Short Story Friday: Rules for Virgins by Amy Tan

It’s Friday again, and as promised, here is one of the occasional Short Story Friday features. Today’s feature will focus on Amy Tan’s e-short story, Rules for Virgins.

Rules for Virgins by Amy Tan is a short story in which a virgin courtesan is being told the ins and outs of the profession.  Set in 1912 Shanghai, Magic Gourd is explaining the ways in which courtesans gain favor with the wealthiest of men.  Violet, a young woman whose mother owned a similar house of women, is being tutored in the ways of beguiling and pampering not only the men they want to attract, but the other women in the house so that competition does not become deadly.

“While you are still a virgin courtesan, you must know all the arts of enticement and master the balance of anticipation and reticence.”

The way in which the story is told is in the form of teacher-student, and while Magic Gourd is harsh at times and provides unabashed detail about the expectations of men.  She exposes the inner workings of the house and the other women’s jealousies, but she also explains the function of the “mosquito press” in spreading rumors that build the reputations of new girls and houses.

“Few men are capable of preserving their ideal self.  If he is a scholar, what philosophical principles were sacrificed to ambition?  If he is a banker, what oath of honesty was dirtied by favors?  If he his a politician, what civic-minded policies were destroyed by bribes?  You must cultivate his sentimentality for moral glory and help him treasure his myth of who he was.”

The narration is reminiscent of Tan’s earlier work, but in this case, the women are not related by birth, but by situation, and the older, wiser Magic Gourd is imparting her wisdom to the younger courtesan.  Rules for Virgins by Amy Tan is a great look into this mysterious world of entertainment and enticement, but it seems too short and would have been great to see Violet begin to navigate this world at the guiding hand of Magic Gourd.

About the Author:

Amy Tan is an American writer whose works explore mother-daughter relationships. Her most well-known work is The Joy Luck Club, which has been translated into 35 languages. In 1993, the book was adapted into a commercially successful film.

The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield

The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield, which I first read about it on Beth Kephart’s blog, is lyrical, meandering, and informative not only about Haiku — the art, its origination, and its longevity — but also about one of the greatest poets, Bashō, who lived and breathed Haiku.  Knowing very little about this Japanese poet from the 17th century doesn’t mean you don’t know him because as Hirshfield points out, he infuses every Haiku with his soul and experiences.  Not only can readers live his moments alongside him, but they also can create their own experiences within the Haiku.

“To read a haiku is to become its co-author, to place yourself inside its words until they reveal one of the proteus-shapes of your own life.  The resulting experience may well differ widely between readers:  haiku’s image-based language invites an almost limitless freedom of interpretation.”

Like many poets, verse comes naturally and is less like a job or profession than it is like breathing.  With elements of Zen and Shinto’s spiritual traditions, the poet led a contemplative life focused on not only the natural world, but his experiences with it and as part of it.  At many points in his life, he is affected by events beyond his control, but his poetry never fails to account for these moments or to push him through those hardships — even though it doesn’t seem as though Bashō considered them hardships.  Hirshfield says, “He wanted to renovate human vision by putting what he saw into a bare handful of mostly ordinary words, and he wanted to renovate language by what he asked it to see.”

“Zen is less the study of doctrine than a set of tools for discovering what can be known when the world is looked at with open eyes.  Poetry can be thought of in much the same way, and the recognition of impermanence, ceaseless alteration, and interdependence–the connection of each person, creature, event, and object with every other–need not be “Buddhist.”  These elements permeate the poetry of every tradition. . .”

What is most beautiful about Hirshfield’s examination of Bashō is the reverence she pays to him and her passion for not only his work, but also his dedication to improving it even when near death.  And like many others, he remained focused on pushing his students to strive for more than even he could achieve, urging them not to be the “other half of the split melon” by mirroring his own work.  Hirshfield not only provides history and poetry in this essay, but she also pinpoints the evolution of Haiku and discusses its beauty and its endurance through the ages, even as a teaching tool.

The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield is a stunning examination of one Japanese poet’s work and his love of life and poetry.  Her narration provides a unique way of stepping into the life and thoughts of Bashō as writer, poet, teacher, and human being.

About the Author:

Jane Hirshfield was born in New York City in 1953. After receiving her B.A. from Princeton University in their first graduating class to include women, she went on to study at the San Francisco Zen Center. Her books of poetry include Come, Thief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), After (HarperCollins, 2006); Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Lives of the Heart (1997), The October Palace (1994), Of Gravity & Angels (1988), and Alaya (1982).

This is my 11th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Short Story Friday: The Witch Sisters by Alma Katsu

typewriter short story friday

In addition the occasional book news on Fridays, Savvy Verse & Wit would like to introduce Short Story Friday, on which I will highlight a recent short story I’ve read and enjoyed either on Kindle or in book form. Today’s is an e-short story by Alma Katsu.

The Witch Sisters by Alma Katsu is an e-short story spin-off from The Taker series that continues the Gothic feel of her previous novels.  Adair finds himself in England on a nervous steed as he gallops through fens wood, a forest of many superstitions and secrets.  He seems to be still be on his journey to acquire magical knowledge, but he’s also already begun collect his consorts.  In the darkest of evenings, Adair meets Penthy, a fair-haired young woman, who lures him back to her cottage that she shares with her more wily sister, Bronwyn.

Adair is intrigued by these women living alone together in the woods, but he also is aware of his own power and gives into his own vanity, remaining with them for several days as they dote on him.  Readers will find this story a departure from the character depicted in Katsu’s first book, The Taker, but Adair is similar to the man who evolves into in The Reckoning.

“The forest here was not like forests elsewhere. The salty soil had turned it into a nightmarish landscape. It made trees into stunted hunchbacks, gnarled and twisting in on themselves.” (page 1)

Penthy is the more pliable sister, but Katsu’s description of her resembles Lanore in terms of her attractiveness and damaged nature.  It is easy for readers of the series to see why Adair would be attracted to her, but she is less like Lanore in that she allows her sister to lead the way.  These sisters are resourceful medicine women, and they pride themselves on the good they do for the village women.  It is not until they look beyond the sexual object in their cottage do they realize the magic they have at the tip of their fingers.

Readers looking for more of The Taker and Katsu’s characters, The Witch Sisters is a great way to reduce the angst of waiting for the third and final book in the series, but the story could have been longer and included more magic.  Readers may want more spells, illusion, and displacement either on the part of Adair under the control of the sisters or from Adair as he decides how best to punish these women — in true Adair fashion.

AlmaKatsuAbout the Author:

Alma Katsu lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband, musician Bruce Katsu. Her debut, The Taker, a Gothic novel of suspense, has been compared to the early work of Anne Rice and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.  The novel was named a Top Ten Debut Novel of 2011 by the American Library Association and has developed an international following.  The Reckoning, the second book in the trilogy, was published in June 2012.  The Taker Trilogy is published byGallery Books/Simon Schuster.