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Posts tagged ‘Erin Morgenstern’

When the muses outdo themselves: Favorite passages from books

Sometimes sentence or paragraph in a novel stops me in my tracks because it’s perfect, perfectly beautiful, dangerously apt, and it flows from word to word like birds or gods singing. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy: It was growing dark on this long southern evening, and suddenly, at the exact point her finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils. Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold….The new gold of moon astonishing and ascendant, he depleted gold of sunset extinguishing itself in the long westward slide, it was the old dance of days in the Carolina marshes, the breathtaking death of days before the eyes of children, until the sun vanished, its final signature a ribbon of bullion strung across the tops of water oaks.
  2. Sunset Song in the Scots Quair trilogy by Lewis Grassic GibbonSo that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies. You saw their faces in firelight, father’s and mother’s and the neighbours’, before the lamps lit up, tired and kind, faces dear and close to you, you wanted the words they’d known and used, forgotten in the far-off youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart, how they wrung it and held it, the toil of their days and unendingly their fight. And the next minute that passed from you, you were English, back to the English words so sharp and clean and true–for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.
  3. The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternSomeone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that… there are many kinds of magic, after all.
  4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz ZafónEvery book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. And also this: Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.
  5. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy: They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

You probably have some favorite lines as well, lines you might even copy on to scraps of paper to be hidden away in your wallet or purse for those moment when you need to prove again to yourself that there is still hope for the world.

Malcolm

My 2011 Favorite: ‘The Night Circus’ edges out ‘The Tiger’s Wife’

In April, I began my book review of The Tiger’s Wife with the following: Gather around, my friends, and I will tell you the story of the man who could never die, who, some say, still walks the streets of our village at night, and then—if most of you are still awake—I’ll tell you the story of the tiger Shere Khan whose eyes burn brightly in the night when he prowls near campfires like this looking for his wife.

As a storyteller, I’m drawn to stories that sparkle with probabilities, magic, a sense of mystery, and a raw potential for being real beneath the guise of the novelist’s art. In April, I didn’t think anyone would do better in 2011 than Téa Obreht. Then I started seeing the hype for Erin Morgenstern’s novel of fantasy and magical realism The Night Circus. Hype bothers me because it smacks of money-fed, well-oiled machines churning out literary propaganda for those favored authors who get the rare treatment of a real, book-selling campaign. As a storyteller and author, I am jealous of those authors and that alone kicks in a nasty attitude of bias against whatever it is they are selling.

Yet, when it came to The Tiger’s Wife and The Night Circus, my intuition told me I was going to like these books in spite of my bias and in spite of the fact that I really wanted my 2011 favorite to come from a small press. Perhaps The Night Circus edged out The Tiger’s Wife because I finished reading it later in the year. Or perhaps it was because the magic of two dueling magicians in the Le Cirque des Rêves in Morgenstern’s novel reminded me of the dueling magicians in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, my favorite novel in 2004.

Complete Worlds

Both Susanna Clarke and Erin Morgenstern paint rich pictures of complete worlds, worlds where there is room to experience the magic in depth and to believe that it fits there and really did happen or could happen. Booklist saw this complete world in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in its starred review: The brilliance of the novel lies in how Clarke so completely and believably creates a world within a world: the “outside” world being early-nineteenth-century England, as Napoleon the eagle looms over all of Europe; the “inner” world being the community of English magicians.

Likewise, Library Journal saw an equally complete world in Morgenstern’s novel this year: To enter the black-and-white-striped tents of Le Cirque des Rêves is to enter a world where objects really do turn into birds and people really do disappear…Debut novelist Morgenstern has written a 19th-century flight of fancy that is, nevertheless, completely believable. The smells, textures, sounds, and sights are almost palpable. A literary “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” this read is completely magical.

Mysterious Plot

In The Night Circus, two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, are magically bound by their mentors into an endless competition without rules or time limits that is destined to play itself out in a mysterious circus of dreams that arrives in towns with no advance notice and is only open from sunset to dawn. Celia and Marco use real magic, but because the public doesn’t believe in such things, they pretend to be illusionists.

Neither magician knows when or how his or her illusions will be judged or when or how a winner will be declared, but only that they are not allowed to tell the outside world about the competition. In fact, the competition itself influences how the circus is maintained, what the patrons see or think they see, and creates a rather dream-like realm where it’s difficult for readers and circus visitors to know where the fantasy of it all begins and ends.

While most of the reader reviews for The Night Circus are positive (three to five stars), as of today, the novel’s 64 one-and-two-star reviewers saw no plot in the book at all. Generally, they found the book to be boring and pointless. One way or the other, these reviewers’ expectations were not met. I suspect they were looking for an overt storyline more like Harry Potter’s battles with the evil Voldemort throughout J. K. Rowling’s popular series. Rowling has also created a very complete world, yet what happens in it happens faster and with more splash and consequence and that garners more happy readers.

Storytelling Itself

Near the end of The Night Circus, one of the two devious mentors tells a circus performer about the imporance of stories themselves and how they connect writer and reader in intersting ways and spin out consequences outside the control of either of them:

Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that…there are many kinds of magic, after all.

I love blurring reality and fiction together in my writing. My wont to do this, as a trickster and storyteller, led me to enjoy reading both The Tiger’s Wife and The Night Circus. Both Téa Obreht and Erin Morgenstern have created believable worlds with strong characters that can move and drive readers. Even though I have always loved tigers and have always disliked circuses, Le Cirque des Rêves has manged nonetheless to connect with my blood and self and purpose.

Coming Soon: a review of Mister Blue by Jacques Poulin, to be released later this month by archipelago books. Published in 1989 as Le Vieux Chagrin, the novel first appeared in English in 1993.

You May Also Like: Yesterday, I announced an end-of-the-year book give-away challenge for my contemporary fantasy Sarabande. If you enter, you might just win a free copy.

Malcolm