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.
Set in small-town Texas, this novel chronicles the way in which different characters respond to a central environmental crisis. The lead protagonist is Lee, a mother who, after losing her daughter to cancer, embarks upon a lonely crusade against the moneyed special-interests (real estate and oil). The destruction of land and body are two key motifs in this novel. Many of the residents of Friendswood die of cancer, yet there are also other, more insidious, varieties of destruction: those produced by sexual violence (in this case the rape of a young girl named Willa) and those produced by self-inflicted violence—be it through addiction to alcohol, drugs, or food. The novel grapples with questions about voice, power, and the negotiation of personal identity.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “The rain came down, a tattered curtain closing over the world, or sometimes like a million tiny glass doors. One had opened to Willa just before the storm blew in, and she’d seen behind it, an old man in a black cowboy hat calmly sucking on a cigarette as the wind lashed through the trees, his legs cycling in a haze of silver just before he evaporated” (20).
- “She was rattled, maybe because of Jess’s struggle with algebra last night, the way she’d moaned over her homework, all those less-than and greater-than marks, like open mouths. The opaque spells of the equations” (26).
- “Dex knew he had an inside self that was still unfamiliar to him, a shadowy thing he glimpsed while driving straight on the highway” (40).
- “Willa had written a poem about Susanna on that journey, calling up the landscape to help her—the flat, needling horizon, scrubby grass grown brown in the heat, bluebonnets covering a field like a flock of sparrows, and the vast, secretive space with only God behind it” (58).
- “There was a totality to these nights too, the huge black sky, the unblinking white lights, the band’s horns and drums, which made the field seem heavy and fraught—the enormity of the past and the infinity of the future about to crash together any moment” (73-74).
- “That she wanted him, but more than that, she wanted to go through him, into the vine unfurling on the barbed wire fence, into the branches holding green fruit like small charms” (84).
- “She looked out the window at the clouds, wishing for the hole in them to widen and pull her up into it. If she didn’t remember, how could it possibly be her fault?” (156).
- “She listened for roaring winds, for the gallop of horseshoes on concrete streets, for monstrous locusts, or a rubbery kind of stretching silence. In the dark outside, beyond her window, she sensed a swirling preparation, a kind of angelic weather” (190).
- “His demeanor was earnest, but his tentative mouth and bland face made him seem like an unfinished person” (194).
- “The meanings of the poems seemed to move as soon as she thought she’d found them” (224).
- “She drove down 2351 in the dark humidity, highway lights like perfect white fish in an aquarium, and hovering over them, the stars bright flecks of algae. Soupy, her mother would have called this weather” (235).
- “The walls of the trailer were squeezing in to make a smaller tunnel, a smaller life, as his dad and the rest of the world grew larger, louder, forgetting about them” (244).
- “She had an awkward beauty, falsely bold in the eyes, mouth shy and small in a way that made youth spill from her. Lee had almost forgotten what it was like to talk to a teenager, to feel the neediness” (268).
- “Practically all of them wrote [poetry], and it was mostly bad, but at least they tried to make something out of their cyclones of feeling, tried to tame it instead of letting it blow them away” (269).
- “The pool had been drained and the bright blue surface was flecked with weeds and old leaves. / It was like a pure sculpture of sky, nearly the same color, its stunning emptiness useless in a way that made you look at it more closely” (301).
- “He looked at the pale sky, the smell of car exhaust everywhere, the rectangular grays of the Houston skyline in the distance. He’d reached the end and God wasn’t there” (327).
- “The darkness softened, turned felted and warm, all the ugliness hidden under the bowl of star-flecked sky, the slopes of trees in the distance” (357).
- “She carried Jess with her everywhere, even here, worked to keep her alive by staying alive herself, heart thumping now under her bra, stars blinking just under her skin. All of Jess’s faces, her gestures, things she’d said, still alive inside of her” (359).
- “The Milky Way wheeled overhead, a neatly arranged arch beyond the leafy trees, all other stars holed up in the night, not telling yet what they knew” (385).
- “They walked past a coffeehouse, filled with faces, weary or cheerful or bored. Cars whizzed past, cartoonishly loud, blowing a hot wind against them. No one recognized her here . . . On the sidewalk, her anonymity felt magic” (389).
- “Just above the skyline, a faultless darkness seemed to flow from the world’s center. A motel sign at the end of the street lit up its blue neon letters, but she could just see the edge of it, which said STAY” (390).
Age of Blight is a short collection of dystopic slipstream stories. In “Zombie Sister” a dead girl returns to her family as a shell of her former self, unable to partake in any normal activities.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Every family had one. / So when my sister came back from the dead, we accepted her. When she came downstairs for breakfast, we acted as if everything was normal” (67).
- “‘Let me know if you are ready for the formaldehyde treatment.’ It was father who said this to Beth. It was father who was schooled in the inevitable reality of irreversible entropy in classical thermodynamics” (68).
- “Happy endings are just curses told evasively” (69).
- “That’s the one true quality that defines life—the compulsion to draw something: an essence, a lesson, anything—from others” (70).
“She kept on looking out of the tinted glass windows of her empty room, observing with a clinical detachment, which could be mistaken for curiosity, the children playing on the street. The children who rolled the glittery red things, the children who thought they could still live forever, the children who did not know that it could someday happen to them” (71).
NOTE: THIS SUMMARY CONTAINS SPOILERS. This book is classified as “cli-fi” (fiction about climate change), although the mysterious catastrophe—a sudden loss of power and water (singed trees, dry riverbeds)—is not explicitly linked to climate change in the novel. Eddie and Laura, the central characters, both react to this crisis in different ways. Eddie wants to horde what he has, while Laura seeks the role of good Samaritan (in an effort to atone for earlier sins). The novel brings up ethical questions about the strength of various social institutions and our obligations to each other. In the end, after accidentally killing a man and witnessing the death of several neighbors, Eddie escapes to a cooperative area where people are pooling their resources and talents. During his difficult journey, he regularly hallucinates, which makes it difficult to interpret what’s happening when filtered through his third-person limited lens. He ends up losing his wife, yet there is very little reflection or interiority—partially because he’s dying of thirst, but also because he seems emotionally stunted. Additionally, the tone of the novel is reminiscent of Hemingway’s tough-guy style. The narrative is taut and action-based, but the driving question in the novel (What the heck happened?) remains unanswered.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “Where were the cops? The ambulances? Still, he heard no sirens. But the running did him good. With each stride he felt his anger dissipating like dust beaten from a carpet” (2).
- “Just up ahead, an aluminum guardrail along the side of the road opened up into a path, and he took it, walking carefully down an embankment where a trail ran into the park. He’d crossed into the park before, using stepping-stones to traverse a small tributary. Now the stones were dry” (6).
- “He got the sense that the stars were swirling toward a single point, as if going down a drain—that even the air resting on his face was pulling in that direction” (18).
- “Eddie made it to the far lane and saw on the asphalt the green diamonds of shattered glass. A minivan had its windshield spiderwebbed from a blow to the passenger’s side. He understood that the world could mirror the inside of his mind—that there were enough broken pieces and enough whole pieces to exhaust his racing thoughts” (30).
- “He walked back to the street and stretched his shoulders looking up into the night sky. It was not hard to imagine that he was lost between the reflection of the stars and the concrete beneath his feet—though whether he’d projected himself into space, or had cast itself down on him, was not as clear” (69).
- “He could feel the ash on his body where he hadn’t been able to wipe it away. When he ran a fingernail across his eyelid, it was filmy. He was falling asleep, too, and sleep came softly and soundlessly. The ash had filled his ears. He was walking through it in the cold” (76-77).
- “Staying low, he took the bat and crept to the back of the house. The air around him was as taut as the skin of a balloon, and it made his breathing shallow” (107).
- “She began to sing. She had a low, somber voice, and when she used it with any seriousness, it could make Eddie weak. Her previous life apart from him was still so mysterious—a childhood he could never really know, textures he could only touch the surface of. The singing brought it out of her somehow” (115).
- “He walked upstairs with a spike of pain in his head, and when he opened the door, the heat draped around him like a blanket. The street was empty, and he ran to the end of it. Then he ran back in the other direction. He ran on past the bigger homes, closer to Route 29—the homes of lawyers and doctors, maybe. He went up walkways and pounded on doors, which no one answered” (151).
- “She was not who she’d been the week before. She was his wife, yes, but she was also someone else, and Eddie was afraid—for the first time—that he was already gone” (162).
- “When he shut his eyes he could feel the asphalt beneath his shoes, could feel himself running through the night—that old buoyant joy of sprinting through late-summer streets” (179).
- “He felt things. Tremors, currents—an incubating heat. It filled him up, just touching her like that. On the other side of this, they would be a family” (204).
- “He couldn’t move. If he moved, they would see. She was almost invisible on her own. The air around him tightened like a rope being pulled. A shout was rising in his chest and made a pressure in his throat he could barely keep within” (227).
- “The woods were like a fresh and blacker night to step inside. The group of voices softened behind them. There were words, but they had no edges” (228).
- “Through the trees, Eddie watched the sky slide down like a patch of oil. It was amber at the horizon. Black shadows swam through the limbs and gave the impression of people running” (244).
- “When he woke, he was in another part of the woods. The dark swirled around him like hot oil, scalding his imagination. He would die here, he thought. Or he was dead already” (251).
- “He lay on his back and, without the trees obstructing, he could see the sky. It had the weight of thickening custard, as if the days were no longer repeating infinitely, but getting older—and that today was of a denser quality than the last” (253).
- “Points of light began to strike the inside of his skull like static against a screen. His skin was alive with itch, and when he scraped his nails along his arm, he thought he’d rip it open” (274).
- “Something had extinguished deep inside him, and he felt the hiss in the looseness of his mind, saw steam floating in thin gray columns that flattened and broke and disappeared along the horizon” (277).
A privileged mother of two takes walks at night and considers the ease at which she moves through a world rife with problems. A haunting story about family, love, and loneliness.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing up my running shoes after dinner and going out in the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell” (1).
- “On my nighttime walks, the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums. At times, I’m the silent witness to fights that look like slow-dancing without music. It is astonishing how people live, the messes they sustain, the delicious whiffs of cooking that carry to the street, the holiday decorations that slowly seep into daily décor” (3).
- “During the day, when my sons are in school, I can’t stop reading about the disasters of the world, the glaciers dying like living creatures, the great Pacific trash gyre, the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of species, millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious. I read and savagely mourn, as if reading could some how sate this hunger for grief, instead of what it does, which is fuel it” (7).
- “Witholding erotic pleasure for the glory of God seems an anachronism in our hedonistic age, and, with their frailty and the hugeness of the house they rattle around in, it has been decided that the remaining nuns must decamp” (9).
- “It is shocking to enter the dazzling color, the ferocious heat after the chilly gray scale; to travel hundreds of miles over the cracked sidewalks and sparse palmettos and black path-crossing cats I dart away from, into this abundance with its aisles of gaudy trash and useless wrapping and plastic pull tabs that will one day end up in the throat of the earth’s last sea turtle” (12).
- “I hope they understand, my sons, both now and in the future just materializing in the dark, that all these hours their mother has been walking so swiftly away from them I have not been gone, that my spirit, hours ago, slipped back into the house and crept into the room where their early-rising father had already fallen asleep, usually before eight p.m., and that I touched this gentle man whom I love so desperately and somehow fear so much, touched him on the pulse in his temple and felt his dreams, which are too distant for the likes of me; and I climbed the creaking old stairs and at the top split in two, and heading into the boys’ separate rooms, I slid through the crack under the doors and curled myself on the pillows to breathe into me the breath that my children breathed out” (14).
Quiet and profound, this story is set during a single salon visit. In it, Cusk expertly explores issues of authenticity, aging, and loneliness.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “It was growing dark outside, and the rain against the salon’s big windows looked like ink running down a page” (170).
- “The salon was a lofty, white, brilliantly lit room with white-painted floorboards and baroque, velvet upholstered furniture. The tall mirrors had elaborately carved white-painted frames. The light came from three big branching chandeliers that hung from the ceiling and were duplicated in dazzling reflection all around the mirrored walls” (171).
- “At the other end of the room, the big glass door jangled open and a boy of twelve or thirteen came in out of the darkness. He left the door standing ajar and the cold wet air and roaring noise of traffic came in great gusts into the warm, lit-up salon” (172).
- “Nothing too dark, he said; I’m thinking more browns and reds, something lighter. Even if it’s not what you naturally are, he said, I think you’ll look more real that way” (172).
- “He liked his friends—he thought he might have given me the wrong impression earlier—though he knew plenty of people who were still carrying on at forty the way they had been at twenty-five: he actually found it slightly depressing, the spectacle of grown men frenziedly partying, still shoving things up their noses and whirling like brides on packed dance floors; personally, he had better things to do” (175).
- “There was music playing, and the droning sound of passing traffic could be faintly heard from the street. There was a great bank of glass shelves against one wall where hair products stood for sale in pristine rows, and where a lorry passed too close outside, it shuddered slightly and the jars and bottles rattled in their places. The room had become a chamber of reflecting surfaces while the world outside became opaque. Everywhere you looked, there was only the reflection of what was already there” (178).
- “He wandered around the rooms of his flat, noticing their cleanliness and order; he savored the peace of the place, his freedom to come and go as he liked, to return home after work and find it all just as he had left it” (180).
- “With strange, lunging movements, the boy strode away from the chair toward the big glass door. His mother got to her feet, the book still in her hand, and watched as he yanked the door open and the black rainy street with hissing traffic was revealed. He had pulled the handle so forcefully that the door continued to revolve all the way around on its hinges after he had let it go. It traveled farther and farther, until finally it collided heavily with the tiers of glass shelving where the hair-care products stood in their neat rows. The boy stood frozen in the open doorway, his pale face lit up, his hair as though standing on end, and watched as the bank of shelves disgorged a landslide of bottles and jars which fell and rolled with a great thundering sound out across the salon floor; and then itself collapsed in a tremendous shrieking cascade of breaking glass” (181-182).
An American classic set in Nebraska at the turn of the century (late 1800s, early 1900s). The narrative frame focuses on Jim Burden, a lawyer living in NYC, giving his friend a copy of a manuscript that he has written about their mutual acquaintance: Antonia Shimerda, an immigrant from what is now the Czech Republic (referred to in the book as Bohemia). As an orphaned ten-year-old boy from Virginia, Jim first hears of Antonia on a train, when both he and Antonia are heading west to begin their new lives. Although the novel is set in the Midwest, which Cather describes in her hauntingly beautiful way, this book is populated with diverse characters, hailing from different parts of Europe. Throughout the novel, we witness the bonds (by choice and circumstance) between people from different places—all of them growing and changing as they struggle for something better. The ever-evolving dynamic between Antonia and Jim propels the reader through the first and final books of the narrative. In the end, we realize that Antonia belongs to the country, while Jim belongs to the city, yet in their separate lives, they share a bond that transcends space and time.
Sentences Worth Studying
- “The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it was like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvest; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron” (5).
- “I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America” (9).
- “I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheepfold down by the creek or along the white road that led me to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be” (11).
- “The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadron around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great” (16-17).
- “Misfortune seemed to settle like an evil bird on the roof of the log house, and flap its wings there, warning human beings away. The Russians had such bad luck that people were afraid of them and liked to put them out of mind” (36).
- “We lay still and did not talk. Up there the stars grew magnificently bright. Though we had come from such different parts of the world, in both of us there was some dusky superstition that those shining groups have their influence upon what is and what is not to be” (37).
- “We did not tell Pavel’s secret to anyone, but guarded it jealousy—as if the wolves of the Ukraine had gathered that night long ago, and the wedding party been sacrificed, to give us a painful and peculiar pleasure. At night, before I went to sleep, I often found myself in a sledge drawn by three horses, dashing through a country that looked something like Nebraska and something like Virginia” (41).
- “I can see them now, exactly as they looked, working about the table in the lamplight: Jake with his heavy features, so rudely molded that his face seemed, somehow, unfinished; Otto with his half-ear and the savage scar that made his upper lip curl so ferociously under his twisted moustache. As I remember them, what unprotected faces they were; their very roughness and violence made them defenseless. These boys had no practiced manner behind which they could retreat and hold people at a distance. They had only their hard fists to batter at the world with” (52-53).
- “When spring came, after that hard winter, one could not get enough of the nimble air. Every morning I wakened with a fresh consciousness that winter was over. There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only—spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted” (72).
- “July came on with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world. It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odored cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green. If all the great plain from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains had been under glass, and the heat regulated by a thermometer, it could not have been better for the yellow tassels that were ripening and fertilizing the silk day by day” (81).
- “Next to Charley, I think she loved Nina best. Nina was only six, and she was rather more complex than the other children. She was fanciful, had all sorts of unspoken preferences, and was easily offended. At the slightest disappointment or displeasure, her velvety brown eyes filled with tears, and she would lift her chin and walk silently away” (92).
- “The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify—it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then they wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: ‘This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and the shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth’” (103).
- “Winter lies too long in country towns—hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men’s affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice” (107)
- “Wick Cutter was different from any other rascal I have ever known, but I have found Mrs. Cutters all over the world: sometimes founding new religions, sometimes being forcibly fed—easily recognizable, even when superficially tamed” (125).
- “The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark” (128).
- “For the first time it occurred to me that I should be homesick for that river after I left it. The sandbars, with their clean white beaches and their little groves of willows and cottonwood seedlings, were a sort of No Man’s Land, little newly created worlds that belonged to the Black Hawk boys” (136).
- “I believe that Gaston Cleric narrowly missed being a great poet, and I have sometimes thought that his bursts of imaginative talk were fatal to his poetic gift. He squandered too much in the heat of personal communication. How often I have seen him draw his dark brows together, fix his eyes upon some object on the wall or figure in the carpet, and then flash into the lamplight the very image that was in his brain” (150).
- “My window was open, and the earthy wind blowing through made me indolent. On the edge of the prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky was turquoise blue, like a lake, with gold light throbbing though it. Higher up, in the utter clarity of the western slope, the evening star hung like a lamp suspended by silver chains—like the lamp engraved upon by the title-page of old Latin texts, which is always appearing in new heavens, and waking new desires in men” (152).
- Antonia “asked me whether I had learned to like big cities. ‘I’d always be miserable in a city. I’d die of lonesomeness. I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here’” (183-184).
- “As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cartwheel, pale silver and streaked with rose color, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world . . . We reached the edge of the field, where our ways parted. I took her hands and held them against my breast, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were, those brown hands, and remembering how many kind things they had done for me. I held them now a long while, over my heart. About us it was growing darker and darker, and I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant to carry with me; the closest, realist face, under all the shadows of woman’s faces, at the very bottom of my memory” (184).
- “We turned to leave the cave; Antonia and I went up the stairs first, and the children waited. We were standing outside talking, when they all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight. It made me dizzy for a moment” (194).
- “I’m never lonesome here like I used to be in town. You remember what sad spells I used to have, when I didn’t know what was the matter with me? I’ve never had them out here. And I don’t mind work a bit, if I don’t have to put up with sadness” (196).
- “That moment, when they all came tumbling out of the cave into the light, was a sight any man might have come far to see. Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade—that grew stronger with time. In my memory, there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one’s first primer: Antonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Antonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father’s grave in the snowstorm; Antonia coming in with her work team along the evening skyline. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true” (201).
- “Overhead the sky was that indescribable blue of autumn: bright and shadowless, hard as enamel. To the south I would see the dun-shaded river bluffs that used to look so big to me, and all about stretched drying cornfields, of the pale-gold color I remembered so well” (210).
- Final paragraph: “This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny—had taken us close to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past” (210-211).