As a reader and writer of literary fiction, I find it worthwhile to study sentences. I love the layers and textures present in carefully crafted syntax, the way a single sentence can tilt the axis of the Earth and light the world anew. This blog contains some sentences that have—in structure and content—struck me. Please scroll down for the complete collection of posts.
Copywrite Note: The purpose of this blog is educational and the posts include direct quotations from a very small portion of the larger artistic work. All quotations are clearly attributed. My intention is to celebrate sentences and highlight the work of great writers, all of which should qualify the quoted sentences as “fair use.”
In this complex and cinematic short story, Carla tries to escape her husband (Clark) with the help of her older neighbor (Sylvia, who is a widow). “Runaway” explores questions of self-definition and of unequal power dynamics within relationships.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill” (3).
- “There was no way to avoid the puddles in the path or tall soaked grass alongside it, or the wild carrot which had recently come into flower” (15-16).
- “Back home, having left the note in the mailbox, Sylvia cleaned up the dishes that were still on the table, washed and polished the omelette pan, threw the blue napkins and tablecloth in the laundry basket, and opened the windows. She did this with a confusing sense of regret and irritation” (29).
- “There was enough of a wind blowing to lift the roadside grass, the flowering weeds, out of their drenched clumps. Summer clouds, not rain clouds, were scudding across the sky. The whole countryside was changing, shaking itself loose, into the true brightness of a July day” (31).
- “She recalled now how the sun was coming up behind them, how she looked at Clark’s hands on the wheel, the dark hairs on his competent forearms, and breathed in the smell of the inside of the truck, a smell of oil and metal, tools and horse barns. The old air of the fall morning blew in through the truck’s rusted seams. It was the sort of vehicle that nobody in her family ever rode in, that scarcely ever appeared on the streets where they lived” (32).
- “The fog was there tonight, had been there all this while. But now at one point there was a change. The fog had thickened, taken on a separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then condensing itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, hell-bent, something like a giant unicorn, rushing at them” (39).
In this framed short story that showcases Bass’s dramatic descriptions of nature and human consciousness, the narrator (who is among the few friends to whom Mary Ann has told her story) relays Mary Ann’s adventure with Grey Owl (a dog trainer) and a team of dogs in Canada during winter (twenty years earlier). Motifs of survival and isolation are present in this short tale.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Blue creeping up fissures and cracks from depths of several hundred feet; blue working its way up through the gleaming ribs of Ann’s buried dogs; blue trailing like smoke from the dogs’ empty eye sockets and nostrils—blue rising as if from deep-dug chimneys until it reaches the surface and spreads laterally and becomes entombed, or trapped—but still alive, and drifting—within those moonstruck fields of ice” (163).
- “The storm has knocked out all the power down in town—it’s a clear, cold, starry night, and if you were to climb one of the mountains on snowshoes and look forty miles south toward where town lies, instead of seeing the usual small scatterings of light—like fallen stars, stars sunken to the bottom of a lake, but still glowing—you would see nothing but darkness—a bowl of silence and darkness in balance for once with the mountains up here, rather than opposing or contemplating our darkness, our peace” (163-164).
- “They traveled across snowy hills on snowshoes, the sky the color of snow, so that often it was like moving through dream, and, except for the rasp of the snowshoes beneath them and the pull of gravity, they might have believed they had ascended into some sky-place where all the world was snow” (165-166).
- “All eight of them slept as if in a nest, heads and arms draped across other ribs and hips; and it was, said Ann, the best and deepest sleep she’d ever had—the sleep of hounds, the sleep of childhood” (171).
- “The ice was contracting, groaning and cracking and squeaking up tighter, shrinking beneath the great cold—a concussive, grinding sound, as if giants were walking across the ice above—and it was this sound that awakened them” (172).
- “What would it have looked like, seen from above—the orange blurrings of their wandering trail beneath the ice; and what would the sheet of lake-ice itself have looked like that night—throbbing with ice-bound, subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire? But again, there was no one to view the spectacle: only the travelers themselves, and they had no perspective, no vantage from which to view or judge themselves. They were simply pushing on from one fire to the next, carrying their tiny torches” (173).
- “I suspect that she holds that knowledge—the memory of that one day and night—especially since she is now the sole possessor—as tightly, and securely, as one might clench some bright small gem in one’s fist; not a gem given to one by some favored or beloved individual but, even more valuable, some gem found while out on a walk—perhaps by happenstance, or perhaps by some unavoidable rhythm of fate—and hence containing great magic, great strength” (176).
A reflective story in which a first-person narrator strings together “slices of life” to paint a poignant picture of loss and death and youth and love.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “There are other things besides death to notice, of course, at the beginning of summer, a time notorious for school thoughts rising, and diminishing, in the heat. Just before I hear the news, I’m tanning on my mother’s back deck, facing the yard, the tilting split-rail fence, the maple trees, thick and green—on a clear day, you can see the ocean’s inlet through the branches. I see it now. And there is calm” (213).
- “Maybe it’s because I know I will never know him again that I cling to what I remember and form something more, a sculpture of a new Sam. Before I met him, his existence was formed by rumor anyway. The girls in my class said he was hot. The boys said he was cool. Somehow they’d caught glimpses, gleaned information—but when?” (214).
- “As the body moved quickly, the mind slowly drained. I ran until I was empty, which took much speed and time . . . Maybe it was the endorphins, but those short moments just after a run would expand so beautifully. With my body doubled over and my hands on my kneecaps, I’d look up at the sky and breathe deep; there was just the cool wind on my cheeks. I felt it as the waking of my former self, brushing past before dying down” (217).
- “I will be a runner forever, I said to myself one day, in a just a flash of one of those moments—doubled over in hot breath, my hands on my knees, looking up at the sky; my lungs were tight, and I inhaled. I liked it that way, how after running really hard it felt like inhaling the whole world, a globe in the throat” (218).
- “The wells of memory from which we drew were shallow; moments in time floated like leaves upon still water” (220).
- “Everything behind the glass shrank into its infant form, as though being funneled backwards in time: the pond became a puddle, the dogs became puppies, and the horses were ponies; the weeping willows diminished to weeds; and a man who was our father, a man who sometimes hit our mother in the eyes, was just a boy, miniaturized by space between us that grew until he was gone” (222).
- “I let the skin of my fingertips blister, heal, callus, and strengthen against steel wires that, if I wrangle them right, if I practice enough, I know I can translate how I feel in my soul to the world outside” (229).
- “This is why he wanted to close the door; he didn’t want to ruin the surprise. I am sixty percent disappointed he was never intending to make out, and forty percent eager to learn how to juggle” (234).
- “We will not all be millionaires. We will not all win. We all fall out of touch, when, after I begin high school, my father makes a decision. We will never know if it was lucid or manic. What we know is he lifted a revolver to this mouth with his right hand, cocked the hammer, pulled the trigger, and pulverized the place where thoughts come from” (235).
- “A part of me comes alive, but it doesn’t reach the part of me that moves my body, changes my expression, or pushes me to speak. The glow in my heart is too low to spark my brain” (237).
In this captivating short story, the protagonist Hollingsworth suffers from his own isolation and seeks to subdue and control the two other major characters in the story: his father Buzbee (who is a virile seventy-seven-year-old man who lives in the wilderness) and Jesse, an elite cyclist that takes a break from riding and loses his edge, much to the delight of Hollingsworth. What’s most interesting about the story is the sympathy that the protagonist generates and the way in which the reader is forced to reconsider his/her earlier feelings about Hollingsworth.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Hollingsworth had called in to Crystal Springs and had the asphalt truck come out and grade and level his gravel, pour hot slick tar down over it, and smooth it out: it cooled slowly and was beautiful, almost iridescent, like a black snake in the bright green grass; it glowed its way across the yard as if it were made of glass, a path straight to the store, coming in off the road. It beckoned” (50).
- “He didn’t use a stopwatch the way other cyclists did, but he knew he was getting faster, because just recently he had gotten the quiet, almost silent sensation—just a soft hushing—of falling, the one that athletes, and sometimes other people, get when they push deeper and deep into their sport, until—like pushing through one final restraining layer of tissue, the last and thinnest, easiest one—they are falling, slowly, and there is nothing left in their life to stop them, no work is necessary, things are just happening, and they suddenly have all the time in the world to perfect their sport, because that’s all there is, one day, finally” (52).
- “He kept a fire going continuously, to keep the mosquitoes away, and as he caught more and more of the big fish, he hung them from the branches in his clearing, looped vine through their huge jaws and hung them like villains in his little clearing, like the most ancient of burial grounds; all these vertical fish, out of the water, mouths gaping in silent death, as if preparing to ascend: they were all pointing up” (55).
- “The moon came down through the bare limbs of the swamp-rotted ghost trees, skeleton-white, disease-killed, but as he got higher above the swamp and closer to the town, near daylight, the water moved faster, had some circulation, and the mosquitoes were not a threat” (56).
- “Buzbee had a knife in one hand and a sharpened stick in the other, and he almost wished there would be an attack, so that he could be a hero” (65).
- “Part of him [Jesse] wanted to be as he had been, briefly: iron, and fast, racing with the fastest people in the world, it seemed—he couldn’t remember anything about them, only the blaze and rip of their speed, the whish-whish cutting sound they made, as a pack, tucking and sailing down around corners—but also, he was tired of that, and it felt good to be away from it, for just a little while” (67).
- “Moths fell down off the porch light’s bulb, brushed his [Jesse’s] shoulders, landed on the pages of his book, spun, and flew off, leaving traces of magic. And the wind began to stir harder. Stars were all above him, and they glittered and flashed in the wind. They seemed to be challenging him, daring him to see what was true” (79).
Despite its magical elements—secret doors as portals to other countries—this novel strikes the reader as a real and very relevant commentary on xenophobia, violence, and the refugee crisis. While addressing these weighty issues, Hamid also manages to write a moving love story, as he focuses on the evolution of two characters: Saeed and Nadia as they flee an unnamed location—traveling first to Greece, then to England, ending up in Marin, CA—when the novel ends.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days” (3).
- “Saeed’s mother had the commanding air of a schoolteacher, which she formerly was, and his father the slightly lost bearing of a university professor, which he continued to be—though on reduced wages, for he was past the official retirement age and had been forced to seek out visiting faculty work” (10).
- “Refugees had occupied many of the open places in the city, pitching tents in the greenbelts between roads, erecting lean-tos next to the boundary walls of houses, sleeping rough on sidewalks and in the margins of streets” (26).
- “So he was unprepared for the feeling of awe that came over him, the wonder with which he then regarded his own skin, and the lemon tree it its clay pot on Nadia’s terrace, as tall as he was, and rooted in its soil, which was in turn rooted in the clay of the pot, which rested upon the brick of the terrace, which was like the mountaintop of this building, which was growing from the earth itself, and from this earthy mountain the lemon tree was reaching up, up, in a gesture so beautiful that Saeed was filled with love, and reminded of his parents, for whom he suddenly felt such gratitude, and a desire for peace, that peace should come for them all, for everyone, for everything, for we are so fragile, and so beautiful, and surely conflicts could be healed if others had experiences like this, and then he regarded Nadia and saw that she was regarding him and her eyes were like worlds” (46-47).
- “Deprived of the portals to each other and to the world provided by their mobile phones, and confined to their apartments by the nighttime curfew, Nadia and Saeed, and countless others, felt marooned and alone and much more afraid” (57).
- “One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come” (71).
- “Saeed prayed a great deal, and so did his father, and so did their guests, and some of them wept, but Saeed had wept only once, when he first saw his mother’s corpse and screamed, and Saeed’s father wept only when he was alone in his room, silently, without tears, his body seized as though by a stutter, or a shiver, that would not let go, for his sense of loss was boundless, and his sense of the benevolence of the universe was shaken, and his wife had been his best friend” (80).
- “They were dressed in accordance with the rules on dress and he was bearded in accordance with the rules on beards and her hair was hidden in accordance with the rules on hair, but they stayed in the margins of the roads, in the shadows as much as possible, trying not to be seen while trying not to look like they were trying not to be seen” (88).
- “Saeed desperately wanted to leave his city, in a sense he always had, but in his imagination he had thought he would leave it only temporarily, intermittently, never once and for all, and this looming potential departure was altogether different, for he doubted he would come back, and the scattering of his extended family and his circle of friends and acquaintances, forever, struck him as deeply sad, as amounting to the loss of a home, no less, of his home” (94).
- “But Saeed’s father was thinking also of the future, even though he did not say this to Saeed, for he feared that if he said this to his son that his son might not go, and he knew above all else that his son must go, and what he did not say was that he had come to that point in a parent’s life when, if a flood arrives, one knows one must let go of one’s child, contrary to all the instincts one had when one was younger, because holding on can no longer offer the child protection, it can only pull the child down, and threaten them with drowning, for the child is now stronger than the parent, and the circumstances are such that the utmost of strength is required, and the arc of a child’s life only appears for a while to match the arc of a parent’s, in reality one sits atop the other, a hill atop a hill, a curve atop a curve, and Saeed’s father’s arc now needed to curve lower, while his son’s still curved higher, for with an old man hampering them these two young people were simply less likely to survive” (96).
- “It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side, trembling and too spent at first to stand, and she thought, while she strained to fill her lungs, that this dampness must be her own sweat” (104).
- “Saeed and Nadia knew what the buildup to conflict felt like, and so the feeling that hung over London in those days was not new to them, and they faced it not with bravery, exactly, and not with panic either, not mostly, but instead with a resignation shot through with moments of tension, with tension ebbing and flowing, and when the tension receded there was calm, the calm that is called the calm before the storm, but is in reality the foundation of a human life, waiting there for us between the steps of our march to our mortality, when we are compelled to pause and not act but be” (138).
- “She came and went unruffled through the crowded rooms and passages, unruffled except by a fast-talking Nigerian woman her own age, a woman with a leather jacket and a chipped tooth, who stood like a gunslinger, with hips open and belt loose and hands at her sides, and spared no one from her verbal lashings, from her comments that would follow you even as you passed her and left her behind” (149).
- “A thriving trade in electricity was underway in dark London, run by those who lived in pockets with power, and Saeed and Nadia were able to recharge their phones from time to time, and if they walked at the edges of their locality they could pick up a strong signal, and like so many others they caught up with the world this way, and once as Nadia sat on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone across the street from a detachment of troops and a tank she thought she saw an online photograph of herself sitting on the steps of a building reading the news on her phone across the street from a detachment of troops and a tank, and she was startled, and wondered how this could be, how she could both read the news and be the news, and how this newspaper could’ve published this image of her instantaneously, and she looked about for a photographer, and she had the bizarre feeling of time bending all around her, as though she was from the past reading about the future, or from the future reading about the past, and she almost felt that if she got up and walked home at this moment there would be two Nadias, that she would be split into two Nadias, and one would stay on the steps reading and one would walk home, and two different lives would unfold for these two different selves, and she thought she was losing her balance, or possibly her mind, and then she zoomed in on the image and saw that the woman in the black robe reading the news on her phone was actually not her at all” (157-158).
- “Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us” (186).
- “When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to, and it was so important to express it, and somehow he was able to express it to the preacher’s daughter, the first time they had a proper conversation, at a small ceremony he happened upon after work, which turned out to be a remembrance for her mother, who had been from Saeed’s country, and was prayed for communally on each anniversary of her death, and her daughter, who was also the preacher’s daughter, said to Saeed, who was standing near her, so tell me about my mother’s country, and when Saeed spoke he did not mean to but he spoke of his own mother, and he spoke for a long time, and the preacher’s daughter spoke for a long time, and when they finished speaking it was already late at night” (202-203).
- “We are all migrants through time” (209).
- “All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields, and slipping away from Saeed, and Saeed from Nadia” (213).
This short story centers on the random events that impact the protagonist Freeman Gottschall, who was a student of the famed Edward Lorenz, known in popular culture for chaos theory and the “butterfly effect.” Although the story is short, it nevertheless references big themes such as the theodicy problem, determinism, mental illness, and interconnected systems (to name just a few). The plot, which is wonderfully absurd, consists of events that depict Freeman trying to understand causation, make sense of the 9/11 attacks, save his dog, recover from his divorce, and reunite with his daughter.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “He jumped at the sound of the splintering and began to act with the frenzy of an ambushed soldier at the realization that a bullet had just whizzed by, near his head; although he would consider, during calmer moments, that bullets do not announce themselves except at the report of the firearm. There is only origin and termination; alpha and omega; initial condition and future event, depending on which terms we wish to use to couch it” (153).
- “He drove like a drunkard, not that he was especially erratic, but his mind was occupied with tasks other than driving, which was something his brain controlled with little effort, leaving him space for daydreaming: attention drifts elsewhere, tasks at hand dissolve into broadly swept reality, which to the daydreamer seems a finely manicured dream” (154).
- “As natural catastrophe to the Vatican or animal instinct to the fortune teller, a truly random event is to the mathematician potentially damning—or it is to one of Freeman’s stripe: he the student of Ed Lorenz, he the researcher of chaos, he the mapper of double pendulums. Sometimes he dreamed of those long nights in his office searching for exactitude, for explanations, for a certain largesse provided by the abstract and theoretical equations, but he discovered only paranoia. His equations suffered from too much noise” (156).
- “Dr. Ojo Spectral spent a good deal of time attempting to diagnose Freeman, and at great length had failed to arrive at any definitive clinical category that could contain his wild brain” (157).
- “He spoke slowly and his voice sounded to Freeman like America: made of gravel and lubricated with whiskey” (159).
- “Against Dr. Spectral’s advice, which slithered through his mind—an electric eel through a dark ocean, presenting itself here and there—Freeman spoke. ‘Well, what if what they call God is just a genesis, and what they call ordination is just a natural flowing of events, and nothing happens that hasn’t been set down since, say, the Big Bang?” (160).
- “When she showed him her feelings, he felt that she was extending him small gifts of trust, little treasures held out on her dainty hands that he stored away, brought to mind when she was colder to him, little pieces of hope for him to hold away, to revisit, as though these moments were letters written from some faraway place” (169).
- “The news program recounted the recovery of the body of a priest who had given last rights to a dying firefighter only seconds before he met his own death, being crushed by the falling body of a man who’d decided to hurry his fate” (174).
- “During the drive, Freeman saw a man walking near a strip mall, crying for no obvious reason. It was as if sadness had been distilled into a liquid and the reservoirs filled with it, flowing from water mains into faucets, ice makers, shower heads, garden hoses, making everyone drunk on sorrow, causing men and women to walk slowly, deliberately, viewing every piece of their lives through the lens of the week’s earlier tragedy” (175-176).
Set primarily in NYC during the subprime mortgage crisis, Mbue deftly shows the intersecting stories of two very different families: the Edwards and the Jongas. The Edwards are stoic Americans who want to maintain their lifestyle and keep up appearances. The Jongas are passionate Cameroonians who are seeking opportunity and upward mobility in the States. Questions concerning value(s)—both monetary and moral—are central to this novel. Both families and both countries are depicted in complicated and even contradictory ways, which is what makes the novel seem more realistic than didactic. Both Clark Edwards and Jende Jonga (whose biggest break comes when he becomes Edward’s chauffeur) are hardworking men who want to provide for their families, yet both men misread their wives’ (Neni and Cindy) emotional states on numerous occasions. In the end, after Clark loses his job and Jende faces deportation, it is the women who assert themselves and take the most dramatic action.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “These days she sang more than she had in her entire life. She sang when she ironed Jende’s shirts and when she walked home after dropping Liomi off at school. She sang as she applied lipstick to head out with Jende and Liomi to an African party: a naming ceremony in Brooklyn; a traditional wedding in the Bronx; a death celebration in Yonkers for someone who had died in Africa and whom practically none of the guests knew; a party for one reason or another that she’d been invited to by a friend from school or work, someone who knew the host and who assured her that it was okay to attend, since most African people didn’t care about fancy white-people ideas like attendance by invitation only. She sang walking to the subway and even sang in the Pathmark, caring nothing about the looks she got from people who couldn’t understand why someone could be so happy to go grocery shopping” (31).
- “The silence in the apartment was like a celestial choir, the perfect background music to her study time—no one to disturb her, interrupt her, ask her to help do this or please come over right now. No sound but the faint noises of Harlem in the nighttime” (53).
- “He looked out the window at the people walking on Amsterdam Avenue. None of them seemed concerned that the day might be one of his last in America. Some of them were laughing” (60).
- “She dragged herself through the city, from work to school, to home, because she needed to carry on as if nothing had changed, as if their lives hadn’t just been opened up to unravelment. She couldn’t summon a smile, sing a song, or string together two thoughts without the word ‘deportation’ finding its way in there, and yet she propelled herself forward the morning after the news, dressed in pink scrubs and white sneakers for a long day of work, an overloaded backpack strapped on her shoulders so she could study at work while the client slept” (62).
- “Most people were sticking to their own kind. Even in New York City, even in a place of many nations and cultures, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, preferred their kind when it came to those they kept closest” (95).
- “The city that summer overflowed with the hot and thirsty: panting on subway platforms, battling the sun with wide hats and light clothes, rushing to scaffoldings for shade, dashing into department stores not for the sales advertised on windows but for the AC” (108).
- “From the moment they shook hands in the portico until Cindy left for her dinner, the madam was enveloped in an air of superiority, standing tall and keeping her shoulders back as she walked in long strides, slowly enunciating every word when she spoke, as if she had the right to take as much of the listener’s time as she wished” (115).
- “Both men were silent again as the car crawled through the midtown madness of tourist shoppers and harried commuters and street vendors and city buses and yellow cabs and black cars and children in strollers and messengers on bikes, and too much of everything” (205).
- “After a shower and a dinner of Chinese leftovers, he had sat by the window in the common area, wrapped in his twin comforter and looking outside: at the weather so dull; at the people so colorlessly dressed; at the happy day slipping away so quickly and crushing him with longing” (240).
- “She wanted to say that in spite of their circumstances, they should be happy because there was so much happiness in the world and because all of humanity was one. She wanted to say all this and more, but couldn’t, because she wasn’t sure if she believed it” (254).
- “Gone were the moments of tender embraces in the kitchen, minutes of stolen passion in the bathroom while the children slept. They were now in two separate universes, each certain of his or her rightness and the other’s senselessness” (332).
- “He would never become an American Wonder, one of those mbutukus who went to America and upon their return home spoke with laughable American accents, spraying ‘wannas’ and ‘gonnas’ all over sentences. They strutted around town wearing suits and cowboy boots and baseball caps, claiming to understand very little of Cameroonian culture because they were now too American” (355).
- “In Limbe, Liomi and Timba would have many things they would not have had in America, but they would lose far too many things. / They would lose the opportunity to grow up in a magnificent land of uninhibited dreamers” (361).
- “On the cab ride to the airport, she stared out the window in silence. It was all passing her by. New York City was passing her by. Bridges and billboards bearing smiling people were passing her by. Skyscrapers and brownstones were rushing by. Fast. Too fast. Forever” (379).