Here are a few sentences that I think are quite good.

BURNING CHROME (William Gibson)

And then the joke-shop thumbtip, heavy as lead, arcs out in a lighting yo-yo trick, and the invisible thread connecting it to the killer’s hand passes laterally through Ralfi’s skull, just above his eyebrows, whips up, and descends, slicing the pear-shaped torso diagonally from shoulder to rib cage.

Better yet, you hide above Nighttown, because the Pit’s inverted, and the bottom of its bowl touches the sky, the sky that Nighttown never sees, sweating under its own firmament of acrylic resin, up where the Lo Teks crouch in the dark like gargoyles, black-market cigarettes dangling from their lips.

Heaven, the inner cylinder, the unlikely green heart of this place, is the ripe Disney dream of homecoming, the ravenous ear of an information-hungry global economy.

LONG, LAST, HAPPY (BARRY HANNAH)

Our host energetically stamped the brake and whipped our station wagon into a space that seems to me to have burst out of the metallic desert from nowhere.

We had very funny songs about the wide-eyed loungers and pickets, the people of negligent spine leisuring around the depots and warehouses, straightening their cuffs and holding their guns as if they were fishing poles.

Mother Rooney of Titpea Street, that little fifty yards of dead-end crimped macadam east off North State, crept home from the Jitney Jungle in the falling afternoon of October 1965.

I left Tuscaloosa — the hell with Tuscaloosa — on a Triump motorcycle black and chrome.

Our pathetic cannoneers, the remains of a proud battery of near-geniuses who could shoot the head off a chicken at a mile, speak with great accuracy still but no force, so little shot and shell are left, the main charge yet to come.

Some of them, get this, Rolling Stone noted, played dominoes and Scrabble at their hotels, enormous bars flowing around them, themselves oblivious, like a bunch of Mormons in the lobby.

But the harshness of her face reasserted itself and the mean gruesomeness of her voiced knocked out, in a few months, her breastly charms, and the long rut of acrimony got its habit, driving the last husband pure deaf and happy of it.

Since he had returned from Korea he and his wife lived in mutual disregard, which turned three times a month into animal passion then diminished on the sharp incline to hatred, at last collecting in time into silent equal fatigue.

He saw the foul gloom of job and woman ahead, all the toting and fetching, all the counting of diminished joys like sheep with plague; the arrival of beard hair, headaches, the numerous hospital trips, the taxes owed and the further debts, the mean and ungrateful children, the washed and waxen dead grown thin and like bad fish heaved into the outer dark.

For the others, the wine went down like a ruined orchard, acid to the heart, where a ball of furred heat made them reminiscent of serious acts never acted, women never had.

All was wretched and foul since waking under the peach wine, which they now condemned, angry at daylight itself.

They were coming toward me — this was 1949 — on their horses with their guns, dressed in leather and wool and canvas and with different sporting hats, my father and his brothers, led by my uncle on these his hunting lands, several hundred acres called Tanglewood still dense in hardwoods but also opened by many meadows, as a young boy would imagine from cavalry movies.

Uncle Peter had a scratchy well-deep voice in which he offered free advice to almost everybody except his wife. And he would demand a hug with it and be on you wiht those black grinding whiskered cheeks before you could grab the truck door.

I mean not only from the degrading grunting Depression, beneath broke, but before that to what must have been the most evil hangover there is, in a jail cell with no nightmare but the actual murder of a human being in your mind, the marks of the chair legs he ground in your face all over you, and the crashing truth of your sorriness in gambling and drink so loud in your head they might be practising the trapdoor for the noose over and over outside the door.

I couldn’t find an answer with a thing decent in it.

She blundered here and there, saying wrong and hurtful things, a hag of unnecessary truth at family gatherings — a comment about somebody’s weight, somebody’s hair, somebody’s lack of backbone.

He paddled while I threw a number of times and, in my fury to have one on, messed up again and again with a backlash, a miscast, and a wrap, my lure around a limb six feet over the water next to a water moccasin who raised its head and looked at me with low interest.

The plug stayed down there, visible, very yellow, as a monument to my great boyhood enterprise, and I wonder what it looks like now, forty years later.

Somebody had convinced him to quit cigarettes, take up thin cigars, get a massage, and wear an Italian hat, a Borsalino hat, which he now wore with sunglasses and an actual designed beach towel, he and his wife sitting there in blue canvas director’s chairs.


TRUE GRIT (CHARLES PORTIS)

You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.

“I don’t believe you have fifty dollars, baby sister, but if you are hungry I will give you supper and we will talk it over and make medicine. How does that suit you?” I said it suited me right down to ground.

“You might try a little touch of it for your cold.” “No, thank you.” “This is the real article. It is double-rectified busthead from Madison County, aged in a keg. A little spoonful would do you a power of good.” “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.”

He stood up and said, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick adn unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.” “One would be as unpleasant as the other,” I replied.

“Do something! Help me!” were his cries. “I can do nothing for you, son,” said Rooster. “Your pard has killed you and I have done for him.”


HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST (STEVE HELY)

I lived with my grandparents, a child lodged with old people thanks to the disruptions of the Depression, and their house had a linoleum floor and deep slate sinks in the kitchen, and above the sinks long-nosed copper faucets tinged by the green of oxidation.

With literary fiction, on the other hand, you can just cover everything up with a coat of wordy spackle. Those readers are searching for wisdom, so they’re easier to trick.


WOBEGON BOY (GARRISON KEILLOR)

Writing a novel — actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs — is a tremendous pain in the ass. Now that TV’s so good and the Internet is an endless forest of distraction, it’s damn near impossible. That should be taken into account when ranking the all-time greats. Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hangings, should get very little credit.

Everything they say is to demonstrate their Concern, to show their innate goodness, nothing they say comes from firsthand observation, they have no experience whatsoever, only concern, and the sign of their Deep Concern is their use of dozens, if not hundreds, of modifying clauses in each sentence, many (if not most) of the modifiers in some sense contradictory and therefore self-cancelling, which is a great deal (or at least more than what one might ideally hope for) of modification, the result being audio oatmeal, two hours of which isn’t worth one Chopin Prelude, in my book.

The hard work was done by other men; he had an apartment off-base and a German girlfriend and learned German well enough to get along, and in German he felt that he became a better person, more direct, more affectionate, and they would go drinking with friends at cafes and he would tell (in German) stories about Minnesota, how it was flat as a table and got so cold in winter that spit froze in midair and jingled when it hit the ground, how stiff and unforgiving the people were, and as he walked around Heidelberg, he imagined settling down there and marrying Marianne, shedding the dead skin of Lutheranism, learning the art of living well.

All of the Norwegians were Lutherans, of course, even the atheists — it was a Lutheran God they did not believe in — but a chasm separated the Hauge Synod, or Kark Lutherans, who believed in the utter depravity of man and separation from worldly things and strict adherence to the literal truth of Scripture, and the Old Synod, or Happy Lutherans, who believed in splashing some water on babies and confirming the little kids and then not worrying about it, just come every Sunday and bring a hot dish.


HUB FANS BIDS KID ADIEU (JOHN UPDIKE)

The correspondence columns of the Boston papers now and then suffer a sharp flurry of arithmetic on this score; indeed, for Williams to have distributed all his hits so they did nobody else any good would constitute a feat of placement unparalleled in the annals of selfishness.

For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekend, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.

Insofar as the clutch hitter is not a sportswriter’s myth, he is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money.

And if we further allow that these years would have been not merely aberage but prime years, if we allow for all the months when Williams was playing in sub-par condition, if we permit his early and later years in baseball to be some sort of index of what the middle years could have been, if we give him a right-field fence that is not, like Fenway’s, one of the most distant in the league, and if — the last exusable “if” — we imagine him condescending to outsmart the Williams Shift, we can defensibly assemble, like a colossus induced from the sizable fragments that do remain, a statistical figure not incommensurate with his grandiose ambition.

Then the occasion himself stooped to the microphone, and his voice sounded, after the others, very Californian; it seemed to coming, excellently amplified, from a great distance, adolescently young and as smooth as a butternut.

Other than Williams’ recurrent appearances at the plate, the maladresse of the Sox infield was the sole focus of suspense; the second baseman turned every grounder into a juggling act, while the shortstop did a breathtaking impersonation of an open window.

Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.


THE FULL GLASS (JOHN UPDIKE)

I lived with my grandparents, a child lodged with old people thanks to the disruptions of the Depression, and their house had a linoleum floor and deep slate sinks in the kitchen, and above the sinks long-nosed copper faucets tinged by the green of oxidation.

The water was cold, tasting brightly of tin, but not as cold as that which bubbled up in a corner of that small-town garage, the cement floor black with grease and the ceiling obscured by the sliding-door tracks and suspended wood frames holding rubber tires fresh from Akron.

I wake each morning with hurting eyeballs and with dread gnawing at my stomach — that blank drop-off at the end of the chute, that scientifically verified emptiness of the atom and the spaces between the stars. Nevertheless, I shave. Athletes and movie actors leave a little bristle now, to intimidate rivals or attract cavewomen, but a man of my generation would sooner go onto the street in his underpants than unshaven. The very hot washcloth, held against the lids for dry eye. The lather, the brush, the razor. The right cheek, then the left, feeling for missed spots along the jaw line, and next the upper lip, the sides and that middle dent called the philtrum, and finally the fussy section, where most cuts occur, between the lower lip and the knob of the chin.


OUTGAGE (JOHN UPDIKE)

The transaction had felt flirtatious to him, and the atmosphere of the downtown, beneath its drooping festoon of useless cables, seemed festive. Automobiles paraded past with burning headlights. The ominous thickening in the air stirred the pedestrians to take shelter again. There was a brimming, an overlow of good nature, and a transparency: something occluding had been removed, baring neglected possibilities.

Their driveway was fringed with more elaborate plantings — gnarly little azaleas, bare of leaf, and euonymus still blaring forth that surreal autumnal magenta — than the Morrises’, and their parking area was covered in larger, whiter stones than the brown half-inch pebbles that Brad’s wife had insisted on despite their tendency (which he had pointed out) to scatter into the lawn during winter snowplowing.


THE DISCOMFORT ZONE (JONATHAN FRANZEN)

To be juggling a stick shift and a thermos of coffee when the roads were still gray and empty, to be out ahead of everyone, to see no headlights on the Pacific Coast Highway, to be the only car pulled over at Rancho del Oso State Park, to already be on site when the birds were waking up, to hear their voices in the willow thickets and the salt marsh and the meadow whose scattered oaks were draped with epiphytes, to sense the birds’ collective beauty imminent and findable in there: what a pure joy this all was.


SKINNY LEGS AND ALL (TOM ROBBINS)

At least, that was what Ellen Cherry was thinking at that moment, less than a week after the wedding, thinking, as she watched the turkey suck the thawing countryside into its windshield and blowing it its rearview mirror, that she’d been tricked.

Colonial Pines was suburb without an urb.

For months, Raoul had observed her moping about the Upper West Side in sneakers, paint-spattered sweatshirts, and denim skirts, unrouged lips so pendulous in their pout she could have picked pennies off the street without bending over.


THE STONE DIARIES (CAROL SHIELDS)

It’s something to see, the way she concentrates, her hot busy face, the way she thrills to see the dish take form as she pours the stewed fruit inot the fancy mold, pressing the thickly cut bread down over the oozing juices, feeling it soften and absorb bit by bit a raspberry redness.


EMPIRE OF ICE (JEANNE MARIE LASKAS)

They dumped the gravel, dumped and dumped, sculpted a six-acre rectangle out of it, then got to work on a retaining wall: more gravel — 8,000 sacks of it weighing 13,000 pounds each — one on top of the other, bam, bam, bam, a barrier to fight back the summer sea.


THE SUN ALSO RISES (ERNEST HEMMINGWAY)

Sometimes he turned to smile that toothed, long-jawed, lipless smile when he was called something particularly insulting, and always the pain that any movement produced grew stronger and stronger, until finally his yellow face was parchment color, and after his second bull was dead and the throwing of bread and cushions was over, after he had saluted the President with the same wolf-jawed smile and contemptuous eyes, and handed his sword over the barrera to be wiped, and put back in its case, he passed through into the callejon and leaned on the barren below us, his head on his arms, not seeing, not hearing anything, only going through his pain.


ON BEING ILL (VIRGINIA WOOLF)

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close about our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the prescence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth — rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.


 

AMERICAN PASTORAL (PHILIP ROTH)

The old intergenerational give-and-take of the country-that-used-to-be, when everyone knew his role and took the rules dead seriously, the acculturating back-and-forth that all of us here grew up with, the ritual postimmigrant struggle for success turning pathological in, of all places, the gentleman farmer’s castle of our superordinary Swede.


 

AVA’S MAN (RICK BRAGG)

The hot dog came wrapped in wax paper, the bun warm and soft, the smell of raw onions, spicy meat and chili filling the car, and she rode the rest of the way full as a tick, mustard on her cheeks.


 

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (JOAN DIDION)

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.


 

THE WINTER OF GREAT SNOWS (E.B. WHITE)
Every new swipe of the plow hurls a gift of snow into the mouth of a driveway, so that, in effect, the plowmen, often working while we sleep snug in our beds, create a magnificent smooth, broad highway to which nobody can gain access until he has passed a private miracle of snow removal.


 

PONTOON (GARRISON KEILLOR)

She wanted to pick it up and throw it but the angel rose and she with him and, hand in hand, they flew up into the sequined sky, the little town arranged below, all shushed and dozy, the double row of streetlights on Main Street, the red light blinking on the water tower, the dark fastness of the lake, the pinpricks of lights from houses where they all slept, the cranks, the stoics, the meek, the ragtag dreamers, the drunks, the martyred wives, and she saw a woman’s pale face at a window looking for evildoers and the single pair of headlights threading the serpentine road, and after that she did not look down.