Trigger Warning: What’s in It? 

(This article was first published on Book Riot.)

Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection is introduced, aptly, with a trigger warning that sounds in tone like he’s addressing children (he isn’t, of course). This book, Gaiman warns, may awaken “monsters in our cupboards” and so cause unwanted distress. The mishmash of prose and poetry assembled here are connected only very broad and subjective thread, which mostly does live up to its disturbing promise, though sometimes it fades or even disappears entirely into a disappointing muddle. For those considering whether to read the book, here’s a list (without spoilers) of what’s in it.

Making a Chair
A rather inane poem about writing books.

“The Lunar Labyrinth”
A very pale tribute to Gene Wolfe’s “A Solar Labyrinth,” which is so much more than just a suspenseful story.

“The Thing About Cassandra”
Sweet story with a twist, about made-up romances, enriched with just little twinge of nostalgia at the end.

Down to a Sunless Sea
About a woman who lost her son. Can’t be faulted for style, but while the “you” of the story stumbles out with “the rain run[ing] down [her] face like someone else’s tears,” my own eyes remained dry.

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains
Gaiman’s award-winning novelette, rich enough to deserve a whole article on its own. For now, we shall have to be content with just a brief summary. In this story, a dwarf journeys with a guide to a cave supposedly filled with gold. There is a mythical quality to his language here, with striking images that remind one of the futility of greed and wealth, and, less obviously, of revenge.

My Last Landlady
A story dressed as a poem. Seems like it got squeezed into the wrong clothes.

Adventure Story
An apparently boring mom recalls her husband’s adventures. Meh. 

“Orange”
About aliens, told in questionnaire format. Quirky, playful and original.

“A Calendar of Tales”
An assembly of 12 tales, each written from a reply to a tweet asking people about their experiences during a particular month of the year. Interesting project, disappointing stories. The March one was especially weird. I mean, why ducks?

The Case of Death and Honey
Written as an ending to the Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes investigates the solution to eternal life from bees, and though this process wasn’t very interesting, I like how the story closes on an ambiguous note that leaves us wondering if death is really such a crime after all.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury
Another tribute. This one’s better; I can sympathise with the narrator. How we love our favourite authors!

“Jerusalem”
Where we all want to go; but is it as good a land of milk and honey as we think? Jerusalem Syndrome is an intriguing phenomenon, but the story itself is unimpressive.

Click-clack the Rattlebag
Delightfully creepy.

An Invocation of Curiosity
Deserving winner of the Locus Award for Best Short Story. This strange little tale, full of potent imagery and motifs, pricked me with a curious sense of sorrow; sorrow for loss of wonder and curiosity, for buried longing, and for our timidity in invoking it in ourselves.

“And Weep, Like Alexander”
About uninventing things. An uninspired rehashing of Gaiman’s favourite theme; I didn’t care much about the lost things here.

“Nothing O’Clock”
This one seems like it’s just catering to Doctor Who fans. As a story it’s frivolous and insubstantial.

“Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”
Much more disturbing than the original tale of toads and diamonds. Overturns traditional didacticism for a grimmer, contemporised portrait of life.

The Return of the Thin White Duke
A few mawkish clichés here and there but overall a great fairy tale reflecting the journey of artist and audience. Like the king in the story we too are transformed after the tale, emerging with larger hearts, into a world both old and new.

Feminine Endings
A living statue writes a love letter to a woman. “Life imitates art,” writes Gaiman in his introduction to the story, “but clumsily, copying its movements when its not looking.” In this story it does so in way that’s sad and beautiful and just a little bit sinister.

“Observing the Formalities”
Short rant in free verse from the POV of the witch in “Sleeping Beauty.” The persona is one-dimensionally self-righteous and bitter–something I’d expect from a Disney cartoon or nursery rhyme, not a poem with any claims to seriousness.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”
One of the treasures in this collection. The tale artfully merges “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” in a fresh, empowering way that would make feminists happy.

Witch Work
This poem is full of stock phrases, and some words just seem stuck for the rhyme; but the idea of a witch in a house full of clocks is interesting, and the repetition, metre and rhyme give the poem a suitably chant-like quality.

In Relig Odhráin
What’s up with all these poems? This one is about the legend of Oran of Iona, who was rumoured to have been willingly buried alive under the foundations of a chapel that Columba wanted to build.

“Black Dog”
A gratifying ghost story set as a sequel to American Gods. The ending was a bit of a cop-out but I like the suspense-building and the way feelings of guilt, fear and depression are amplified through Gaiman’s representation of the Grim.

Overall, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances yields more treasures than junk. Be warned, though, before you pull the trigger: some stories are disturbing, and some would need to be read twice.

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A Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham‘s A Wild Swan is a collection of short stories that give the classic fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm a grittier, modern twist. I’ve always loved fairy tales, especially the darker ones, and this innocent-looking little white book didn’t disappoint. With prose as stark and disturbing as its illustrations by award-winning illustrator Yuko Shimizu, Cunningham’s stories undercut the simple idealism of such traditional tales as Rumpelstiltskin” and “Snow White.” Sometimes he places a tale in a contemporary setting, leaving characters like the tin soldier and the ballerina to fend for themselves after marriage in our imperfect world; sometimes he writes from the perspectives of forgotten or villainised characters, fleshing out their complexities to depict them as scarred and lonely beings plagued with existential anxieties.

I especiaharp.jpglly like the way some of the stories portray love. We’re all used to, and perhaps a bit weary of, the conventional ideas of love as this grand, self-sacrificial thing. But some tales, like his fractured version of “Snow White,” remind me of the flawed and selfish nature of human love, which often requires an ideal image of the other to be sustained. So Snow White must be kept behind glass, still as a corpse and framed with a rose, in order to be beautiful. Rapunzel’s lover must remain blind in order to revel in the locks that were chopped off before his eyes. And the tin soldier loves the ballerina because she had one leg out behind her and he thought she was deformed, just like him. This last story I especially love, because of its realistic optimism: though the couple’s idealised image of each other dissipates and their initial, passionate fairy tale love unravels, over the years this love dulls, or perhaps grows, gradually into a steady acceptance of each other’s distance and differences. Cunningham is careful to remind us that this doesn’t mean complete understanding; yet both of them ultimately arrive at some sort of contented equilibrium. And unlike some preachy old folks I sometimes meet in church, he doesn’t try to paint this latter sort of love as better or stronger in any way, but seems to be merely stating life as it is, how married life is like. It leaves me wondering whether I’d like it.

Cunningham’s Rumpelstiltskin adaptation’s is another one of my favourites from the book; great characterisation, with the dwarf being hideous yet kind-hearted yet lashing out in jealousy, and the queen beautiful and pleasant, feeling some moral obligation yet ultimately acting self-centredly. Same storyline, but suddenly the characters come alive, and because of these depths of character revealed, suddenly there’s no longer a happy ending, just a heartbreakingly plausible one. The dwarf, the Beast, is rejected by Beauty and refused of a child. So refused of love, in bitter rage he breaks in two, and is doomed forever to live with that handicap of self struggling against self. It’s a feeling that not just all who have been rejected can identify with. It’s a feeling of bitter isolation, impairment, and alienation from the self.

I’m hungry for more contemporary fairy tale adaptations. Does anyone have any recommendations?

On Kvothe

Warning: the following may contain spoilers!

It seems that Patrick Rothfuss’ notorious protagonist is one of those characters you either love or loathe. In a quiet inn tucked away in an almost forgotten rural town, the mild and unassuming innkeeper Kote tells a scribe the story of his past as the legendary Kvothe. And in the beginning, it seems the bright-eyed, brilliant, proud and precocious young Kvothe can be no more further from the silence of the wind that he spends the rest of the next two books struggling to grasp.

All fantasy is, in a sense, “wish-fulfilment”, as Tolkien would agree. In his poem “Mythopoiea” the father of the Fantasy genre as we know it today declares proudly that “Yes! ‘Wish-fulfillment dreams’ we spin to cheat / Our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!” Kvothe, as a character who in the beginning seems too perfect to be true, is everything we would wish to be: a musical prodigy and academic genius, skilled both in magic and rhetoric, brave and flawlessly handsome, defender of justice and heroic rescuer of distressed damsels. When met with difficulty he conquers them without much difficulty with his wit and his talents. If one didn’t know he was going to end up as Kote, the meek and despondent innkeeper who seems to have lost all hope, ambition, confidence and talent, one would think Kvothe not a very likeable character indeed. This seems to be one of the major criticisms of the protagonist – perfection that doesn’t allow one to suspend disbelief.

But a star only makes waves when it falls from great heights, and a tragedy that doesn’t fall with a resounding crash would hardly be tragic at all. In the beginning Kvothe has to be perfect – just as Agamemnon was before he died, just as Oedipus was before he was brought low and exiled. And though it is not yet clear what the fatal flaw of Kvothe is exactly, Rothfuss does seem to be setting the stage for a great fall. The framing narrative of Kote, which not only frames the story of Kvothe but also intersperses it, serves as a constant reminder of dread. The future, fixed and immutable, embodied by the most frightening creature the Cthaeh of which even the Fae fear to speak, hangs threateningly over all of Kvothe’s successes – so that the more triumphant his success, the more chilling the dread.

So if I were to criticise the character at all it would not be his perfection, which is necessary for a tragic fall; if I were to pick a fault with him at all, it would be his likability. Don’t get me wrong, I love and admire the guy; but it seems some hate him with a vengeance. Okay, so I get that that some people just don’t dig cockiness, just as some just don’t get why Denna, the wild and elusive love of Kvothe, should be so desirable to all the men in the story. (Some people prefer the aloofness of cats, the elusive grandeur of eagles in flight; some like the dramatic swag of peacocks, and others like panting, affectionate and down-to-earth dogs. I’m a cat and eagles person, myself. ☺️) But these are just personal preferences – no reason to trash the book! Chill, people.

Besides, a hero doesn’t have to be likeable; he just has to be relatable. And although Kvothe is a genius he certainly is relatable. The fact that he’s a genius doesn’t make him any less relatable any more than I wouldn’t be able to relate to Einstein if he tried to engage me in conversation. Genius as he is, he is nevertheless human and subject to pain, fear and death; and the beautiful thing is that although he is perfectly gifted he is not too perfect to learn. And he does learn, eventually. It is a long journey, but he learns humility. He learns to let go of his desire for mastery, for control of a thing, and to embrace it instead with all its mystery.

In fact, it is in this, his pride, that he is most human. Pride is our fatal flaw. It makes man a Saruman, seeking always to dominate the world with our knowledge and our science and our belief that we can and should understand all things. But during his visit to Fae, Kvothe learns from Felurian, just as we do from fantasy, that even the simplest things cannot be totalised; that the name of even the smallest piece of stone, as Elodin at the start tries in vain to teach Kvothe, has a name more complex than our conscious, rational or ever-rationalising, totalising minds can ever imagine, and more complex than our language can ever grasp – a name which can only be comprehended in the silence of dreams, which are the seed of fantasy.

On the whole, though Rothfuss’ prose isn’t particularly beautiful save for the occasional few lines, and may at times be a little too trite or lacking in subtlety, his style works. Characterisation is vivid, there’s plenty of witty banter, and his language is clear, memorable, and sharp enough to make me laugh and cry not just once but repeatedly and uncontrollably (and in public – how embarrassing). Will definitely be getting the next novel.

Appetite by Philip Kazan

The flavours settle across my tongue in shapes and colours. Sweetness pools, smug and tarry, like pitch seeping from a sun-warmed beam. Quicksilver balls of sourness skitter for a moment, then freeze into shards that fall like icicles brushed from a windowsill. Tiny pricks of vinegar mark out the footprints of the wasp. I let it all dissolve into golden light. (Kazan, Appetite 2)

A book to satiate every sense, Philip Kazan’s Appetite explores the nature not only of food but also of art and its relation to the flesh. With colourful descriptions setting one salivating at every turn of the page, he makes us aware more than any other novel of our own appetites – our hunger, our fleshly desires, and most of all the desire to fill the senses with beauty. It is this desire, our appetite for beauty or perfection, perceived and savoured through the senses, which gives rise to art; and it is because of this that Nino Latini must cook.

But as he rises through his career as a chef, Kazan’s protagonist finds himself gradually removed from the joy of pure and simple cooking to cooking for the entertainment of the rich and famous. Art is diminished: his dishes still satisfy every sense – indeed, they dazzle and overwhelm – but they remain devoid of a key ingredient. Life, a breath, a spirit. Food becomes a spectacle as empty as the human corpse Nino must watch being dissected, and in which Nino sees himself, as much as the makeshift golden corpse he later sets on the table before the Pope is also an expression of his dead self. He is a gold-plated automaton, holding nothing but flesh. And as he is empty so is his food; for while once his food was cooked and served for the pleasure of the appetite, now even as his food increases in splendour and sensuality it serves only black and insatiable greed.

In the end, though, he finds the key ingredient that has always been missing in his dishes: the elusive flavour that he once tasted in the streets of Florence in a simple broth of tripe sold by a street vendor. It is love, he says; but at the same time it is not just love – it is the whole of Florence through which, to Nino, this love runs. And so the only feast that Nino cannot remember is the feast at his own wedding; for as Kazan writes, ‘appetite must have a moment when it is sated’ -and it is sated, not with the overwhelming of the senses, but with the simple joy of living which can be found in love. So the story is wrapped in a life-celebrating warmth that comes not from the roaring furnaces of a grand kitchen but from the plain unadorned honey and cheese fed to Nino by the unconditional kindness of a peasant woman – from the common steaming bowl of tripe cooked by an old peasant it for love of his wife, and, at the beginning and end, enveloping his remembered tale like a sweet embrace, the golden fuzz of peach, fed to Nino by the hand of his love. Flesh is nothing without spirit, Nino finally learns; it means nothing to satisfy the body alone while the heart is cold and numb, or shut away and silenced. Kazan’s tale is a most of all an ode to the joys of both flesh and spirit: living – being and feeling alive – requires both. That’s when appetite can finally be sated, and that, Appetite reveals, is art.