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2018 Book Discussions > Counternarratives - Book II (Jun 2018)

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message 1: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
We'll use this thread to discuss the 7 stories in the Encounter Narrative sections ("The Aeronauts" on through "Anthropophagy").

How do these stories differ from the first 5?
As you read each subsequent story, does it alter the previous ones you read?

message 2: by Caroline (new)

Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
I finished the "Aeronauts" last night and this one may have unseated Carmel's story as my favorite (haven't finished the book yet so we'll see what happens!). I became so invested in Red's story and could read a book entirely about him - and maybe Dandy too.

It was so interesting following Red's perception of events and the cities around him as his settings change. At first, the upcoming war doesn't seem to matter all that much, or feel real to him, so going to D.C. to get a good job becomes more important to him than staying home and working as a caterer. Then, he sees how much dirtier D.C. is than Philadelphia, talks to slaves who dream of seeing Philadelphia with their own eyes, and realizes that the war is real and he's right at the edge of it.

There's so much else going on in this too - Red's coming of age, his affection for Horatio, new scientific discoveries, Dandy's shady dealings, and his relationship with Linde. I really wish there were more of it!

message 3: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
This one really did feel like it ended too soon. I also wanted to find out moor and see where things went. It feels like two entirely different worlds--home where one might simply disappear into the river if not careful, where your boys nickname you in pig latin (took me forever to figure out Edray was Red in pig latin--I kept saying to myself: Why are they calling him that?!!), where luck (being "discovered"/liked by a wealthy guest leads him to DC. Again, the river plays a symbolic role where this time, it's not so much that one disappears there as it is all that stands between slavery and not slavery, a physical divide.

Of course, I'd never even heard of an "aeronaut," much less knew their role in the the civil war.

"Encounter narrative" is such a fascinating concept to me. How did that book section title impact your expectations in terms of what might follow?

message 4: by Hugh (last edited Jul 04, 2018 12:27AM) (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2833 comments Mod
Aeronauts was my favourite too - almost the bones of a novel in its own right. I would never have got the pig Latin reference!

message 5: by Beverly (new)

Beverly | 142 comments I too wanted the story, Aeronauts, to go on.
But, the way it ended with an incomplete sentence that maybe in the future this will be flushed out further. (well at least I am hoping).

It seems like each story gets a little better or do I feel that way as each one adds to the whole picture that the author is painting?

Great characterization of Red and of the place/time in Philadelphia and Washington DC.

I also did not know what an "aeronaut" was.

message 6: by Beverly (new)

Beverly | 142 comments As we have discussed Keene has definitely done his historical research in these stories and it seems he put a lot of this research into the stories, often without pointing them out to the reader.

In "Aeronauts" - when discussing how Theodore would get to the Balloon Corps - it was tongue-in-cheek mentioned that maybe would put him in a BOX (p.173) and I am thinking this is based on a historical fact of a slave who was shipped via railroad in a box like a package.

Henry enlisted the help of his choir-member friend, James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free Black who knew Samuel Alexander Smith, a White sympathizer. (They were not related but had the same last name.) Samuel Smith liked to gamble and, for a profit, agreed to help Henry Brown with his plan. The plan that Henry envisioned was for himself to be shipped in a box by rail from Richmond to Philadelphia, a very creative, unique, and dangerous endeavour.

Samuel Alexander Smith in turn contacted James Miller McKim, a White abolitionist and seasoned member (along with William Still) of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. Samuel Alexander Smith shipped Henry by Adams Express Company on March 23, 1849, in a box 3 feet long by 2 feet 8 inches deep by 2 feet wide, and sent the box as “dry goods.” Henry Brown traveled in the box lined with baize, a coarse woollen cloth, carrying with him only one bladder of water and a few biscuits. There was a hole cut in the box for air, and it was nailed and tied with straps; in large words, “This side up” was written on the box. Brown traveled by a variety of wagons, railroads, steamboats, ferries, and finally, for added safety, a delivery wagon that brought the box to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society before daybreak.

And it seems that Dandy takes on the name of "Anthony Smith" when he disappeared which is part of the name of the free Black that had helped enslaved Brown escape slavery.
I wonder if this is a hint to who/what Dandy was really doing.

message 7: by Caroline (new)

Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Thanks for sharing that, Beverly! I had wondered something similar about the word "box" being used in that way, though hadn't thought too much about what Dandy might have been doing.

As for how the story ends, I imagined something big, and most likely bad, happened to Red because he wasn't able to complete his first person narration. It is interesting that Keene chose to switch narrators around for Carmel's story but here for Red. I think Keene has done a great job of having each story stand out on its own, both in terms of content and structure, though they all fit together.

I finished "Rivers" as well and liked that one too. It's been several years since the last time I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but it's one I really love. I could also go for an entire story set from Jim, or Mr. Rivers' perspective many years after his time with Huck and Tom Sawyer. It was interesting to see his perception of Tom, who is such a goody two shoes and by the book individual still sticking to the rules here, though those rules are racist, discriminatory, unjust, and show Tom to us as a nasty character. Huck, who was always the troublemaker but seemed to understand how the world works better than Tom, still stands out in that way.

I also loved nods to "that writer, also from Hannibal, who had made him, both of us, briefly famous." Is Rivers implying that he is a real person that the "writer from Hannibal" wrote about? Or is he acknowledging that he is a fictional character, created by Mark Twain?

message 8: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2833 comments Mod
Rivers would probably have meant much more to me if my literary education had included reading Mark Twain! I still enjoyed it, but probably missed most of the point.

It is now three weeks since I finished the book, and my memory of the shorter stories that make up the rest of Book II is fading fast, though the last one seemed very strange and I'll be interested in what others made of it.

message 9: by Caroline (new)

Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
I'm currently reading through the last story and am finding it very strange. I'll report back once I've finished it and had some time to process.

I've enjoyed the other stories but have breezed through them so they're starting to blend together a bit. I do like how each of them seems to incorporate someone from the art or literary world - whether real or fictional. I liked the one about Langston Huges and of course had to look up Degas' work to see if he'd done a painting of an acrobat. I'm guessing this painting of Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando was the inspiration for this story.

message 10: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
Are all the "encounters" in Book II centered around free, black characters? Some seem based on history, some literary reference (ala Jim from Huck Finn), and some fictionalized versions of real people?

For Hugh or anyone else who wants a preview or quick refresher on Huck Finn: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/huckfinn/plot-analysis/
(It's been so long, since I read it, I only had a vague enough recollection of the characters to recognize them immediately and just barely recall a little of their personalities/dynamics.)

Caroline, given the instance in Book I where Beverly pointed out the future reference to a writer who wasn't born yet, I'd say Jim--or Keene through Jim--is acknowledging the fiction from whence he came. Perhaps. It's a bit of a post-modern touch--it's like the opposite of authorial intervention--the character is sort of breaking the fictional wall.

Certainly, life as a "free" black person is still fraught with all sorts of dangers and social restraints.

message 11: by Sue (new)

Sue Just finished Aeronauts and Rivers today.

I too wanted Red's story to go on, and I'd also like to see a longer story about James Rivers.

I loved the concept of how Jim's life went on after his time with Huck Finn. Its been a long time since I read that book, but I recall wondering what would happen to Jim. I think Keene got the tone just right. I always thought Tom was a twerp and liked Huck much better.

message 12: by Beverly (new)

Beverly | 142 comments Hugh wrote: "Rivers would probably have meant much more to me if my literary education had included reading Mark Twain! I still enjoyed it, but probably missed most of the point.

It is now three weeks since I..."

I think with short stories that since each is its own entity in a way, so I have often found that a short story collection as a group read can be difficult at times, I think especially if the attempt is to discuss each one. This is not meant as a negative comment but a reality at least on my part.

And I have experience when I have read the whole collection before the discussion starts that it is often hard for me to recall specifics about each story.

This is certainly an interesting collection and I am glad that we are discussing as a group. I wonder if I was reading this collection on my own if I would have pushed through it by myself.

But the storytelling and the "experimental" formats is making it a worthwhile read.

message 13: by Beverly (new)

Beverly | 142 comments What I took away from "Rivers" is that Jim is telling the story from his voice and so we learn about Tom and Huck through his eyes.

Tom had his own book and Huck also had his book (and there were others also) but Jim did not have his own book.

I did chuckle that Jim speaking of Tom, thought of his as being obnoxious and full of himself and does not even realize it.

Also this story should that Jim was well aware of the political situation and as astute to his surroundings.
He was aware of the pending Dred Scott decision, etc. but also knew not to let Tom and Huck aware of how much he knew.

message 14: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
I was looking back over the "Rivers" story and had forgotten that not only is it from Jim's POV (as Beverly reminded me), but it starts with a journalist interviewing him. The journalist only wants to hear about what happened in Huck Finn 40 years ago, but Jim has no interest in that and launches in to the two times he saw Huck since then. He essentially faces Huck in the Civil War (if I read it correctly)! The theme of naming repeats itself here, too, with Jim assuming a name of his own (Rivers). River in the last story as place to disappear or dividing line between freedom in DC and slavery in Virginia, and river in this story as a means of escape (in Huck Finn leading to now), as well as a named tribute. I like how Beverly put it: "... Jim did not have his own book." But here he gets to tell his story with Huck and Jim as secondary characters.

message 15: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
"Persons & Places"
Gears seem to change with this story in terms of returning to a much shorter story, fictionalized versions of historic individuals, and the most experimental structurally (the parallel columns with W.E.B. Du Bois studying at Harvard and hoping for attention from his mentor, George Santayana).

message 16: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2439 comments Overall I liked the stories in Book II better than Book I and I think that is because the history was more familiar to me. As many have already said, "Aeronauts" was a great story that ended to soon. And must say that I appreciate it even more given the insights other have imparted in this discussion. "Rivers" was a good one too, although I was a bit stunned by the Jim v. Huck encounter. "Persons & Places" meant more once I saw in a review who the individuals involved were, same with the Langston Hughes story.

message 17: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
The Jim v. Huck encounter caught me flatfooted, too, LindaJ^!

When I first read the next story, "Acrobatique," I was struck by the vertical text beginning and end mirroring the performer on a rope, but I don't think I even noticed it was a single sentence. Things that stuck out to me were the kind of "otherness" or exoticness being highlighted (the performer being noticed for her skin color and not necessarily her skill/technique). I wondered whether this was based on a real person given the mention of Degas. Apparently, the story is based on Degas's Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando/


Rather intriguing article about this story here: http://www.culturalfront.org/2016/01/john-keenes-acrobatique-and-poet-as.html

message 18: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
I'll continue to post some notes on the last few stories and am happy to continue any and all discussions, but just wanted to take a moment to say thanks to everyone who joined in on this conversation.

Now go get ready to cheer for Croatia in the World Cup!
; )

message 19: by Beverly (new)

Beverly | 142 comments Marc wrote: "I'll continue to post some notes on the last few stories and am happy to continue any and all discussions, but just wanted to take a moment to say thanks to everyone who joined in on this conversat..."

Thanks for leading this discussion.
It has certainly added to my enjoyment/appreciation of this book.

I can't believe we are already at the Final Game in the World Cup.
Now I will not longer have an "excuse" as to why I was behind in my reading.

message 20: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2439 comments Well it was an good sports weekend with France taking the World Cup and Serena Williams losing in the Wimbledon women's final. And it was a good discussion month with Counternarratives. Great selection Moderators!

message 21: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
I'm glad you both enjoyed and contributed to the discussion!
(As well as have interest in the World Cup! It's probably the only sporting event I follow closely, although I've gotten a little hooked on the Tour de France... )

I'm not sure if it was mentioned, but this book came to our attention by way of the Republic of Consciousness prize (thanks to Paul for spreading the good word about this prize). Their whole longlist looks fascinating to me, personally.

"Cold" is one of the three remaining stories we've yet to touch on. As I was reading it I wondered whether I was reading about some type of minstrel show. The oft-repeated slang insult of "coon" made me think we were talking about a black performer coming to terms with a life and profession built on making a mockery of himself and his people--at least, that's how I read it--a deep, reflection on how he was forced to entertain in such a fashion that lead him to shame and suicide. Keene is again mining historical figures (Bob Cole, this time), but it's certainly a far cry from the official story (if you take this link's narrative as a possible pole to Keene's antipode of a story).

Thoughts on this story? Were people familiar with Bob Cole or the musical, A Trip to Coontown?

message 22: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2439 comments Thanks Marc for those links. I was not familiar with Bob Cole of the musical called A Trip to Coontown. The songwriter who first came to mind when I started the story was Stephen Foster. Interesting, but certainly not surprising, that the white writer of minstrel show songs is so much better known than the black writers. As I read the story, I saw a successful black man being constantly reminded of "his place" in the North, where it was done with somewhat more subtlety than in the South of the same time. He seemed to be internally struggling with his own identity.

message 23: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Izaguirre (sweetji) | 122 comments I only have a few stories left from Book II.
So far I think my favorite has been "Aeronauts", as many have pointed out, I could've read Red's story for longer! I also love the descriptions of Philadelphia at that time. I've been living in Philadelphia for the past 10 years and even in this time it's been constantly changing, I can't imagine how it was back in 1860 and how different it was from the other cities, like D.C.

I also enjoyed "Acrobatique", thanks Marc for sharing some background about that story, I'll be reading it shortly. I am a big fan of Degas, he conveys the beauty of dancers and acrobats so well in his paintings. However I wasn't so familiar with this painting.

I found the use of the different styles of writing very interesting, specially in "People and Places" with the two columns, I was glad it was a short story, not sure if it had worked if it had been longer.

message 24: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
That constant reminder in "Cold" of being put in "his place" just seemed to grind away at him. I remember thinking as I was reading the end--"Wait! Wait! Did he just drown himself?!!"

I think that sort of two column structure in "People & Places" can only work in pretty short spaces. It works well when done in that fashion, but even the most dedicated reader tires of jumping back and forth or trying to read one, remember it, and then read the other and compare. I could have sworn I had two other examples of this type of short format, but I can't find or remember them, so I'm not sure what I was thinking...

message 25: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
Alas, all I can remember from "Blues" is that it seemed very sensual to me. Quite evocative. When my copy of the book resurfaces (I think I buried it on my desk at home), I'll see if I had more to say about it, but I'm guessing none of my notes is as insightful as this:
"...Keene often emphasizes the visual aspect of a text, pointing back to its manifestation as a physical object. “Blues” imagines a brief moment in the lives of two early 20th century literary figures. In it, a tryst in New York between Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia is expressed through a series of sentence fragments offset by ellipses: “ . . . softly . . . softly . . . they lie . . . beside each other . . . in the crepuscular dark . . . holding tight . . . night pouring in . . . to stir the blueback shadows . . . somewhere out there dawn . . . on the horizon . . . somewhere out there dawn . . . ” These words evoke discrete images simultaneously expressing the emotional force of the encounter while also referring to the text’s manifestation of itself as an object to be read. How words are composed and spaced shape how the reader interacts with them. Keene’s fragments adorn the elliptical breaks, sidling against each other without ever truly touching. Verbs like “pour” and “stir” and an emphasis on the dawn “on the horizon” suggest a tactile blurring at the limits. These bursts of poetic imagery litter the page (indeed, as Keene writes, “they lie”). Each fragment, its own singular piece, is teased out through a demarcating ellipsis that never allows the individual parts to come into contact with one another. Though a work of prose, a complete sentence is never formed. “Blues” suggests, with implications for Counternarratives as a whole, that limits between the text and lived experience can birth characters, places, and situations where the potential, not necessarily the actuality, for radical interaction exists."
- From an article on Full Stop

I do remember making a mental note about the various writers these two saw as influential at the time.

Do stories like this speak as much to the reader who knows Hughes and Villaurrutia as those who do not? Is there an expectation that the reader will fill in the gaps (e.g., go looking up figures they don't know like Bob Cole)?

message 26: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2439 comments Marc wrote: "Do stories like this speak as much to the reader who knows Hughes and Villaurrutia as those who do not? Is there an expectation that the reader will fill in the gaps (e.g., go looking up figures they don't know like Bob Cole)? "

I think there is a hope that the reader will fill in the gaps rather than an expectation. I knew who Hughes was but not Villaurrutia or Cole. I looked Villaurrutia up but not Cole.

message 27: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
There's always a fine balance between trying to enjoy such writing and turning it into a separate research project! If I was not reading this with a group, I probably would have only looked up maybe 1/2 or 1/3 of what I did.

The only other thing I noted about the "Blues" story was that, if memory serves me, it is the only story that deals with gay characters, which I imagine adds another level of marginalization, especially for minorities.

A couple quotes stood out to me, as well:
"poetry... what makes is so necessary always ... especially now, even more than novels or essays ... like plays it is, Langston says, an immediate and economical way of reaching the masses ... promoting the ideas that will foster and allow revolution to flourish in society ... "

"poetic language always carries the seed of something revolutionary ... merely by being a testimony to one's always complex and difficult interior journeys ... in language you need to lose yourself ... to recover yourself ... "

message 28: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
And the final story in Book II: "Anthropophagy".

It's just now that I looked up the title. On impulse, I assumed it was some sort of derivative of anthropology. Hah! Was I ever wrong. It does have to do with humans (the eating of human flesh by other humans). I also had not figured out who this story was about until just now. It was apparent to me that it was set in Brazil and that the writer seems to be at the end of his days, but of Macunaíma and Mária de Andrade, I knew very little. Even without this broader context, I was left with a feeling of liberation--writing as a means of resistance and freedom, one that can live far beyond the life of the writer.

message 29: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2439 comments Marc wrote: "The only other thing I noted about the "Blues" story was that, if memory serves me, it is the only story that deals with gay characters, which I imagine adds another level of marginalization, especially for minorities."

Marc, I think Red's friend Horatio in the "Aeronauts" might have been gay.

message 30: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2874 comments Mod
LindaJ^ wrote: "I think Red's friend Horatio in the "Aeronauts" might have been gay."

Ah, yes, you're right!

message 31: by Kristina (new)

Kristina | 66 comments I think, I also liked the stories of the second book better. Aeronauts is by far my favourite story and I would love to read it as a longer novel.

Cold and Blues were also interesting stories for me.

With River I had the similar problem as some of you. I do not really recall the story of Huckleberry Finn, so I think I have missed a lot of references.

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