*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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A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl by Jean Thompson c. 2018 (320 pages—Simon & Schuster)

NOTE: This summary contains spoilers.

Set in the Midwest, this novel centers on three generations of women, each with her own set of problems, and each feeling similarly stuck. Evelyn (Laura’s mother) was pushed out of her role as a professor when WWII ended and resents the loss of her career. As a young girl, Laura feels the distance and disappointment of her mother and, in what seems to be a reaction to her own upbringing, becomes a woman whose life is based on service to her family. Both Evelyn and Laura marry self-centered men and have affairs. Grace (Laura’s daughter, who works in a health food store and has never left her hometown, having attended the local college) begins to understand her mother’s life only after her mother dies of cancer and she reluctantly assumes the role of peacekeeper between her brother and father. The novel climaxes when Grace finds her drug addicted brother (Michael) squatting in her grandmother’s vacant house. Fearing her brother’s future as an addict, she pleads for them both to leave their father and start a new life somewhere else. Unfortunately, this never happens and the novel takes a dramatic turn when Grace’s father (Gabe, an alcoholic) shoots and kills her brother. Grace grows to hate her father, whom she refuses to visit in jail, and, in what she believes to be an expression of self-hate, has a sexual relationship with a crass and unattractive man. Throughout the novel, flowers and trees serve as symbols of hope and beauty, so it’s fitting that, in the final scene, Grace raises money to create a community garden honoring her deceased family members. It is at an event celebrating the opening of the garden that she meets her biological father, and the generational cycles of loss and disappointment has a chance to be broken. Questions of free will and self-determination (especially as it exists in the lives of women) figure prominently in this novel.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “It was the end of lilac season, that brief, heady time. The long mid-western winter retreated, the sky was a blue vault unrolling forever, and the lilacs came on” (1).
  • “The war hung over everything, the excitement and the dread of what happened in those unimaginable places half a world away, where bombs fell and armies marched and there were so many dead that they too were a kind of army” (7).
  • “And yet history shifted underneath your feet, she knew that. The present was a dizzy perch that every so often began to spin and slide. If you built a plane you were also bringing into being the sheets of flame that sprang up in the bomber’s path, the ruined town, the ghosts that blew through it like rags of smoke, and then the town rebuilt and its memories put into museums. You held on to your life with both hands, you told yourself pay attention to this moment, the here and now. But one minute passed into the next, and then the next, and at some point you looked back and everything was over and people called it history” (9).
  • “She was tired of managing, coping, arranging, bearing up well. Maybe that was what real grief did, prostrated you, rendered you incapable of being so idiotically useful” (14).
  • If you lived in a small-to-medium city, like this one, for some number of years, or almost all your life, as Laura had, there were circles of people you knew, from the different layers of your life, different strata, like an archaeological dig. Fallen-away friends from middle school, old rivals, old sweethearts . . . People you’d forgotten all about, until they appeared at your door, selling lawn care services or running for city council” (26-27).
  • “They hadn’t seen any of it coming. How could you? There had been some of what was considered normal adolescent screwup trouble, then episodes of careless, sullen, evasive behavior. Then the all-out catastrophes, the confrontations, the promises made and immediately tossed aside. Who was he, or who had he always been, so practiced at lying, at anger, at horrible talk? Laura’s nerves were still shredded from all the emergencies and panics, and the effort of forgiving her son again and again” (32).
  • “Her notes were meticulous. The structure and sequence of her ideas were both logical and fluid. She felt she might distinguish herself, given time. There was a part of her that was deeply contented with such work, and only with such work. It absorbed her, but it also lightened her, freed her from herself” (45).
  • “Her ankles were cold; they were making her steps clumsy. Andrew had to slacken his pace to keep from bounding away from her. He often walked for exercise and was a believer in the curative powers of fresh air. It was another of his principles, maintaining good health. Wasn’t that admirable? Yes, but it was also infuriating, as were the entirety of his thought-through notions, his reasons for distrusting soft-cooked eggs and voting for Hoover, some number of which she had already heard and some unknown number of which she had not, at least not yet. This would be her life with him, or some portion of it: the receiving of opinions” (65).
  • “But it was not so entirely strange, in the drifting, fitful process of dying, with so much that was misleading or uncertain, like a dream you might still wake from, that she would go back to the time when all possibilities were hers. Driving into the storm, all amazement, the rain hitting the glass like a volley of diamonds” (67).
  • “She was a townie through and through, and she had all the townie’s comfortable familiarity and comfortable contempt, both at ease with and chafing against the place. Every block seemed to hold some of her history, her own personal bronze plaques: here she’d broken off a portion of a front tooth jumping from someone’s porch steps, here had lived a boy she’d had a crush on in sixth grade” (118).
  • “She drove back to work through the pretty, leafy streets where she’d grown up, the houses decorated with pumpkins and seasonal wreaths, or maybe flying the team flag for another doomed football season, or one of those gift-shoppy banners depicting autumn leaves. The same mass-produced, expected stuff you saw every year, and she thought for the hundredth time that she had to move to Alaska or Costa Rica or anywhere that people didn’t take so much pride in commercially available self-expression” (129).
  • “The store and the people who worked and shopped there made up a world of its own where people cared about fair trade and the treatment of animals and the genetic manipulation of crops and the loss of honeybee populations and everything else that was made to seem quaint, an amusing affectation, by people who ate fast food and spent their weekends at shopping malls” (157).
  • “Where did you go when you died? Anywhere? Maybe you turned back into atoms. Sparks like colored fireflies, like bits of light scattering overhead, chasing the music. Why was she thinking such a thing at such a time, with a boy’s warm mouth up against her ear, with small rippling explosions passing through her skin? Her hands were warm and stealthy. She let them go where they wanted to go” (164).
  • “What a wonderful invention, the body. This lovely cage of skin, with its tides of breath sifting in and out . . . It was an entire garden of sensations, the ordinary ones, and then you turned up the dial” (164).
  • “And wasn’t that just like her, to ignore a problem with her own health, while she worried and fussed about everybody else’s? It was exasperating, it was enough to make you angry, if you let it, for the backwards reason that she had not valued herself enough to spare the rest of them her sudden need” (180).
  • “Palliative care. There was no point in getting angry at the doctors. They were magicians who only had so many tricks” (187).
  • “Day after day it was almost spring, sometimes a little closer, sometimes a little farther away. Day after day, her mother wandered off, traveled back, disappeared again. The morphine made her float; an oxygen machine tethered her to earth” (193).
  • “I had another drink and so did he. And maybe another. We were sliding down a slope of blurry alcoholic conversation, of the kind that makes you feel like you must be saying really amazing things to each other” (200).
  • “Genuine true love, the tragic kind that comes with its own movie soundtrack? I couldn’t say. Of course we went on from there, and we settled into our grown-up selves, and somewhere along there you and your brother came along, and life filled up slow, if you measured day by day, and fast if you try to account for years. There was good and bad. Some things on both sides that shouldn’t have happened. But if you really want to know who loves you, look around and see who’s still standing next to you” (204).
  • “The sickroom had a smell that trapped you as soon as you walked in. In spite of all the efforts at hygiene and air fresheners, in spite of lilacs and candles and fans. The smell was of something stale, something burdened and heavy. The room was both personal and not so. The personal was being erased from it minute by minute. Death was impersonal. It pulled your loves and hates up by the roots. It rolled right over your likes and dislikes. It took as much as it could of history and memory” (208).
  • “The summer heat descended, humid and glassy. You got used to squinting, to the painful look and feel of car hoods, concrete, windows” (237).
  • “It was enough like all the other houses in the neighborhood to seem entirely unimaginative, a house that had always been at war with the imagination and determined to impose its functionality on those who lived there, to impress them with its hierarchies of closets and bathrooms” (259).
  • “Grace didn’t believe in ghosts or spirits, at least she didn’t think she did. But it was hard not to think of her mother as she moved from the sink to the oven and back again, tasting and chopping and doing her best impersonation of her mother. She felt, not a presence, exactly. Something more earthbound, a better understanding, perhaps, of her mother and the life she had lived. The endless small chores, the worries, never enough time, and always the barely movable obstacles of her husband and children” (265).
  • “She started in on her salad. It was hard to taste anything. She felt pointlessly sad, the way she had been sad as an adolescent, without any one particular reason and with no cure for it, unless the reason was the falsity of everything around her: the facsimile of family, the approximation of holiday cheer, the impersonation of Italian food” (279).
  • “Now she had to imagine trouble, the great flapping bat shape of it, the different varieties of dangerous and stupid. Dealing? Stealing? And which substance or substances in the witch’s brew of possibilities was he taking?” (288).
  • “The music was a scroll of sound unrolling, rolling, rising, swinging for the fences, connecting. Everyone hearing it felt themselves to be lucky. And Grace felt blessed, because for just this little while, on this particular day, there was no better place to be” (320).
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“Rib Night” by Will Mackin c. 2018 (pages 88-98 in The Atlantic)

A short story in which soldiers navigate surreal realities—killing people then coming back to base to have birthday cake. Mackin, the author, deftly weaves the mythic dreams of the narrator into the mundane and sometimes murderous realities of a combat soldier.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “A fight broke out on the far side of the dining facility, over by the milk. A fridge door slapped shut, followed by the sounds of shoving and punches being thrown. Soldiers dodged out of the way before a few brave souls went in to break it up. There were noises of slipped holds and flail, of tables and chairs scraping across the concrete floor. Then Digger’s voice rang out—I’ll kill you!—and for a moment it seemed like this night, a Friday, was about to transcend all its false promises. / Every Friday was rib night at this D-FAC. Soldiers spent all day making the sauce, marinating the ribs, and stoking mesquite embers in split oil drums. They baked a cake the size of a garage door” (88).
  • “Their faces were shiny with sweat, their eyes wild with heat exhaustion. Their laughter bounced off the tent’s taut skin, reverberated in its aluminum frame, and rattled the turnbuckles, S-hooks, and galvanized wire that held the whole thing together” (90).
  • “My dream went like this: We walked uphill into a village at night. A woman ran downhill, into our ranks, and searched the troop for me. I was the one wearing all the antennas. I was the one who’d talked to the plane that shot up her house. I could see smoke rising from her house on the hill. Inside, in a corner of a room, a dead grandfather held his dead grandson. It was the daughter/mother who found me. It was she who insisted that I come inside her house to see what I’d done” (91).
  • “Some called the pills, ‘time machines’; others called them ‘TKOs.’” They were tiny blue ovals coated in shine. Standard-issue was 10-pills per man, and no more, because they were addictive” (92).
  • “Frost hung in the air. Stars tangled in the bare branches of the tallest oaks” (92).
  • “Swells rose on the surface of the moonlit ocean. Silver clouds whispered by. I removed the plastic bag from my shirt pocket and took out a sleeping pill. It appeared gray in the moonlight. I swallowed it, then stayed at the window, waiting for it to take effect. / Honeycombs, checkerboards, and cobwebs spun before my eyes. The moon set, the sun rose. Clouds vaporized, and the sea turned red. I saw the city of Atlantis, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the pyramids of Giza, all covered in the gold of sunrise. I saw the Tower of Babel, its top spiraling toward the heavens. I knew these things were real, because I could press my hand against the jump door and feel the cold sky pressing back” (93).
  • “The steel walls of my shipping container turned to glass in my dream. I found myself alone on the barren steppe where Sharana once stood. The sun rolled backwards across the sky. Night fell, frost formed on the glass, and it began to snow. A glacier descended from the mountains to bury me in ice for an eon before the thaw delivered a millennium of floods and driving rain. Then, one day, the clouds broke and the sun shined down on a forest of petrified mulberries. That night, the harvest moon crashed into the Earth, smashing it to smithereens. I drifted in my glass box through space and time toward a tiny, oval-shaped star that shined blue in the distance” (94).
  • “Maybe Digger had thought that, as a killer, he was entitled to whichever box he wanted. After all, he hadn’t spent his day making barbeque sauce, or stoking fires, or baking a fucking cake. He hadn’t blown up balloons or hung streamers. Someone must’ve cut in front of Digger and taken his box of milk” (96).

 

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The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel c. 2018 (354 pages—Algonquin)

Warning: This summary contains spoilers.

The Optimistic Decade is set in the Bush Sr. era, with some flashbacks to the Reagan years. The main characters are teenagers and young adults, all of whom are engaged in a timeless rite of passage: the search for identity and purpose. At the center of the novel is Rebecca Silver, the daughter of two politically progressive parents who publish a “truth to power” newspaper. Rebecca, who worships her father, distinguishes herself among peers with her vocal expressions of leftist outrage. For most of the novel, she is a second-year college student at UC Berkeley, attending a remote summer camp in Colorado run by her older cousin, Caleb. Rebecca’s parents (Ira and Georgia), particularly her father, mock Caleb, who believes that his commune-like camp, where kids are “reborn” after a summer of roughing it, is ineffective in creating positive social change. However, when Rebecca attends this camp at Ira’s urging (sending his daughter away so he can publish his final newspaper without facing her), she begins to see the camp’s appeal, too busy to read Ira’s final editorial as she explores her developing sexuality and reconnects with her childhood friend, David (whose parents are close friends with Ira and Georgia). Rebecca and David are foils who represent an equally passionate response to the question: What is the purpose of a life? For much of the novel, Rebecca’s purpose is animated by her political activism and her dreams of becoming a journalist, whereas David is obsessed with his spiritual connection to Llamalo, going so far as to cast even the most mundane actions in religious language, the everyday “mitzvahs” of Llamalo, small actions or deeds that bring him closer to God. The name of the camp, Llamalo, is Hebrew for “why not?” and comes from Caleb’s last memory of his father, an itinerant man who committed suicide when Caleb was young. The name seems both significant and random, a possible clue to a central message: People are foolish to seek simplistic explanations when the world is complex and murky. Another salient message seems to be the danger of idealizing imperfect people, as Rebecca and Caleb both idealize (and even idolize) their flawed fathers, while David idolizes the egocentric and emotionally stunted Caleb. The main dramatic tension of the story comes in the conflict between Caleb and the previous owners of the ranch that Caleb turns into Llamalo: Don Sr., a quiet and hardworking man who lost his wife to cancer, and his son Donnie, a volatile young man who leaves his hometown after the oil bust and is brainwashed by right-wing conspiracy theorists, believing that the loss of his family’s land is the fault of leftist “eco-Nazis” (like Caleb) scaring away big businesses such as Exxon. This story finds a fitting ending when, after an injury lawsuit from David’s father, Caleb loses the camp and is hired to perform menial tasks by its new owner, a former counselor at Llamalo. In the end, it’s Rebecca’s mother, Georgia, who offers the wisdom and hope that refutes Ira’s cynical proclamation that people only have one “optimistic decade.” The final scene in the novel occurs at a California protest during the bombing of Iraq, when Rebecca hears (or imagines?) a protester asking her to storm a government building, his final word of ‘Llamalo,’ suggesting that the personal and the political are—contrary to what she’d always thought—inextricably linked, and that Rebecca, who is now an English major, might still end up committing her life to activism.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “It was April 1990, not even four months into the new decade, and already Nelson Mandela had been freed and Daniel Ortega defeated and the first McDonald’s opened in the USSR, which was about to drift apart, ending the Cold War, and still, although increasingly people chose to ignore this, everything was awful when it came down to inequality and Earth destruction and generally being fucked by capitalism. Rebecca Silver, thinking of all this, walked through residential Berkeley to meet her father for lunch” (1).
  • “She felt so adult, her backpack full of used books with colons in their titles that would teach her everything Ira already knew. She felt, even with her problematic hair, almost beautiful” (4).
  • “Until they arrived, Llamalo was simply a chassis—some wood, some dirt—and Caleb was nothing, just a man. He had nobody to whom he could point out the parabola of bird flight, nobody who needed to learn the word ‘junco,’ nobody whose life he could strip bare of causal comforts, nobody whose mind he could blow” (29).
  • “He wanted to confront her with grand medieval language: State your purpose and king! But all the eloquence he felt here had vanished under her gaze” (35).
  • “Outside, Rebecca often felt scared. There was a brutality to the exposure, an ominous wind much of the time, and when the wind stopped, the silence was freaky and the air thin and dusty” (37).
  • “She began to apologize. It was a true emergency, she said. Her mother was sick. Terribly sick. She said the word ‘cancer’ and then regretted it, seized by a certainty that her mother’s healthy cells would now turn malignant by a devious god that toyed with atheists by taking them literally” (40).
  • “At last, she felt like herself, the true Rebecca, holographically appearing on the plateau. War resister, Ira’s daughter, bearer of bad news. Let them stare. Let them listen. Let a shadow fall on their wide-open futures” (42-43).
  • “It had been like this since her arrival. She’d carefully chosen books to bring, but they weren’t interested in her reading aloud. She’d imagined intimacies, secrets shared, vulnerabilities laid out in front of her like offerings to the gods. She’d imagined guiding them from the pedestal of her nearly nineteen years, from the flashing lighthouse of college, but instead they sat on Tanya’s bed singing Top 40 songs she didn’t know” (52).
  • “They sped east on Sunset, past restaurants they would never try. Billboards, skimming by like shuffled cards, advertised movies they would never see. There was a different Los Angeles outside the sun-streamed studios and frozen yogurt and Brentwood Country Mart and Pappagallo espadrilles and everything Rebecca had heard about and didn’t understand. There was a true Los Angeles that only Rebecca and David knew, and it sang songs that would never become commercials” (59).
  • “Afterward, he took her outside to watch the moon rise over the final, most western of the Rocky Mountains. It shone a spotlight on Escadom’s snowy summit, slid light down the mountain’s royal alpine body, cast its white eye over the oceanic and unaccommodating desert, which began in the folds of the mountain’s kingly robes and spread out southward as far as they could see” (73-74).
  • “It was too warm in here to wait so long, too musty and moldy. Spores grew on paper, and there was plenty of that: tombstones of newspaper and columns of computer printouts and obelisks of spiral notebooks, and on the walls, yellowing cartoons, curling posters, against this, for that” (108-109).
  • “But Rebecca, in the barn, was otherwise occupied. If this was a kiss, this thing that never ended, this Mobius route through dark woodland, then what exactly had she been doing before? She was somewhere she’d never been, led here by David, whose tongue tasted of tomato and probed everywhere, encouraging her to do the same, to keep her own mouth open, until all her little pecks and nervous licks ran together like a river, dense and insistent” (156).
  • “Kayla was tiny and terrifying. She was a spiderweb and spider, all at once. She was a bouncy chair with a Winnie the Pooh pattern and a pink roses diaper bag and a bottle sterilizer and a white crib and pink bibs and pink pajamas and little pink dishrags that were not to be used for dishes, and diapers and a camo-print stroller, and this took up all the space in their apartment and all his money” (196).
  • “Caleb felt solemn to be so near these people, to brush up against their disaster, to examine the tables with their mammy cookie jars, Mixmasters, towers of plates, a congregation of teacups, buckets of wrenches, earrings, scissors, Bible figurines, piles of faded linens” (205).
  • “Nobody noticed that David was made from this place, his skin from the cracked clay ground, his legs from the branches of a Russian olive, his teeth from a king snake’s skull, his fingertips from the soft lobes of sage. The strange thing was, when he reached the edge of the cliff, he stepped onto the trail to the river, and the trail wasn’t there. He stepped into air” (258).
  • “Unshod, Caleb followed him into a large room with tatami mats on the floor and two blue ovoid meditation cushions, like the eggs of some passing dinosaur. There was no furniture other than a small shrine on a shelf in the corner with a stone Buddha who had a lei of dried marigolds at his feet” (260).
  • “When she’d met Caleb at the start of summer, she’d been surprised by his appearance. A tree of a guy with lines like bark on his face, he wore odd, ill-fitting jeans, a snap shirt, a cowboy hat. She’d wondered whether it was a calculated performance. Now, she knew that he simply lived outside the world of commerce, outside of culture and aesthetics, preference and reference. And after eight weeks at Llamalo, she was becoming like him. Everything here seemed antiseptic, unnecessary, funny. What was this greasy meat? These glossy red apples? This case of colored drinks? What were these walls? This TV? This roof? Why be inside at all?” (275).
  • “Word would spread and soon he’d be attracting other young people as well. College students on a semester off in their aimless years after graduating, when life’s purpose glowed brightly, but held no shape. Before they hardened. Before they were distracted by babies and debt, before they’d relinquished their plans of living a life of wonder” (282).
  • “Over the years, Caleb had learned that if you invited them the right way, people generally acted how you wanted them to act. If you made sure to invite them into something grand and purposeful. If you told them a compelling and urgent story into which they could enter. If you gave them a role, a small but crucial part” (286).
  • “Soon Caleb grew pleased with the sluggishness of his leg muscles and the blisters ballooning on his heels and toes. This pain meant that he wasn’t the same Caleb as he’d been in DC, when his body had felt nothing. Here, red crevices had been cut into the earth. Maybe he, too, was cut away, all that was distasteful about him, all he’d inherited from his mother—his worry, arrogance, pessimism, all eroded” (299).
  • “I’ve thought that maybe everyone has one decade, call it an optimistic decade, when the world feels malleable and the self strong. And then it’s over. It doesn’t come back” (326).
  • “Was the feeling of standing on Aemon’s Mesa a holy feeling if Caleb was standing there with synergistic entrepreneurs? Was there a mitzvah of modular modernism with a Western flair?” (335).
  • “Outside, the dazzling world mocked the gloom she’d felt in his room. Right in front of his fetid aquamarine building, grandly named the Sea Castle, where a multitude of delights: the bike path, a playground on the sand with swings and seesaw, circus sounds coming from the pier, the slow turn of the Ferris wheel at its end. ‘Behold!’ he said. ‘The sparkling ocean’ (346).
  • “She wanted to call David and explain. Whoever he’d been on Aemon’s Mesa—that boy; that beautiful and confident boy; was with him still. Just as Caleb was both visionary and deceitful. There was no line, fine or otherwise” (349).
  • “Placards bobbed like coral polyps from a reef. Banners swam eel-like in the current. She could hear whale calls from those giving speeches into bullhorns” (350-351).

 

 

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“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Anthony Wallace c. 2018 (pages 39-47 in The Pushcart Prize XLII–originally published in the Southern Review)

A short story set in a restaurant and centered on a couple who appears to have a baby with them. The mother, who attracts attention for being both beautiful and demanding, serves as the center of a story that explores themes of privilege, beauty, and class.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “A well-dressed couple entered the lobby of the Hotel Saint-Dominique, the young woman first, pushing an expensive-looking pram, the muscles in her slender arms and legs taut with purpose” (39).
  • “Beauty of this magnitude is the greatest agony, thought the professor, ordering two glasses of Taittinger Brut. Beauty is no antidote to suffering. Quite the reverse . . . There is something cruel in that, in the very nature of things, that beauty kills, and likes to kill—the tiger, the most beautiful land animal in the world, and the deadliest, though he knew such thinking was clichéd or worse. Beauty destroys and devours so that the world may live on. That seemed less trite, but not by much” (40).
  • “She wasn’t happy that she’d had to wait for the champagne in order to begin her first course, and she was even less happy that the champagne had arrived in saucers instead of flutes—hadn’t she mentioned that to them the last time?—but she was working on being less critical” (41).
  • “She was not an American and did not understand the democratization of roles that was an important aspect of American life, that a gas station attendant, for example, would not think anything of initiating a personal conversation with anyone who might pull up” (41).
  • “And it surprised her also, on this day when she’d been so happy, so ready to enjoy life, so full of energy and vitality, that in this place where they dined so often, and were known so well, that they should be sent a waiter who did not know them, their likes and dislikes, that she should have to explain what she had explained all too often, that there must be a responsible person to stand next to the baby when they both went up to select the next course, which she was now ready to do, and she would have to call him over, wherever he was, and explain all this, and how could you explain all this and not lose the timing—in her view that was the whole experience of dining, the timing—and now it would be ruined, there was no saving it, they should go, why didn’t they just stay at home if this was going to be the result” (42).
  • “Dealing with the public can make one terribly cynical. The hostess, who had an MFA in screenwriting and who’d written two screenplays she was unable to sell, was just such a cynical product of the service industry. To her way of thinking, there were only two kinds of people in the world: those who’d had their screenplays optioned, and those who hadn’t” (45).
  • “After dinner they would take their secondhand pies into the living room and he would tell her the story of the couple and their unusual baby girl. But what he would not tell her, what she would find out or not, as time went on, is that he had seen true beauty and originality and had been forever changed by his encounter with them, though in the near term, as is always the case, it was not possible to say precisely how” (46).
  • “The pram lay on its side in the barroom, the back wheel slowly turning. Pieces of the doll lay scattered about in a way that suggested an important human truth without revealing it” (47).
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Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport c. 1994 (480 pages—Penguin)

A sweeping tale that spans generations and blurs the lines between people. This complex story swirls around Pono, an ailing grandmother who has hidden her husband and true love (Duke, a regal Hawai’ian who contracted leprosy) from her daughters and grandaughters for many years. Pono’s girls were raised by a single mother who fiercely played the role of both parents, never indulging her girls, knowing they must be strong if they are to survive. In the opening of the novel, Pono’s granddaughters gather around her to learn the truth about their family history, which is stitched together in a series of flashbacks that comprise the bulk of the book. Issues of identity, prejudice, and loyalty figure prominently into “Shark Dialogues.” Davenport’s prose is rich and expressive; its rhythms accelerate and build the tension in this masterful novel.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “In that large, restless house of water-haunted sunlight, the kitchen was where they discovered their real history. Stories heard from Run Run, the cook, drugged them, startled them, fleshed and shaped their evolution. As she talked, her hands were busy whacking bloody chicken parts, dripping grease from laulau, cheroot of dried cuttlefish hanging from her lips” (7).
  • “Years of physical pain were reducing her to a life of the mind, which, increasingly, Ming felt was the only reality in this imagined world” (19).
  • “Flukes grinding back and forth somewhere in the depths their song became a symphony vibrating and they suddenly pressed close so close they looked like giant godly Siamates and they drove themselves up and up and rising out of the water all of them the massiveness the length of them high high into the blue above from blue below and they were blue and blue oceans sluicing down their sides and joined yes and joined and everything all earthly things were small and they just stood there in the sky a young boy’s memory and then they dove back down into other atmospheres a deafening resounding roar that shook the timbers of the ship and shook the hearts of watching men and threw them to their knees” (31).
  • “If, on solitary evenings, she brooded over a tiny jade book with faint Empress fingerprints, and if she thought of its companion volume lying in another’s hand, and the warmth of that hand, it was only in the way one remembers a met glance, someone glimpsed who ghosts through our lives forever” (59).
  • “Waves lapped her gently, hair floating round her a phosphorescent net. She swam slowly, thoughtfully, befitting the pace of an old woman. She swam through Circadian troughs of night and into a purple hour, and looking back she saw, like points of pure yearning, the volcanic tips of Hawai’i” (73).
  • “She turned her back on the old century, taking with her a memory of dueling in-laws, her mother’s astonished, dying gaze. And striding along beside that memory, the image of a doctor coming late, too late, because they lived in what whites now called slums” (77).
  • “Some days Pono was frantic, talkative, all stark energy with the center drained. Running barefoot along jagged edges, beautiful and starved-looking, she grew angry, moving fastest when he moved least, coxing him, bullying him. Other nights, she was eerily quiet, and he knew she had dreamed” (114).
  • “They would have their history, she knew it, and prepared herself, little tributaries of hate filling the basin of her brain. One night she dreamed of him, his massive arms encircling, obliterating her” (121).
  • “Her juices. Her rhythms. Her honor. Lodged somewhere in the grottoes and arches of his spine” (128).
  • “Down down where life was rhythmed by reflex she held her fingers out and they clasped hands floating in a circle squinting like embryos dreamily acknowledging each other in a giant womb and in that floatingtime a timeless time none of them hurt no one was damaged or frightened or alone they were just cells connected by a stroke of light . . .” (157).
  • Slowly the land becomes lush and green and mystic, the air cool, smell of cooking fires, guava, frangipani and soil, deep, rich soil” (184).
  • “Some nights he dreamed of Ming, her lovely face shriveled into a hag, little mama-san sitting in the sun, polishing her new metal legs, then standing, goosestepping proudly . . . Old mama-san, blown into stars of flesh, a human galaxy, outside Hoi An. Occasionally he thought of ending it, there seemed so little of real value left for him. Rubbing the stock of a hunting rifle, he thought how a simple bullet would ease him to the other side, help him get from here to there a little faster—like taking a jet” (224).
  • “And she thought how theater, costumes, little tricks gave their lovemaking the aspect of piety. Yet there was nothing pious in it, it was fantasy, escape, what people did to beat back fear, beat back waves of lonely respiration” (264).
  • “She watched the easing of night, sly coming of dawn, and hung her head exhausted, thinking of her grandmother, the rest of the women in this house, each one such a raw, unique event, they seemed a miracle. Their frailties, conspiracies, their private deaths. There is so little left. We must not brutalize each other” (288).
  • “Ming’s face was frightful, nothing left but eyes on stalks, her mouth uncertain as the rash accrued. Her hair was a prodigy of white spiders. Trapped in that awful grotto of bone, she seemed the lining larva of the dead” (310).
  • “Tall, muscular, wiry, smelling of sweat, grass, steer and saddle, and mountains and myth, this man, vessel of their youth, looked terribly injured, old” (314).
  • “Rachel sat up as if a bell had clanged inside her. She could feel each moment’s passing, like electric shocks, knowing she could never recreate this wholeness, this magic, with anything of equal weight. She would have to learn the lesson every day: that, sometimes, all that will define a person—instill within them dignity and purpose—all the human answers, are frozen for a few moments, a few days, and all the days to come are just a looking back” (356).
  • “Vanya embraced her, feeling they were girls again. They held each other silently, held and seemed beheld in shafts of sunlight going dim and dusty, like messages from a god who had begun to vacillate” (415).
  • Mine has been a life of running. And why, I wonder, why? What is in the distance that will heal me? She dropped her head, saw Pono running through time, shattering the years like glass, a woman of heat and light, scathed, nearly broken, but running on, sizzling through the clear paralysis of mediocre lives” (432-433).
  • “He was aware by Vanya’s silence how that remark had cut. And he thought of her side of the island, the Kona side. Soft showers draping steep-sided valleys, drifting through banana and papaya groves, then turning into hard legs of rain that marched down to the sea and were resurrected as rainbows, like bright spent but implacable warriors climbing up the hills toward home, and flooded taro patches iridescent in sun, and lotus fields like heads of newborns, and smoke of poignant little cooking fires coming up the hills, and dusk, a certain moment when everything turned into fiction, him startled like he was startled now, remembering the first night she brought him to the house, roads gleaming sacrificial-red from coffee cherries, and coming up the drive, smell of fertilizer, soil, coffee, ginger, guava, flowers exploding all about in Gypsy-colors, the house so white, so old, so definite, enfolding this high-strung mournful feverish clan” (438).
  • “And she continued talking, sometimes her words shrinking to the embryo of words, deciphering, reconstructing her life on the basis of sounds. She talked until the years, the memories were exhausted, then she lay down in their cave and slept, like a woman who had spent days stalking mammoths” (463).
  • “Most people sought a blindingly passionate, transcending love, the one impossible and tragic. At the same time they wanted a less perfect, more prosaic love, one that got them through the day-to-day. She brooded over this, wondering if it was age, or just fatigue that took away large appetites, left us desiring a life predictable and kind. Was wanting less the first step down the road to dying, or to wisdom?” (475).
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“Silent is Help” by Elena Georgiou c. 2018 (pages 67 – 96 in The Immigrants Refrigerator)

This story shows the relationship between two guarded people: a reclusive American man and a woman from Nicaragua, both of whom agree to not get too close, as previous traumas have made it difficult to openly share. Motifs of excess and frugality—both economic and verbal—are found in this piece, and furthered with references to the philosophy of Ben Franklin.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “I’m industrious, Mr. Franklin, but you didn’t mention what to do when not everyone’s industry is considered equal” (68).
  • “Her voice transported me; I took my seat, closed my eyes, and saw palm trees on the inside of my eyelids” (68).
  • “FYI: When Gabriela says awesome, she means it. She is in awe of this culture—its need to always invent something new to be bought: the multitudes of breakfast cereals, the scores of cookies and crackers, the multiplicities of jams and jellies, the infinite variations of sugar and artificial sweeteners” (72).
  • “Google obliged me. I wrote down the statistics, then I broke the data down into an easily digestible calculation that I could share in casual conversation on the rare occasions that I leave my house” (75).
  • “Gabby and I are happy living on our own little island of the unspoken, and because of this we’re also willing to indulge each other when one of us requests something that the other wouldn’t normally do” (79).
  • “Helen was caving; he shoulders were curling in, as if she were trying to protect her body. I did not want to be forced into noticing stuff like this. I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted these potluck people to leave. I wanted the whole world to remain outside my front door” (84).
  • “But this was a fantasy of the future, and the only dark forces conspiring of the night were the ones that had conspired to group these women around my dinner table to worship at the Altar of Neighborliness Gone Horribly Wrong” (86).
  • “I understood now why she had worn coveralls; she was the kind of woman who was always ready to dive into whatever work was needed, even if it was emotional. She unclenched Helen’s fist and stuffed another tissue in it” (89).
  • “I was raised in a home which kept communication to a minimum, and that was more than okay with me. I didn’t want my mom or my dad to sit down and tell me what had put them in their bad mood, or to explain the workings of their hearts and minds. Other people’s parents were Talking Things Through all the way to divorce courts. My parents just got on with The Job of Living. And most of their living was about work, with the occasional night out” (90).
  • “It is difficult to distinguish between the silence of shock and the silence of wisdom” (93).
  • “There are nights when my worry works me up into such a state that it spills out and I shock myself by crying. Actual sobs” (94).
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“Gazpacho” by Elena Georgiou c. 2018 (pages 3 – 6 in The Immigrants Refrigerator)

Flash fiction in which a Mexican man grieves the death of children by caring for kids who may suffer a similar fate. This story illustrates the importance of small acts of kindness in a cruel and violent world.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Both my own history and these train boys are slowly grinding what is broken inside me into a dust. So. I make soup. I cannot sleep when I think that the only thing these children will take into their bodies are the half-finished cigarettes that others toss away” (3).
  • “At the end of my second journey on la besita, I found my father. A miracle! / He said: ‘It takes more than one night with your mother to make you my son.’ / He turned his back to me. He closed his door. And all the walls of my life, already built on crumbling foundations, would have fallen on top of me if I hadn’t stepped sideways—out of this old house, into the new” (4 – 5).
  • “But now, here I am: a twenty-year-old father who feeds these Road Cousins gazpacho when the train stops to catch its breath in the station. The rest of the day, I drive a hearse” (6).
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