*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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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston c. 1937 (195 pages—Harper)

A feminist coming-of-age story in which the protagonist, Janie Crawford, discovers, represses, and unearths her vibrant spirit, finding the love that lets her become a fully realized woman. While many consider this to be a story of romantic love and friendship, the ending suggests that it is, rather, a story about self love and the external forces that help and hinder one woman’s progress toward this end. Misogyny, racism, and classism are all effectively explored in Hurston’s progressive novel, as the author’s background as a folklorist enables her to effortlessly switch between the dialect of African Americans living in the South during the early 20th century and that of a more distant and poetic narrator. While her contemporaries were writing novels focused squarely on racism and the way in which white people and social structures impacted black identity, Hurston sought an independent and nuanced construction of one person’s identity as a black woman. 

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment” (1).
  • “Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their mind and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song” (2).
  • “They sat there in the fresh young darkness close together. Pheoby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie full of that oldest human longing—self revelation” (6).
  • “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches” (8).
  • “So she went on thinking back to her young years and explaining them to her friend in soft, easy phrases while all around the house, the night time put on flesh and blackness . . . She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness” (10).
  • “Nanny’s head and face looked like the standing roots of some old tree that had been torn away by storm. Foundation of ancient power that no longer mattered” (12).
  • “Every tear you drop squeezes a cup uh blood outa mah heart” (15).
  • “Old Nanny sat there rocking Janie like an infant and thinking back and back. Mind-pictures brought feelings, and feeling dragged out dramas from the hollows of her heart” (16).
  • “There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought” (23).
  • “She often spoke to falling seeds and said, ‘Ah hope you fall on soft ground,’ because she had heard seeds saying that to each other as they passed. She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether. She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making” (24).
  • “From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them” (31).
  • “Janie soon began to feel the impact of awe and envy against her sensibilities. The wife of the Mayor was not just another woman as she had supposed. She slept with authority and so she was part of it in the town mind. She couldn’t get but so close to most of them in spirit” (44).
  • “Every morning the world flung itself over and exposed the town to the sun” (48).
  • “But sometimes Sam Watson and Lige Moss forced a belly laugh out of Joe himself with their eternal arguments. It never ended because there was no end to reach. It was a contest in hyperbole and carried on for no other reason” (59).
  • “So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor” (67).
  • “She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood fire of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked no further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be” (67-68).
  • “Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods—come and gone with the sun” (72).
  • “Anybody that didn’t know would have thought that things had blown over, it looked so quiet and peaceful around. But the stillness was the sleep of swords” (77).
  • “So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with huge square toes who lived in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof” (80).
  • “She went over to the dresser and looked hard at her skin and features. The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there” (83).
  • “All things concerning death and burial were said and done. Finish. End. Nevermore. Darkness. Deep hole. Dissolution. Eternity. Weeping and wailing outside. Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life. She did not reach outside for anything, nor did the things of death reach inside to disturb her calm” (84).
  • “It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud-puddle and see ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it into such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love” (85).
  • “Besides she liked being lonesome for a change. This freedom feeling was fine” (86).
  • “All next day in the house and store she thought resisting thoughts about Tea Cake. She even ridiculed him in her mind and was a little ashamed of the association. But every hour or two, the battle had to be fought all over again. She couldn’t make him look like just any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God” (102).
  • “In the cool of the afternoon the fiend from hell specially sent to lovers arrived at Janie’s ear. Doubt. All the fears that circumstance could provide and the heart feel, attacked her on every side” (103).
  • “Poor Joe Starks. Bet he turns over in his grave every day. Tea Cake and Janie gone to Orlando to the movies. Tea Cake and Janie gone to a dance. Tea Cake making flower beds in Janie’s yard and seeding the garden for her. Chopping down that tree she never did like by the dining room window. All those signs of possession. Tea Cake in a borrowed car teaching Janie to drive. Tea Cake and Janie playing checkers; playing coon-can; playing Florida flip on the store porch all afternoon as if nobody else was there. Day after day and week after week” (105).
  • “When Ah wasn’t in de store he wanted me tuh jes sit wid folded hand and sit dere. And Ah’d sit dere wid de walls creepin’ up on me and squeezin’ all de life outa me. Pheoby, dese educated women got up heap of things to sit down and consider. Somebody done tole ‘em what to set down for. Nobody ain’t told poor me, so sittin’ still worries me. Ah wants tuh utilize mahself all over” (107).
  • “But, don’t care how firm your determination is, you can’t keep turning round in one place like a horse grinding sugar cane. So Janie took to sitting over the room. Sit and look. The room inside looked like the mouth of an alligator—gaped wide open to swallow something down” (113).
  • “You’se de onliest woman in de world Ah ever even mentioned gitting married tuh. You bein’ older don’t make no difference” (116).
  • “Honey, since you loose me and gimme privilege to tell yuh all about mahself, Ah’ll tell yuh. You done married one uh de best gamblers God ever made” (119).
  • “To Janie’s strange eyes, everything in the Everglades was big and new. Big Lake Okechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. Weeds that did well to grow waist high up the state were eight and often ten feet tall down there. Ground so rich that everything went wild . . . Dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field. Wild cane on either side of the road hiding the rest of the world. People wild too” (123).
  • “They came in wagons from way up in Georgia and they came in truck loads from east, west, north and south. Permanent transients with no attachments and tired looking men with their families and dogs in flivvers. All night, all day, hurrying in to pick beans. Skillets, beds, patched up spare inner tubes all hanging and dangling from the ancient cars on the outside and hopeful humanity, herded and hovered on the inside, chugging on to the muck. People ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor” (125).
  • “Ah couldn’t stand it if he wuz tuh quit me. Don’t know whut Ah’d do. He kin take most any lil thing and make summertime out of it when times is dull. Then we lives offa dat happiness he made till some mo’ happiness come along” (135).
  • “He was a vanishing-looking kind of a man as if there used to be parts about him that stuck out individually but now he hadn’t a thing about him that wasn’t dwindled and blurred. Just like he had been sand-papered down to a long oval mass” (137).
  • “It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood” (138-139).
  • “That night the palm and banana trees began that long distance talk with rain. Several people took fright and picked up and went in to Palm Beach anyway. A thousand buzzards held a flying meet and then went above the clouds and stayed” (147).
  • “Sometime that night the winds came back. Everything in the world had a strong rattle, sharp and short like Stew Beef vibrating the drum head near the edge with his fingers. By morning Gabriel was playing the deep tones in the center of the drum. So when Janie looked out of her door she saw the drifting mists gathered in the west—that cloud field of the sky—to arm themselves with thunders and march forth against the world. Louder and higher and lower and wider the sound and motion spread, mounting, sinking, darking” (150).
  • “The wind came back with triple fury and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God” (151).
  • “Everybody was walking the fill. Hungry, dragging, falling, crying, calling out names hopefully and hopelessly. Wind and rain beating on old folks and beating on babies” (155).
  • “Tea Cake went out and wandered around. Saw the hand of horror on everything. Houses without roofs, and roofs without houses. Steel and stone all crushed and crumbled like wood. The mother of malice had trifled with men” (161).
  • “Some bodies fully dressed, some naked and some in all degrees of dishevelment. Some bodies with calm faces and satisfied hands. Some dead with fighting faces and eyes flung wide open in wonder. Death had found them watching, trying to see beyond seeing” (162).
  • “She looked hard at the sky for a long time. Somewhere up there beyond blue ether’s bosom sat He. Was He noticing what was going on around here? He must because He knew everything. Did He mean to do this thing to Tea Cake and her? It wasn’t anything she could fight. She could only ache and wait” (169).
  • “Ah jus’ know dat God snatched me out de fire through you” (172).
  • “It was the meanest moment of eternity. A minute before she was just a scared human being fighting for its life. Now she was her sacrificing self with Tea Cake’s head in her lap” (175).
  • “Then the band played, and Tea Cake rode like a Pharaoh to his tomb. No expensive veils and robes for Janie this time. She went on in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief” (180).
  • “Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak up grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore” (182).
  • “Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” (184).
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Falling Man by Don DeLillo c. 2007 (246 pages—Scribner)

A story about distance and dislocation set against the backdrop of a post 9-11 New York City. This third-person narrative elliptically revolves around a black hole of loss, destruction, and devastation. The novel opens as Keith Neudecker, a lawyer who survives the collapse of the towers, mindlessly walks to his ex-wife’s house. Keith and Leanne Glenn share a psychic connection that seems ephemeral, yet stable, as it’s rooted in the things they share—a child and the trauma of the death that they have experienced. (Leanne experiences the death of her mother in middle age and the suicide of her father as a young adult; Keith experiences the death of his coworker and poker buddy during 9-11, a man named Rumsey.) In the novel, “Falling Man” is literally David Janiak, a performance artist who re-enacts the infamous 9-11 photo of a man falling, head-first, out of the tower. Symbolically, Falling Man seems to represent the horror of 9-11 and the human impulse to process pain by creating art that is simultaneously captivating and repulsive. As is typical of narratives that center on trauma, events and memories are not processed in a linear way.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night” (3).
  • “The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall” (1).
  • “The world was this as well, figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air. The noise lay everywhere they ran, stratified sound collecting around them, and he walked away from it and into it at the same time . . . They ran and then they stopped, some of them, standing there swaying, trying to draw breath out of the burning air, and the fitful cries of disbelief, curses and lost shouts, and the paper massed in the air, contracts, resumes blowing by, intact snatches of business, quick in the wind. / He kept on walking. There were the runners who’d stopped and others veering into sidestreets. Some were walking backwards, looking at the core of it, all those writhing lives back there, and things kept falling, scorched objects trailing the lines of fire” (4).
  • “Her mother stirred in the chair, feet propped on the matching stool, late morning, still in her robe, dying for a cigarette . . . Nina was trying to accommodate the true encroachments of old age by making drama of them, giving herself a certain degree of ironic distance” (10).
  • “She didn’t want to believe she was being selfish in her guardianship of the survivor, determined to hold exclusive rights. This is where he wanted to be, outside the tide of voices and faces, God and country, sitting alone in still rooms, with those nearby who mattered” (20).
  • “Running toward the far curb now, feeling like a skirt and blouse without a body, how good it felt, hiding behind the plastic shimmer of the dry cleaner’s long sheath, which she held at arm’s length, between her and the taxis, in self-defense. She imagined the eyes of the drivers, intense and slit, heads pressed toward steering wheels, and there was the question of her need to be equal to the situation, as Martin had said, her mother’s lover” (23).
  • “Their separation had been marked by a certain symmetry, the steadfast commitment each made to an equivalent group. He had his poker game, six player, downtown, one night a week. She had her storyline session, in East Harlem, also weekly, in the afternoon, a gathering of five or six or seven men and women in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease” (29).
  • “She smiled at Lianne, warmly and falsely, in a fragrance of glazed cakes, a mother-to-mother look, like we both know how these kids have enormous gleaming world they don’t share with their parents” (36).
  • “He had pale hair, his father’s, and a certain somberness of body, a restraint, his own, that gave him an uncanny discipline in games, in physical play” (39).
  • “She was taking a round of medications, a mystical wheel, the ritualistic design of the hours and days in tablets and capsules, in colors, shapes and numbers” (48).
  • “The road bent west and three girls wearing headsets when rollerblading past. The ordinariness, so normally unnoticeable, fell upon him oddly, with almost dreamlike effect” (51).
  • “She went through it slowly, remembering as she spoke, often pausing to look into space, to see things again, the collapsed ceilings and blocked stairwells, the smoke, always, and the fallen wall, the drywall, and she paused to search for the word and he waited, watching. / She was dazed and had no sense of time, she said. There was water somewhere running or falling, flowing down from somewhere” (55).
  • “Even the program of exercises he did for his postsurgical wrist seemed a little detached, four times a day, an odd set of extensions and flexions that resembled prayer in some remote northern province, among a repressed people, with periodic applications of ice” (59).
  • “Lianne struggled with the idea of God. She was taught to believe that religion makes people compliant. This is the purpose of religion, to return people to a childlike state. Awe and submission, her mother said. This is why religion speaks so powerfully in laws, rituals and punishments. And it speaks beautifully as well, inspiring music and art, elevating consciousness in some, reducing it in others. People fall into trances, people literally go to the ground, people crawl great distances or march in crowds stabbing themselves and whipping themselves. And other people, the rest of us, maybe we’re rocked more gently, joined to something deep in the soul” (62).
  • “She wanted this only, to snuff out the pulse of the shaky faith she’d held for much of her life” (65).
  • “It was Keith as well who was going slow, easing inward. He used to want to fly out of self-awareness, day and night, a body in raw motion. Now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection, thinking not only in clear units, hard and linked, but only absorbing what comes, drawing things out of time and memory and into some dim space that bears his collected experience” (66).
  • “She was awake, middle of the night, eyes closed, mind running, and she felt time pressing in, and threat, a kind of beat in her head” (67).
  • “He was the kind of man who is not old yet by strict count but who carries something heavier than hard years” (78).
  • “The talk was fire and light, the emotion contagious” (79).
  • “Everything happened in crowded segments of place and time. His dreams seemed compressed, small rooms, nearly bare, quickly dreamt” (81).
  • “There was a rush, a pull that made it hard to see beyond the minute. He flew through the minutes and felt the draw of some huge future landscape opening up, all mountain and sky” (82).
  • “When he appeared at the door it was not possible, a man come out of an ash storm, all blood and slag, reeking of burnt matter, with pinpoint glints of slivered glass in his face. He looked immense, in the doorway, with a gaze that had no focus in it” (87).
  • “He could make her laugh. She seemed to look into him when she laughed, eyes alive, seeing something he could not guess at. There was an element in Florence that was always close to some emotional distress, a memory of bearing injury or sustaining loss, possibly lifelong, and the laughter was a kind of shedding, a physical deliverance from old woe, dead skin, if only for a moment” (90).
  • “She was talking to the room, to herself, he thought, talking back in time to some version of herself, a person who might confirm the grim familiarity of the moment” (91).
  • “She was plain except when she laughed. She was someone on the subway. She wore loose skirts and plain shoes and was full-figured and maybe a little clumsy but when she laughed there was a flare in nature, an unfolding of something half hidden and dazzling” (92).
  • “But then she might be wrong about what was ordinary. Maybe nothing was. Maybe there was a deep fold in the grain of things, the way things pass through the mind, the way time swings in the mind, which is the only place it meaningfully exists” (105).
  • “The two dark objects, the white bottle, the huddled boxes. Lianne turned away from the painting and saw the room itself as a still life, briefly” (111).
  • “Her mother smoked a cigarette like a woman in the 1940s, in a gangster film, all nervous urgency, in black and white” (114).
  • “‘But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it? Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction? You build a thing like that so you can see it come down. The provocation is obvious. What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice? It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice? You are saying, Here it is, bring it down” (116).
  • “She loved Kierkegaard in his antiqueness, in the glaring drama of the translation she owned, an old anthology of brittle pages with ruled underlinings in red ink, passed down by someone in her mother’s family. This is what she read and re-read into deep night in her dorm room, a drifting mass of papers, clothing, books and tennis gear that she liked to think of as the objective correlative of an overflowing mind” (118).
  • “Women on benches or steps, reading or doing crosswords, sunning themselves, heads thrown back, or scooping yogurt with blue spoons, sandaled women, some of them, toes exposed” (122).
  • “The persistence of the man’s needs had a kind of crippled appeal. It opened Keith to dimmer things, at odder angles, to something crouched and uncorrectable in people but also capable of stirring a warm feeling in him, a tinge of affinity” (123).
  • “She appeared to be two women simultaneously, the one sitting here, less combative over time, less clearly defined, speech beginning to drag, and the younger slimmer and wildly attractive one, as Lianne imagines her, a spirited woman in her reckless prime, funny and blunt, spinning on the dance floor” (125).
  • “She wanted to stay focused, one thing following sensibly upon another. There were moments when she wasn’t talking so much as fading into time, dropping back into some funneled stretch of recent past. They sat dead still, watching her. People, lately, watched her” (127).
  • “This was his father seeping through, sitting home in western Pennsylvania, reading the morning paper, taking the walk in the afternoon, a man braided into sweet routine, a widower, eating the evening meal, unconfused, alive in his true skin” (128).
  • “He’d stack six blue chips, four gold, three red and five white and then match this, with steel-trap speed, fingers flying, hands sometimes crossing, with sixteen white, four blue, two gold and thirteen red, building his columns and then folding his arms and looking into secret space, leaving each winner to rake in his chips, in unspoken respect and semi-awe” (128).
  • “They met on a small island in the northeast Aegean where Jack had designed a cluster of white stucco dwellings for an artist’s retreat. Set above a cove, the grouping, from offshore, was a piece of geometry gone slightly askew—Euclidean rigor in quantum space, Nina would write” (130).
  • “It was what they knew together, in the timeless drift of the long spiral down, and he went back again even if these meetings contradicted what he’d lately taken to be the truth of his life, that it was meant to be lived seriously and responsibly, not snatched in clumsy fistfuls” (137).
  • “Keith stood at the rear of the great open space, people everywhere in motion, blood pumping. They quick-walked on the treadmills or ran in place, never seeming regimented, never rigidly linked. It was a scene charged with purpose and a kind of elemental sex, rooted sex, women arched and bent, all elbows and knees, neck veins jutting . . . It was no good spending eight hours at the office, ten hours, then going straight home. He would need to burn things off, test his body, direct himself inward, working on strength, stamina, agility, sanity. He would need an offsetting discipline, a form of controlled behavior, voluntary, that kept him from shambling into the house hating everybody” (143).
  • “She drew a cigarette from the pack and held it. She seemed to be thinking into some distant matter, not remembering so much as measuring, marking the reach or degree of something, the meaning of something” (148).
  • “The group was reaching that time and she didn’t think she could do it again, start over, six or seven people, the ballpoint pens and writing pads, the beauty of it, yes, the way they sing their lives, but also the unwariness they bring to what they know, the strange and brave innocence of it, and her own grasping after her father” (155).
  • “He walked back through the park. The runners seemed eternal, circling the reservoir, and he tried not to think of the last half hour, with Florence, talking into her silence. This was another kind of eternity, the stillness in her face and body, outside time” (157).
  • “He thought he would tell her about Florence. It was the right thing to do. It was the kind of perilous truth that would lead to an understanding of clean and even proportions, long-lasting, with a feeling of reciprocal love and trust. He believed this. It was a way to stop being double in himself, trailing the taut shallow of what is unsaid” (161).
  • “Or she was dreaming his intentions. She was making it up, stretched so tight across the moment that she could not think her own thoughts” (165).
  • “His face showed an intense narrowing of thought and possibility. He was seeing something elaborately different from what he encountered step by step in the ordinary run of hours. He had to learn how to see it correctly, find a crack in the world where it might fit” (168).
  • “She kept her head down, seeing things as fleeting shimmers, a coil of razor wire atop a low fence or a police cruiser going north, the way she’d come, a blue-white flare with faces” (169).
  • “He knew things she could never in ten lifetimes begin to imagine. In the drenching light he saw a faint trace of fine soft silky down on her forearm and once he said something that made her smile” (171).
  • “This is where the landscape consumed him, waterfalls frozen in space, a sky that never ended. It was all Islam, the rivers and streams. Pick up a stone and hold it in your fist, this is Islam” (172).
  • “This entire life, this world of lawns to water and hardware stacked on endless shelves, was total, forever, illusion” (173).
  • “They felt things together, he and his brothers. They felt the claim of danger and isolation. They felt the magnetic effect of plot. Plot drew them together more tightly than ever. Plot closed the world to the slenderest line of sight, where everything converges to a point” (174).
  • “The radio plays news, weather, sports and traffic. Hammad does not listen. He is thinking again, looking past the face in the mirror, which is not his, and waiting for the day to come, clear skies, light winds, when there is nothing left to think about” (178).
  • “They walked the entire route, north for twenty blocks and then across town and finally down toward Union Square, a couple of miles in steam heat, with police in riot helmets and flak jackets, small children riding their parents’ shoulders. They walked with five hundred thousand others, a bright swarm of people ranging sidewalk to sidewalk, banners and posters, printed shirts, coffins draped in black, a march against the war, the president, the policies” (181).
  • “These three years past, since that day in September, all life had become public. The stricken community pours forth voices and the solitary night mind is shaped by the outcry. She was content in the small guarded scheme she’d lately constructed, arranging the days, working the details, staying down, keeping out. Cut free from rage and foreboding. Cut free from nights that sprawl through endless waking chains of self-hell. She was marching apart from the handheld slogans and cardboard coffins, the mounted police, the anarchists throwing bottles. It was all choreography, to be shredded in seconds” (182).
  • “She became her face and features, her skin color, a white person, white her fundamental meaning, her state of being. This is who she was, not really but at the same time yes, exactly, why not. She was privileged, detached, self-involved, white. It was there in her face, educated, unknowing, scared. She felt all the bitter truth that stereotypes contain” (184-185).
  • “The sun is a star. When did she realize this herself and why didn’t she remember when? The sun is a star. It seemed a revelation, a fresh way to think about being who we are, the purest way and only finally unfolding, a kind of mystical shiver, an awakening” (187).
  • “It made her feel good, the counting down, and she did it sometimes in the day’s familiar drift, walking down a street, riding in a taxi. It was her form of lyric verse, subjective and unrhymed, a little songlike but with a rigor, a tradition of fixed order, only backwards, to test the presence of another kind of reversal, which a doctor nicely named retrogenesis” (188).
  • “There were hours of talk and laughter, bottles uncorked. She missed the comical midlife monologues of the clinically self-absorbed” (190).
  • “She could imagine his life, then and now, detect the slurred pulse of an earlier consciousness. Maybe he was a terrorist but he was one of ours, she thought, and the thought chilled her, shamed her—one of ours, which meant godless, Western, white” (195).
  • “He liked listening to the visceral burst, men on their feet, calling out, a rough salvo of voices that brought heat and open emotion to the soft pall of the room” (211).
  • “But the game had structure, guiding principles, sweet and easy interludes of dream logic when the player knows that the card he needs is the card that’s sure to fall” (212).
  • “Words, their own, were not much more than sounds, airstreams of shapeless breath, bodies speaking” (212).
  • “It hit her hard when she first saw it, the day after, in the newspaper. The man headlong, the towers behind him. The mass of the towers filled the frame of the picture. The man falling, the towers contiguous, she thought, behind him. The enormous soaring lines, the vertical column stripes. The man with blood on his shirt, she thought, or burn marks, and the effect of the columns behind him, the composition, she thought, darker stripes for the nearer tower, the north, lighter for the other, and the mass, the immensity of it, and the man set almost precisely between the rows of darker and lighter stripes. Headlong, free fall, she thought, and the picture burned a hole in her mind and heart, dear God, he was a falling angel and his beauty was horrific” (221-222).
  • “No one used the rowing machine. He half hated the thing, it made him angry, but he felt the intensity of the workout, the need to pull and strain, set his body against as sleek dumb punishing piece of steel and cable” (226).
  • “There was the laughing man at the far end of the room. There was the fact that they would all be dead one day. He wanted to rake in the chips and stack them. The game mattered, the stacking of chips, the eye count, the play and dance of hand and eye” (228).
  • “Older men with chapped faces, eyelids drawn down. Would he know them if he saw them in a diner, eating breakfast at the next table? Long lifetimes of spare motion, sparer words, call the bet, see the raise, two or three such faces every day, men nearly unnoticeable” (229).
  • “There it is, the clink of chips, the toss and scatter, players and dealers, mass and stack, a light ringing sound so native to the occasion that it lies outside the aural surround, in its own current of air, and no one hears it but you” (229).
  • “These were the days after and now the years, a thousand heaving dreams, the trapped man, the fixed limbs, the dream of paralysis, the gasping man, the dream of asphyxiation, the dream of helplessness” (230).
  • “She ran along the river, early light, before the kid was awake. She thought of training for the marathon, not this year’s but next, the pain and rigor of it, long-distance running as spiritual effort” (233).
  • “She went early, before mass began, to be alone for a while, to feel the calm that marks a presence outside the nonstop riffs of the waking mind. It was not something godlike she felt but only a sense of others. Others bring us closer. Church brings us closer. What did she feel here? She felt the dead, hers and unknown others. This is what she’d always felt in churches, great bloated cathedrals in Europe, a small poor parish church such as this one. She felt the dead in the walls, over decades and centuries. There was no dispiriting chill in this. It was a comfort, feeling their presence, the dead she’d loved and all the faceless others who’d filled a thousand churches” (233).
  • “Her mother had a mane of white hair at the end, the body slowly broken, haunted by strokes, blood in the eyes. She was drifting into spirit life. She was a spirit woman now, barely able to make a sound that might pass for a word. She lay shrunken in bed, all that was left of her framed by the long straight hair, frosted white in sunlight, beautiful and otherworldly” (234).
  • “The size of it, the sheer physical dimensions, and he saw himself in it, the mass and scale, and the way the thing swayed, the slow and ghostly lean” (244).
  • “The windblast sent people to the ground. A thunderhead of smoke and ash came moving toward them. The light drained dead away, bright day gone. They ran and fell and tried to get up, men with toweled heads, a woman blinded by debris, a woman calling someone’s name. The only light was vestigial now, the light of what comes after, carried in the residue of smashed matter, in the ash ruins of what was various and human, hovering in the air above” (246).
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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller c. 1961 (416 pages—Simon & Schuster)

A satirical novel about WWII that’s set on an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea. Instead of a serious story of heroism, Heller’s depiction of war spotlights the inane and cowardly behavior of his characters. The narrative is fragmented and does not follow a clear chronology. It’s central conflict—surviving war—is obscured by its focus on anecdotes and absurdities. The protagonist, Yossarian, is troubled by the pointlessly dangerous situations that he is thrust into on a regular basis. Throughout the novel, the characters partake in irrational pursuits that reveal their self-serving interests. The phrase “Catch-22,” which was coined by Heller, is illustrated in different anecdotes throughout the novel, all of which expose bureaucratic absurdities. For example, when Yossarian learns that those who are found to be insane will be discharged, he fakes insanity only to have a superior conclude that he is—in fact—sane, as only a crazy person would remain sane in such conditions. This anecdote typifies the contradictions that arise within hierarchical structures and institutions that exert power over others. Overall, it seems that Heller’s depiction of war can be read as a larger critique of society and the way in which those in charge exert their power.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Each morning they came around, three brisk and serious men with efficient mouths and inefficient eyes, accompanied by brisk and serious Nurse Duckett, one of the ward nurses who didn’t like Yossarian” (17).
  • “Then there was the educated Texan from Texas who looked like someone in Technicolor and felt, patriotically, that people of means—decent folk—should be given more votes than drifters, whores, criminals, degenerates, atheists and indecent folk—people without means” (19).
  • “There was no end in sight. The only end in sight was Yossarian’s own and he might have remained in the hospital until doomsday had it not been for the patriotic Texan with his infundibuliform jowls and his lumpy, rumpleheaded, indestructible smile cracked forever across the front of his face like the brim of a black ten-gallon hat” (25).
  • “There was nothing funny about living like a bum in a tent in Pianosa between fat mountains behind him and a placid blue sea in front that could gulp down a person with a cramp in the twinkling of an eye and ship him back to shore three days later, all charges paid, bloated, blue and putrescent, water draining out through both cold nostrils” (26).
  • “Havermeyer held mortal men rigid in six planes as steady and still as sitting ducks while he followed the bombs all the way down through the Plexiglas nose with deep interest and gave the German gunners below all the time they needed to set their sights and take their aim and pull their triggers or lanyards or switches or whatever they hell they did pull when they wanted to kill people they didn’t know” (37).
  • “Doc Daneeka was a very neat, clean man whose idea of a good time was to sulk” (40).
  • “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy to fly more missions” (52).
  • “Yossarian longed to sit on the floor in a huddled ball right on top of the escape hatch inside a sheltering igloo of extra flak suits that he would have been happy to carry along with him, his parachute already hooked to his harness where it belonged, one fist clenching the red-handed rip cord, one fist gripping the emergency hatch release that would spill him earthward into air at the first dreadful squeal of destruction” (55).
  • “Impressionable men in the squadron like Dobbs and Captain Flume were so deeply disturbed by Hungry Joe’s shrieking nightmares that they would begin to have shrieking nightmares of their own, and the piercing obscenities they flung into the air every night from their separate places in the squadron rang against each other in the darkness romantically like the mating calls of songbirds with filthy minds” (59).
  • “McWatt was the craziest combat man of them all probably, because he was perfectly sane and still did not mind war” (65).
  • “As a Harvard undergraduate he had won prizes in scholarship for just about everything, and the only reason he had not won prizes in scholarship for everything else was that he was too busy signing petitions, circulating petitions and challenging petitions, joining discussion groups and resigning from discussion groups, attending youth congress, picketing other youth congresses and organizing student committees in defense of dismissed faculty members” (72).
  • “Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three” (86).
  • “Yossarian, on the other hand, knew exactly who Mudd was. Mudd was the unknown soldier who had never had a chance, for that was the only thing anyone ever did know about all the unknown soldiers—they never had a chance. They had to be dead” (108).
  • “‘There is not light. I don’t feel like starting my generator. I used to get a big kick out of saving people’s lives. Now I wonder what the hell’s the point, since they all have to die anyway’” (110).
  • “‘Look at you. You don’t care if you drink yourselves to death or drown yourselves to death, do you?’ / ‘Just as long as we don’t fly ourselves to death’” (126).
  • “He seemed eternally indestructible as he sat there surrounded by danger, his features molded firmly into that same fierce, regal, just and forbidding countenance which was recognized and revered by every man in the squadron” (129-130).
  • “Nately ripped off his hat and earphones in one jubilant sweep and began rocking back and forth happily like a handsome child in a high chair” (138).
  • “He woke up blinking with a slight pain in his head and opened his eyes upon a world boiling in chaos in which everything was in proper order” (140).
  • “Wind whistling up through the jagged gash in the floor kept the myriad bits of paper circulating like alabaster particles in a paperweight and contributed to a sensation of lacquered, waterlogged, unreality. Everything seemed strange, so tawdry and grotesque” (145).
  • “As Yossarian watched, the burning plane floated over on its side and began spiraling down slowly in a wide, tremulous, narrowing circles, its huge flaming burden blazing orange and flaring out in back like a long, swirling cape of fire and smoke. The were parachutes, one, two, three . . . four, and then the plane gyrated into a spin and fell the rest of the way to the ground, fluttering insensibly inside its vivid pyre like a shred of colored tissue paper” (146).
  • “Yossarian let the girl drag him through the lovely Roman spring night for almost a mile until they reached a chaotic bus depot honking with horns, blazing with red and yellow lights and echoing with the snarling vituperations of unshaven bus drivers pouring loathsome, hair-raising curses out at each other, at their passengers and at the strolling, unconcerned knots of pedestrians clogging their paths, who ignored them until they were bumped by the busses and began shouting curses back” (150).
  • “There were billions of conscientious body cells oxidating away day and night like dumb animals at their complicated job of keeping him alive and healthy, and every one was a potential traitor and foe. There were so many diseases that it took a truly diseased mind to even think about them as often as he and Hungry Joe did” (165).
  • “‘Be thankful you’re healthy.’ / ‘Be bitter you’re not going to stay that way.’ / ‘Be glad you’re even alive.’ ‘Be furious you’re going to die.’ / ‘Things could end much worse,’ she cried” (171).
  • “‘Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?’” (172).
  • “Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of thirty-six who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general. He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined” (179).
  • “When such misgivings assailed Colonel Cathcart, he choked back a sob and wanted to throw the damned thing away, but he never failed to embellish his masculine, martial physique with a high gloss of sophisticated heroism that illuminated him to dazzling advantage among all the other full colonels in the American Army with whom he was in competition. Although how could he be sure?” (180).
  • “Intuition warned him that that he was drawing close to some immense and inscrutable cosmic climax, and his broad, meaty, towering frame tingled from head to toe at the thought that Yossarian, whoever he would eventually turn out to be, was destined to serve as his nemesis” (200).
  • “He licked his parched, thursting lips with a sticky tongue and moaned in misery again, loudly enough this time to attract the startled, searching glances of the men sitting around him on the rows of crude wooden benches in their chocolate-colored coveralls and stitched white parachute harness” (208-209).
  • “The two young lieutenants nodded lumpishly and gaped at each other in stunned and flaccid reluctance, each waiting for the other to initiate the procedure of taking Major Danby outside and shooting him. Neither had ever taken Major Danby outside and shot him before” (210).
  • “The girls led them up four steep, very long flights of creaking wooden stairs and guided them through a doorway into their own wonderful and resplendent tenement apartment, which burgeoned miraculously with an infinite and proliferating flow of supple young naked girls and contained the evil and debauched ugly old man who irritated Nately constantly with his caustic laughter and the clucking, proper old woman in the ash-gray woolen sweater who disapproved of everything immoral that occurred there and tried her best to tidy up” (227).
  • “He had lived for almost twenty years without trauma, tension, hate, or neurosis, which was proof to Yossarian of just how crazy he really was. His childhood had been a pleasant, though disciplined, one. He got one well with his brothers and sisters, and he did not hate his mother and father, even though they had both been very good to him” (233).
  • “Yossarian shook his head and explained that déjà vu was just a momentary infinitesimal lag in the operation of two coactive sensory nerve centers that commonly functioned simultaneously” (252).
  • “He heard loud, wild peals of derisive laughter crashing all about him and caught blurred glimpses of wicked beery faces smirking far back inside the bushes and high overhead in the foliage of the tree. Spasms of scorching pains stabbed through his lungs and slowed him to a crippled walk” (257).
  • “Nurse Sue Ann Duckett was a tall, spare, mature, straight-backed woman with a prominent, well-rounded ass, small breasts and angular, ascetic New England features that came equally close to being very lovely and very plain” (274).
  • “‘You see? You have no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions’” (279).
  • “‘You’re antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Slums depress you. Greed depresses you. Crime depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re a manic depressive!’” (283).
  • “‘Well don’t let that trouble you,’ General Peckem continued with a careless flick of his wrist. ‘Just pass the work I assign you along to somebody else and trust to luck. We call that delegation of responsibility. Somewhere down near the lowest level of this coordinated organization I run are people who do get the work done when it reaches them, and everything manages to run along without too much effort on my part. I suppose that’s because I am a good executive” (298).
  • “What preposterous madness to float in thin air two miles high on an inch or two of metal, sustained from death by the meager skill and intelligence of two vapid strangers, a beardless kid named Huple and a nervous nut like Dobbs, who really did go nuts right there in the plane, running amuck over the target without leaving his co-pilot’s seat and grabbing the controls from Huple to plunge them all down into that chilling dive that tore Yossarian’s headset loose and brought them right back inside the dense flak from which they had almost escaped” (308).
  • “‘He’s going to give the medical profession a bad name by standing up for principle. If he’s not careful, he’ll be blackballed by his state medical association and kept out of hospitals’” (323).
  • “Even before dark, young soldiers with pasty white faces were throwing up everywhere and passing out drunkenly on the ground. The air turned foul. Other men picked up steam as the hours passed, and the aimless, riotous celebration continued. It was a raw, violent, guzzling saturnalia that spilled obstreperously through the woods to the officers’ club and spread up into the hills toward the hospital and the antiaircraft-gun emplacements” (333).
  • “There was no fire, no smoke, not the slightest untoward noise. The remaining wing revolved as ponderously as a grinding cement mixer as the plane plummeted nose downward in a straight line at accelerating speed until it struck the water, which foamed open at the impact like a white water lily on the dark-blue sea, and washed back in a geyser of apple-green bubbles when the plane sank” (347).
  • “Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attach, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up” (377).
  •  “Almost on cue, a nursing mother padded past holding an infant in black rags, and Yossarian wanted to smash her too, because she reminded him of the barefoot boy in the thin shirt and thin, tattered trousers and all the shivering, stupefying misery in a world that never yet had provided enough heat and food and justice for all but an ingenious and unscrupulous handful. What a lousy earth!” (379).
  • “He heard snarling, inhuman voices cutting through the ghostly blackness in front suddenly. The bulb on the corner lamppost had died, throwing everything visible off balance. On the other side of the intersection, a man was beating a dog with a stick like the man who was beating the horse with a whip in Raskolnikov’s dream” (381).
  • “‘Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture.’ / Yossarian rejected the advice with a skeptical shake of his head. ‘When I look up, I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy’” (409).
  • “Yossarian laughed with buoyant scorn and shook his head. ‘I’m not running away from my responsibilities. I’m running to them. There’s nothing negative about running away to save my life’” (414).
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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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In the Distance by Hernan Diaz c. 2017 (256 pages—Coffeehouse Press)

A quest narrative set in the 1800s, “In the Distance” is a bildungsroman centered on Håkan, a Swedish immigrant who, as a boy, is separated from his brother in England as he mistakenly boards a boat to California, when they’re supposed to be meeting their father in New York. The observations of a protagonist who sees much of what he encounters for the first time, and describes it in this way, heighten the reader’s sense of dislocation. Searching for his brother, Håkan journeys east across the country, against the westward flow of people, a movement that subverts the typical route found in Western narratives. The novel is haunting and mythical, as Håkan’s character appears as large as Paul Bunyan and as strong as John Henry, yet his sense of profound loneliness overshadows his strength.     

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Ignoring the muffled cries from the crew and still holding on to the edge, he turned from the ship and faced, once again, the white void. His hands were the only living things he could see” (2).
  • “Nobody spoke. The sky remained indistinguishable from the ground, but both had now grayed. Finally, after rearranging the fire, Håkan started to talk. Making long pauses, and sometimes in an almost inaudible voice, he would keep speaking till sunrise, always addressing the fire, as if his words had to be burned as soon as they were uttered” (8).
  • “It had been moths since they had set sail, but when they docked in San Francisco, Håkan had aged years—the lanky boy had become a tall youth with a rugged face, weathered by the sun and the briny wind, and furrowed by a permanent squint full of both doubt and determination” (16).
  • “To him, English was still a mudslide of runny, slushy sounds that did not exist in his mother tongue—r, th, sh, and some particularly gelatinous vowels” (19).
  • “He looked at the plain until it became vertical, a surface to be climbed rather than traversed, and he wondered what he would find on the other side if he made it all the way up and straddled the sepia wall stretching into the drained, dim sky. No matter how hard he scanned the horizon, all he could see were rippling mirages and the phosphorescent specks his exhausted eyes made pop in and out of emptiness” (38).
  • “Dawn was an intuition, certain yet unseen, and Håkan ran toward it, his eyes fixed on the distant spot that, he was sure, would soon redden, showing him the straight line to his brother. The intense wind on his back was a good omen—an encouraging hand pushing him forward while also sweeping away his tracks” (51).
  • “Linus had explained other natural wonders to him. For instance, the fact that each day had its own sun. During its journey across the sky, the bright disc would burn out, sink, and melt on the horizon, pouring down the precipice at the end of the earth like wax. And just like a candle maker, god would rescue these drippings to make a new sun overnight” (53).
  • “A fire warming his face. The stars above the flames. A damp cloth on his lips. The sun filtering through a canvas canopy. The taste of fever. The dreaded sound of carriage wheels. Dusk or dawn. Voices. The taste of honey” (55).
  • “Examined with attention, the dissected hare illuminates the parts and properties of all other animals and, by extension, their environment. The hare, like a blade of grass or a piece of coal, is not simply a small fraction of the whole but contains the whole within itself. This makes us all one. If anything, because we are all made of the same stuff. Our flesh is the debris of dead stars, and this is also true of the apple and its tree, of each hair on the spider’s legs, and of the rock rusting on planet Mars. Each miniscule being has spokes radiating out to all of creation” (61).
  • “‘You have seen for yourself how all life is connected, how everything is in everything, and how each single thing radiates to the whole,’ Lorimer told Håkan” (62).
  • “A new layer of desolation came over the already destitute land. The lifeless flatland, with its ever-multiplying cells, stayed the same. The sun remained, as always, piercing and pervasive, sharp and blunt. There was only one change in that unyielding monotony—Håkan’s loneliness, the only thing with depth in that flat and flattening world” (75).
  • “Hakkan’s memory of what followed that first operation was obscured by thick smudges of blood, but behind the crimson-black swirls, his recollections had the surgical precision of a picture painted with a single-hair brush. Until sunset, they extracted pellets buried in the deepest fibers of the flesh, fitted the serrated edges of broken bones into one another reset viscera and stitched the abdomens shut, cauterized wounds with white-hot irons, sawed off arms and feet, sewed flaps of skin around muscle and fat and bone into rounded stumps . . . His detachment, he felt, was the only proper way to approach tending the wounded” (84).
  • “Moving through the throbbing desert was like sinking into the state of trance immediately preceding sleep, where consciousness summons up all its remaining strength only to register the moment of its own dissolution. All that could be heard was the thin earth—rock pulverized through the seasons, bones milled by the elements, ashes scattered like a whisper over the plains—being further ground under the hooves” (94).
  • “Knowing where he was going, having the assurance of finding the line of emigrants beyond the ring of the horizon, being able to build a fire and cook proper food on it, hearing the water lap in the vats with each of the burro’s steps, sensing the weight of his full purse in his pocket, feeling the desert was not such a foreign place anymore—all these things and impressions turned the plains into an actual territory that could be traversed and exited instead of a suffocating void from which everything, including space itself, had been drained” (95).
  • “She laughed as she searched for the exact shapes of those strange vowels, but even as Håkan laughed along, he fell into a solemn trance watching her lips move around his name. That day, she also wrote his name down, unsure of the spelling, on a piece of paper that Håkan would keep for years, thinking, each time he looked at it, that he was there—in those fading lines on that yellowing scrap of wrapping through which an irretrievable past managed to persist in the present—in a more intense way than in his own body” (127).
  • “He was overwhelmed by an active, all-consuming hollowness—a corrosive shadow wiping out the world in its progress, a stillness that had nothing to do with peace, a voracious silence craving total desolation, an infectious nothingness colonizing everything” (137).
  • “Little by little, as his breath evened out, he understood that the world had come to a still, and finally his woes caught up with him. He would never be able to face other people. This was clear to him now that he stood, once again, by himself, in the void” (157).
  • “He was sick of the sun and would often lie on his stomach, drowsy and almost feverish from the stale air under the low-hanging skins and canvases, to avoid its sight. Still it would pierce through his refuge and bore into his skull, igniting all the past suns that had hunted down and degraded him and everyone else he had met throughout his journey—the sun, deceitful in Portsmouth, implacable over Brennan’s mine, cold-hearted against his Clangston window, shrieking across the salt lake, complicit through a wagon’s bonnet, excessive when unwanted, and far from its creatures when most needed” (158).
  • “It got warmer, redder, and drier. The mountain chain was reduced to a few crooked pillars. The forest died out, and only some prickly gray things sprouted every now and then” (197).
  • “Håkan was pulverized and scattered by the ensuing silence. There was no room for him—or anything—in it” (201).
  • “His pain, intense and deafening as it was, came to him as a remote echo of someone else’s scream” (204).
  • “Emptiness, he discovered, wants everything for itself—it takes the fraction of an atom (or the flicker of a thought) to put an end to a universal void. Exhausted by the vacuum, he would often get up, build a new fire somewhere in the burrow, and work on the tiling, adding pebbles around the boulders and slabs on the walls” (210-211).
  • “Håkan thought that he could smell them. Human stench. To what savagery would he be subjected? Because these were wild and unkind men. He could tell from their scars, their snickers, and, above all, their calmness—the calmness of people who know they can always rely on absolute violence” (218).
  • “After years of restless rambles followed by years in a stagnant haze, having a purpose felt like being possessed by a spirit” (226).
  • “People of all sorts walked briskly up and down the streets. Workers with shovels and pickaxes, ladies in the finest dress imaginable, boys on errands, youths on arrogant horses, crews of Chinese miners, gentlemen in coats shinier than any of the ladies’ dresses, men with hungry eyes and slipshod shoes, waiters with trays full of food and drink, tight packs of sternly dressed and heavily armed couriers carrying boxes and briefcases” (231).
  • “He kept traveling west, toward the sea, across the steppe, into the forest, over the mountains, down the valleys, across the fields, avoiding roads, shunning travelers and herdsmen, steering clear of the many towns that had popped up everywhere, trapping when he could, eating what he found, and feeling, for the most part, secure, hunching and shrinking on his big horse” (240).
  • “Håkan fitted the lion hood over his head. The sky purpled behind plumes of snow blown up from the ground. He looked at his feet, then up again, and set off into the whiteness, toward the sinking sun” (256).
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“The Cold Boy” by Benjamin Percy c. 2019 (pages 3-16 in Suicide Woods)

A surreal and haunting story about Ray, an emotionally distant taxidermist, who babysits his sister’s son. The young boy (who remains unnamed in the story) falls through the ice of a pond near Ray’s house and somehow survives. For selfish reasons, Ray doesn’t take the boy to the hospital, hoping things will be okay as the boy’s behavior becomes increasingly strange, particularly his craving for cold things. The child seems to be an incarnation of the protagonist, similarly silent, distant, and strange. The story is told from a limited omniscient viewpoint and its magical events coupled with questions about the narrator’s reliability make this work eerie and memorable.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “The forest is hardwood, and the branches of the oaks and sycamores are bare except for the crows, hundreds of them, all huddled like little men in black jackets. Together they make a strange music—muttering to one another in rusty voices as they click their beaks and rustle their feathers and claw at the bark—that can be heard a quarter mile away, across a snowy cornfield, where Ray stands on a frozen pond. / The stubs of last year’s cornstalks fang through the snow, and two sets of footprints lead like a rough blue stream from his house to the pond. Two sets of footprints, yet he is alone on the ice. The cold rises through the soles of his boots, creeping up his legs, into his chest, so that his heart feels frosted with tiny white crystals” (3).
  • “He can’t see from this angle, his cheek resting against the ice. He slides forward and reaches out blindly for the hole, his fingers splashing at the edge of it. The slushy perimeter crumbles, and his arm drops into the water up to his elbow. His curse is short when he feels something catch hold of him. At first he thinks some starved fish has risen from the depths to bite at his fingers, mistaking them for nightcrawlers. But when he yanks back his arm, he feels the tug of weight and sees the small white hand clamped onto his” (5).
  • “In the living room, he lays the boy down and strips off his jacket, his clothes, tosses them aside in a sodden pile that darkens the carpet. Ray is hopped-up on adrenaline that chatters his teeth and sends shivers through his body, but the boy is as still as a sculpture” (7).
  • “A gasp of cold greets him. The wind has shaped the snow into drifts, like the sluggish waves of some frozen ocean. The day is sunny, but the yard is dark and rippling with shadows, and Ray feels momentarily unbalanced as he staggers off the front step. The crows are overhead, hundreds of them, a circling black eddy that blots out the sun” (8-9).
  • “Ray wakes shivering in the night. The window next to his bed is open. The wind moans through it, and the curtains breathe inward, green and trembling like seaweed” (9).
  • “The walls of the house are pine paneled and studded with dead animals. A twelve-point buck, its antlers a thorned basket. Three quail suspended in flight. An opossum clambering up a log and showing its needled teeth. A bobcat pawing playfully at a largemouth bass. The skin of a black bear, its legs splayed in an X, so that it appears to have been hurled and flattened against the wall” (11).
  • “He startles at a noise—a crunching and snapping—behind him. The boy sits on a folding chair, swinging his legs in a scissoring motion. Ray doesn’t like the boy’s eyes. The way they stare at him, unblinking” (13).
  • “He cries constantly, though not out of pain or sadness, not as far as Ray can tell. It is as though he is leaking. Maybe melting. Spilling over as if some secret spring inside him has been tapped. Tears dribble down his cheeks. The damp impression of his fingertips can be found throughout the house . . .” (14).
  • “He shoves his feet into boots but doesn’t have time to find his coat. He runs into the day with an arm held out as if to ward off the cold. The sun shines, its light blurred by the blown snow that swirls all around him. With the lunar quality of winter light and the cratered snowscape of his property, he might as well be on the moon” (15).
  • “He is alone. The boy is gone. Swallowed by the pond or erased by the wind. Ray hugs his arms around his chest. His body shudders. His eyes water, the tear trails freezing on his cheeks. The snow is all around him, a white void, and he feels lost and overwhelmed in its changelessness” (16).
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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens c. 2018 (368 pages—Putnam)

Alert: This summary contains spoilers.

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

Book Club Discussion Questions

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

Possible themes . . .

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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

Alert: This summary contains spoilers.

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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

 

 

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

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

 

Sentences Worth Studying

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

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

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