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

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

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Where were the cops? The ambulances? Still, he heard no sirens. But the running did him good. With each stride he felt his anger dissipating like dust beaten from a carpet” (2).
  • “Just up ahead, an aluminum guardrail along the side of the road opened up into a path, and he took it, walking carefully down an embankment where a trail ran into the park. He’d crossed into the park before, using stepping-stones to traverse a small tributary. Now the stones were dry” (6).
  • “He got the sense that the stars were swirling toward a single point, as if going down a drain—that even the air resting on his face was pulling in that direction” (18).
  • “Eddie made it to the far lane and saw on the asphalt the green diamonds of shattered glass. A minivan had its windshield spiderwebbed from a blow to the passenger’s side. He understood that the world could mirror the inside of his mind—that there were enough broken pieces and enough whole pieces to exhaust his racing thoughts” (30).
  • “He walked back to the street and stretched his shoulders looking up into the night sky. It was not hard to imagine that he was lost between the reflection of the stars and the concrete beneath his feet—though whether he’d projected himself into space, or had cast itself down on him, was not as clear” (69).
  • “He could feel the ash on his body where he hadn’t been able to wipe it away. When he ran a fingernail across his eyelid, it was filmy. He was falling asleep, too, and sleep came softly and soundlessly. The ash had filled his ears. He was walking through it in the cold” (76-77).
  • “Staying low, he took the bat and crept to the back of the house. The air around him was as taut as the skin of a balloon, and it made his breathing shallow” (107).
  • “She began to sing. She had a low, somber voice, and when she used it with any seriousness, it could make Eddie weak. Her previous life apart from him was still so mysterious—a childhood he could never really know, textures he could only touch the surface of. The singing brought it out of her somehow” (115).
  • “He walked upstairs with a spike of pain in his head, and when he opened the door, the heat draped around him like a blanket. The street was empty, and he ran to the end of it. Then he ran back in the other direction. He ran on past the bigger homes, closer to Route 29—the homes of lawyers and doctors, maybe. He went up walkways and pounded on doors, which no one answered” (151).
  • “She was not who she’d been the week before. She was his wife, yes, but she was also someone else, and Eddie was afraid—for the first time—that he was already gone” (162).
  • “When he shut his eyes he could feel the asphalt beneath his shoes, could feel himself running through the night—that old buoyant joy of sprinting through late-summer streets” (179).
  • “He felt things. Tremors, currents—an incubating heat. It filled him up, just touching her like that. On the other side of this, they would be a family” (204).
  • “He couldn’t move. If he moved, they would see. She was almost invisible on her own. The air around him tightened like a rope being pulled. A shout was rising in his chest and made a pressure in his throat he could barely keep within” (227).
  • “The woods were like a fresh and blacker night to step inside. The group of voices softened behind them. There were words, but they had no edges” (228).
  • “Through the trees, Eddie watched the sky slide down like a patch of oil. It was amber at the horizon. Black shadows swam through the limbs and gave the impression of people running” (244).
  • “When he woke, he was in another part of the woods. The dark swirled around him like hot oil, scalding his imagination. He would die here, he thought. Or he was dead already” (251).
  • “He lay on his back and, without the trees obstructing, he could see the sky. It had the weight of thickening custard, as if the days were no longer repeating infinitely, but getting older—and that today was of a denser quality than the last” (253).
  • “Points of light began to strike the inside of his skull like static against a screen. His skin was alive with itch, and when he scraped his nails along his arm, he thought he’d rip it open” (274).
  • “Something had extinguished deep inside him, and he felt the hiss in the looseness of his mind, saw steam floating in thin gray columns that flattened and broke and disappeared along the horizon” (277).
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Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran c. 2013 (228 pages—Penguin Books)

  • Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means” (NY Times Book Review)
  • William Goldman qtd. by David Baldacci: “Write everything as if it’s the first thing you ever wrote. The day you think you know how to do it is the day you’re done as a writer” (22).
  • Sue Grafton: “Writing is my anchor and my purpose. My life is informed by writing . . .” (52).
  • Kathryn Harrison: “Before there were thumb drives, I always carried the hard copy of what I was working on with me. I couldn’t leave the house without it. If the house burned down, I thought, I still have this. This is really where I live” (73).
  • Sebastian Junger: “I’ve tried to figure out what good writing is. I know it when I read it . . . The closet I’ve come is that there’s a rhythm to the writing, in the sentence and the paragraph. / When the rhythm’s off, it’s hard to read the thing. It’s a lot like music in that sense; there’s and internal rhythm that does the work of reading for you. That’s one of the things that’s hard to teach to people” (103).
  • Mary Karr: “Most great writers suffer and have no idea how good they are. Most bad writers are very confident. Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver, the bat girl in Yankee Stadium. That’s a more fruitful way to be” (114).
  • Michael Lewis: “They paid ninety bucks per piece. It cost money to write for the Economist. I didn’t know how I was ever going to make a living at writing, but I felt encouraged. Luckily, I was delusional. I didn’t know that I didn’t have much of an audience, so I kept doing it” (119).
  • Armistead Maupin: “I write to explain myself. It’s a way of processing my disasters, sorting out the messiness of life to lend symmetry and meaning to it” (130).
  • Terry McMillan: “Writing is about the only way (besides praying) that allows me to be compassionate toward folks who, in real life, I’m probably not that sympathetic toward” (139).
  • Rick Moody: “My reason [for writing] is mainly neurotic, I suspect: I am never really comfortable speaking, and writing allows me the time and serenity to make better what I cannot do in speech. It’s a peaceful and cloistered space, the page, where I don’t feel pressured the way I do in the world” (155).
  • Walter Mosley: “Don’t expect to write a first draft like a book you read and loved. What you don’t see when you read a published book is the twenty or thirty drafts that happened before it got published” (170).
  • Susan Orlean: Writing “is private. The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. A lot happens invisibly” (175).
  • Jodi Picoult: “Write even when you don’t feel like writing. There is no muse. It’s hard work. You can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page” (202).
  • Meg Wolitzer: “Lyricism can break sentences into shining, separate, discrete objects, and that can either contribute to your work’s power or merely make the prose feel pretty, writerly, and admirable, but lacking in force. My trip to Vienna [as research for a novel involving Freud’s patient Dora] ended up as a single paragraph in my next novel after I dropped Dora and her world. Everything makes a good soup, eventually, even if in a totally unrecognizable form” (225).
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“Ghosts and Empties” by Lauren Groff c. 2018 (pages 1-14 in Florida)

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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

NOTE: This summary contains spoilers.

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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


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