*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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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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“Bajadas” by Francisco Cantu c. 2018 (pages 50-62 in The Pushcart Prize XLII–originally published in Ploughshares)

A gut-wrenching short story about immigration told from the perspective of a border agent.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Then, wrapped in blankets, we laughed and drank eggnog and brandy until the conversation deteriorated into discussion of my impending work. / Look, my mother said, I spent most of my adult life working for the government as a park ranger, so don’t take this the wrong way—but don’t you think it’s below you, earning a degree just to become a border cop?” (51).
  • “Below us, an expanse of sunlit plain stretched westward from the base of the mountain. I watched as the landscape shifted under the winter light. Behind me, my mother placed her hand on my shoulder and pointed to a cloud of gypsum sand in the distance, impossibly small, swirling across the basin desert” (52).
  • “He told me he’d call the tribal police to seize the vehicle, but I knew he wouldn’t. Even if he did, they wouldn’t come for it, they wouldn’t want the paperwork either. They, too, would leave it here to be ransacked, picked over, and lit on fire—evidence of a swirling disorder” (54).
  • “There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this? I wonder sometimes how I might explain certain things, the sense in what we do when they run from us, scattering into the brush, leaving behind their water jugs and their backpacks full of food and clothes, how to explain what we do when we discover their layup spots stocked with water and stashed rations. Of course, what you do depends on who you’re with, depends on what kind of agent you are, what kind of agent you want to become, but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze, and Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is, but the idea is that when they come out of their hiding places, when they regroup and return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped they’ll realize then their situation, they they’re fucked, that it’s hopeless to continue on, and they’ll quit right then and there, they’ll save themselves, they’ll struggle toward the nearest highway or dirt road to flag down some passing agent or they’ll head for the nearest parched village to knock on someone’s door, someone who will give them food and water and call us to take them in—that’s the idea, the sense in it all” (56).
  • “Then, quietly, as if whispering to me or to someone else, he began to speak of the rains in Guerrero, about the wet and green jungle, and I wondered if he could have ever been made to imagine a place like this—a place where one of his companions would meet his death and another would be made to forget his own name, a landscape where the earth still burned with volcanic heat” (58-59).
  • “He told me they still needed to interview the women who were picked up with the girls and asked me to stay and translate. I can’t help anymore, I told him, I have to go home. As I drove away from the station, I tried not to think of the girls and my hands shook at the wheel. I wanted to call my mother, but it was too late, it was the middle of the night” (60).
  • “You know, my mother said, it’s not just your safety I worry about. I know how the soul can be placed at hazard fighting impossible battles. I spent my whole career working for the government, slowly losing a sense of purpose even though I remained close to the outdoors, close to my passion. I don’t want that for you” (62).
  • “There were supposed to be twenty of them, they were supposed to be slow, but still I couldn’t catch up, I couldn’t stay on the sign, I couldn’t even get close enough to hear them in the distance, and so now they remained out there in the desert: men, women, and children, entire families invisible and unheard, and I was powerless to help them, powerless to keep them from straying through the night and the cold” (62).
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“The Home for Buddhist Widows” by Blair Hurley c. 2018 (pages 122-134 in Pushcart Prize XLII) originally published in West Branch

This story centers on a group of women (mostly American) who, after losing their husbands, go to Japan to live as nuns. Issues of patriarchy, love, and death are explored.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Before light has come and the little birds whose names we don’t know are fluttering and darting out of the eaves of the temple, one of the monks is hitting the ancient cast-iron bell” (122).
  • “After all the grief, the panic of it, the savage emptiness of the house still cluttered with things, the tightening knot of friends and relatives who won’t leave us alone with their relentless buzzing concern—suddenly it is late and I am still up, prowling the house like an intruder in my own former life, and the idea comes: an image of elegant architecture, a raked garden, a line of monks with bent heads, the deep gong of a bell, the clean, chilly, minimalist promise of Japan. Why not? It has to be better than THIS, I think” (124).
  • “The floors are hard, the work is hard. Aren’t you supposed to respect your elders in this country? He shrugs and smiles, putting up his hands. He has learned this very American gesture of absolving responsibility” (124).
  • “The worst part is seeing the monks, smirking at us. We sweep and mop in angry silence. But late that night, I wake to a rasping sound and rise. I go to the window; it’s like my dream, the one where I see my husband off on a trip, and he wants me to run out and kiss him goodbye, but we’ve just fought and I won’t. I’m always going to the window and watching him leave, and I don’t know why I won’t bend, why I can’t make the cold center of myself soften” (125).
  • “What is THIS? / This is watching the light creep into the window of a house that we know holds no warm breath but our own. This is waiting for an excuse to speak all day, to the bank teller, to the neighbor who is just trying to get a car seat into his minivan and doesn’t have time for you, standing on your lawn in your robe or in your Sunday best, hoping for just a little conversation. This is inviting the Jehovah’s Witnesses in and serving them cookies just to listen. This is going to the dentist more than you need to just to feel those warm latex fingers in your mouth, massaging your gums. It is looking at art or listening to your favorite songs and feeling puzzled by them, those things you loved suddenly bereft of meaning. This is looking down the long dark subway tunnel of your life and thinking, all right, I can do this, even if it is alone, if I just keep walking, keep rising and eating and sleeping and waking . . .” (126).
  • “Grief, the roshi tells us, is like a fire that is licking at our bodies from the inside. Like anger, it stems from a kind of greed. We are clinging to our loved ones, to our former lives, like children cling to toys. We are desperate not to let go. This desperation is slowly eating us alive. It is a hungry and relentless fire” (127).
  • “Our friends back home are a little horrified, we know, by what we’ve done to ourselves. But the moment someone becomes a widow, the world wants her to stop in time, to freeze exactly as she was. She must stay in the same house, read the same books, sit in the same chair. There’s something dangerous about a widow who continues to change and grow, who grabs out at the world, demanding something, instead of wilting quietly from it. We are looking to become. At night we can feel it in our bones. They groan like the skeletons of teenagers, changing their shape too fast to keep up” (128).
  • “I married young, and marriage was a benevolent monster eating me from the inside. I never had to be anyone at all, as long as there was the monster there to care and feed” (129).
  • “We walk on. It’s getting dark. The weather here is unpredictable and it has begun to snow. Our steps are more urgent now . . . All we can do is keep walking along the beach, looking out at the gray little houses in the dimming light. She can’t disappear. She is one of us. She wouldn’t leave us” (133).


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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri c. 2013 (340 pages—Knopf)

(Note: This summary contains spoilers.) “The Lowland” is Shakespearian in its representation of family drama. Udayan (the radical and rebellious brother) is murdered by government forces when Subhash (the studious, rule-follower) is in the US furthering his education. After a brief relationship with an American woman, Subhash returns to Calcutta to reconnect with his mother and father only to find that they’ve shut out Udayan’s pregnant wife, Gauri. Feeling powerless and disconnected, Subhash makes the bold decision to marry Gauri and take her back to the US with him, where he’s working as a researcher. In the beginning of their marriage, both Subhash and Gauri agree that it’s best to pretend that Subhash is Bela’s father, not wanting her to know the truth about Udayan’s death. But Gauri becomes increasingly burdened by this lie and by the lack of intellectual stimulation that she experiences as a stay-at-home mom, so she leaves Subhash and Bella to become a scholar. The story climaxes when Subhash tells Bela, now pregnant, the truth about her family.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “While Subhash stayed in clear view, Udayan was disappearing: even in their two-room house, when he was a boy, he hid compulsively, under the bed, behind the doors, in the crate where winter quilts were stored. / He played this game without announcing it, spontaneously vanishing, sneaking into the back garden, climbing into a tree, forcing their mother, when she called and did not answer, to stop what she was doing” (10).
  • “They laid out the pieces on the bed: the chassis, the capacitors, the various resistors, the speaker. Soldering the wires, working together on the task. When it was finally assembled, it looked like a little suitcase, with a squared-off handle. Made of metal, bound in black” (16).
  • “Under their bed, against the wall, there was a can of red paint and a brush that had not been there before” (28).
  • “Each day, in spite of its growing routine, he felt uncertain, improvisational. Here in this place surrounded by sea, he was drifting far from his point of origin” (40).
  • “His satisfaction was in watching: its breast feathers drooping as it dipped its head toward the water, as it took slow strides on long, backward-bent legs” (45).
  • “The sun was beating down and he lifted his hand as she approached, angling his head toward her face, forming a little canopy over their heads. The gesture made her feel alone with him, sheltered in that great crowd. Distinct from the pedestrians, afloat on the city’s swell” (61).
  • “The hymns recounted the story of Durga being formed, and the weapons that were provided for each of her ten arms: sword and shield, bow and arrow. Axe, mace, conch shell, and discus. Indra’s thunderbolt, Shiva’s trident. A flaming dart, a garland of snakes” (83).
  • “Only two people had come to receive him. A younger cousin of his father’s, Biren Kaka, and his wife. They were standing by a fruit vendor, unable to smile when they spotted him. He understood this diminished welcome, but he couldn’t understand why, after he’d traveled for more than two days, after he’d been away for more than two years, his parents were unwilling to come even this far to acknowledge his return. When he’d left India his mother had promised a hero’s welcome, a garland of flowers draped around his neck when he stepped off the train” (88).
  • “She watched his arms flapping, his body leaping forward, seizing up before falling to the ground. There was the clean sound of the shots, followed by the sound of crows, coarsely calling, scattering” (105).
  • “And it wasn’t simply cruelty. Their treatment of Gauri was deliberate, intended to drive her out. He thought of her becoming a mother, only to lose control of the child. He thought of the child being raised in a joyless house. / The only way to prevent it was to take Gauri away. It was all he could do to help her, the only alternative he could provide. And the only way to take her away was to marry her. To take his brother’s place and raise his child, to come to love Gauri as Udayan had. To follow him in a way that felt perverse, that felt ordained. That felt both right and wrong” (115).
  • “In the light of early morning, he saw her hair unsprung from its customary knot, tensile, suspended like a serpent from the branch of a tree. She walked through the living room as if he were not there” (138).
  • “Inside of her, surrounded by her, he worried that she would never accept him, that she would never fully belong to him, even as he breathed in the smell of her hair, and clasped her breast in his hand” (147).
  • “That summer evening formed a vivid tableau that seemed just to have occurred. She recalled the rain on the way to the hospital, the face of the nurse who’d stood at her side, the view of the marina out the window. The feel of the hospital gown against her skin, a needle inserted into the top of her hand. Just yesterday, it seemed, she had held Bela and at looked at her for the first time. She remembered the ballast of pregnancy, suddenly missing. She remembered astonishment that such a specific-looking being, contained for so long within her, had emerged” (153).
  • “In the afternoons, following mornings of bright sun, came the rumble of thunder, like great sheets of rippling tin. The approach of dark-rimmed clouds. Bela saw them lowering swiftly like a vast gray curtain, obscuring the day’s light” (192).
  • “He is teaching her to identify things, they are playing a game: one point for a mussel shell, two for scallop, three for crab. The plovers, darting single-mindedly from the dunes toward the waves, get five” (218).
  • “Her dedication to bettering the world was something that would fulfill her, he imagined, for the rest of her life. Still, he was unable to set aside his concern. She had eschewed the stability he had worked to provide. She’d forged a rootless path, one which seemed precarious to him. One which excluded him. But, as with Gauri, he’d let her go. / A loose confederation of friends, people she spoke of fondly but never introduced him to, provided her with an alternate form of family” (224-225).
  • “Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she would find things where she had put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise. It greeted her at the end of each day and lay still with her at night. She had no wish to overcome it. Rather, it was something upon which she’d come to depend, with which she’d entered by now into a relationship, more satisfying and enduring than the relationships she’d experienced in either of her marriages” (237).
  • “Her life had been pared down to its solitary components, its self-reliant code. Her uniform of black slacks and tunics, the books and the laptop computer she needed to do her job. The car she used to get from one place to another” (240).
  • “He was increasingly aware these days of how much he owned, of the ongoing effort his life required. The thousands of trips to the grocery store he had made, all the heaping bags of food, first paper, then plastic, now canvas sacks brought from home, unloaded from the trunk of the car and unpacked and stored in cupboards, all to sustain a single body” (252).
  • “She lives with ten other people in a house meant for one family. There are people writing screenplays, people designing jewelry, people whose computer start-ups have failed. People who recently graduated from college, and older people with pasts they don’t care to discuss” (255).
  • “Then again, how could he expect Bela to be interested in marriage, given the example he and Gauri had given? They were a family of solitaries. They had collided and dispersed. This was her legacy” (262).
  • “She refused to believe him. She thought something had happened to him, that he’d lost his mind, that perhaps he’d suffered a stroke. She kneeled in front of him on the sofa, gripping him by the shoulders, inches from his face. / Stop saying that, she said. He sat, passive, in her clutches, and yet he felt as if he were striking her. He was aware of the brute force of the truth, worse than any physical blow. At the same time he had never felt more pathetic, more frail” (266).
  • “Around Bela her mother had never pretended. She had transmitted an unhappiness that was steady, an ambient signal that was fixed. It was transmitted without words. And yet Bela was aware of it, as one is aware of a mountain. Immovable, insurmountable. / Now there was a third parent, pointed out to her like a new star her father would teach her to identify in the night sky. Something that had been there all along, contributing a unique point of light. That was dead but newly alive to her. That had both made her and made no difference” (268).
  • “Too much is within her grasp now. First at the computers she would log on to at the library, replaced by the wireless connection she has at home. Glowing screens, increasingly foldable, portable, companionable, anticipating any possible question the human brain might generate. Containing more information than anyone has need for. / So much of it, she observes, is designed to eliminate mystery, to minimize surprise. There are maps to indicate where one is going, images of hotel rooms one might stay in. The delayed status of a plane one need not rush to board. Links to people, famous or anonymous—people one might reunite with, or fall in love with, or hire for a job. A revolutionary concept, already taken for granted. Citizens of the Internet dwell free from hierarchy. There is room for everyone, given that there are no spatial constraints. Udayan might have appreciated this” (275-276).
  • “They were simple questions, ones that Bela did not mind answering when posed by strangers. But coming from her mother each felt outrageous. Each was an affront” (309).
  • “After the bypass, turning after a fancy hospital, a few familiar things. The train tracks at Ballygunge, the tangled intersection at Gariahat. Life pouring out of crooked lanes, seated on broken steps. Hawkers, selling clothes, selling slippers and purses, lining the streets” (315).
  • “She was unprepared for the landscape to be so altered. For there to be no trace of that evening, forty autumns ago. / Scarcely two years of her life, begun as a wife, concluded as a widow, an expectant mother. An accomplice in a crime” (320).
  • “The next day when they step out of the house they encounter a group bidding an unknown villager farewell, mourners in dark clothing spreading down the sloping street. For a moment it is as if they, too, are part of the funeral. There is no sense of its boundaries, where it begin or ends, whom it grieves. Then they pass, respectfully, out of its shadow” (330).
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Swamplandia by Karen Russell c. 2011 (400 pages—Vintage)

A bildungsroman that centers on Ava Bigtree and her two siblings—brother (Kiwi) and sister (Ossie). The Bigtrees, who live on an island and own a gator-wrestling theme park, fall on hard times when their mother dies and their park is no longer profitable. After Hiloloa Bigtree’s death, her orphaned kids seek solace in an ever-changing world as they leave their small island and face separate struggles. Of all the characters, Ava—the youngest—is the most determined to restore honor to Swamplandia! The ending, while hopeful, remains open.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “But my sister, Osceola, was born snowy—not a weak chamomile blond but pure frost, with eyes that vibrated somewhere between maroon and violet” (6).
  • “The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it” (8).
  • “He had the bellicose dignity of a kid who refuses to excuse or even to acknowledge his own extreme ugliness” (28).
  • “Then something shifted in our house’s atmosphere, and I felt outnumbered. Ghosts silked into our bedroom like cold water. Ossie sucked in her breath and twisted in the yellow sheets, just like my fantasy picture of a hurricane being born” (43).
  • “But I couldn’t shake the image, crates and crates of sunken black oranges. My heart gone wormy and rotten with fear” (51).
  • “The TV documentary I was watching was so boring that it felt like taking medicine, a thick syrup of information, a good antidote to thoughts” (75).
  • “Inside the World of Darkness, Time happened in a circle. Shifts were nine hours, and the nine hours contracted or accordioned outward depending on several variables that Kiwi had catalogued: difficulty of task, boredom of task, degree to which task humiliates me personally” (82).
  • “Spagehetti Surprise was a simple equation for indigestion, invented by Mom: noodles tossed like a blond wig over all your leftovers. Noodles as a culinary disguise for gross, inedible root vegetables: surprise! In a trash can this dish was raccoon kryptonite; even Grandpa couldn’t finish it” (118).
  • “He rode the rails southward on a voyage that has the fitful logic of sleep interrupted: suns set and suns rose. Forests dispersed into beaches and regrouped again in mountain passes. Lightning sent down its white spider legs outside the dining-car windows and crawled up the pine trunks, trailing fires” (131).
  • “These buzzards were nothing like the red-headed turkey vultures they’d been seeing since Long Glade; these were huge birds, black and wattled, and with their wings folded they made Louis think of the funeral umbrellas dripping rain along the stone walls of the St. Agnes Church in Clarinda” (146).
  • “She set off across the muck as briskly as a mainland woman who is late for her ferry. Her footprints filled with groundwater and as I watched a dozen tiny lakes opened between us” (161).
  • “So I did believe, finally, in the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving. I believed, in a waterfall rush, in the world of ghosts. An underworld—I pictured blue mist, rocks so huge the dredge barge rolled between them like a marble” (187).
  • “What struck me was a black-and-white photograph of a teenage girl in an asylum, bare-kneed in a claw-footed tub with her hair in a kind of translucent cap, like a shower cap but tight to her scalp. She had unblemished skin and these wafer-light eyes. You could see her blond hair through the cap, wrapped around metal curlers like waves of leashed, disciplined thoughts. The scary part was that you couldn’t tell, from this girl’s scrubbed and ordinary face, that anything was the matter with her” (190-191).
  • “Even in her trances, even while possessed, my sister was very shrewd about her prospects. A fantasy would collapse like a wave against the rocks of her intelligence. Madness, as I understood it from books, meant a person who was open to the high white whine of everything” (197).
  • “This category “white” gave him a whistling fear, not unlike agoraphobia. “White” made Kiwi Bigtree picture a vast Artic plain, a word in which one single person could never survive” (208).
  • “If a word is just a container for feeling, or a little matchstick that you strike against yourself—a tiny, fiery summons—then probably I could have said anything, called any name, who knows? I didn’t have a normal kid’s ideas of the Lord as an elderly mainland guy on a throne. The God I prayed to I thought of as the mother, the memory of love. She was my own mother sometimes, baggy-eyed and smiling in the Chief’s heavy canvas work clothes in the morning, one of the Chief’s cigarettes hanging from her mouth” (223).
  • “It gave me a little chill. Something about his grey eyes seemed urgent and vacant all at once. We had known each other for hours and miles now, but I thought he looked even stranger, even more like a stranger, as if the currents that governed such things were blowing him backward” (224).
  • “Whip began to motor over; above me, the Bird Man put on a big grin that made his face unrecognizable to me. It rejiggered his features so that they were at their most ordinary; even his eyes seemed pale and normal” (252).
  • “Red orb after red orb floated dreamily over their car roof. Vijay’s huge sneaker stayed flat on the accelerator. Stoplights swayed yellow and green over the Loomis intersections, like air plants, the mainlanders’ epiphytes” (265).
  • “Kiwi, who considered himself a grammarian of human emotion, knew that anger required a direct object” (270).
  • “Now that Kiwi had at last made it to a suburb it was easy to want the swamp. What was this fresh hell? The World of Darkness seemed like a cozy and benign place compared to the sprawl of these stucco boxes, these single-family houses” (287).
  • “The Bird Man rubbed at the creases on his forehead. Why did adults always do that? I wondered. What if a face really worked like that, like rumpled trousers, and you could smooth out your bad thoughts from the outside in?” (297).
  • “Like an animal, a secret can develop a self-preserving intelligence. Shaglike, mute and thick, a knowledge with fur: your secret” (331).
  • “Sometimes you are able to keep moving because you are not really yourself anymore. Your entire brain can shrink to one pinhead of cognition, one star in a night. I was acquainted with it, this bright spot, because once or twice before it had taken over during my fiercest wrestling matches. Encapsulated in this pinhead lived a brute, a swimmer, a thirst, a hunger, a fire-hater, a grass jumper” (333-334).
  • “Kiwi had a sudden urge to topple his grandfather, to dump the elder overboard—maybe that would shake something loose in there or reconnect a wire. What was the point of growing so aged and limp that your mind couldn’t make a fist around a name?” (350).
  • “Her dead body floating. Her dead face, the mask of it, rising and falling on the sea’s uneasy breath / Panthers found and finished her in the cattails. Wind unstitched her skeleton. Weeds sprayed outward from the heart-shaped wreck of her pelvis; a sinkhole opened beneath her and gave way with the suddenness of caved ice, swallowing her bones” (361).
  • “Our mom, as stern and all-seeing as she could often seem, would do us this great favor of pretending to be credulous when we faked sick. Mom cooed sincerely over our theatrical moanings and coughs. She would push our hair back from our cool liar’s scalps and bring us noodles and icy mainland colas as if happy for an excuse to love us like this” (394).


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