Category: Short Stories

Rules for Virgins

Cover image for Rules for Virgins by Amy TanAmy Tan

ISBN 978-1-61452-019-1

You are too young yet to know what nostalgia truly means. It takes time to become sentimental. But for the sake of your success, you must quickly learn. When you touch a man’s nostalgia, he is yours.”

Set in Shanghai in 1912, Rules for Virgins is a short story in the form of a monologue by Magic Gourd, a former courtesan who has retired and become the attendant of Violet, a fifteen-year-old courtesan-in-training who is one week away from her debut, which will lead up to the sale of her virginity. No longer young enough—at the ripe old age of thirty-three—to be a courtesan herself, Magic Gourd turns her calculating mind to a new goal: helping Violet become one of the Top Ten Beauties of Shanghai. Rules for Virgins is her attempt to impart the wisdom and experience she gained from her years as a courtesan to her young charge. Magic Gourd recounts both her glory days and her mistakes, determined to help Violet achieve the same successes she had, without the bumps earned through ignorance.

Magic Gourd addresses Violet as “you” throughout the story, asking the reader to identify with the situation of a young woman who never speaks. This works to a certain extent, because the reader is likely to be as ignorant as Violet of what it takes to be courtesan in post-Imperial China. However, I could not help but feel that there was a fuller story to be told here about the relationship between an attendant and her new courtesan, and I wanted to hear both of their voices. The second person address becomes less awkward once you settle in to the story, but I would not precisely describe it as successful.

Where Tan does succeed is in portraying the perilous balancing act performed by the courtesans as they strive to become women of independent means. Competition between the beauties is intense, and the attention spans of most patrons are fleeting at best. Magic Gourd ruthlessly crushes sentiment, and strives to instill economic principles in her young charge. Pleasures houses are businesses, and Violet must learn their best practices quickly, or she will find herself unable to repay her debt to the Madam of the house. Thus Magic Gourd tells Violet to “forget about love. You will receive that many times, but none of it is lasting. You can’t eat it, even if it leads to marriage.” Instead, she is told to focus on attaining the “four necessities” for success: fine jewelry, modern furniture, a contract with a stipend, and a comfortable retirement fund. Although the title would imply that this short story is about a virgin courtesan, it is Magic Gourd, whose time has already passed, who we come to know as she tries to distill a lifetime of knowledge and experience into a strategy guide for success, seduction, and independence.

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The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Volume 3

Cover image for The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories 3 by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and wirrowCompiled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt & wirrow

ISBN 978-0-06-212165-3

After a hard day’s make-believe I like to just kick back with my creations.”

They might be (very) short stories, or they might be poetry, or they might be something else entirely. It’s a bit hard to pin down the tiny stories that make up this collaborative anthology, which was compiled by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his partner-in-crime, wirrow. This is the third and final volume they have put together from a selection of contributions to the Tiny Stories project on the hitrecord.org website. Eighty-two contributors are credited in this volume, and more than 35 000 have contributed to the online archive. All contributions are available to be remixed by participants, and half of the proceeds from the publication of the Tiny Stories series go to the contributors, with the other half going back into the production company.

After a hard day's make-believe I like to just kick back with my creations.
Click to enlarge

Each page or two page spread features an illustration paired with a short piece of text. Many wouldn’t mean much alone, but together they are powerful. The drawings are mostly black and white, but more colour has crept into them as the series goes on. Volume 1 was entirely black and white, while Volume 2 included thirteen images that incorporated the colour red. Volume 3 includes fifteen colour illustrations, and incorporates a wider variety of colours. It’s a delight to happen upon the coloured pictures in the midst of their black and white counterparts. While Volume 2 didn’t suffer for exploring what can be done with black, white, grey, and red, Volume 3 opens the door on wider possibilities.

I want desperately to press you between the pages of a book and keep you forever.
Click to enlarge.

The stories cover a broad range, from sweet (“Ok let’s snuggle for the whole day and then maybe two more whole days but then we’ll get up and do some work! And we’ll just take snuggle breaks in between to reward ourselves”) to melancholy (“This overwhelming desire to be close to you directly conflicts with my intense fear of people”) to creepy (“I want desperately to press you between the pages of a book and keep you forever”). They are incredibly varied, with their greatest commonality being the amount of room left for interpretation by the reader. There’s what’s on the page, and then there’s what you read into it. Tiny stories leave more than the usual amount of room for the reader’s imagination to run wild within the sketchy bounds of the narrative. The stories are a little bit like zen koans; if you can prevent yourself from greedily gobbling them up in one sitting, you could stop and ponder each one for quite some time. The Tiny Stories have just gotten better with each successive volume, and I am beyond sad that this one is set to be the last in the series. Fortunately, they only get better with re-reading.

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The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Volume 2

Cover Image for The Tiny Book of  Tiny Stories Volume 2by Joseph Gordon-Levitt & wirrow

ISBN 978-0-06-212163-9

“The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of tiny stories.”

You likely know Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor, be it from Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001) or his more recent work, such as Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Looper (2012).  However, he is also the founder of HitRECord, the open collaborative production company which produced The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Volume 2, a collaborative anthology of artwork and writing that could easily be described as either a (very) short story collection, or poetry, depending on which piece you are looking at. Materials contributed to HitRECord are openly accessible and available to be remixed. Gordon-Levitt and wirrow collaborated to select and edit the pieces in this anthology. For example, illustrations from one writer may be combined with the artwork contributed by another participant. All contributors are credited in the resources section at the back of the book. 62 contributors participated in this book.

It would be difficult to identify a single unifying theme in this volume, but there are a few common threads. The text of the first piece reads “we must hide find ourselves in fiction,” and many of the pieces explore the importance of stories in our lives, and the idea of fiction as more than mere escapism, but rather as a method of making meaning. Many of the pieces also use wordplay and juxtaposition to toy with our expectations or shift our perspective with just a few words or a few pencil lines. For example, the text “one day she looked up and discovered an opening in her planet. She wondered if she wasn’t alone after all,” takes on a new meaning when placed next to a drawing of a fishbowl.

Physically and artistically, this is a beautiful book. It is small, like the stories it contains, with a navy cloth cover and illustrated endpapers. The illustrations are largely black and white, with the occasional splash of red, but the limited palate never seems to limit the expression; you see the full run of what can be done with black, white, grey and red in these pages. Although this book is available in digital form, I highly recommend the paper copy, particularly if your device has an e-ink screen.

Special Review: Click-Clack the Rattlebag

Click-Clack the Rattlebag is a short story written and performed by Neil Gaiman for All Hallow’Cover Image for Click-Clack the Rattlebags Read. You can download the story for free at audible.com/scareus and for every download Audible will donate a dollar to Donors Choose. This story is only available until Halloween, so download your copy today.  If you’ve missed the download, the story will be available in the Impossible Monsters anthology from Subterranean Press in 2013.

 

In Click-Clack the Rattlebag, Neil Gaimain turns his normally soft and soothing voice to the work of sending chills down our spines. This is only the beginning of the many ways Gaiman is able to defy the reader’s expectations in this short outing. The story features one of the precocious children Gaiman has rendered so well in past works such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Don’t let the name fool you; the original monster of this story is much scarier (and grosser) than the ghosties and ghoulies that often comprise the horror genre.  For a story of only ten minutes duration, to say much more would be spoiling. Don’t forget to turn off the lights before you listen.

 

Read about All Hallow’s Read here: http://www.allhallowsread.com/

Read Neil’s blog post about the story here: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2012/10/something-really-cool-is-about-to-happen.html

When It Happens to You

Cover image for When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

ISBN 978-0061809460

The “it” of Molly Ringwald’s fiction debut is betrayal, and the narrative unfolds around how the characters process it in various forms. Her “novel in stories” centres on the dissolving marriage of Greta and Phillip, and the consequences for their six year old daughter, Charlotte. As a novel, When It Happens to You would be described as unfocused. However, by framing it as a novel in short stories, Ringwald is able to toe the line between the two forms, exploring the space between. This latitude allows her to delve into the stories of secondary characters whose lives serve as important counterpoints to those of her main protagonists. For the reader, the treat is beginning each new chapter with the expectation of discovering the connection to the central story.

While infertility and infidelity are the particular trials of Greta and Phillip’s relationship, the secondary characters reveal the many other ways in which it is possible to fail at love. Especially poignant is the story of Betty, an elderly widow who had an incredibly happy marriage, but was unable to spare any love for her unplanned daughter. This serves as a sharp and telling contrast to the story of Marina, who has rarely had a long term relationship, but loves her own unplanned child fiercely, even as she struggles with how best to deal with Oliver’s gender identity crisis. However, the fascinating lives of the secondary characters threaten to upstage the gut-wrenching normality of the story of a marriage threatened by infidelity. You have probably heard Phillip and Greta’s story before, but Betty, Peter and Marina offer the reader a glimpse of Ringwald’s potential to deliver a unique narrative.