The Year in Great Sentences, 2015

These are some really good sentences. photo via Margaret Eby

There are many ways to assess a year, but a sentence is a particularly good unit of measurement. Short (or long) and sweet (or bitter, or uproarious, or melancholy), sentences are their own distinct and self-contained structures. Strung together word after word—not unlike a series of days—they come together to make a whole. Before you know it, a sentence is over, and you are already halfway through the next one. We decided to take stock of our year and our sentences this December by asking a few writers and editors about their favorite lines, written or otherwise, that they’ve encountered in 2015.

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Sandra Allen, author of the forthcoming memoir, A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise, and mastermind behind the non-emailed weekly newsletter, Sunday Content

Sentence:
“Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad.”

Where it’s from:
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts

Why it’s great:
This is the book’s fourth sentence. Right before, Nelson’s friend has suggested she get “HARD TO GET” tattooed across her knuckles, “as a reminder of this pose’s possible fruits.” This sentence decimates any commitment to that pose, and thrusts (pun intended) Nelson’s reader into a new reality, the one that the book will be about. The sentence itself is as abrupt and definitive as declaring love for a stranger whose cock is in your ass; each of its words threatens to unseat or recast every one before it. Look at these descriptive words—”incantation,” “smashed,” the little detail of the “cement” floor, the seemingly contradictory pair of adjectives, “dank” and “charming”—and how they aid Nelson in this feat of near witchcraft—setting a scene that’s at once so full and so sparse. I don’t think a first paragraph has ever blown me away more than this one did.

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Margaret Eby, author of South Towards Home and the features and essays editor at Hello Giggles

Sentence:
“There is no good answer to being a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.”

Where it’s from:
Rebecca Solnit’s excellent Harper’s essay “The Mother of All Questions

Why it’s great:
I think you’re supposed to become less militant about your ideology as you age, but I’ve found this year—maybe every year?—the only way to get through is by having mantras by smart, intersectional feminists. (See also: Janelle Monae’s very quotable call-to-arms in “Yoga” to “get off my areola.”) Rebecca Solnit is chief among them. This sentence was so good that I cross-stitched it. Really. (I also cross-stitched the Monae.)

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Soleil Ho, essayist and chef (most recently of the prescient “Yi-Fen Chou and the Man Who Wore Her”)

Sentence:
“‘The title’s card’s been mounted already,’ JB says, and he goes slowly to the wall behind the painting and sees its title—Willem Listening to Jude Tell a Story, Greene Street—and he feels his breath abandon him; it feels as if his heart is made of something oozing and cold, like ground meat, and it is being squeezed inside a fist so that chunks of it are falling, plopping to the ground near his feet.”

Where it’s from:
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Why it’s great:
A lot of my favorite phrases from this novel are really just drawn-out metaphors; Yanagihara has a knack for perfectly matching those indescribable feelings with images that are striking in their weirdness, as if they’re scenes copy/pasted from a lost Buñuel film.

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Kristin Iversen, executive editor, Brooklyn Magazine

Sentence:
“In The Days of Abandonment, Ferrante offers an alternative — one that doesn’t minimize the symbolic power of female malady but captures the double consciousness of a destroyed woman who doesn’t want to be ‘a woman destroyed.'”

Where it’s from:
Those Like Us,” Dayna Tortorici’s remarkable essay on Elena Ferrante in the Spring 2015 issue of n +1

Why it’s great:
Tortorici’s entire review of Ferrante’s work is exceptional, particularly in how she relates the pseudonymous Italian author to a grand tradition not only of the women writers who came before, but just of women, in general. (As Ferrante herself told the Paris Review in an interview, “There is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence.”) But the passage of the review that stood out the most to me was the one in which Tortorici examined the literary tradition of the broken or “destroyed” woman. Here, Tortorici ably crystallizes what has always felt so wrong (to me, anyway, and I’d imagine a lot of other women) about the typical portrait of an hysterical woman, which is that destruction doesn’t have to be something that only happens to a woman, it is also something over and through which we can claim agency and power. Like, as Tortorici later references, “Dido on the pyre,” it is possible for women to “[seek] triumph in spectacular self-destruction.” Which also allows me to insert one extra bonus sentence in here, from another favorite female writer of mine, Lana Del Rey, who embodies the very same “spectacular self-destruction” as do Dido and Ferrante heroines. This sentence comes at the very end of the very perfect “High by the Beach,” and in it Lana explains that “anyone can start again, not through love but through revenge; through the fire we’re born again, peace by vengeance brings the end.” Same, Lana. Same.

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Molly McArdle, Books Editor, Brooklyn Magazine

Sentence:
“I was under the impression that artmaking was apart from all the rottenness of our culture, when in fact it’s not apart from it. It is made of it.”

Where it’s from:
Clare Vaye Watkin’s “On Pandering

Why it’s great:
I read many responses to Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay “On Pandering,” many of them smart and good and demanding in all the right ways. (When a person of color tells you something about race, it’s a good rule of thumb for white people to listen to them.) I think the frustration, the impatience, that many readers felt with Watkins (and more particularly some segments of her audience) at this revelation is grounded in something really true—why did it take so long for Watkins to realize this? Why is this even a revelation? It’s akin to the exhausting celebration of so-called male feminists, who are often times just men who aren’t thoroughly terrible. (This doesn’t preclude goodness—this is just to say the bar is really fucking low.) With all these caveats in place—shit is complicated—there is something profoundly gratifying in a sentence, well put, that articulates something you believe. And while I am both grateful and sad that art has not been magical to me in this way—“apart from all the rottenness of our culture”—for a long time, this sentence makes me feel empowered in a new way. (Succinctness will do that for you.) Art is not pure, art has never been pure, so do something with it. Get your hands dirty.

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Haley Mlotek, writer and editor (most recently of The Hairpin)

Sentence:
“By morning, that pallid shade of green would turn near-neon and velvety, and I, having done nothing but pair the two fruits, would experience a false sense of accomplishment similar to returning a library book or listening to a voicemail.”

Where it’s from:
Durga Chew-Bose’s “Since Living Alone

Why it’s great:
Durga has many, many gifts as a writer—beauty is one, brevity is another. There are a lot more but I’m going to stop there because otherwise I would talk about it forever. In this sentence, the second of her essay about living alone, is about how pairing an unripe avocado with a banana would ripen the avocado overnight. There’s something scientific about her observations, like how she’ll wait and see if the results match with her expected hypothesis before filing a conclusion, paired with the kind of lived observations we don’t know we were waiting for someone to make until we saw them. Like: listening to a voicemail?! That is a false sense of accomplishment!! I had never thought of it that way until she said so, and now I completely understand how finding that ripened fruit made her feel!! She writes only what she needs to say, and she does it with such satisfying elegance. I could’ve picked any one of her sentences from the last year, but I do find myself returning to this one over and over again, because I can see the shade of green, imagine the texture of the skin, and feel all over again like I know exactly what Durga wants me to know.

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Mike Conklin, Editorial Director, Northside Media Group 

Sentence:
“When Springsteen arrived, he was the chocolate Lab to Dylan’s housecat.”

Where it’s from:
Amanda Petrusich’s New Yorker review of Bruce Springsteen’s The Ties That Bind: The River Collection.

Why it’s great:
Well, actually, a big part of the reason it’s so great is the sentence that immediately follows it, the payoff: “He loved back.”

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Rachel Syme, writer (most recently of the epic “SELFIE”)

Sentence:
Babies do not remember being held well—what they remember is the traumatic experience of not being held well enough. Some might read in this in a recipe for the classic ungratefulness of children—after everything I’ve done for you, and so on. To me, at the moment anyway, it is a tremendous relief, an incitement to give Iggy no memory, save the sense, likely unconscious, of having once been gathered together, made to feel real.

That is what my mother did for me. I’d almost forgotten.”

Where it’s from:
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts

Why it’s great:
I know this is more of a passage than a sentence, but it sets up that final sentence, which kicks me straight in the guts every time I read it. No book that was published this year got under my veins like The Argonauts did—I think it entered my body at a cellular level and has continued to stay in my bloodstream (it is the rare book that I carry around with me even though I’ve already read it through more than once just in case I need to look at it again at any moment). This passage, which is towards the end of the book, which is an unclassifiable meditation/prose poem/memoir/philosophical exegesis on love, queerness, motherhood, and the ways people relate to one another, is the distillation of why I love Nelson’s writing. She is pondering her own mother, and how she often failed to connect with her, and how having a baby of her own is making her realize that no matter what, we are connected to the mothers who swaddled us and made us feel real. Sometimes, being made to feel real is the biggest kindness we can offer ourselves or someone else. The Argonauts is such a triumphant work of empathy and imagination, and I really didn’t read any better sentences this year than pretty much every sentence in that book.

Shelley Vale, senior editor, School Library Journal

Sentence:
“She’s imperfect but she tries
She is good but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won’t ask for help
She is messy but she’s kind
She is lonely, most of the time
She is all of this, mixed up
And baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone, but she used to be mine”

Where it’s from:
Sara Barreille’s “She Used to Be Mine,” The Waitress soundtrack 

Why it’s great:
I’ve long been a fan of the Adrienne Shelly film on which this musical is based, so my twin sister and I traveled to Cambridge to see it live at the American Repertory Theater. This song (and its chorus) encapsulates both the expectations that society places on women to be “perfect,” “motherly,” and “strong” and the realization that women are human. Complex, imperfect humans. And our art should allow for protagonists and heroines that aren’t heroic at all.

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