Trigger Warning - 2015 Reading Challenge

I have come to the conclusion that I want to use this 2015 Reading Challenge to share what I am learning about each book as a writer, because that is my biggest motivation to read. I love books, and always have, long before I intended to be a writer. But now I often choose my books strategically, trying to select titles and authors that I know will help me become a better writer. If you are a writer, I am guessing you do too, so in a way I am writing these posts for you.

A book of short stories

First off, don't be afraid of this post. It contains the words Trigger Warning solely because that is Neil Gaiman's title for his newest book of short stories. And let me tell you, while it indeed lives up to its tagline of short fictions & disturbances, you certainly should not hesitate to read it. I'm serious. Go read it.

Gaiman is known for writing graphic novels and fantasy fiction. If you don't immediately recognize his name, maybe titles like StardustCoraline, and American Gods jump out at you. All his. In fact, I've probably read more of Neil Gaiman's books than any other author. He has great things to say about writing, and does an incredible live reading.

I was able to go to his show at a Melbourne theatre in January 2015 to see him read 'The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains', a short story included in this collection. He was accompanied by FourPlay, a string quartet that created music just for the reading.

It was beautiful. He read another story from this collection, which I loved both at his reading and upon reading it again here, 'The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury.' The narrator is a man who is beginning to lose words and memories. It begins:

I am forgetting things, which scares me. I am losing words, although I am not losing concepts. I hope that I am not losing concepts. If I am losing concepts, I am not aware of it. If I am losing concepts, how would I know?

This is possibly one of my favorite short stories ever. The prose is spare and gorgeous, the emotions vivid, and the tribute to Bradbury is very moving.

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I like openings, as a rule. I like knowing right away what journey I'm taking with the author. This is the opening of Trigger Warning and I like it. It puts me exactly where I need to be as a reader:

There are things that upset us. That's not quite what we're talking about here, though. I'm thinking rather about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming...And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead. There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corridors of our lives.

He also introduces each short story and poem included in the collection, with an invitation to read them before or after reading the story, or disregard them altogether if that is what the reader wants. I always find his introductions interesting though, because I like knowing the context in which a story was written.

Within the pages of this book are stories and poems Gaiman wrote for anthologies, for his wife, for friends, for other authors, and for himself. 'The Sleeper and the Spindle' is an alternate version of Sleeping Beauty where her sleeping sickness spreads throughout the kingdom and Snow White, rather than a handsome prince, comes to her rescue.

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The main character of 'The Thing About Cassandra' makes up a fake girlfriend as a teenager and she comes to life in adulthood. 'And Weep, Like Alexander' is a story about a man who "uninvents" all the things we thought we would have by the year 2015, such as flying cars, to save us the inevitable trouble they would bring.

Somehow, although they lack a cohesive theme or obvious link (which the author himself points out and apologizes for in the intro), these pieces all work together to form a satisfying, beautifully written collection.

My favorite story in Trigger Warning was the last, 'Black Dog', written specifically for this collection. Gaiman borrows the main character from his award-winning American Gods novel: a man whom I remembered rather clearly even though it has been at least seven years since I read the book. Shadow Moon can see ghosts, communicates with gods, and for whatever reason, is currently tramping across the English countryside. He stops off in a pub and ends up staying overnight with a couple to avoid slogging on in the rain. When the man he's staying with attempts to kill himself, Shadow stays on for support and ends up learning far more about them both than he ever intended.

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In short, you can learn much as a writer by reading Neil Gaiman, not the least of which is to be unique, and to write what you want to write. As he is famous for pointing out:

There are better writers than me out there, there are smarter writers, there are people who can plot better--there are all those kinds of things, but there’s nobody who can write a Neil Gaiman story like I can.

I have a whole pile of books going on now, as you can see. Here's what categories they'll be in:

The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi: A book set in a different country

Sula by Toni Morrison: A book you can finish in a day

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich: A book by a female author

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks: A popular author's first book

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth: A book by an author you have never read before

Liver by Will Self: A book with a one-word title