow out of it, but it’s only gotten worse since school—words heating up, expanding, exploding into pictures of things, shooting off in all directions, then flaming out, leaving behind cinders and husks, a litter of tiny, empty, winged corpses, like scorched gnats or angels” (73).
  • “The hours at the clinic pass slowly, they do. The smells of antiseptics and filth. They have Therese ingest a dye, so they can observe its route as it slithers through the nooks and crannies of her brain. Needles draw fluids from her into tubes, nurses seal the tubes and put the sealed tubes into a special cupboard with flashing red lights. Other needles inject fluids into her. She waits in a waiting room. She waits in another waiting room” (75).
  • “The doctor paces as he explains. His hands are behind his back: We have not yet fully ascertained the etiology of your affliction, nor have we been entirely successful thus far in isolating the full play of its tendencies. The likelihood of a culpable pathogen has almost certainly been eliminated. There is, however, a consistent constellation of characteristics—a profile, if you will—to which the manifestations of this hyperassociative state can be said to conform, though I’m happy to say that our readings indicate a low correlation with the worrisome Malfeasance Index that is frequently one of its most striking features” (76).
  • “She opens the book, just to admire again the lovely, thick, rough-edged paper, but then the air starts to shimmer, and it splinters, splashing words and pictures everywhere, all whirling and glittering” (77).
  • “There’s a skinny, stringy girl about her age, with chopped-off dirty-blonde hair, who sends off a blizzard of quiet curses as she wakes, and a very large, very old woman, maybe fifty or so, who twists and flops on the gurney under her little sheet. Once, she gets up and totters around like a big crazy giant, shrieking until she’s subdued” (78).
  • “There is, however, a strain of current thinking in the field that categorizes those rare individuals subject to pronounced hyperassociative disorders as in some way viable: Visonaries of the Banal, as one pretentious colleague’s paper on the subject styled it. (The fellow won some sort of prize for that bit of foolishness, the doctor recalls.)” (80).

“But then for a moment she feels her unruly heart, her skin, her neurons—the secret language of her body—sending evidence of treachery to the sensors and dials. All around her, behind the wall of locked words, hums the vast, intractable, concealed conversation” (82).

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Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult c. 2016 (458 pages—Ballantine Books)

Alert: This summary contains spoilers.

“Small Great Things” addresses fraught topics like privilege and prejudice in a lengthy novel that reads like a thriller. Its plot hinges on an impossible ethical dilemma: break the orders of an institution (disobey a boss) or violate an axiom of society (fail to treat all human life as sacred). The story is set in the 2010s and told through alternating first-person narrators: Ruth, a single mother and an African-American labor and delivery nurse; Kennedy, a white public defender; and Turk, a white supremacist. When Turk’s wife Brittany is in labor, a note is placed in Ruth’s file that she is not to touch their baby (an event inspired by a news story). The pivotal point of the novel comes the day after the baby is delivered, when the hospital is faced with a personnel shortage and Ruth must stand watch over a baby she’s not supposed to touch after a routine circumcision. When the baby turns blue: Ruth chooses to act, but finds the baby unresponsive. A team is called in and the baby ultimately dies. Seeking revenge, Turk is talked out of suing the hospital. He ends up suing Ruth, who loses her job and the life that she has worked so hard to create. Issues of class and race become more apparent whenever Ruth, who lives in a white neighborhood, interacts with her mother, who is a maid. These same issues arise when Ruth interacts with her sister, who lives in a neighborhood that is largely black. Questions of race and class continue to take center stage after Ruth is fired from her job and she is assigned a public defender named Kennedy, a well-meaning white liberal who wants to help Ruth, but ends up realizing that she herself—and people like her—are part of the problem. In the end, Turk reforms, Kennedy learns a lesson about systemic racism, and Ruth overcomes yet another obstacle to open her own business. While the characters seem somewhat stereotypical and the speeches and plot at the end of the novel are a bit cliché (white people recognize racism and repent) the ethical questions and plot-driven pressure points make this book highly engaging.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “The miracle happened on West Seventy-Fourth Street, in the home where Mama worked. It was a big brownstone encircled by a wrought-iron fence, and overlooking either side of the ornate door were gargoyles, their granite faces carved from my nightmares” (3).
  • “She wore an expression I’ve only seen in paintings and museums, of a love and grief so fierce that they forged together to create some new, raw emotion” (10).
  • “If this man didn’t acknowledge that something truly horrible had happened—or worse, if he kept pretending for the rest of his life that it never had—a hole would open up inside him. Tiny at first, that pit would wear away, bigger and bigger, until one day when he wasn’t expecting it he would realize that he was completely hollow. / When the father first started to cry, the sobs shook his body like a hurricane bends a tree. He sank down beside his wife on the hospital bed, and she put one hand on her husband’s back, and one hand on the crown of her baby’s head” (11).
  • “Turk Bauer makes me think of a power line that’s snapped during a storm, and lies across the road just waiting for something to brush against it so it can shoot sparks” (17).
  • “She cups her hand around our newborn’s head, like we are an electric circuit that’s now complete. Like we could power the world” (28).
  • “With his T-shirt stretched over his shoulders and his chin tilted up, I see so much of his daddy in him that for a moment, I feel like I’ve fallen through time” (49).
  • “Labor is like that—a shared trauma bond, an accelerant that makes relationships stronger” (58).
  • “In the middle of a crisis, time is viscous. You swim through it so slowly you cannot tell if you’re living or reliving each awful moment. You can see your hand doing the work, ministering, as if they do not belong to you. You hear voices climbing a ladder of panic, and it all becomes one deafening, discordant note” (65).
  • “You’d think that the hardest part of an experience like this is the moment the mother gives you her child, but it’s not. Because at that moment, it’s still a child, to her. The hardest part is taking off the little knit hat, the swaddling blanket, the diaper. Zipping him into the body bag. Closing the refrigerator door” (68).
  • “Even when people try to comfort you, you’re aware that now there is a barrier between you and them, made of the horrible thing happened, that keeps you isolated” (97).
  • “I hesitate, and even in that breath, I can feel that this is the linchpin, the moment I will come back to and rub over in my mind until it is so smooth I can’t remember every knot and groove and detail” (107).
  • “I haven’t even had my second cup of coffee yet and I’ve already hustled through far too much traffic and a tangle of reporters, leaving me to wonder what is going on in a superior court in the courtroom where I’m not, since the only reason a TV crew might cover arraignments is to provide a sleep aid for insomniacs” (137).
  • “Ruth begins to weave a story. For every thick, black fact she spins, there’s a silver flicker of shame” (145).
  • “In that moment, we’re not black and white, or attorney and accused. We’re not separated by what I know about the legal system and what she has yet to learn. We are just two mothers sitting side-by-side” (146).
  • “She was referring to one of her favorite quotes: If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way” (173).
  • “I may not have much say here, but I still can make the choice to not be a victim . . . I have spent twenty years seeing how beautiful women are, not because of how they look, but because of what their bodies can withstand” (177).
  • “Once a bleeding heart calluses into realism, victories become individual ones: being able to reunite a mom who’s gone through rehab with her kid, who was put in foster care, winning a motion to suppress evidence of a former addiction that might color the odds for a current client; being able to juggle hundreds of cases and triage those that need more than a meet ‘em and plead ‘em. As it turns out, public defenders are less Superman and more Sisyphus, and there’s no small number of lawyers who wind up crushed under the weight the infinite caseloads and the crappy hours and the shitty pay” (188).
  • “The science of creating another human is remarkable, and no matter how many times I’ve learned about cells and mitosis and neural tubes and all the rest that goes into forming a baby, I can’t help but thing there’s a dash of miracle involved, too” (198).
  • Scandalous. I taste the word, bite into it like a berry, feel it burst” (214).
  • “Pride is an evil dragon; it sleeps underneath your heart and then roars when you need silence” (214).
  • “I try to feel through the chain of our history for the snag, the mend in the links, where we went from being two girls who knew everything about each other—favorite ice cream flavor, favorite New Kids on the Block member, celebrity crush—to two women who knew nothing about how the other lived. Had we drifted apart, or had our closeness been the ruse? Was our familiarity due to friendship, or geography?” (215).
  • “I am struggling to find a way to make him believe that in spite of this, we have to put one foot in front of the other every day and pray it will be better the next time the sun rises. That if our legacy is not entitlement, it must be hope” (234).
  • “And then one day, I just got it: the reason we lose people we care about is so we’re more grateful for the ones we still have. It’s the only possible explanation. Otherwise, God’s a sorry son of a bitch” (241).
  • “When Micah and I went on our honeymoon to Australia, we spent three nights camping in the red center of the country, where the ground was cracked like a parched throat and the night sky looked like a bowl of diamonds that had been upended” (260).
  • “She looks at me and we both laugh, and in that instant we are merely two women, standing over a lasagna, telling the truth. In that instant, with our flaws and confessions trailing like a slip from a dress, we have more in common than we have differences” (283).
  • “I lifted up the covers and Rachel fitted herself to me, her front to my back. We rode out the night like that, like we were Siamese twins, sharing a heart that beat between us” (285).
  • “All of a sudden I’m back in the hospital, doing what I did best, my hand on the shoulder of a woman in labor and my eyes on the screen that monitors her vitals. ‘Inhale,’ I’d order. ‘Exhale. Deep breath in . . . deep breath out.’ And sure enough, the tension would leach out of her. Without the strain, progress could be made” (337).
  • “If the past few months have taught me anything, it’s that friendship is a smoke screen. The people you think are solid turn out to be mirrors and light; and then you look down and realize there are others you took for granted, those who are your foundation” (340).
  • “The room closes in on me, and the muscles of my neck and arms tighten. I feel myself frozen again, mesmerized by the blue marble of the baby’s cheek, the stillness of his small body” (347).
  • “It’s crazy, isn’t it, that you can love a girl so much you can actually create another human being? It’s like rubbing two sticks together and getting fire—all of a sudden there’s something alive and intense there that did not exist a minute before” (383).
  • “We are inches apart. I can feel the heat of her skin; I can see myself reflected in her pupils as she starts to speak again” (408).
  • “But meanwhile, my brain is spinning: What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down to fit?” (411).
  • “For me, danger looks different: it’s whatever can separate me from Violet, from Micah. But no matter what face you put on your own personal bogeyman, it gives you nightmares. It has the power to terrify, and to make you do things you wouldn’t normally think you’d do, all in an effort to stay safe” (413).
  • “I sit in the cafeteria, nursing a cup of coffee, and combing through the tangle of my thoughts” (442).
  • “Freedom is the fragile neck of a daffodil, after the longest of winters. It’s the sound of your voice, without anyone drowning you out. It’s having the grace to say yes, and more important, the right to say no. At the heart of freedom, hope beats: a pulse of possibility” (449).
  • “I tell them this: the part of the brain, physiologically, that allows us to blame everything on people we do not really know is the same part of the brain that allows us to have compassion for strangers” (456).
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“Natural Disasters” by Alexis Schaitkin c. 2019 (pages 271-289 in The Best American Short Stories 2019)

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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

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

 Sentences Worth Studying

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

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

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

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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

 

 

 

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

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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

 

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

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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