Ben Dolnick: The Exemplary Sentence

For several months I had been reading Ben Dolnick’s posts on literature, which I enjoyed greatly, before discovering his fiction.  The Ghost Notebooks, a perfect read for this season, is what I’d call a literary thriller. Here are two excellent sentences from that book. As I was listening to it as an audio book, they were so good I had to stop driving to write them down:

“But morning always comes no matter what sort of a night you’ve had. This is an under appreciated fact.”

It’s that last observation that drives this home (not sure if there  should be a hyphen there). And,

“So this is how homelessness begins. Not with a momentous decision but with a gradual surrendering. A rest becomes a nap becomes a night.”

I love the way that last sentence has an almost nursery rhyme inevitability. Sadly, he’s stopped his posts for now, but hopefully that will lead to more of his fiction.

 

Agatha Christie

I get The Writer’s Almanac from Garrison Keeler daily, and rarely read anything but the poem. But today there was this lovely photo of Agatha Christie, whose work has given me a lot of pleasure. She was born in 1890. From the detailed article about her, I selected this to share with you:

She set her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in Cairo and used the pen name “Monosyllaba.” The book was rejected by numerous publishers. She tried again with a book called The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), which featured an extravagantly mustached Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot. The book was a hit, and Christie was off and running. Hercule Poirot would be featured in more than 33 of Christie’s novels, though she admitted she found Poirot “insufferable and an egocentric creep.” She actually killed off Poirot in a novel titled Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, in the early 1940s, and had it stored in a bank vault to safeguard it from Nazi destruction during World War II. When the book was published in 1975, the New York Times ran Hercule Poirot’s obituary on the front page.

The Exemplary Sentence: Elizabeth Von Arnim

If you are looking for a bon bon of a book, The Enchanted April is delectable. Not overwhelmingly sweet, amusing, light, but well-enough written that it’s not a guilty pleasure. I especially enjoyed this paragraph, the musings of a woman who has long been ignored by her husband:

“Why, if Frederick did come, she would only bore him. Hadn’t she seen in a flash quite soon after getting to San Salvatore that that was what kept him away from her? And why should she suppose now, after such a long estrangement, she would be able not to bore him, be able to do anything but to stand before him like a tongue-tied idiot, with all the fingers of her spirit turned into thumbs? Besides, what a hopeless position, to have as it were to beseech: Please wait a little–please don’t be impatient–I think perhaps I shan’t be a bore presently.”

Oh that position, the fingers of one’s spirit turned into thumbs! Haven’t we all felt it, just when we wanted most to be brilliant and dextrous? I’ll have to take a look at her other novels.

 

 

 

The exemplary sentence

Thanks to Ben Dolnick, I have discovered the mystery writer Lawrence Block. Oddly enough, he’s not in my local public library catalog, but only at UC Library. Unusual for a mystery writer, even one with literary talent. His books are a little hard to find. I love this passage from his Matthew Scudder mystery, Out on the Cutting Edge. In it, the narrator, an unabashed criminal is describing a young woman:

” ‘She was a nice Protestant girl from Indiana,’ he said. ‘She’d steal, but she stole for the thrill of it. You can’t trust that, it’s almost as bad as a man who kills for the thrill of it. A good thief doesn’t steal for the thrill. He steals for the money. And the best thief of all steals because he’s a thief.’ ”

In another vein entirely, but equally pleasurable, here’s a quote from Eliot Weinberger from his essay in In Translation:

“Translators sometimes feel they share in the glory of their famous authors, rather like the hairdressers of Hollywood stars.”

So much for what I’m reading today.

The exemplary paragraph

I just finished reading all four of Katie Kitamura’s novels, in reverse order.  I love her writing. Here is a sample, the first paragraph of her new (and I think best) book, Intimacies.

“It is never easy to move to a new country, but in truth I was happy to be away from New York. That city had become disorienting to me, after my father’s death and my mother’s sudden retreat to Singapore. For the first time, I understood how much my parents had anchored me to this place none of us were from. It was my father’s long illness that had kept me there, and with its unhappy resolution I was suddenly free to go. I applied for the position of staff interpreter at the Court on impulse, but once I had accepted the job and moved to the Hague, I realized that I had no intention of returning to New York, I no longer knew how to be at home there.”

For more about this extraordinary novel, see my review on ZYZZYVA.

Exemplary sentences

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted an exemplary sentence, but The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard, is full of them. Very arch, and often funny.  I’m only about half-way through, but here are a few:

“Dora sat on a corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned a task so she could resent it.”

“She need not say, she said, that she loved them.”

“Saturday afternoon in England is a rehearsal for the end of the world.”

Of course the novel takes place largely in England.

Darwin Comes to Town

I just finished this book, Darwin Comes to Town by Menno Shilthuizen, about adaptation and evolution in urban environments, which seemed somewhat hopeful. It’s a discussion about how quickly certain species change to thrive in cities. Stories include the hawksbeard dandelion, which evolved to produce heavier seeds so their little parachutes would keep them in the island of green instead of floating off onto asphalt and how crows learn to throw heavy-shelled walnuts into intersections, wait for cars to run over them and then when the light changes, run out to grab the walnut meat after the cars crush the shells.

But most encouraging was his chapter on the way cites are cooperating globally to understand and improve urban environments. He notes that cities all over the word have similar soil compositions, microbes, insect, bird, and plant life. So “cities as far apart as 2,500 miles share about half their birds, while the avifaunas of natural areas that distant are almost completely different.” The author states that “cities worldwide are beginning to exchange information and undertake concerted action.”

Given the pace at which the natural world is disappearing, at least it’s heartening to know that there are many groups working on innovative ways to make urban spaces more habitable for plants and animals, including humans. My only quibble with the book is the often anthropomorphic language of the anecdotes. Still, worth a read.

The exemplary sentence

 

I’ve been reading The Shadow Lines, by Amitav Ghosh, and have come across so many well-written passages. Here’s one about watching beggars scavenge a mound of waste and sludge for usable debris:

“It was true of course that I could not see that landscape or anything like it from my own window, but its presence was palpable everywhere in our house; I had grown up with it. It was that landscape that lent the note of hysteria to my mother’s voice when she drilled me for examinations; it was to those slopes she she pointed when she told me that if I didn’t study hard I would end up over there, that the only weapon people like us had was our brains and if we didn’t use them like claws to cling to what we’d got, that was where we’d end up, marooned in that landscape: I knew perfectly well that all it would take was a couple of failed examinations to put me where our relative was, in permanent proximity to that blackness: that landscape was the quicksand that seethed beneath the polished floors of our house; it was that sludge which gave our genteel decorum its fine edge of frenzy.”

The Exemplary Sentence

There is a new book of Bette Howland’s stories out, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, and I immediately purchased a copy. Since posting about her last year, I have come to know her son, Jake, and was so pleased to see a review of this book last weekend, and see him quoted about her. The new book contains some of the stories from Blue in Chicago, and some I hadn’t read.

It contains the same quality of writing that I loved so much in the earlier book. Here’s a sample, talking about a walk through the park in Chicago peopled by the old and the minders. I love the quality of her observation, and how she paints a picture that ends in beauty:

“They come from the Shoreland, the Sherry-Netherland, Del Prado, Windermere–hotels once famous for the ballrooms, dance bands, steak houses, now providing package care for the elderly. My favorite of these couples is an old gent with a hooked back, houndstooth check cap and plus fours and his young pregnant nursemaid. He likes to get out of his chair and push; she dawdles at this side. Her belly lifts the front of her coat; her legs look gray in white stockings. Meanwhile the great yellow maple is shaking its branches, squandering leaves. They scatter like petals. It’s raining beauty; the air is drenched with gold.”

A terrific essay

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Ted Gioia, an essayist who is right up there with my favorites. In “Bach at the Burger King,” he writes about the “weaponization of classical music” as well as the damage caused by its use as advertising enhancement. Worth a read!

Ted is the son of the poet Dana Gioia, so he comes by his prose style naturally.

Willa Cather: The exemplary sentence

I reread A Lost Lady this week. Inhaled it really. The characters are so vivid, as is the portrait of the farm towns of the prairies at the turn of the century. The great rail roads were built, and the settlers had come, but soon the chiselers and cheapskates would take the place of the larger than life figures who had created the original settlements. One of the characters is the Forrester homestead itself:

“Just at the foot of the hill on which the house sat, one crossed a second creek by the stout wooden road-bridge. This stream traced artless loops and curves through the broad meadows that were half pasture land, half marsh.”

“Any one but Captain Forrester would have drained the bottom land and made it into highly productive fields. But he had selected this place long ago because it looked beautiful to him, and he happened to like the way the creek wound through his pasture, with mint and joint-grass and twinkling willows along its bank. He was well off for those times, and he had no children. He could afford to humor his fancies.”

Mrs. Forrester, the lost lady of the title, is a winsome, engaging woman, the essence of grace and good taste. The story is told through the eyes of a young boy who looks up to her, finds in her the emblem of all that is elegant and delightful, and who grows up under her spell. He is present as Forrester loses his fortune by personally bankrolling a failed bank, the only one of the directors to come forward and save the depositors.

Later, he must rent the pasture land to an unscrupulous character, Ivy Peters: “Neil and Ivy had disliked each other from childhood, blindly, instinctively, recognizing each other through antipathy, as hostile insects do. By draining the marsh Ivy had obliterated a few acres of something he hated, though he could not name it, and had asserted his power over the people who had loved those unproductive meadows for their idleness and silvery beauty…

“The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence… Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risk anything. They would drink up the mirage, dispel the morning freshness, root out the great brooding spirit of freedom, the generous, easy life of the great land-holders. The space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable mats, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest.”

The lost lady of the title is not just Mrs. Forrester, but the west itself, described beautifully. Of course, the native population might feel the same about the”great-hearted adventurers,” but that’s a different book. This one is a gem of a portrait of a lost time.