*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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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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Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult c. 2016 (458 pages—Ballantine Books)

Alert: This summary contains spoilers.

“Small Great Things” addresses fraught topics like privilege and prejudice in a lengthy novel that reads like a thriller. Its plot hinges on an impossible ethical dilemma: break the orders of an institution (disobey a boss) or violate an axiom of society (fail to treat all human life as sacred). The story is set in the 2010s and told through alternating first-person narrators: Ruth, a single mother and an African-American labor and delivery nurse; Kennedy, a white public defender; and Turk, a white supremacist. When Turk’s wife Brittany is in labor, a note is placed in Ruth’s file that she is not to touch their baby (an event inspired by a news story). The pivotal point of the novel comes the day after the baby is delivered, when the hospital is faced with a personnel shortage and Ruth must stand watch over a baby she’s not supposed to touch after a routine circumcision. When the baby turns blue: Ruth chooses to act, but finds the baby unresponsive. A team is called in and the baby ultimately dies. Seeking revenge, Turk is talked out of suing the hospital. He ends up suing Ruth, who loses her job and the life that she has worked so hard to create. Issues of class and race become more apparent whenever Ruth, who lives in a white neighborhood, interacts with her mother, who is a maid. These same issues arise when Ruth interacts with her sister, who lives in a neighborhood that is largely black. Questions of race and class continue to take center stage after Ruth is fired from her job and she is assigned a public defender named Kennedy, a well-meaning white liberal who wants to help Ruth, but ends up realizing that she herself—and people like her—are part of the problem. In the end, Turk reforms, Kennedy learns a lesson about systemic racism, and Ruth overcomes yet another obstacle to open her own business. While the characters seem somewhat stereotypical and the speeches and plot at the end of the novel are a bit cliché (white people recognize racism and repent) the ethical questions and plot-driven pressure points make this book highly engaging.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “The miracle happened on West Seventy-Fourth Street, in the home where Mama worked. It was a big brownstone encircled by a wrought-iron fence, and overlooking either side of the ornate door were gargoyles, their granite faces carved from my nightmares” (3).
  • “She wore an expression I’ve only seen in paintings and museums, of a love and grief so fierce that they forged together to create some new, raw emotion” (10).
  • “If this man didn’t acknowledge that something truly horrible had happened—or worse, if he kept pretending for the rest of his life that it never had—a hole would open up inside him. Tiny at first, that pit would wear away, bigger and bigger, until one day when he wasn’t expecting it he would realize that he was completely hollow. / When the father first started to cry, the sobs shook his body like a hurricane bends a tree. He sank down beside his wife on the hospital bed, and she put one hand on her husband’s back, and one hand on the crown of her baby’s head” (11).
  • “Turk Bauer makes me think of a power line that’s snapped during a storm, and lies across the road just waiting for something to brush against it so it can shoot sparks” (17).
  • “She cups her hand around our newborn’s head, like we are an electric circuit that’s now complete. Like we could power the world” (28).
  • “With his T-shirt stretched over his shoulders and his chin tilted up, I see so much of his daddy in him that for a moment, I feel like I’ve fallen through time” (49).
  • “Labor is like that—a shared trauma bond, an accelerant that makes relationships stronger” (58).
  • “In the middle of a crisis, time is viscous. You swim through it so slowly you cannot tell if you’re living or reliving each awful moment. You can see your hand doing the work, ministering, as if they do not belong to you. You hear voices climbing a ladder of panic, and it all becomes one deafening, discordant note” (65).
  • “You’d think that the hardest part of an experience like this is the moment the mother gives you her child, but it’s not. Because at that moment, it’s still a child, to her. The hardest part is taking off the little knit hat, the swaddling blanket, the diaper. Zipping him into the body bag. Closing the refrigerator door” (68).
  • “Even when people try to comfort you, you’re aware that now there is a barrier between you and them, made of the horrible thing happened, that keeps you isolated” (97).
  • “I hesitate, and even in that breath, I can feel that this is the linchpin, the moment I will come back to and rub over in my mind until it is so smooth I can’t remember every knot and groove and detail” (107).
  • “I haven’t even had my second cup of coffee yet and I’ve already hustled through far too much traffic and a tangle of reporters, leaving me to wonder what is going on in a superior court in the courtroom where I’m not, since the only reason a TV crew might cover arraignments is to provide a sleep aid for insomniacs” (137).
  • “Ruth begins to weave a story. For every thick, black fact she spins, there’s a silver flicker of shame” (145).
  • “In that moment, we’re not black and white, or attorney and accused. We’re not separated by what I know about the legal system and what she has yet to learn. We are just two mothers sitting side-by-side” (146).
  • “She was referring to one of her favorite quotes: If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way” (173).
  • “I may not have much say here, but I still can make the choice to not be a victim . . . I have spent twenty years seeing how beautiful women are, not because of how they look, but because of what their bodies can withstand” (177).
  • “Once a bleeding heart calluses into realism, victories become individual ones: being able to reunite a mom who’s gone through rehab with her kid, who was put in foster care, winning a motion to suppress evidence of a former addiction that might color the odds for a current client; being able to juggle hundreds of cases and triage those that need more than a meet ‘em and plead ‘em. As it turns out, public defenders are less Superman and more Sisyphus, and there’s no small number of lawyers who wind up crushed under the weight the infinite caseloads and the crappy hours and the shitty pay” (188).
  • “The science of creating another human is remarkable, and no matter how many times I’ve learned about cells and mitosis and neural tubes and all the rest that goes into forming a baby, I can’t help but thing there’s a dash of miracle involved, too” (198).
  • Scandalous. I taste the word, bite into it like a berry, feel it burst” (214).
  • “Pride is an evil dragon; it sleeps underneath your heart and then roars when you need silence” (214).
  • “I try to feel through the chain of our history for the snag, the mend in the links, where we went from being two girls who knew everything about each other—favorite ice cream flavor, favorite New Kids on the Block member, celebrity crush—to two women who knew nothing about how the other lived. Had we drifted apart, or had our closeness been the ruse? Was our familiarity due to friendship, or geography?” (215).
  • “I am struggling to find a way to make him believe that in spite of this, we have to put one foot in front of the other every day and pray it will be better the next time the sun rises. That if our legacy is not entitlement, it must be hope” (234).
  • “And then one day, I just got it: the reason we lose people we care about is so we’re more grateful for the ones we still have. It’s the only possible explanation. Otherwise, God’s a sorry son of a bitch” (241).
  • “When Micah and I went on our honeymoon to Australia, we spent three nights camping in the red center of the country, where the ground was cracked like a parched throat and the night sky looked like a bowl of diamonds that had been upended” (260).
  • “She looks at me and we both laugh, and in that instant we are merely two women, standing over a lasagna, telling the truth. In that instant, with our flaws and confessions trailing like a slip from a dress, we have more in common than we have differences” (283).
  • “I lifted up the covers and Rachel fitted herself to me, her front to my back. We rode out the night like that, like we were Siamese twins, sharing a heart that beat between us” (285).
  • “All of a sudden I’m back in the hospital, doing what I did best, my hand on the shoulder of a woman in labor and my eyes on the screen that monitors her vitals. ‘Inhale,’ I’d order. ‘Exhale. Deep breath in . . . deep breath out.’ And sure enough, the tension would leach out of her. Without the strain, progress could be made” (337).
  • “If the past few months have taught me anything, it’s that friendship is a smoke screen. The people you think are solid turn out to be mirrors and light; and then you look down and realize there are others you took for granted, those who are your foundation” (340).
  • “The room closes in on me, and the muscles of my neck and arms tighten. I feel myself frozen again, mesmerized by the blue marble of the baby’s cheek, the stillness of his small body” (347).
  • “It’s crazy, isn’t it, that you can love a girl so much you can actually create another human being? It’s like rubbing two sticks together and getting fire—all of a sudden there’s something alive and intense there that did not exist a minute before” (383).
  • “We are inches apart. I can feel the heat of her skin; I can see myself reflected in her pupils as she starts to speak again” (408).
  • “But meanwhile, my brain is spinning: What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down to fit?” (411).
  • “For me, danger looks different: it’s whatever can separate me from Violet, from Micah. But no matter what face you put on your own personal bogeyman, it gives you nightmares. It has the power to terrify, and to make you do things you wouldn’t normally think you’d do, all in an effort to stay safe” (413).
  • “I sit in the cafeteria, nursing a cup of coffee, and combing through the tangle of my thoughts” (442).
  • “Freedom is the fragile neck of a daffodil, after the longest of winters. It’s the sound of your voice, without anyone drowning you out. It’s having the grace to say yes, and more important, the right to say no. At the heart of freedom, hope beats: a pulse of possibility” (449).
  • “I tell them this: the part of the brain, physiologically, that allows us to blame everything on people we do not really know is the same part of the brain that allows us to have compassion for strangers” (456).
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“Natural Disasters” by Alexis Schaitkin c. 2019 (pages 271-289 in The Best American Short Stories 2019)

In this short story, a young woman and her husband move to Oklahoma, where the woman suffers from isolation and mental illness. After a dramatic encounter with a tornado, she realizes that her marriage will fail. This story destabilizes the concept of authenticity—in people and in places, showing us that the neat and coherent stories we tell about our “natural” selves are often illusory, and that these illusions are stripped away in the face of “natural” disasters. 

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “We were living in Oklahoma ironically. Obviously it is not possible to live in a place ironically, but we were twenty-four and freshly married, so it was not obvious to us. It would not become obvious to me for a very long time; by then, by now, this clarity would be pointless, the thinly exhilarating aha! of a riddle solved at a cocktail party” (271).
  • “You see, I lived then guided by the unconscious notion that the story of my life as I was meant to live it was already written in a secret, locked away text. At the end, I would finally be able to open it and read the story that had been written there all along—its arc, its twists and turns, its motifs and themes, its most evocative lines. For a moment before death, I would know what the world had intended for me and whether I had gotten it right or gone terribly astray” (273).
  • “I spent a lot of time during this period driving through the prairie. I’d tell myself I needed to get out, that it would do me good to see some nature. The truth is that on those drives I stoked my growing terror of this place, of the on and on and on of it. Sometimes as I drove, the clouds above me would seem to coalesce around a brown center and then, suddenly drop. Sometimes the thing I was driving past—a mailbox, a swimming pool—would suddenly be coated in black, glossy oil. I had developed a twinned obsession with tornadoes, on the one hand, and oil, on the other. They seemed to me to be part of a unified system, connected by some mystical-sinister energy. The tornadoes funneled destructive force down from the sky, the oil wells pulled it up from the ground, and I was living where these forces met, on the perilous surface of the earth” (275).
  • “I had become a person whose job came with that most valuable perk: good anecdotes” (279).
  • “Often the women were about my age, with a baby on a hip, a toddler hanging from a leg. ‘Can you imagine having two kids?’ I would say to Steven at night, as if the idea were as lunatic as keeping wildebeests for pets. We would laugh together, delighting in our sense of ourselves as too urbane, too bright and scattered, to manage the exigencies of family life—exigencies about which we were intentionally very vague—at such a young age” (279).
  • “The competence of these women, the hardened shapeliness of their lives, terrified me. Though none was quite as appealing as Bethany, many shared a certain ineffable quality with her—a diamond selfhood, hard and translucent” (280).
  • “Sometimes when I was touring a house and the woman was out of view, I would pretend that her house was my house and her children were my children. I had been born here among the Radiant Assembly’s faithful. I was friends with Bethany and fistfuls of women like her, like us. If I could get deep enough into that imagining, my self would sweep cleanly away and a feeling would fill me that was like being dipped in cool, sweet water” (280).
  • “It was a cloudy, humid day, the air fuzzed with an electric tingling” (281).
  • “He was tall and leanly muscular and looked entirely sun made—skin darkened by it to the shade of toasted cashew, hair lightened by it to gold filaments” (282).
  • “In the years since that day I have lived in many places: Florida with its hurricanes, California with its earthquakes, and, for the past decade, Maine with its blizzards that bury cars and houses in stunning, sinister white. If you stop and think about it, the idiosyncrasy of these forces is astonishing. A vortex of clouds kissing the earth. The solid ground splitting and rippling. You could never imagine such things, if you didn’t already know they were possible” (285).
  • “In that moment, in a storm shelter in Oklahoma, with my hair hanging around my face in wet strings and Mac Follett, round-shouldered in the lamplight, promising that I was safe, I had the exhilarating sense that for the first time I was living a page from the secret text of my life. It was obvious, suddenly, that the storm raging on the other side of the shelter door was here for me, to catalyze my life with its force. I was supposed to be here, and here I was, and the purpose behind my being here was effortlessly legible. I could see what would happen in this moment and the next and the next just as I had seen all of the houses along the length of Redtail Road at once” (286-287).
  • “Maybe you think all of this is easy to interpret. A girl left the city and learned a thing or two. A silly young woman hoped to be ravished by a man who was not her husband. A marriage fell apart, and afterward a wife was wiser, though in some ways no better, than she had been before. Maybe it is only my personal stake in the matter that makes me want to believe it was not that simple. All I can say is that when I pulled up to the house on Redtail Road I thought life was one thing, and when I drove away I knew it was another. I knew, quite simply, that a life is not a story at all. It is the disasters we carry within us” (289).
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“Audition” by Said Sayrafiezadeh c. 2019 (pages 255-270 in The Best American Short Stories 2019)

“Audition” centers on a young man who, seeking life-experience and legitimacy as an actor, gets high with a co-worker at his father’s construction site. Larger themes of isolation and economic inequality resonate in this cinematic short story.

 Sentences Worth Studying

  • “The more I dreamed, the more vivid the dream seemed to be, until it was no longer some faint dot situated on an improbable time line but, rather, my destiny. And all I needed to turn this destiny into reality was to make it out of my midsized city—not worth specifying—and make it to LA, where, of course, an actor needed to be if he was to have any chance at that thing called success. But, from my perspective of a thousand miles, LA appeared immense, incensed, inscrutable, impenetrable, and every time I thought I had enough resolve to uproot myself and rent a U-Haul I would quickly retreat into the soft, downy repetitiveness of my hometown, with its low stakes, high livability, and steady paycheck from my father” (256).
  • “When lunchtime arrived, I’d sit around with the other general laborers, thirty of us on upturned crates in an unfinished living room with a spring breeze blowing through the glassless windows, eating roast-beef sandwiches and talking about money problems, home problems, work problems. My problems were not their problems, but I wished they were. Their problems were immediate, distinct, and resolvable; mine were long-term, existential, and impossible” (257-258).
  • “Now all that history was inconsequential, pulsed inside the blender of collective toil. No one would have been able to tell me apart from any of the other general laborers I sat with on my lunch break, smoking cigarettes amid exposed crossbeams. Just as no one would have been able to tell I was the boss’s son. To the latecomer entering the theater, I was indistinguishable from the whole” (258).
  • “Through the windshield, our midsized city crawled past at a midsized pace. Midsized highways with midsized cars. Midsized citizens with their midsized lives” (259).
  • “We drove beneath an overpass that led into a down-and-out neighborhood of weather-beaten, two-story, redbrick homes, a hundred of them in a row, every one identical, just as the homes in my father’s subdivision were identical, but at the other end of the economic spectrum. This was a neighborhood of odd jobs and no help, where people shopped for dinner at the local convenience store . . . This was outsized struggle in a midsized city” (261).
  • “It would be a shame to go home as I always did, lie in the bathtub, have another night of living life through the soggy pages of screenplays, getting closer to twenty years old, my time line unraveling like a ball of yarn” (261).
  • “On his dresser was a Magnavox TV, twenty-five-inch, with a built-in VCR, presumably left on all day, tuned to ESPN, where the announcers were oohing and aahing over, who else, Michael Jordan, who was doing, what else, winning. He glided down the court. He floated through the air. He elbowed his defender in the chest. Everything he did had style, even his mistakes. He was the perfect blend of beauty and power, of grace and aggression. No one would have dared tell Michael Jordan, ‘It takes as long as it takes’” (262).
  • “We bantered, we joked, we lit one another’s cigarettes, we pretended we were not consumed with insecurity and competitiveness. To help pass the time we talked about classical and postmodern theater. If I had gone to college, I might have known what I was talking about” (265).
  • “I was aware that I had been waiting for Duncan Dioguardi to invite me to party again, but no invitation had been forthcoming, and to broach it myself seemed as though it would traverse an essential but unstated boundary” (267).

“The clarity that I thought I’d had moments earlier had not been clarity at all but, rather, its opposite, delusion, which was now being usurped by an all-encompassing awareness, horrible and heavy, through which I understood at once that I was not talented, had never been talented, that my life as a general laborer was proof of this lack of talent, and that being cast in a role with zero lines was not a step forward toward fame but a step into insecurity in a midsized city. Who but a fool agrees to move through space for three acts without saying a word?” (269).

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The Overstory by Richard Powers c. 2018 (502 pages—Norton)

A sweeping, polyphonic story that follows the lives of eight central characters, all of whom have a connection to trees. The prose borders on poetry and the writing celebrates nature without being overwrought. The branching complexity and interconnectedness of trees finds techno-utopic parallels in the sections featuring Neelay, a computer programmer. At this point, we know that computers are failing to create an earthly utopia, and Powers makes a strong case for a utopia that—in our staggering ignorance—all but the “crazy” have failed to see.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “A thing can travel everywhere just by holding still” (3, 500).
  • Trees even farther away join in: All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations” (3).
  • “The generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call story happens outside his photos’ frame. Inside the frame, through hundreds of revolving seasons, there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early middle age, growing at the speed of wood” (16).
  • “When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts, lifting its lower limbs and shrugging its ample globe. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of midwestern winter skies” (23).
  • “Time was not a line unrolling in front of her. It was a column of concentric circles with herself at the core and the present floating outward along the outermost rim. Future selves stacked up above and behind her, all returning to this room for another look at the handful of men who had solved life” (35).
  • “But she can do this—clean up the backyard carnage forever. Cleaning, she becomes another thing. The wind loosens her hair. She looks at the bloodied paving stones, the bits of soft tissue that housed his ideas. She sees him by her side, amazed by the flecks of his own brain lying in the grass. Look at the color! You ask how people rise or fall in this life? Like this” (42).
  • “That’s when Adam realizes: Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives” (56).
  • “She knows already the precise worst buttons she can press in him, right there in their first week together. Criminally responsible, this man. Pathologically accountable to the hopes and expectations of his kind” (65).
  • “Life counts down. Nine years, six jobs, two aborted love affairs, three state license plates, two and a half tons of adequate beer, and one recurring nightmare” (84).
  • “A great truth comes over him: Trees fall with spectacular crashes. But planting is silent and growth is invisible” (89).
  • “Any one of these gangly seedlings could push out millions of cones over the course of its life, the small yellow males with their pollen that floats across entire states, the drooping females with their mouse tails sticking out from the coil of scales, a look he finds dearer than his own life. And the forest they might remake he can almost smell—resinous, fresh, thick with yearning, sap of a fruit that is no fruit, the scent of Christmases endlessly older than Christ” (90).
  • “His seven-year-old brain fires and rewires, building aborized axons, dendrites, those tiny spreading trees. He grins, cagey but uncertain” (93).
  • “There are trees that spread like fireworks and trees that rise like cones. Trees that shoot without a ripple, three hundred feet straight skyward. Broad, pyramidal, rounded, columnar, conical, crooked: the only thing they do in common is branch, like Vishnu waving his many arms” (95).
  • “At first, the point of coding is to give everything away. Pure philanthropy. He’ll find a marvelous seed program in the public domain. Then he’ll flesh it out, add new features, switch on his 1200-baud modem, dial in to a local bulletin board, and upload the source for anyone who wants it to grow some more. Soon his creatures will propagate on hosts across the planet. Every day people around the globe add new species to the repositories. It’s the Cambrian Explosion all over again, only a billion times faster . . . The more he gives away, the more he has. From his vantage, stranded in his wheelchair in the basement lab, whole new continents swing into view. The gift economy—free duplication of well-shaped commands—promises to solve scarcity at last and cure the hunger at the heart’s core” (107).
  • “She works all day in the woods, her back crawling with chiggers, her scalp with ticks, her mouth filled with lead duff, her eyes with pollen, cobwebs like scarves around her face, bracelets of poison ivy, her knees gouged by cinders, her nose lined with spores, the back of her thighs bitten Braille by wasps, and her heart as happy as the day is generous” (123).
  • “Looking at all this glorious decay, a person might be forgiven for thinking that old meant decadent, that such thick mats of decomposition were cellulose cemeteries in need of the rejuvenating ax. She sees why her kind will always dread these close, choked thickets, when the beauty of solo trees gives way to something massed, scary, and crazed” (135).
  • “Words of hers that she has all but forgotten have gone on drifting out on the open air, lighting up others, like a waft of pheromones” (137).
  • “She takes his shaking hand in the dark. It feels good, like a root must feel, when it finds, after centuries, another root to pleach to underground. There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things” (144).
  • “Soon the beautiful brainstorms come, the ones that link up in the front of her eyes and make the whole mess of human history so lovely and self-evident” (150)
  • “Here’s the thing about an apple: it sticks in the throat. It’s a package deal: lust and understanding. Immortality and death. Sweet pulp with cyanide seeds. It’s a bang on the head that births up whole sciences. A golden delicious discord, the kind of gift chucked into a wedding feast that leads to endless war. It’s the fruit that keeps the gods alive” (162).
  • “Out in the yard, all around the house, the things they’ve planted in years gone by are making significance, making meaning, as easily as they make sugar and wood from nothing, from air, and sun, and rain. But the humans hear nothing” (168).
  • “The sun cuts starbursts in the needles’ verdigris, a thousand scones of astral light. The great dinosaur plates of the trunk turn shades of orange, terra-cotta, and cinnamon” (182).
  • “The switchbacks up Sand Hill Road, harrowing at noon, are deadly in the dark” (196).
  • “They lie in bed, side-by-side, leg-to-leg, but with hands firmly on the pages in front of them. Falling asleep, he reads the same paragraph a dozen times; the words turn into twirling things, like winged seeds spinning in the air” (210).
  • “The [UCSC] campus is an enchanted garden perched on a mountainside overlooking Monterey Bay” (235).
  • “He sees it first: a grove of trunks six hundred years old, running upward out of sight. The pillars of a russet cathedral nave. Trees older than movable type. But the furrows are spray-painted with white numbers, like someone tattooed a living cow with a butcher diagram showing the various cuts of meat hiding underneath. Orders for a massacre” (254).
  • “Here, as sundown blankets them, the feel is primeval, darshan, a face-to-face intro to divinity. The tree runs straight up like a chimney butte and neglects to stop. From underneath, it could be Yggdrasil, the World Tree, with its roots in the underworld and crown in the world above” (260).
  • “In the dark-paneled courtroom, her words come out of hiding. Love for trees pours out of her—the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety and surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature” (284).
  • “Yet on such a night as this, as the forest pumps out its million-part symphonies and the fat, blazing moon gets shredded in Mima’s branches, it’s easy for Nick to believe that green has a plan that will make the age of mammals seem like a minor detour” (292).
  • Can you feel it lift and disappear? That standing wave of constant static. The distraction so ubiquitous you never even knew you were wrapped in it. Human certainty. The thing that binds you to what’s right here—gone” (294).
  • “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story” (336).
  • “Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered” (348).
  • “But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died” (358).
  • “Twenty springs is no time at all. The hottest year ever measured comes and goes. Then another. Then ten more, almost every one of them among the hottest in recorded history. The seas rise. The year’s clock breaks. Twenty springs and the last one starts two weeks earlier than the first” (374).
  • “The sight fills him with a horror inseparable from hope. Somewhere in all these boundless, swelling canyons of imprinted paper, encoded in the millions of tons of loblolly pine fiber, there must be a few words of truth, a page, a paragraph that could break the spell of fulfillment and bring back danger, need, and death” (380).
  • “The books diverge and radiate, as fluid as finches on isolated islands. But they share a core so obvious it passes for given. Every one imagines that fear and anger, violence and desire, rage laced with the surprise capacity to forgive—character—is all that matters in the end” (382-383).
  • “Civilized yards are all alike. Each yard is wild in its own way” (384).
  • “Past retirement age, Patricia works like there’s no tomorrow” (388).
  • “Standing in the vault, Patricia gets the strangest feeling. She’s in one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth, surrounded by thousands of sleeping seeds, cleaned, dried, winnowed, and X-rayed, all waiting for their DNA to awaken and begin remaking air into wood at the slightest hint of thaw and water. The seeds are humming. They’re singing something—she’d swear it—just below earshot” (389).
  • “There are trees that flower and fruit directly from the trunk. Bizarre kapoks forty feet around with branches that run from spiky to shiny to smooth, all from the same trunk. Myrtles scattered throughout the forest that all flower on a single day. Bertholletia that grow pinata cannonballs filled with nuts. Trees that make rain, that tell time, that predict the weather. Seeds in obscene shapes and colors. Pods like daggers and scimitars. Stilt roots and snaking roots and buttresses like sculpture and roots that breathe air. Solutions run amok. The biomass is mad” (390).
  • “More annihilated memories percolate up from below, so many moments, recovered and lost again in this loop of looking. Hydra-like, multiplying memories longer than the lives that made them” (403).
  • “Six more shovelfuls, and it’s his again. He opens the box, unzips the bag, and holds the hundred-year stack of photos in his hands. Too dark to see now, to flip through them. He doesn’t need to. Holding the stack, he feels the tree spiraling up into the air like a corkscrew fountain, watched over by generations of Hoels” (408).
  • “The night is warm, the windows of Patricia’s cabin bang in the breeze, and the sturgeon moon rises over the lake like a pale red penny” (423).
  • “One passage keeps springing back, every time fear or scientific rigor makes her prune it. Trees know we’re close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes their leaves pump out change when we’re near . . . When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. So many wonder drugs have come from trees, and we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the offerings. Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear” (424).
  • “Next week he’ll teach his undergrads about Durkheim, Foucault, crypto-normativity: How reason is just another weapon of control. How the invention of the reasonable, the acceptable, the sane, even the human, is greener and more recent than humans suspect” (432).
  • “People need dreams of technological breakthrough. Some new way to pump poplar into paper while burning slightly fewer hydrocarbons. Some genetically altered cash crop that will build better houses and lift the world’s poor from misery. The home repair they want is just a slightly less wasteful demolition. She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she’d get an ovation” (436).
  • “In ancient island temples on the other side of the Earth, thousand-year-olds, molten and blasted, close to enlightenment, swell to incredible girth, their elbows growing back down from giant branches to re-root into new trunks of their own” (441).
  • “She sees in the chestnut’s branching the several speculative paths of a life lived, all the people she might have been, the ones she could or will yet be, in worlds spreading out just alongside this one” (443).
  • “A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapse. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware” (453).
  • “It strikes her that she envies him. His years of enforced tranquility, the patience of his slowed mind, the expansion of his blinkered senses. He can watch the dozen bare trees in the backyard for hours and see something intricate and surprising, sufficient to his desires, while she—she is still trapped in a hunger that rushes past everything” (458).
  • “The pain wakes him. A huge moon hangs low over the Hudson. Every steel-white pockmark in its face shines telescope clear. The prospect of life in prison does wonders for his eyesight” (462).
  • “The coders tell the listeners nothing except how to look. Then the new creations head off to scout the globe, and the code spreads outward. New theories, new offspring, and more evolving species, all of them sharing a single goal: to find out how big life is, how connected, and what it would take for people to unsuicide” (482).
  • “He’ll die of idealism, of being right when the world is wrong” (491).
  • “He stares off into the north woods, where the next project beckons. Branches, combing the sun, laughing at gravity, still unfolding. Something moves that the base of the motionless trunks. Nothing. Now everything. This, a voice whispers, from very nearby. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end” (502).




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“Creative Types” by Tom Bissell c. 2018 (pages 85-102 in Pushcart Prize XLII) originally published in The Paris Review

This short story centers on a married couple’s effort to reawaken passion lost to life changes (i.e., a baby) by having a three-way with an escort. Set in a single evening, Bissell artfully reveals people’s biases, complexities, and fixations through this interaction.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “He was about to hit send when Brenna, proofreading over his shoulder, announced that his use of ‘normal’ was, in this context, ‘problematic’” (85).
  • “For as long as he’d known her, Bren had worried about classism. These days, of course, he and Bren were doing well, perhaps even embarrassingly well. However, their many years of doing less well had made Bren afraid of succumbing to the thoughtless consumption patterns of their friends, such as Annabelle and Isaac, who recently built a thirteen-thousand-dollar outdoor pizza oven with imported Umbrian stone” (85).
  • “Bren was breathing hard; her hand was taloned around the knob of Reuben’s shoulder” (90).
  • “They wouldn’t tell Haley about the many times, before the birth of their son, that they’d privately mocked those couples with children who succumbed to literally knee-slapping laughter when asked if having kids adversely affected their sex life. They wouldn’t tell Haley about how confidently they’d reassured each other that their sex lives wouldn’t be so easily assassinated. They wouldn’t tell Haley about the night, five years ago, when one of Brenna’s on-set friends, Gemma, who was actually sort of Bren’s subordinate (which: cue future problems) and going through a messy divorce, stayed late after a dinner party and somehow started kissing Bren, whose record of staunch heterosexuality had gone hitherto unblemished, which ultimately led to the three of them—Reuben, Bren, Gemma—groping on the couch and then retiring to the bedroom, and how this unsought but nevertheless astounding arrangement went on for a few weeks until Bren realized that Gemma, whose messy divorce that involved drug use (hers) and infidelity (her husband’s), was actually in love with Bren, or at least thought she was, and how after a couple of weird incidents Bren told Gemma she felt obliged to report the whole sordid affair to their supervising producer, after which a duly mortified Gemma apologized and left the project, and how upsetting the whole thing was in the aggregate (the weird incidents included Gemma’s seeming threat—feigned, thank Christ—that she’d recorded their ménages), what did Reuben and Bren go back to, what did they talk about and relive in so much of their sex that followed, including that which, he was pretty sure, conceived their one and only son? Of course, they talked about and relived those strange, silvery nights with loony Gemma and how utterly crazy they’d been for what they did to her separately and together” (90-91).
  • “‘Drugs are fun,’ Bren said, in answer to Haley’s question about cocaine. ‘For a while. Then you get old and discover Netflix’” (91).
  • “Haley walked over to the couch, removing her green satin blouse as she went, dropping it like a big shimmery lily pad on their fake hardwood floor” (92).
  • “He wasn’t sure if Bren would be relieved or horrified to know that all he’d written for the last three years was poetry. Was it good poetry? Unclear. Really, how was he supposed to even know? Like any sensible person, he disliked poetry” (94).
  • “Haley finished her water and set the glass on the floor. Her eyes were flickering everywhere, two water bugs trapped in the tiny ponds of her face. Thoughts seemed to tumble around in her skull’s unwashing machine of drug logic, mismatched and unassociated. Finally, she stood” (100).
  • “Beyond their bedroom window, Hollywood streetlights burned as bright as a forest fire. Even in the dark, all their things were illuminated and revealed” (102).


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Friendswood by Rene Steinke c. 2014 (398 pages—Riverhead)

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).
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“Zombie Sister” by Kristine Ong Muslim c. 2016 (pages 67-71 in Age of Blight)

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).

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

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

Sentences Worth Studying

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