Sentences That Stick

Cold it was, and dark, when the vision came to her, for in the far north daylight was a gray dim time in the middle of the day that came, and went, and came again: an interlude between darknesses. — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

My friend Hannah and I were talking the other day about sentences — perfectly crafted sentences. The ones that make you fall in love with the author on the spot, regardless of the rest of the book. The rest of the writing could be crap, the author could be a total jerk — but you’ll always remember that one, breath-catching sentence.

(Side note: this makes me think of Hemingway’s relationship with Fitzgerald. A Moveable Feast has a long chapter depicting how annoying Hemingway first found Fitzgerald when they met. Then Fitzgerald gives him a copy of The Great Gatsby: “When I had finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend.” Good writing, man — you’ll forgive a lot.)

Now, it’s one thing to be in awe of a sentence. But of course, as a writer, I want to study the Why. I want to know what makes that sentence tick and how to emulate it. Dissect it, name its components, do it myself.

The other writers are probably chuckling right now, because the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t always work that way. You can’t always pinpoint exactly why a sentence transcends its basic mechanics and works on a higher level. It speaks to you at the right place, at the right time. There’s the nutshell.

That Neil Gaiman quote — from American Gods, which I just re-read in anticipation of a Neil Gaiman talk tonight (!!!) — is one that’s hard to pinpoint. When I came upon it, I stopped and re-read it three times. Something about it is just beautiful to me. But when I sit down and try to analyze it — it all falls apart. Yes, it has a nice rhythm (“far north daylight” and “gray dim time” sync up nicely), but there’s nothing totally out of the ordinary there. Maybe it’s because I live somewhat north, and know what those long grey days are like. But that doesn’t really explain my gut reaction to it, either. No, if I try to break it down too much, it loses its magic. Better to just read and appreciate.

So how about you? Are there sentences that have ensnared you, that stick with you, that you read over and over again? Let’s share. I’m always greedy for more.

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Top 10 Books (as of Right Now): Part 2

Because I’m a nerd, I had a lot of fun putting together my Part 1 list last week. This week? More difficult. Somehow Part 2 felt more serious, more final — when I’d decided on one book, another leapt off the shelf and cried, “BUT HOW COULD YOU FORGET ME??”

To which I say — chill out, book. This isn’t the be all, end all. There are other books I enjoy, other books I love. These ones just make the cut today. (And shout out to the entire Harry Potter series, it’s getting the honorable mention of the day.)

5. The Razor’s Edge

My college pal and fellow creative writer Val guessed that this would be on the list. Maybe I’m transparent, or maybe it’s just a really good book.

The Razor's Edge

If you’ve read one of those “Best quotes of all timez!!” lists, you’ve read a sentence by oh-so-witty Maugham. His books are more somber than his one-line quips, though. The Razor’s Edge is difficult, too, because it’s not a super direct storyline. In fact, the heart-and-soul of the novel is set-up by this:

I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of the story

I mean, who does that?? That tells you what you’re in for with this book. Rather meandering, not much action, a large cast of characters, spanning decades and continents… and so worth it. Beyond the fact that the book is beautifully written, it dives into moral grey area and ponders the meaning of happiness. No, it’s not a light read, but if you’re looking to sink your teeth into something, I can’t recommend this one enough.

6. All Creatures Great and Small

As you can probably tell from the tattered copy, this is another book that I a) stole, and b) return to time and again.

All Creatures Great and Small

I loved this book SO much that for a long time, I wanted to be a vet. (That changed after a day volunteering in a vet clinic.) But guys, James Herriot makes it sound like so much FUN! Cute animals! Heartwarming tales! You want to know Herriot’s friends, you want to meet the farmers, you want to drive through pastoral England. And you know what else? Reading this, Herriot just seems like a good guy. You can’t say that about a lot of authors, so it’s rather refreshing. And speaking of, well, not the greatest of guys….

7. Selected Poems of Ezra Pound

Oh look — ANOTHER prick on the list! Not only a contemporary of Hemingway’s, but a fascist to boot! I really know how to pick ’em.

Ezra Pound

So, yeah, Pound may have been a TOTAL nutcase, but in spite of that (or maybe because of it) his poetry sticks. I was in Rome the first time I read this collection, roaming Italian graveyards and studying expatriates, so that undoubtedly colored my reading of it. But over the years it’s still the poetry I pick up most often. Plus, it contains what is probably my favorite poem ever, “Erat Hora”:

‘Thank you, whatever comes.’ And then she turned
And, as the ray of sun on hanging flowers
Fades when the wind hath lifted them aside,
Went swiftly from me. Nay, whatever comes
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed.

8. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Let me just give you a brief overview of the physical places covered by this book. Nazi-invaded Prague. Brooklyn. The Empire State Building. Antarctica.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayI mean, guys, the hero travels to Antarctica during World War II. If that’s not enough to sell this book… oh, it’s not? But wait, there’s more! This book is fantastical. Surreal. Like a portrait of New York City dipped in technicolor and redrawn a bit. Its protagonists are comic-book artists, larger-than-life men (and women!) who become superheros of their own reality. There’s adventure and heartbreak and did I mention a battle in Antarctica? Many would argue this is Chabon’s best, and I can’t disagree.

10. 1984

This book… you know, it’s fine. I see the merit of it. I see why people always bring it up. But a favorite? Nope. I honestly had a hard time getting through it. But there’s a very specific reason why it’s on this list.

1984

The night I met my husband, he asked what my favorite book was. I said I wasn’t sure, too many to name, yadda yadda. What was his? Without hesitation: “1984.” He was flabbergasted that I hadn’t read it. Told me I HAD to read it. He was even more flabbergasted (and yeah, a bit annoyed) when, on our first date, I admitted I hadn’t purchased a copy yet. So this is the copy he brought to my door on our third date. Yes, my husband’s first gift to me was an Orwell book. I slogged through it, and it’s been on our bookshelf ever since.

If you didn’t chime in last week — DON’T MISS YOUR CHANCE AT GLORY! What are some of your favorite books? Why? Let’s swap tales.

Top 10 Books (as of Right Now): Part 1

Before we get too far, be warned — I want to know what YOUR favorite books are, too. And why. Get ready.

I used to be a voracious reader as a kid. At college, I ODed on reading and fell off the wagon a bit. I never STOPPED reading… I just slowed to a snail’s pace. But I’m getting back into it. I’m rediscovering the joy of it, reading what I WANT to read, and telling myself it’s ok to give up on a book I don’t like.

All of which has gotten me thinking about my favorites. I want to clarify that this list is only current as of Right Now. Favorite books are a fickle thing for everyone, dependent on where you are in your life and, of course, if/when a new book bumps one off the list.

So here you have it, the first 5, in no particular order. Well, except for #1, which gets the place of honor…

1. Watership Down

Watership Down

Most people don’t really get this one. “It’s about rabbits?” Well, yes. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I get that — but it’s one of my all-time faves. My copy belonged to my mom, and after reading it for the first time, I stole it and will never give it back. The spine is now literally held together with tape. And I refuse to replace this copy.

Why do I love it so? Its main characters may be rabbits, but at its heart Watership Down is an adventure story. Escapes, raids, scheming, battles (YES RABBIT BATTLES). The story is well-paced, the characters well-developed…it’s probably one of the best-written book I’ve read, actually. And even just writing this, I want to re-read it again for the zillionth time. It was my first true book love. Our romance is one for the ages.

Malcolm X was quite the controversial figure (HAHAHA understatement), but his autobiography should be required reading at every school in America. Bold statement? Maybe. But this book really shows the power of accepting new information and experiences, and changing your worldview as a result of them. That’s a good lesson for any kid.
The entire autobiography was dictated to Alex Haley, and Malcolm X dictated the latter events of the book as they were happening. Which means that the reader gets to see the evolution of his thoughts in real-time. We get to see Malcolm X wrestle with new information, do some serious introspection, and evolve from a man largely driven by hate to this man:
“The next day I was in my car driving along the freeway when at a red light another car pulled alongside. A white woman was driving and on the passenger’s side, next to me, was a white man. “Malcolm X!” he called out — and when I looked, he stuck his hand out of his car, across at me, grinning. “Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?” Imagine that! Just as the traffic light turned green, I told him, “I don’t mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?”

 

3. The Time Traveler’s Wife

Time_Travelers_Wife
This book also happens to be one of my favorite titles. The first time I read it, I immediately fell into this weird depression that lasted for about a week. The only thing that cured it was re-reading the book.

Sounds fun, huh? Who doesn’t want a romping tale that leads down the spiral of depression! But that’s precisely why it’s on this list — it evoked a BIG reaction. Niffenegger creates this world that you dive into, a world that is at once familiar and surreal. The book doesn’t have a happy ending, but it has an honest one. And that’s how I like my stories — maybe happy, sometimes gritty, but always honest.

4. McTeague

McTeague

Ok — this one’s MAYBE a bit of a cheat. The book itself — it’s good, but I wouldn’t call it a favorite. Dim dentist in turn-of-the-century San Francisco goes from bad to worse. Alrighty then.

But the ending is the best ending I have ever read. Hands down. It leaves you with a dropped jaw that turns into a grin. I’ve read that Norris actually tailored the entire book around the ending, which he dreamt up before the actual story. It’s a brilliant example of an ending that doesn’t completely wrap things up but is 100% satisfying.

5. A Moveable Feast

 

Moveable_Feast

Alright, let’s get this out of the way — Hemingway was by all accounts a prick. BUT. Homebody could write, and A Moveable Feast is undoubtedly his most charming book.

If you’ve ever dreamed of Paris, read this book. It paints a picture of a city that doesn’t exist anymore — and to be honest, probably never truly existed. Hemingway was clearly in love in Paris, and he casts a rosy hue over the city and its Bohemian inhabitants. His descriptions of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald and other contemporaries are entertaining, but I think the true gems of this book are Hemingway’s brief, sporadic reminisces about his then wife, Hadley. Like the city, he views their marriage through rose-tinted glasses, and his nostalgia and regret is both poignant and real.

That’s a wrap for Part 1. Part 2 will come next week (edited to add: OMG Part 2 is RIGHT HERE — now with more books!) … but in the meantime, it’s your turn. What are YOUR favorite books? Tell me, tell me (and tell me why). The 2013 reading list needs to grow.