*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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“The Nanny” by Emma Cline c. 2020 (pages 78-93 in The Best American Short Stories 2020)

A short story about a nanny who has an affair with a married celebrity. Author Emma Cline states, “Kayla is desperate to avoid being seen as a victim, to forestall pity or self-reflection by any means necessary, even if that means rebuffing actual kindness and connection. Tabloid dramas often have a built-in moral code, like modern-day fairy tales: the nanny as the evil interloper, the wife as the wronged queen, the husband as the hapless and pitiable oaf. They act, in their weird way, as parables, tales of who we think life should go and what should happen to people who deviate. I wanted Kayla’s character to resist being taught a lesson, resist the collective moral read of the situation—she might feel differently later on, but for now, Kayla is trying hard to leach this experience of meaning, even as if radically reshapes her life” (352).

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “She searched Rafe’s name, searched her own. The numbers had grown. Such nightmarish math, the frenzied tripling of results, and how strange to see her name like this, stuffing page after page, appearing in the midst of even foreign languages, hovering above photos of Rafe’s familiar face. Before Tuesday there had been hardly any record of Kayla: an old fundraising page from Students for a Free Tibet, a blog run by a second cousin with photos from a long-ago family reunion, teenage Kayla, mouth full of braces, holding up a paper plate bent with barbeque. Her mother had called the cousin and asked her to take the photo down, but by then it had passed into the amber of the Internet” (78-79).
  • “Mary, with her loose linen shirts, her silver oxfords, was the kind of older woman that younger girls were always saying they wanted to be like. Mary, with the great house up in the canyon, all the seventies wood left untouched. She probably let her teenage son call her by her first name. Kayla understood that Mary was a nice person without really believing it: Mary irritated her” (80).
  • “The surfing posters on every wall showed men, pink-nippled and tan, on boards in the middle of huge, almost translucent waves. The posters were like porn about the color blue. / Still nothing from Rafe. What to do but continue to exist? A sense of unreality thrummed under each second, a panic not altogether unpleasant. She found herself testing the wording, imagining how she would characterize the feeling to Rafe if he called. She felt proud of the phrase ‘It’s like I’ve been plucked out of my own life’” (80).
  • “She could hear, from the living room, the sounds of the documentary, the swell of Mongolian music gaining in urgency. She would bet anything that Mary was tearing up right now, overcome by the sight of a soaring falcon or a close-up of an old man’s hands, wind whipping across a Mongolian plain” (81).
  • “She was bent close to Jessica’s face: her skin lightly tanned, her hair almost the same color, her features so tiny and symmetrical that Kayla could hardly look away, absorbed in the seamlessness of Jessica’s beauty. Kayla felt a curious elation, a giddy feeling—how much time she had wasted trying to be beautiful, when it was obvious, now, how impossible that was. The knowledge was almost a relief” (82).
  • “In the empty house, sometimes she felt as though she were a ghost floating through the world of the living. It was strange to walk through the rooms, open the closets, touch the hanging dresses, Rafe’s pants, sweaters folded with tissue paper” (83).
  • “She’d studied art history. Her fist class, when Professor Hunnison turned out the lights and they all sat in the dark—they were eighteen most of them, still children, still kids who had slept at home all their lives. Then the whir of the projector, and on the screen appeared hovering portals of light and color, squares of beauty. It was like a kind of magic, she had thought back then, when thoughts like that didn’t feel embarrassing” (83).
  • “Kayla napped in her cool room under the mosquito netting that made everything look shrouded in smoke. The first few days she felt fine, but Kayla had a delayed reaction to the required vaccines, the whites of her eyes going milky, dreams leaking into her waking life” (85-86).
  • “The crew didn’t like talking to her anymore. That should have been the first sign. People had an animal instinct for power, could sense her usefulness was at its end” (87).
  • “The pool was still and gave off a floodlit shimmer. No one was around. The hills were a dark mass, occasionally marked with houses. Kayla could smell the earth cooling, the clumpy chaparral that rimmed the pool, the sound of a fountain she couldn’t see” (89).
  • “Dennis scanned Kayla’s face, her eyes, her mouth, and she could tell he was seeing what he wanted to see, finding confirmation of whatever redemptive story he’d told himself about who he was. Dennis looked sad. He looked tired and sad and old. And the thing was, some she would be old too. Her body would go. Her face. And then what? She knew already that she wouldn’t handle it well. She was a vain, silly girl. She wasn’t good at anything” (92).
  • “No use feeling bad. There wasn’t anything to learn. Kayla smiled, sucked in her stomach, just in case—because who knew? Maybe there was a photographer hidden out there in the darkness, someone who’d been watching her, who followed her here, someone who had waited, patiently, for her to appear” (93).
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“The Apartment” by T.C. Boyle c. 2020 (pages 19-36 in The Best American Short Stories 2020)

A story about a man who seeks a bigger living space for his family and agrees to rent an apartment from an old woman with no family. As part of the agreement, the man will assume ownership of the apartment after the old woman dies. The woman, however, defies expectations outlives the man. Author T.C. Boyle shares his inspiration for the story, “Madame Calment was the longest-lived human being in recorded history, having continued to live, breathe, and pump blood into her one hundred and twenty-third year. What would it be like, I wondered, to live that long? Would it be a burden or a daily revivifying challenge to beat the odds, especially as one competitor or another shuffled off the mortal coil? The historical figure of Jeanne Calment, by virtue of her astonishing longevity, has already morphed into the mythological, and it was that mythological status I wanted to explore” (350).

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Who was to know? She might have outlived most of her contemporaries, but she was so slight and small, almost a dwarf, really, her eyesight compromised and her hearing fading, and if she lived a year of two more, it would have been by the grace of God alone. Yes, she was lively enough, even at ninety, wobbling down the street on her bicycle like some atrophied schoolgirl and twice a week donning her epee mask and fencing with her shadow in the salon of her second-floor apartment, overlooking rue Gambetta on the one side and rue Saint-Esteve on the other, but his own mother had been lively too, and she’d gone to bed on the night of her seventy-second birthday and never opened her eyes again” (19).
  • “She hosted musical parties, vacationed in the Alps, skied, bicycled, hunted and fished, lived through the German occupation and the redemption of the Republic without noticing all that much difference in her daily affairs, but of course no one gets through life unscathed” (22).
  • “Three days later, when the sun was shining in all its power again and everything was sparkling as if the world had been created anew, he was hurrying down the street on an errand, a furtive cigarette cupped in one palm—yes, yes, he knew, and he wouldn’t lie to his doctor, next time he saw him, or maybe he would, but there was really no harm in having a cigarette every once in a while, or a drink either—when a figure picked itself out of the crowd ahead and wheeled toward him on a bicycle, knees slowly pumping, back straight and arms braced, and it wasn’t until she passed by, so close he could have touched her, that he realized who it was” (28).
  • “When she turned 110, she was introduced to the term supercentenarian, the meaning of which the newspaper helpfully provided—that is, one who is a decade or more older than a mere centenarian, who, if you searched all of France (or Europe, America, the world), were a dime a dozen these days. Her eyes were too far gone to read anymore, but Martine, who’d recently turned seventy herself, put on her glasses and read the article aloud to her. She learned that the chances of reaching that threshold were one in seven million, which meant that for her to be alive still, 6,999,999 had died, which was a kind of holocaust in itself. And how did that make her feel? Exhausted. But indomitable too. And she still had possession of her apartment and still received her contractual payment of twenty-five hundred francs per month” (33).
  • “Whole years had gone by during which he’d daily envisioned her death—plotted it, even. He dreamed of poisoning her wine, pushing her down the stairs, sitting in her bird-shell lap and crushing her like an egg, all eighty-eight pounds of her, but of course, because he was civilized, he never acted on his fantasies. In truth, he’d lost contact with her over the course of the years, accepting her for what she was—a fact of nature, like the sun that rose in the morning and the moon that rose at night—and he was doing his best to ignore all mention of her. She’d made him the butt of a joke, and a cruel joke at that. He’d attended her 110th birthday, and then the one four years later, after she’d become the world’s oldest living human, but Marie-Therese had been furious (about that and practically everything else in their lives), and both his daughters had informed him he was making a public spectacle of himself, and so, finally, he’d declared himself hors de combat” (35).
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The Silence by Don DeLillo c. 2020 (116 pages—Scribner)

A Kafkaesque novella set in 2022 (penned shorty before the emergence of COVID-19). The story focuses on a group of friends convening to watch a football game, only to find their plans disrupted when a mysterious event causes all connected devices to crash. DeLillo’s prose is muscular and moody, but the plot remains underdeveloped and the ending is open.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “‘Did you sneak a look at your phone?’ / ‘You know how these things happen.’ / ‘They come swimming out of deep memory. And when the man’s first name comes your way, I will begin to feel the pressure.’ / ‘What pressure?’ / ‘To produce Mr. Fahrenheit’s first name.’ / She said, ‘Go back to your sky-high screen.’ / ‘This flight. All the long flights. All the hours. Deeper than boredom.’ / ‘Activate your tablet. Watch a movie’” (6).
  • “Here, in the air, much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of some automated process, remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself. None of the ramblings of people in rooms, in restaurants, where major motion is stilled by gravity, talk-free floating. All these hours over oceans or vast landmasses, sentences trimmed, sort of self-encased, passengers, pilots, cabin attendants, every word forgotten the moment the plane sets down on the tarmac and begins to taxi endlessly toward an unoccupied jetway” (7).
  • “She found this satisfying. Came out of nowhere. There is almost nothing left of nowhere. When a missing fact emerges without digital assistance each person announces it to the other while looking off into a remote distance, the otherworld of what was known and lost” (14-15).
  • “Martin was always on time, neatly dressed, clean shaven, living alone in the Bronx where he taught high school physics and walked the streets unseen. It was a charter school, gifted students, and he was their semi-eccentric guide into the dense wonders of their subject” (22).
  • “‘In class you quoted footnotes. You vanished into footnotes. Einstein, Heisenberg, Godel. Relativity, uncertainty, incompleteness. I am foolishly trying to imagine all the rooms in all the cities where the game is being broadcast. All the people watching intently or sitting as we are, puzzled, abandoned by science, technology, common sense’” (29).
  • “There were others crammed into the vehicle, two flight attendants, a man talking to himself in French, a man talking to his phone, shaking it, cursing it. Others, moaning. Still others, quiet, trying to retrieve what had happened, who they were” (37).
  • “His wife drank wine but only with dinner, not with football” (42).
  • “In one gallery tourists with headsets, motionless, lives suspended, looking up at the painted figure on the ceiling, angels, saints, Jesus in his garments, his raiment. / She spoke enthusiastically, head back, a momentary guide” (44).
  • “The young man looked at the woman, the wife, the former professor, the friend, who found nothing, anywhere, to look at” (45).
  • “‘Everyone I’ve seen today has a story. You two are the plane crash. Others are the abandoned subway, the stalled elevators, then the empty office buildings, the barricaded storefronts. I tell them that we are here for injured people. I am not here to dispense advice concerning the current situation. What is the current situation?’” (59).
  • “‘The more advanced, the more vulnerable. Our systems of surveillance, our facial recognition devices, our imagery resolution. How do we know who we are? We know it’s getting cold in here. What happens when we have to leave? No light, no heat’” (61).
  • “‘The semi-darkness. It’s somewhere in the mass mind,’ Martin said. ‘The pause, the sense of having experienced this before. Some kind of natural breakdown or foreign intrusion. A cautionary sense that we inherit from our grandparents or great-grandparents or back beyond. People in the grip of serious threat’” (65).
  • “He made a gesture, strange for such an individual, the action in slow motion of a player throwing a football, body poised, left arm thrust forward, providing balance, right arm set back, hand gripping football” (67).
  • “‘Has time leaped forward, as our young man says, or has it collapsed? And will people in the streets become flash mobs, running wild, breaking and entering, everywhere, planet-wide, rejecting the past, completely unmoored from all the habits and patterns’” (87).
  • “Be serious. Be here. Or what about somewhere nearby, the bedroom. They’ve had near-death, they’ve had sex, they need sleep, and she looks at Jim, leaning her head just slightly toward the hallway” (91).
  • “Names of countries keep rolling through his mind and people are trying to talk to him and to each other and he thinks of his daughter with two kids and a husband in Boston and the other daughter traveling somewhere and for one strange and compressed and claustrophobic moment he forgets their names” (98).
  • “We were headed in this direction. No more wonder, no more curiosity. Totally impaired orientation. Too much of everything from too narrow a source code” (105).
  • “‘I write, I think, I advise, I stare into space. Is it natural at a time like this to be thinking and talking in philosophical terms as some of us have been doing? Or should we be practical? Food, shelter, friends, flush the toilet if we can? Tend to the simplest physical things. Touch, feel, bite, chew. The body has a mind of its own’” (113).
  • “‘Face in the mirror. Granular surveillance. Techdome. Two-factor verification. Gateway tracking. I can’t help myself. The terms surround me. I try to think sometimes in a prehistoric context. A flagstone image, a cave drawing. All these grainy shreds of our long human memory’” (115).  
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Flight by Sherman Alexie c. 2007 (181 pages—Black Cat)

The story of how a marginalized and dislocated fifteen-year-old searches for a home and a code of ethics to inform his choices. After being radicalized and called to violence by a white boy named Justice, the protagonist of this novel, an orphan nicknamed “Zits,” is transported into other people’s bodies during critical points in history. Zits, who is of Irish and Native American heritage, is at once serious, yet self-effacing and jocular. In his journey, he bears first-hand witness to the ongoing cycle of violence while experiencing the private pain that causes people to act in heroic and cowardly ways. The end of the story signals that his physical transformation, a change from “Zits” to “Michael,” will soon follow his spiritual transformation, as he now recognizes an underlying humanity that crosses all divides.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Back in the seventies, all of the rock stars were ugly. And they were great musicians. Do ugly guys compensate for their ugliness by becoming great guitar players? Or do certain guitars choose their homely players like Excalibur chose Lancelot? I wish I lived back in the seventies. As ugly as I am, I might have been the biggest rock star in the world” (3).
  • “Yes, I am Irish and Indian, which would be the coolest blend in the world if my parents were around to teach me how to be Irish and Indian. But they’re not here and haven’t been for years, so I’m not really Irish or Indian. I’m a blank sky, a human solar eclipse” (5).
  • “Yes, that’s my life, a series of cruel bastards and airplane crashes. Twenty little airplane crashes. I am a flaming jet, crashing into each new foster family” (11).
  • “Yes, there are people afraid of certain combinations of vowels and consonants. Isn’t that hilarious? Don’t those wimps realize that each and every word only has the power and meaning you assign to it?” (14).
  • “When I tell him I like to start fires, he says, ‘It’s wrong to burn good things. If you want to set fires, you must burn down bad things. Remember, revolution is not about spontaneous combustion. The true revolutionary must set himself aflame’” (25).
  • “The question crawls into my clothes and pushes its way through my skin and into my stomach. The question feeds me” (34).
  • “My heart is beating a punk rock song against my chest” (49).
  • “I look at Elk and Horse. They’re smiling. I realize they aren’t freedom fighters or anything like that. They don’t care about protecting the poor and defenseless. No, man, these guys just like to hurt people. And I look at the weird light in Art’s eyes. He isn’t a lawman. He doesn’t protect our country. He just likes to hurt people too” (50-51).
  • “In order to fight evil, sometimes we have to do evil things” (56).
  • “Hank makes the world safe. He is a good and loving husband and father. He is one hundred different versions of himself, and only one of them is a killer” (58).
  • “But, wait, why am I talking about soup? Maybe it’s just safer and funnier to think about soup and sexy women named Sue than it is to find yourself transported to an old-time Indian camp” (63).
  • “I have a family. A real family. A true family. I am happy for the first time in my life” (65).
  • “The children are going to be kidnapped and sent off to boarding schools. Their hair will be cut short and they will be beaten for speaking their tribal languages. They’ll be beaten for dancing and singing the old time Indian songs. / All of them are going to start drinking booze. And their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will drink booze. And one of those great-grandchildren will grow up to be my real father, the one who decided that drinking booze was more important than being my father. The one who abandoned my mother and me” (66-67).
  • “And then I remember: A white soldier cut my throat. In another camp on a different river, a white soldier grabbed my hair, lifted my chin, and slashed my throat with a bayonet. And now my father wants revenge. He wants me to want revenge” (75).
  • “Is revenge a circle inside of a circle inside of a circle?” (77).
  • “Then I remember that God is really, really old. So maybe God has arthritis. And maybe that’s why the world sucks. Maybe God’s hands and fingers don’t work as well as they used to. / Maybe God looks down on the earth and sees the bad guys and tries to pick them up. Maybe he wants to squish them like bugs. But God’s arthritis is so bad he can’t make his fingers work” (81).
  • “These are not my thoughts. This is not my sadness. This all belongs to Gus, and his grief and rage are huge, so my grief and rage are huge, too, and I scream as I lead one hundred soldiers down the hill into the Indian camp” (87).
  • “As we ride to the bottom of the hill and race the short distance across the flats toward camp, I can feel Gus’s rage and grief leaving my body. With each hoofbeat, I lose pieces of my rage, until I am left with only my fear” (88).
  • “I don’t care where I go. I don’t care about which body or time period is waiting for me. I will gladly float in the nowhere. I will gladly be a ghost, if I can be a ghost who can’t see or hear” (91).
  • “Without stopping, that white soldier reaches down and picks up Bow Boy. Cradles the child in one arm. And the white soldier keeps running. He’s running toward the faraway hills. Toward those faraway trees. Toward cover. Toward safety. Carrying an Indian child, a white soldier is running with Indians . . . In the midst of all this madness and murder, one soldier has refused to participate. He has chosen the opposite of revenge” (93).
  • “Faster, faster now, faster than I thought possible. I wonder if the pony will catch fire. If the pony has caught fire. If the pony is leaving behind hoofprints that spark and smolder” (96).
  • “As we outrun horses and bullets, as we outrun that monster revenge, I praise luck” (97).
  • “I remember I used to be like that little boy, holding tightly on to anybody who showed me even the tiniest bit of love. I haven’t been like that in a long time” (99).
  • “I know I won’t be able to keep up this pace. I know the chase is unfair. But we have to run. We have to keep running” (103).
  • “This journey started when I shot a bunch of strangers in a bank. A horrible, evil act. And now I’m lying in the dirt, getting ready to shoot a bunch of other strangers. This time in self-defense and in defense of the two boys who are riding farther and farther away from me. / Is there really a difference between that killing and this killing? Does God approve of some killing and not other killing?” (105).
  • “I fly just below a ceiling of clouds and above the ocean. If I flipped the plane over, the ocean would be my ceiling and the clouds my floor, and it would not matter. / It is my plane, the clouds, the ocean, and me. All of it is beautiful and interchangeable. All of it is equally important and unimportant. All of it is connected” (107).
  • “I can feel this body remembering. Every part of you has different memories. Your fingers remember the feel of a velvet coat. Your feet remember a warm sandy beach. Your eyes remember a face” (109).
  • “I can fall so far inside a person, inside his memories, that I can play them like a movie” (112).
  • “I see the airport in the distance. Landing lights, control tower, terminal hangar. All is gold and green” (113).
  • “Their marriage must be fragile. Married people only have picnics when their marriages are in trouble. I read that somewhere” (116).
  • “He thinks about betrayal, so I think about betrayal. He thinks of how many wives and husbands are cheating on each other. And thinks of how many fathers are abandoning their children. He thinks of how many people are going to war against other people. We’re all betraying one another all the time” (120).
  • “As we fall, I think about my mother and father. I think about the people I loved. I think about the people I hated. I think about the people I betrayed. I think about the people who have betrayed me” (130).
  • “A couple. Pretty white people. Cameras around their necks, genuine concern in their eyes. / Gorgeous tourists” (133).
  • “Other homeless folks forage. Flocks of sparrows, pigeons, and seagulls forage. And murders of crows bully the other birds and bully the humans too” (139).
  • “I’m going to walk out of this sad sack alley and find a bathroom. And I’m going to wash my face and clothes. No, I’ll steal some clothes. Good clothes. A white shirt and black pants. And I’ll steal good shoes too. Black leather shoes, cap toes, with intricate designs cut into the leather. In good clothes, I can be a good man” (140).
  • “Jesus, I must look like a horror movie. But that doesn’t matter. I am covered with the same blood that is inside everybody else. They can’t judge me because of this blood” (141).
  • “He could snap my bones if he wanted to. He could drive his thumb into my temple and kill me. I can feel his strength, his skill, his muscle memory” (142).
  • “I am my father. / Who can survive such a revelation? / It was father love and father shame and father rage that killed Hamlet. Imagine a new act. Imagine that Hamlet, after being poisoned by his own sword, wakes in the body of his father” (151).
  • “But I am younger and stronger. I am better. I will make him remember. I will force him to remember. I will kill him if I have to. / And so I push against my father’s mind and soul. I crash through his fortifications and rampage into his memory and tear through his homes, wells, and streets, until I see it: the hospital where I was born” (152).
  •  “I open my eyes. I think all the people in this bank are better than I am. They have better lives than I do. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe we’re all lonely. Maybe some of them also hurtle through time and see war, war, war. Maybe we’re all in this together” (158).
  • “I learned how to stop crying. / I learned how to hide inside myself. / I learned how to be somebody else. / I learned how to be cold and numb” (161).
  • “I want to tell him the entire story. I want to tell him that I fell through time and have only now returned. I want to tell him I learned a valuable lesson. But I don’t know what that lesson is. It’s too complicated, too strange. Or maybe it’s so simple it makes me feel stupid to say it. / Maybe you’re not supposed to kill. No matter who tells you to do it. No matter how good or bad the reason. Maybe you’re supposed to believe that all life is sacred” (162).
  • “I’m trying to be as tough as I used to be, but it’s not working. I feel like a carton of eggs holding up an elephant” (168).
  • “Dave cries. / He wants to go back in time. He only needs to travel back an hour—just one hour—and he’ll be able to save these kids. He’ll take them away from their terrible parents, from this terrible life, and he’ll love them. He’ll keep them safe” (171).
  • “Dave tousles my hair and leaves. Yes, he tousles my hair. No father has tousled a kid’s hair since 1955. I wonder if I have dropped into some weird time-travel thing again. But no, Dave is just a decent guy” (177).
  • “I’m happy. / I’m scared too. I mean I know the world is still a cold and cruel place. / I know that people will always go to war against each other. / I know that children will always be targets. / I know that people will always betray each other. I know that I am a betrayer. / But I’m beginning to think I might get unlonely. I’m beginning to think I might have an almost real family” (180).
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The Vixen by Francine Prose c. 2021 (316 pages—Harper Collins)

Alert: This summary contains spoilers.

Set in New York City during the fifties, this coming-of-age story follows Simon Putnam, freshly graduated from Harvard University, as a junior editor at a prestigious publishing house. Throughout the novel, Simon wrestles with his identity as an outsider: Simon grew up on Coney Island and his Jewish mother went to school with Ethel Rosenberg. The backdrop of the McCarthy era and the execution of the Rosenbergs makes Simon suspicious of all he encounters. In his first major assignment at work, Simon is asked to edit a poorly written novel titled “The Vixen, The Patriot, and The Fanatic,” in which a character modeled after Ethel Rosenberg is cast as a seductress. Simon objects to this unsympathetic portrayal of Ethel and feels caught between his desire to do well at work and his loyalty to his family. However, in this first-person narrative, nothing is as it seems, a point that Simon soon learns when he meets the supposed author of the book, Anya Partridge, a woman who was hired to pretend that she wrote the book, when, in fact, it was written by his boss. In another plot turn, the co-founder of the publishing firm, a man who was institutionalized and said to be delusional, turns out to be correct in his assertion that the CIA is controlling the firm and the book that Simon was tasked with editing was a propaganda piece backed by the CIA. Simon’s resolve to alter the book stiffens when he teams up with Julia, the woman whose job he has taken. Together, Simon and Julia rewrite the book while falling in love. The story ends, not with Simon and Julia in jail, but with the bankruptcy of the firm. The paranoia that dominated the era fades and Simon finds a new life as a father and writer.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “The shades are drawn, the apartment dark except for the lunar glow from the kitchen and, in the living room, the flicker of the twelve-inch black-and-white screen. My parents and I are silent. The only signs of life squawk and jitter inside the massive console TV” (1).
  • “My parents turn, surprised. Who am I, and what am I doing in this place where they have learned to live without me? We hardly recognize one another: the boy who left for college, the son who returned, the mother and father still here” (3).
  • “While I memorized fairy tales and read Jacobean drama, my father was selling Ping-Pong paddles at a sporting goods store near City Hall. And like the angel guarding Eden, my mother’s migraines drove her from her beloved high school American history classroom and onto our candy-striped, fraying Louis-the-something couch” (7).
  • “Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s right-hand man, appears on screen, grinning like the mechanical monsters outside the dark rides on Neptune Avenue” (9).
  • “The air conditioner is pumping all the oxygen out of the room. I want the Rosenbergs to live, but meanwhile I can’t breathe. I want them to be saved. I want the messenger to hurtle down Death Row, shouting, Stop! Don’t throw that switch! Meanwhile some secret shameful part of me wants them dead. I want this to be over” (10).
  • “She reaches up to cradle my face. Her hands are soft, unroughened by years of dishes and laundry, and, as always, cool. Cooler than fever, cooler than summer, cooler than this cold room. Once her hands smelled of chalk dust, of the dates she wrote on the blackboard: 1620, 1776, 1865. Now they smell of lavender oil. Soothing, my mother says” (15).
  • “Perhaps this is the point to say that, at that time, my life seemed to me to have been built upon a series of lies. Not flat out lies, but lies of omission, withheld information, uncorrected misunderstandings. Many young people feel this way. Some people feel it all their lives” (20).
  • “Handed down over generations, these narratives were not only enthralling but also seemed to me to reveal something deep and mysterious about experience, about nature, about our species, about what it meant to tell a story—what it meant to be human. I wanted to know what Crowley knew, though I wasn’t brave or hardy enough to live among the reindeer herders, shamans, and cave-dwelling witches who’d been his informants” (22).
  • “The only time I felt awake was during my daily walk to Coney Island. I craved the noise, the crowds, the salt air, the sideshows on the midway. / Rain or shine, I stood in line to ride the Cyclone with the giggling couples looking for an excuse to grope each other, the kids gearing up to cry and vomit. As the train chugged up the incline, I felt the husk of my life drop back to earth, like the stages of a rocket. After that first plunge, all that remained was the bright kernel of soul—authentic, pure, fully alive—exploding inside my head. I wanted to feel my hair blown back, my skin stretched over my bones. I wanted to think I might die, that death might solve my problems. I wanted to feel my brain pressed against my skull. Mostly, I wanted to feel grateful and happy to be alive when the train leveled and slowed. The Cyclone was my prayer, my meditation” (28).
  • “There are moments when our desire is so powerful and so focused that the object of that desire seems to float before us, a shimmering mirage. Our longing so intense that we can almost persuade ourselves that the hoped-for event has occurred, the dream has come true. Fate has figured out what we need and decided to hand it over” (44).
  • “People behaved as if a real war were being fought around us, as if missiles were aimed at our living rooms. Sooner or later, the bomb would fall. Soviet agents were everywhere, masquerading as ordinary Americans until they were exposed, jailed or deported. The secret war was being played out in the beauty salon, the school room, the church social, and the garage. Anyone could be accused. Anyone’s life could be destroyed. Everyone was paranoid. Everyone was afraid” (55).
  • “I wanted him there as a buffer between me and my father’s boisterous relatives, the great-aunts who pinched my cheek till it hurt, the great-uncles who slipped back into Yiddish when they drank, the second cousins in their blue suits, the wives with scarlet nails, turquoise eyelids, tangerine hair, a flock of exotic parrots stuffed into sparkly dresses” (61).
  • “Why was I talking about myself? Why did I think he would care? If I’d wanted to impress him, it was a huge mistake. My uncle tilted his head. Beneath his heavy lids, his dark eyes glittered with a hard mean light” (69).
  • “Somewhere around the second glass of Bordeaux, on top of whiskey sours, I began having trouble following the conversation. Every so often my uncle’s face would swarm out of focus, and his lips moved like those of a tropical fish, gulping air, gulping wine, gulping nothing” (72).
  • “Never mind. Every day I wake up and think, Well, today’s the day I quit drinking. And every night I go to bed and tell myself, Tomorrow. You’ll quit tomorrow. You’re too young to know what I’m talking about. You young bucks still believe that you have endless tomorrows” (99).
  • “How chilly it was. How bleak the sky looked, how sticklike and straggly the trees, how black and knotty the branches, how pale and stunted the grass. I weighed every banal observation about the weather, considered whether or not to mention it to Ned, and decided against it” (110).
  • “It was strange, my having been so quick to suggest a place that I had spent so much effort and time—years, really—pretending not to have come from. But Anya was eccentric. An artist. Different standards applied. In her eyes, my having grown up in an amusement park—well, near an amusement park—might have a certain sexy cachet. She would see that I was more than an annoying guy in a cheap suit come to nag her about her sentences and shame her about her spelling. All the people from whom I’d hidden my origins—my school friends, colleagues, literary party guests, Warren, even Elaine—seemed, compared to Anya, pallid, pretentious, judgmental” (128).
  • “With the fox draped around her neck, Anya vamped toward me half ironically and gave me a long look, so cartoonishly seductive that even I, who knew next to nothing about sex, felt pretty sure that eventually we would have it” (131).
  • “We drink and argue and get in the car and slam the door and drive off” (135).
  • “The fog made everything private. Mist swirled around us like a storm in a snow globe. The shooting galleries and food stands lit up and went dark as we passed. Warming their hands over trash can fires, the carnival barkers were silent, and the ticket takers seemed like ghosts waiting for the dead to ride the Wild Mouse. The world was waiting, stilled. The signs and marquees blurred and faded like a vintage postcard of an amusement park, a Japanese print of fog and clouds from which the Parachute Jump rose where Mount Fuji should have been” (138).
  • “She smiled sadly, a stagy sadness. Acting-school regret. Her shrug said, What can you do? Her shrug said, You should have known. I have no idea what her shrug said. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out” (161).
  • “A confession: I still had a crush on Elaine, which confused me, because lovers in literature were purely devoted to one beloved at a time. Tristan didn’t love Isolde and the publicist in his office” (169).
  • “One afternoon, Anya showed up for our meeting in an obviously foul mood. Her eyes were hidden behind dark glasses. We were sitting in a diner, in a window booth, along the West Side Highway. Car mirrors flashed like fireballs. Anya kept her glasses on inside” (170).
  • “Often, when something shocking occurs, we think: I knew. I knew from the start. All the missed signals from the past flash like ambulance lights” (176).
  • “My so-called career hung in the balance. If I tried to stop the inevitable, I would wreck my future. I’d been admitted, on a trial basis, to a charmed circle of angels, to the starry heaven over which Warren presided, and I feared being cast back into the outer darkness of Coney Island” (182).
  • “Dandelions speckled the emerald grass. An improbably red cardinal perched on a branch to watch me pass. Somehow I had forgotten the beauty of the world. I remembered spring mornings, walking to Crowley’s lectures. How sharp and green the air had smelled, how much it felt like the country but with neatly mown lawns and well-kept paths lit by the auras of golden students” (191).
  • “The victim enters the pitch-dark room . . . A faint sound, the creak of chair legs, the sudden glint of the blade. The metallic voice of the killer, the flash of the knife, the blood. It’s the meat and potatoes of horror films, a foolproof jolt to the limbic brain” (195).
  • “Those stories were coming back to me lately, more often and more clearly. I found it consoling to think that my experience was part of a pattern, ancient narratives of lying and heartbreak not unique to me” (196).
  • “I was conscious of speaking in the plural, as if I were a partner in our shipwreck of a publishing company. The Titanic sailed through my mind, tipped sideways, and disappeared” (200).
  • “On this warm afternoon, she wore a mouse-colored cloth coat and a matching hat, a felt helmet pulled tightly over her curls. She seemed weighed down by gravity and at the same time unmoored, floating inside a private bubble of obligation and sadness” (218).
  • “All night the numbers on my watch glowered at me in the dark. Hours pretended to be minutes. At least, not sleeping, I didn’t dream. My waking dreams were nightmares. Night after night I saw Warren’s thin lips unleashing a volley of insults. I saw his face swell into the giant mask through which you entered the Terror Tomb. I heard Anya whispering in my ear, Don’t move. Let them do the work. Who did she mean by them? The demons, the pirates, the ghosts? The poky little teacup rumbling over the track? Their voices were like tunes I couldn’t get out of my head” (231).
  • “So you want to know if I attached incendiary devices to starlings and dosed research subjects with psychedelic drugs and watched them jump out hotel windows. You want to know if I staged coups in Central America, overthrew legitimately elected governments, started civil wars, installed dictators” (236).
  • “My drink was the color of an atomic blast. I took a sip, more from curiosity than thirst. Flecks of fake pulp stuck in my throat” (250).
  • “My mother had her eyes closed. She didn’t hug or kiss me, but she knew I was there. She smiled. She knew that a smile was required. I felt she’d already left our world and risen out of reach. I wanted to hold on and keep her from floating further away” (251).
  • “As long as I was writing, I felt almost . . . optimistic. Maybe it was the experience of losing myself—and forgetting my problems. I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t afraid. I was happy, writing” (261).
  • “Julia was prettier than I remembered, yet something about her seemed faded and blurred. It was a look I would come to recognize in the faces of new mothers, expected to glow with maternity but who seemed pale and drained, ravaged by sleepless terror about a helpless creature they hardly knew before they became responsible for its survival” (269).
  • “The voice in my head thundered like the Sunday pulpit voice of John Edwards” (285).
  • “I’m with him every minute, and it drives me crazy, but I want to cry when I think about what a short time I’ll have until he’s on his own and gone” (288).
  • “With each toast, the champagne tasted better. How dear and kind my parents were! How selflessly they loved me, how intensely they hoped for the best for me and asked nothing in return” (293).
  • “I liked the idea of Julia and me as brave Resistance fighters. It was sexy, starting off as an outlaw couple, the Bonnie and Clyde of commercial-fiction sabotage” (294).
  • “The house was tiny, but we loved it. It had a large backyard. When every last leaf fell from the trees in winter, we could see the bright consoling ribbon of the Hudson” (303).
  • “As I wrote, I thought of Crowley’s stories, forever tainted for me by what he’d done. But they were still good stories, and I borrowed from them what I could. At first there was lots of revenge in my books. But over time I was less drawn to plots about murder and vengeance than to tales of rescue and reconciliation, of diving and human peacemakers, of spirits who swooped in to save my characters from the lion’s cave, the sinking ship, the burning house” (307).
  • “I search for my parents in my daughter’s face. In my dreams my mother and father are young and healthy. I wake from those dreams in tears. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of them and miss them and wish they’d lived to see my children grow up” (309).
  • “How foolish we are to assume that the lost will be found, the hidden revealed, the mystery solved, or even that we will figure out what to call the mix of emotions we feel when a passing stranger turns out not to be the person we hoped and feared to see” (311).
  • “I wish I could’ve told Julia that love was a stronger aphrodisiac than risk, longer lasting and with a lunar pull that flooded and ebbed over time” (314).
  • “I prayed that if we landed safely, that after all this ended, after we’d plummeted through the air and floated down onto the ground, that if my son and I could just go on living, just this once, this day, this hour, if we could be allowed to keep what we had, just this, no more, no less, then I promised that someday, I would write, as honestly as I could, the true story of the year when Ethel Rosenberg died and I so desperately wanted to save her. I promised the parachute that opened. I promised the sky that let us go. I promised the earth that heard my prayer and rose up to receive us” (316).
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How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard C. Cohen c. 2016 (256 pages—Random House)

In twelve chapters, Cohen draws on his experiences as a writer, teacher, and publishing director to offer tips and reflections on writing. The title is somewhat of a misnomer, as it suggests an exclusive focus on Tolstoy, when, in fact, Cohen draws heavily on the words and works of authors in a variety of genres—from writers of literary fiction to horror. Overall, this is a readable book that blends useful tips with fun facts.

  • “John Gardner believed that ‘writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing,’ and pointed out that Hemingway, although on record (and echoing Behan) as declaring that the only way for a writer to learn his craft was to go away and write, took hours of tutorials from Gertrude Stein” (xvii).
  • “Beginnings are notoriously difficult. E.L. Doctorow tells of being asked by his daughter to give her an absence note for her school teacher. He started to write, then thought, ‘No that’s not it,’ and started again. The second version didn’t hit the required note either. Further drafts followed, until his young daughter was in a state of panic and there was a pile of crumpled pages on the floor. Finally his wife came in and, with a look of disbelief, dashed off the required short letter” (4).
  • “Thomas Mann was similarly unhappy about over-planning, confiding, ‘Certainly, to envisage too clearly beforehand all the difficulties of a task . . . would be enough to make one shudder and forgo it’” (15).
  • Paul Scott: “Images do not have exact time schedules. Names, locations, time schedules, plot references—these are what the images create. In the original image are the seeds of all your novel. See your image, feel it, work it out in all its complexity to the best of your ability, and then try to put it on the page” (16).
  • Opening of Huck Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot” (20).
  • “The novel rises in antiquity, fades away into romance, reemerges in Japan and Spain, then settles down in France and England during the eighteenth century. The shift from the stress on the outer life to the inner arrived with what has been dubbed ‘the petty bourgeois realist novel’—and was later reinforced by the development of analytic psychology, so that we generally now believe that character is the most important single component of a work of fiction” (26).
  • “Plato remarks in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas uncomplicated good characters are dull and always the same. Through the centuries, novelists have found it difficult to portray goodness, but we scarcely mind so long as we can hiss the villain” (27).
  • “The act of writing can release thoughts that have not been on the conscious level, so a character may seem to take control, and that may even be to the story’s benefit” (48).
  • Vladimir Nabokov: “A character dies on the page if you can’t hear his or her voice. In a very limited sense, I suppose, this amounts to ‘taking over’ and ‘telling you’ what the characters will and won’t do. But the reason the character can’t do something is that you can’t. The task then becomes to figure out what the character can do—to try to stretch the narrative as far as possible, to be sure to not overlook exciting possibilities in yourself, while continuing to bend the narrative in the direction of meaning” (50).
  • “For them [writers like Joyce or Woolf], character is not unified or coherent so ‘development’ is a chimera. Which view one subscribes to is a matter of individual belief, and for most modern writers shifts in personality can be slight and still be effective. Still, when contemplating whether a character is being ‘true’ to his or her nature, one should remember Oscar Wilde’s definition of truth: ‘one’s latest mood’” (51).
  • Gail Godwin: “Fact and fiction, fiction and fact. Which stops where, and how much to put in of each? At what point does regurgitated autobiography graduate into memory shaped by art? How do you know when to stop telling it like it is, or was, and make it into what it ought to be—or what would make a better story?” (53).
  • “French theorists like Barthes and Foucault have long argued that in the strictest sense there is no such thing as an ‘author,’ because all writing is collaborative and produced by a kind of cultural collective” (66).
  • “In other narratives, a framing device—a story within a story—presents the narrator as a character who begins to recount his own tale. This technique has a long history, dating back at least to the beginning section of The Odyssey, and even before that, to the Sanskrit epics of India in the tenth century BC. This form gradually spread west from Asia and became popular, encouraging such frame collections as The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales” (85).
  • “What has come to be called style indirect libre, or free indirect speech, is where the narrative seems to tell the truth plain and simple—to have all the certainty that third-person point of view provides, but where something more complex is being attempted, some of the characteristics of third person being mixed (usually) with another voice or voices. Austen, Goethe, and Flaubert were early practitioners” (93).
  • “In the eighteen century (which even went through a phase of ‘it narratives,’ where stores were told from the point of view of money, corkscrews, lapdogs, or the like), epistolary novels were immensely popular. Jane Austen’s first draft of Sense and Sensibility was in letter form, but her revised version was prophetic of the decline of the epistolary novel in the century to follow, and in the age of the phone it became rarer still” (96).
  • “Dostoyevsky initially envisaged Crime and Punishment as a novella with four first-person tellings . . . Throughout the novel, the narrator enjoys no consistent perceptual advantage: He sees the world through the same haze of subjective doubt as Raskolnikov. /  Francine Prose, who with Norman Mailer has provided some of the best insights into how a novelist chooses a point of view, gives this gloss: ‘Ultimately, he [Dostoyevsky] realized that, given the problems caused by the fact that his hero was to be semi-delirious for significant portions of the narrative, he could maintain the same intensity by sticking to a close third-person narration that, at critical junctures, merges with the consciousness of the protagonist’” (100-101).
  • Nell Leyshon: “If I picked up a book with no dialogue, I felt unable to breathe, as though I was choking with words. I learned to look at pages and see whether there was white down the right-hand side. I learned that the sculptural shape on a page bears a relationship to the reading experience. I realized that where there is space and air in the prose, I am able to interpret and draw conclusions” (104).
  • “The novelist writes dialogue to be convincing; the nonfiction author so that he or she is true to the intentions of the person quoted” (116).
  • “Henry James and Joseph Conrad were good friends, and in mid-career both agreed that in their future books none of the characters would reply to a question directly, but only comment obliquely—which would add tension” (118).
  • “In his language guide, The King’s English, Henry Fowler says: ‘Any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same” (126-127).
  • “Using Wikipedia is supposed to be a descent into hell—a vortex of plagiarism, superficiality, laziness, and idiocy—but its entry on irony is helpful and suggests that the concept is every bit as complicated as I have suggested. For example, there is playful irony, whimsical irony, sardonic irony, quiet irony, and so on . . . According to Wikipedia, irony’s essential feature is the indirect, often understated presentation of a contradiction between an action or expression and the context in which it occurs. Wikipedia then goes further, distinguishing four variations: verbal irony—when a speaker says one thing and intends another; dramatic irony—when words and actions have a significance that the listener understands but the speaker or character does not; situational irony—when the result of an action is contrary to the desired or expected effect; and finally ‘cosmic irony’—the disparity between what humans desire and what the world actually serves up—the whims of the gods” (129-130).
  • “If it is true that all novels are essentially about the passage from innocence to experience, about discovering the reality that underlies appearances, then not surprisingly, irony pervades fiction. Irony is about concealment, and the truth of what is written may grow on us . . .” (132).
  • Thornton Wilder: “Art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time” (140).
  • “Leo Tolstoy reportedly once commented: ‘All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town’” (145).
  • “In the late eighteen century, an Italian playwright, Carlo Goldoni, proposed that there were thirty-six ‘dramatic situations’ . . . that could be turned into comedy or tragedy as preferred” (145).
  • “Gustav Freytag (1816-95), a German novelist and playwright, declared that all stories could be divided into five parts: exposition (of the situation), rising action (through conflict), climax (or turning point), falling action, and resolution” (146).
  • E.M. Forster: “‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. Story is one event after another; plot is controlled by causality” (150).
  • “If an author plans everything he wants his characters to do, the story becomes schematized. But seen at their best, story and plot intertwine and compliment each other . . . Story isn’t just one even after another—it can include characterization, causality, and description—but these elements tend to be of a basic kind. Plot includes story, but suggests greater complexity” (156).
  • Virginia Woolf: “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it” (160-161).
  • Milan Kundera: ‘In Goethe’s time, prose could not make the aesthetic claims of poetry; perhaps not until the work of Flaubert did prose lose the stigma of aesthetic inferiority” (166).
  • “The first technique authors should master is antithesis—arranging ideas as well as syllables into some kind of symmetry. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ or ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ are made more memorable, and more effective, because of the balance between their two halves” (170).
  • “Just as the art of war largely consists of deploying the strongest forces at the most strategic points, so the art of writing depends on putting the strongest words in the most important places . . . A good example can be found in Francis Bacon’s essay on friendship: ‘A crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love’” (170).
  • “Every language has words framed to exhibit the noises they seek to express—thump, rattle, growl, hiss—but they are relatively few. Verbs like crawl, creep, and dawdle have long vowels and suggest slow movement, and skip, run, hop have short vowels and suggest intense brevity” (171).
  • “Flaubert, a fanatical reviser, proclaimed that a would-be author should read fifteen hundred books in order to write one. ‘Prose is like hair,’ he would say, ‘it improves with combing.’ Edith Warton told a friend enthusiastically, ‘I am engaged in the wholesale slaughter of adjectives.’ ‘I revise every minute of every day,’ wrote Virginia Woolf” (212).
  • “Anton Chekhov, besieged by writers wanting his opinion on their work, would advise them all, ‘Cut, cut, cut!’ ‘Writing a book is like building a coral reef,’ P.G. Wodehouse considered. ‘One goes on by adding tiny bits. I must say the result is much better. With my stuff it is largely a matter of adding color and seeing that I don’t let anything through that’s at all flat’” (215).
  • “According to neuropsychiatry, writing and editing employ different brain functions, and many writers are unable to switch easily from one to the other” (216).
  •  “Chekhov wrote ‘Dissatisfaction with oneself is one of the cornerstones of every real talent’” (216).
  • An excerpt on editing from George Bernard Shaw’s letter to The Times: “There is a busybody on your staff who devotes a lot of his time to chasing split infinitives. Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it. I call for the immediate dismissal of this pedant. It is of no concern whether he decided ‘to go quickly’ or ‘quickly to go’ or ‘to quickly go.’ The important thing is that he should go at once” (217).
  • Hemingway: “Write drunk, edit sober” (228).
  • “In English alone, a new word is said to be coined every ninety-eight minutes. Writers, who love words, are often tempted to make them up—Shakespeare, for instance, introduced more than 1,700” (232).
  • “They [commas] were a High Renaissance invention, attributed to a Venetian printer named Aldo Manuzio, who around 1490 was working on the Greek classics and, wanting to avoid confusion, began separating words and clauses: komma is Greek for ‘something cut off’” (233).
  • “Henry James pioneered the ‘open’ ending, often cutting off a story or novel mid-conversation” (241-242).
  • Francine Prose: “We want to believe in enduring love partly because we know that we will always be subject to, and at the mercy of, the pendulum swing between chaos and cohesion, happiness and heartbreak. And so we continue to root for the enchanted couple” (253-254).
  • “Don’t think that at the end of what you have written, he [Illtyd Trethowan] would tell us, you have to sum up with some great statement or wearisome recapitulation of arguments already made. When you have said what you want to say, / Stop” (256).
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Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell c. 2004 (290 pages—Simon & Schuster)

Stephen Michell uses the work of scholars to inform his rendering of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian text that predates The Bible by a thousand years. In the Epic, Gilgamesh, a powerful king who is two-thirds divine and one-third human, meets his match when the gods create his companion, Enkidu, who lives among the animals, innocent and uncivilized. Enkidu and Gilgamesh eventually become great friends and slay Humbaba, the monster who guards the Cedar Forest. When Enkidu grows ill and dies, Gilgamesh searches for a magic plant that will grant him immortality. In many ways, Gilgamesh is the ultimate quest narrative. Mitchell reminds readers that “The archetypal hero’s journey proceeds in stages: being called to action, meeting a wise man or guide, crossing the threshold into the numinous world of the adventure, passing various tests, attaining the goal, defeating the forces of evil, and going back home” (51). Yet, as Mitchell notes, it’s clear that this story doesn’t neatly conform to the monomyth: “The more we try to fit Gilgamesh into the pattern of this archetypal journey, the more bizarre, quirky, and postmodern it seems. It is the original quest story. But it is also an anti-quest, since it undermines the quest myth from the beginning. Gilgamesh slays the monster, but that, it turns out, is a violation of the divine order of things and causes the death of his beloved friend. He does journey to the edge of the world, he meets a wise man, but there is still no transformation” (52).

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions, / from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision / into the great mystery, the secret places, / the primeval days before the Flood. He had journeyed / to the edge of the world and made his way back, exhausted / but whole. He had carved his trials on stone tablets, / had restored the holy Eanna Temple and the massive / wall of Uruk, which no city on earth can equal. / See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun. / Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine, approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar, a temple that no king has equaled in size or beauty, / walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course / around the city, inspect its mighty foundations, / examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built, / observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens, the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops / and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares” (69-70).
  • ●        “Surpassing all kings, powerful and tall / beyond all others, violent, splendid, / a wild bull of a man, unvanquished leader, / hero in the front lines, beloved by his soldiers—/ fortress they called him, protector of the people, / raging flood that destroys all defenses–/ two-thirds divine and one-third human, / son of King Lugalbanda, who became / a god, and of the goddess Ninsun . . .” (71).
  • “The city is his possession, he struts / through it, arrogant, his head raised high, / trampling its citizens like a wild bull” (72).
  •  “Stir up his lust when he approaches, / touch him, excite him, take his breath / with your kisses, show him what a woman is. / The animals who knew him in the wilderness / will be bewildered, and will leave him forever” (78).
  • “Deep in his heart he felt something stir, / a longing he had never known before, / the longing for a true friend . . .” (80).
  • “Every day is a festival in Uruk, / with people singing and dancing in the streets, / musicians playing their lyres and drums, / the lovely priestess standing before / the temple of Ishtar, chatting and laughing, / flushed with sexual joy, and ready / to serve men’s pleasure, in honor of the goddess, / so that even old men are aroused from their beds. / You who are still so ignorant of life, / I will show you Gilgamesh the mighty king” (81).
  • “I saw a bright star, it shot across / the morning sky, it fell at my feet / and lay before me like a huge boulder. / I tried to lift it, but it was too heavy. / I tried to move it, but it would not budge . . . This boulder, this star that had fallen to earth—/ I took it in my arms, I embraced and caressed it / the way a man caresses his wife. / Then I took it and laid it before you. You told me / that it was my double, my second self” (82-83).
  • “May the true friend appear, the true companion, / who through every danger will stand at my side” (84).
  • “When Gilgamesh reached the marriage house, / Enkidu was there. He stood like a boulder, / blocking the door. Gilgamesh, raging, / stepped up and seized him, huge arms gripped / huge arms, foreheads crashed like wild bulls, / the two men staggered, they pitched against houses, / the doorposts trembled, the outer walls shook, / they careened through the streets, they grappled each other, / limbs intertwined, each huge body / straining to break free from the other’s embrace” (89).
  • “Enkidu answered, ‘Dear friend, a scream / sticks in my throat, my arms are limp. / I knew that country when I roamed the hills / with the antelope and deer. The forest is endless, / it spreads far and wide for a thousand miles. / What man would dare to penetrate its depths?” (91).
  • “We must not go on this journey, we must not / fight this creature. His breath spews fire, / his voice booms like thunder, his jaws are death. / He can hear all sounds in the forest, even / the faintest rustling among the leaves, / he will hear us a hundred miles away. / Who among men or gods could defeat him?” (92).
  • “Only the gods live forever. Our days / are few in number, and whatever we achieve / is a puff of wind. Why be afraid then, / since sooner or later death must come? / Where is the courage you have always had?” (93).
  • “Lord of heaven, you have granted my son / beauty and strength and courage—why / have you burdened him with a restless heart?” (99).
  • “Protect him each day as you cross the sky, / and at twilight may Aya your bride entrust him / to the valiant starts, the watchmen of the night. / O Lord Shamash, glorious sun, / delight of the gods, illuminator / of the world, who rise and the light is born, / it fills the heavens, the whole earth takes shape, / the mountains form, the valleys grow bright, / darkness vanishes, evil retreats, / all creatures wake up and open their eyes, they see you, they are filled with joy—/ protect my son. On his dangerous journey / let the days be long, let the nights be short, / let his stride be vigorous and his legs sturdy” (100).
  • “The elders stood up and addressed the king: / ‘Come back safely to great walled-Uruk. / Do not rely on your strength alone, / but be watchful, be wary, make each blow count’” (102).
  • “‘Enkidu, dear friend, I have had a dream, / a dream more horrible than both the others. / The heavens roared and the earth heaved, / then darkness, silence. Lightening flashed, / igniting the trees. By the time the flames / died out, the ground was covered with ash’” (110).
  • “They stood at the edge of the Cedar Forest, / marveling at the great height of the trees. / They could see, before them, a well-marked trail / beaten by Humbaba as he came and went. / From far off they saw the Cedar Mountain, / sacred to Ishtar, where the gods dwell, / the slopes of it steep, and rich in cedars / with their sharp fragrance and pleasant shade. / Gripping their axes, their knives unsheathed, / they entered the Forest and made their way through / the tangle of thorn bushes underfoot” (118).
  • “The monster let out a deafening cry, / his roar boomed forth like a blast of thunder, / he stamped and the ground burst open, his steps / split the mountains of Lebanon, the clouds turned black, a sulfurous fog / descended on them and made their eyes ache” (124).
  • “Gilgamesh, hearing his beloved friend, / came to himself. He yelled, he lifted / his massive axe, he swung it, it tore / into Humbaba’s neck, the blood / shot out, again the axe bit flesh / and bone, the monster staggered, his eyes / rolled, and at the axe’s third stroke / he toppled like a cedar and crashed to the ground. / At his death-roar the mountains of Lebanon shook, the valleys ran with blood, for ten miles / the forest resounded” (128).
  • “‘Come here, Gilgamesh,’ Ishtar said, / ‘marry me, give me your luscious fruits, / be my husband, be my sweet man. / I will give you abundance beyond your dreams: / marble and alabaster, ivory and jade, / gorgeous servants with blue-green eyes, a chariot of lapis lazuli / with golden wheels and guide-horns of amber, / pulled by storm-demons like giant mules” (130-131).
  • “‘You loved the hot-blooded, war-bold stallion, / then you changed, you doomed him to whip and spurs, / to endlessly gallop, with a bit in his mouth, / to muddy his own water when he drinks from a pool . . .’” (133).
  • “Ishtar led the Bull down to the earth, / it entered and bellowed, the whole land shook, / the streams and marshes dried up, the Euphrates’ / water level dropped by ten feet. / When the Bull snorted, the earth cracked open / and a hundred warriors fell in and died” (137).
  • “Enkidu fell sick. He lay on his bed, / sick at heart, and his tears flowed like streams. / He said to Gilgamesh, ‘Dear friend, dear brother, / they are taking me from you. I will not return / I will sit with the dead in the underworld, / and never will I see my dead brother again’” (141-142).
  • “‘The creature touched me / and suddenly feathers covered my arms, / he bound them behind me and forced me down / to the underworld, the house of darkness, / the home of the dead, where all who enter / never return to the sweet earth again. / Those who dwell there squat in the darkness, / dirt is their food, their drink is clay, / they are dressed in feathered garments like birds . . .” (143).
  • “‘O Enkidu, you were the axe at my side / in which my arm trusted, the knife in my sheath, / the shield I carried, my glorious robe, / the wide belt around my loins, and now / a harsh fate has torn you from me, forever . . . O Enkidu, what is this sleep that has seized you, / that has darkened your face and stopped your breath?’” (153).
  • “‘Blacksmiths, goldsmith, / workers in silver, metal, and gems— / create a statue of Enkidu, my friend, / make it more splendid than any statue / that has ever been made. Cover his beard / with lapis lazuli, his chest with gold. / Let obsidian and all other beautiful stones— / a thousand jewels of every color— / be piled along with the silver and gold / and sent on a barge, down the Euphrates / to great-walled Uruk, for Enkidu’s statue” (154-155).
  • “Gilgamesh wept over Enkidu his friend, / bitterly he wept through the wilderness. / ‘Must I die too? Must I be as lifeless / as Enkidu? How can I bear this sorrow / that gnaws at my belly, this fear of death / that restlessly drives me onward? If only / I could find the one man whom the gods made immortal, / I would ask him how to overcome death’” (159).
  • “The scorpion woman said, ‘This brave man, / driven by despair, his body frost chilled, / exhausted, and burnt by the desert sun— / show him the way to Utnapishtim’ / / The scorpion woman said ‘Ever downward / through the deep darkness the tunnel leads. / All will be pitch black before and behind you, / all will be pitch black to either side. / You must run through the tunnel faster than the wind” (162).
  • “Before him the garden of the gods appeared, / with gem-trees of all colors, dazzling to see. / There were trees that grew rubies, trees with lapis / lazuli flowers, trees that dangled / gigantic coral clusters like dates. / Everywhere, sparkling on all the branches, / were enormous jewels: emeralds, sapphires, / hematite, diamonds, carnelians, pearls. / Gilgamesh looked up and marveled at it all” (164).
  • “Humans are born, they live, then they die, / this is the order that the gods have decreed. / But until the end comes, enjoy your life, / spend it in happiness, not despair. / Savor your food, make each of your days / a delight, bathe and anoint yourself, / wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean / let music and dancing fill your house . . .” (168).
  • “I have wandered the world, climbed the most treacherous / mountains, crossed desserts, sailed the vast ocean, / and sweet sleep has rarely softened my face. / I have worn myself out through ceaseless striving, I have filled my muscles with pain and anguish. / I have killed bear, lion, hyena, leopard, / tiger, deer antelope, ibex, I have eaten / their meat and have wrapped their rough skins around me. / And what in the end have I achieved?” (176).
  • “The handsome young man, the lovely young woman— / in their prime, death comes and drags them away. / Though no one has seen death’s face or heard / death’s voice, suddenly, savagely, death / destroys us, all of us, old or young. / And yet we build houses, make contracts, brothers / divide their inheritance, conflicts occur— / as though the human life lasted forever. / The river rises, flows over its banks and carries us all away, like mayflies / floating downstream: they stare at the sun, / then all at once there is nothing” (178).
  • “At the first glow of dawn, an immense black cloud / rose on the horizon and crossed the sky. / Inside it the storm god Adad was thundering, / while Shullat and Hanish, twin gods of destruction, / went first, tearing through mountains and valleys. / Nergal, the god of pestilence, ripped out / the dams of the Great Deep, Ninurta opened / the floodgates of heaven, the infernal gods blazed and set the whole land on fire. / A deadly silence spread through the sky / and what had been bright now turned to darkness” (185).
  • “Gilgamesh cried out, ‘What shall I do, / where shall I go now? Death has caught me, / it lurks in my bedroom, and everywhere I look, / everywhere I turn, there is only death” (193).
  • “There is a small spiny bush that grows / in the waters of the Great Deep, it has sharp spikes / that will prick your fingers like a rose’s thorns. / If you find this plant and bring it to the surface, you will have found the secret of youth” (196).
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“Eyewall”by Lauren Groff c. 2018 (pages 84-100 in Florida)

A turbulent and surreal story where a woman hunkers down during a hurricane and encounters the ghosts of her past.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “All the other creatures of the earth flattened themselves, dug in. I stood in my window watching, a captain at the wheel, as the first gust filled the oaks on the far side of the lake and raced across the water” (84).
  • “The house sucked in a shuddery breath, and the plywood groaned as the windows drew inward. Darkness fell over the world outside. Rain unleased itself. It was neither freight train nor jet engine nor cataract crashing around me but, rather, everything. The roof roared with water, the window blurred” (87).
  • “We watched the world on its bender outside. My beautiful tomatoes had flattened and the metal cages minced away across the lawn, as if ghosts were wearing them as hoop skirts” (88).
  • “The night I met him, I sat spellbound at a reading a friend had dragged me to, his words softening the ground of me, so that when he looked up, those brown eyes could tunnel all the way through” (88).
  • “I saw the glass of the window beating, darkness so deep in it that I could see myself, gray at the temples, lined from nostril to lip” (93).
  • “Slowly, the wind softened. Sobbed. Stopped. The house trembled and moaned itself back to pitch. A trickle of dawn painted a gray strip under the door” (97).
  • “When I opened the door to the bedroom, the room was blazing with light. The plywood over the windows had caught the wind like sails and carried the frames from the house. There were rectangular holes in the wall” (98).
  • “The damage was done: three-hundred-year-old trees smashed, towns flattened as if a fist had come from the sun and twisted. My life was scattered into three counties” (99).
  • “Houses contain us; who can say what we contain? Out where the steps had been, balanced beside the drop-off; one egg, whole and mute, holding all the light of dawn in its skin” (100).
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“Letter of Apology” by Maria Reva c. 2019 (pages 215-229 in The Best American Short Stories 2019)

A short story about a comedian who makes a joke about the Soviet Union and the KCB agent who is tasked with obtaining the comedian’s written apology, but encounters resistance from his wife.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “News of Konstantyn Illych Boyko’s transgression came to us by way of an anonymous note deposited in the suggestion box at the Kozlov Cultural Club. According to the note, after giving a poetry reading Konstantyn Illych disseminated a political joke as he loosened his tie backstage” (215).
  • “A few minutes later I floated across the fence of a small dacha, toward a shack sagging on stilts. On the windowsill stood a rusted trophy of a fencer in fighting stance, and from its rapier hung a rag and sponge. When no response came from an oared knock on the door, I rowed to the back of the shack. There sat Konstantyn Illych and, presumably, his wife, Milena Markivna, both of them crosslegged atop a wooden table, playing cards. The tabletop rose just above the water level, giving the impression that the couple was stranded on a raft at sea” (216).
  • “He reached for the small rectangular bulge in his breast pocket. / “Ever read my poetry?” / I expected him to retrieve a booklet of poems and to read from it. Dread came over me; I had never been one to understand verse. Thankfully, he produced a pack of cigarettes instead” (218).
  • “Normally I’d have a letter of apology written and signed well under the thirty-day deadline and I took pride in my celerity. Even the most stubborn perpetrators succumbed under the threat of loss of employment or arrest. The latter, however, was a last resort. The goal now was to reeducate without arrest because the Party was magnanimous and forgiving; moreover, prisons could no longer accommodate ever citizen who uttered a joke” (219).
  • “It was around this time I began to suspect that, while I had been following Konstantyn Illych, his wife had been following me. I forced myself to recollect all I could of the preceding week. Milena Markivna never figured in the center of the memories—the bull’s eye had always, of course, been Konstantyn Illych—but I did find her in the cloudy periphery, sometimes even in the vacuous space between memories” (221).
  • “The apartment was very small, surely smaller than the sanitary standard of nine square meters allotted per person. After we maneuvered the sack to the glassed-in balcony, I scanned the suite for a trace of Milena Markivna—a blouse thrown over a chair, the scent of an open jar of hand cream, perhaps—but saw only books upon books, bursting from shelves and boxes lining the already narrow corridor, books propping up the lame leg of an armchair, books stacked as a table for a lamp under which more books were read, books even in the bathroom, all of them poetry or on poetry, all presumably Konstantyn Illych’s” (223).
  • “Darkness closed in on me. I circled on the spot. The cattails hissed against the edge of the boat. Willow branches snared my arms and face. A sulfurous stench stirred up from the boggy water. Milena Markivna had given me the simplest of tasks and I was about to fail her” (226).
  • “The smell that greeted me was of singed pig flesh, sickening when I realized it was my own hair. My head pulsed with pain; tears blurred my vision” (228).
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“Natural Light” by Kathleen Alcott c. 2019 (pages 19-35 in The Best American Short Stories 2019)

A short story about a divorced woman who sees a surprising picture of her deceased mother in an art exhibit. “Natural Light” examines the nature and reliability of our memories of loved ones while exploring issues of intimacy and mental illness.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “I won’t tell you what my mother was doing in the photograph—or rather, what was being done to her—just that when I saw if for the first time in the museum crowded with tourists, she’d been dead for five years” (19).
  • “This is nobody’s fault, but it is everybody’s burden. That sounds like something my father would say, half-eating, in the general direction of the television: Nobody’s fault, everybody’s burden. Perhaps he did, and this thinking made its way into mine. I don’t always know well where I’ve left a window open” (20).
  • “It is true that there were parts of me that must have been difficult to live with, namely an obsessive thought pattern concerning various ways I might bring about my own death, but also clear that I rose to the occasion of this malady with rosy dedication, running miles every day and recording the impact of this on my mind, conceiving of elaborate meals, the hedonistic pleasures of which I believed spoke to my commitment to life. Could a person who roasted three different kinds of apples for an autumn soup really be capable of suicide?” (21).
  • “All the people in the room were young women and I felt tenderly toward them, their damaged wool and winged eyeliner and overstuffed shoulder bags” (21).
  • “As far as I knew, my mother had lived in New York City for only six unfortunate months. The image I associate with them is not a photo of her looking bewildered by the Rockefeller tree or exposed on the steps of the Met—they don’t exist—but rather a gesture she would make, at her suburban dining table, if ever asked to describe her time there: a low hook of the hand, swiped an inch or two to the left. Total dismissal. Sometimes, on the rare occasion that she has more than her characteristic half-a-glass with dinner, a blush and a remark. I had no idea what I was doing there, she would say, and pat the hand of my father, the ostensible representative of a life she found a year later and understood quite a bit better. / About the photo in the museum, I will tell you this: my mother looks like she knows exactly what she is doing” (22).
  • “I can’t imagine the man, he said more than once, who would have an easy time living with you. This hurt particularly, for he had a fabulous imagination—a jaunty talent with colored pencil, a habit of coming up with a song on the spot, a fond feeling for the absurdity of animals” (24).
  • “On the outdoor patio of the museum the tourists were unhappy, scratching their fat ankles, saying how far is it, how far, how much. It was midsummer, a time in New York that I have always loved and dreaded for how it keeps no secrets, all smells and feeling arrived fully formed, unavoidable” (24).
  • “It was one of a thousand precooked phrases he had on hand: canary in a coal mine, teach a man to fish, taste of your own medicine. Language to him was the same set of formations and markers, certain maxims always leading the way to others. After you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, you reaped what you sowed. It was something he had adopted in recovery, I thought, the beginnings of which took place a decade before I was born” (25).
  • “He started to talk about television, a corner to which he often retreated when uncomfortable. It was a reliable tactic for how it bored and frustrated me, and ensured I’d be off the phone sooner than otherwise” (26).
  • “I had hoped that if I let the thoughts into the room they would lose some of their power, a kind of blackmail in the way they were invisible to others but kept my life on a leash. I would have two drinks, but never three, accept a compliment, but never believe it. Though he was warm and soft when I first confided, the separative effect that I had wished for, some congratulations I might receive for naming the thing that hunted me, did not take shape. Instead, my husband began to look for cohesion, seeing any dip in my feeling as proof of the roots the thoughts had taken in me” (28).
  • “The silence that ensued was like a change in the weather, something that rendered us powerless in a way it was hard to take personally” (31).
  • “This question, as with all others I asked in the brief remainder of the phone call, my father answered in as few words as possible, denying me any real information. My voice spiked and flew and his refused to meet it. In dismissing my catechism, he was returning her to the place where dead people live, her mysteries as irrelevant now as her peanut allergy or pilled lilac robe. I wanted to believe that another conversation was happening inside the one I could hear, that maybe, in allowing my mother her life, protecting it from revisionist inquiries, he was reminding me of the rights I had, the questions about who I was or how I suffered for which there were no categorical answers” (35).
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