Monday, May 4, 2009

class discussion 1

Prose class: In the comments for this post, please leave your thoughts on Ben Fountain's Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories. You may comment on individual stories (use of language, theme, writer's choices) as well as on the book as a whole (structure, order, overall thematic development). Feel free to also respond to the comments of others (thoughtfully, respectfully).

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22 comments:

Suzanne Newsham said...

I simply adored this book. The way that each story plays into the idea of revolutions, real and in the narrators own mind. The vividness in the details of each story made the read both hard to read and yet pulled me into a country that I was not familiar with and yet quickly surrounded by.
My favorite story was Bouki and the Cocaine. The down heartedness of the people and the squalor and war torn village that Syto and Lulu lived in. Then them changing everyone's life in the village by finding the cocaine and selling it-wonderful. I actually cheered when they made it past the corrupt police and made the score. And I cried that the only thing that that Syto really wanted was his beloved daughter back.
Really, really a book that wants me to be a better writer

Suzanne Newsham said...

So what's anyone else favorite story? and what story did you raise your eyebrow to?
my eyebrow one was "The Good ones are already taken". The story with the husband coming back from Haiti "married" to the two voodoo goddesses :)- Strange but a fun read outloud to my hubby.

Michelle Marek said...

I definitely agree with Suzanne regarding, "The Good Ones Are Already Taken." It caught my attention immediately as I was surprised in the direction of the story. Never before had I read anything like it, nor known anyone who ever experienced such a thing. I thought that Ben Fountain did an amazing job getting into the mind of Melissa as she went through many emotions concerning her husband, as well as her own possible affair that she could venture onto. There was enough drama packed into those pages that I felt drawn to that story because it is relatable. Even if our significant others don't necessarily have a voodoo goddess, there is always other addictions that the men/women in our lives will be addicted to. I thought that a great turn in the story involved Dirk explaining to Melissa exactly what he was going to have to do: devote Tuesdays and Saturdays to someone else. I think that as a reader we see her initial shock and pain in this, and then later on as she realizes that there is nothing she can do to change his mind. As a character, she goes through a lot in a short amount of time to accept her new reality. The author did a great job. What an amazing story.

Michelle Marek

Linda said...

Linda Harris

I enjoyed this book thoroughly....I am always interested in issues of race and it was fascinating to me that Ben states in the question and answer section that he too has been drawn to issues of race.

Initially, I couldn't figure out what it titled it as it is. After reading the first fours stories, I could definetly see the theme, the third world countries (so to speak) and their relationship to America and its unique culture and mix.

I would select the Good Ones are Already Taken as my favorite, for many of the reasons the other ladies mentioned but more so because I saw it as kind of "the moral of the story is...." Rhee helped her to see that nothing is perfect, we adapt and we accept if it is the thing we want.

I enjoyed reading the questions and answers as much as the stoties, I particular like the reference to "sometimes a thing chooses us..."

I also really enjoyed Reve Haitien and Asian Tiger. Ben really has a way of showing these countries from our "American eyes." I appreciated the golf references as I have recently taken up the game. Interesting that the game is a measure of civilized countries.

I didn't think the Brief Encounters piece was the best but it was interesting....it certainly was the best title to grab our attention.

I would not have ever selected this book on my own....I am so glad that it was required reading. It expanded my horizons.

Finally, I enjoyed the last story, Eleven Fingers, the least....maybe I was tired, I may reread it

Suzanne Newsham said...

I have to agree with Linda on Eleven Fingers. I suppose I understand that the "revolution" was with Anna and her musical ability but it wasn't as vivid or emotionally compelling as the rest. I am married to a man whose Father worships Che Guevara so the actual story about brief encounters was very comforting :) to me. I actually know waaaayyyy to much about Che :)

Anonymous said...

No other story moved me like Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera. It may sound like an out of the way story for some, but getting kidnapped in Central and South America is real. There are bandits running around like we live in the wild west and a guy searching for rare birds could find himself in a situation similar to this, probably at least one actually did. The rich description of detail and colors brought vivid images to my mind. I like the tension in the story that subtly built on the idea that John Blair, the main character, may at some point be accepted by the rebels. But once I got discription of him losing weight and being dirty and unkempt, I knew he was in a really bad situation. A big, and also funny turn comes when John Blair, when told that he can go, fights to remain, and at that point, I was totally feeling him: He's a graduate student doing fantastic work, which is not only going to complete his theses or disertation, but work which no one else on the planet is doing. Even though John has suffered tremendously, both physically and mentally by not knowing if he was going to live or die; yet, all that matters to him are those rare birds and what evidence of their existence means to his life. I thought about that and I said, yeah, of course, trying to stay is what I'd do.

The only story that actually mentions Che Guevara is "Brief Encounters With Che Guevara." The story's main character takes us closer to Che Guevara than any other character in the story. Interestingly the closest we come to Guevara is at a time when he's weak and defeated. A sharp image that convinces me that Guevara is weak and defeated is that given of his bloody bandaged feet, absent of boots or shoes. In this state we hear some Guevara phylosophy. We get to see Guevara as a man who is not upset with the man whose tracking led to Guevara's capture. In this we also see Guevara's portrayal of subtility: Guevara is going to die. He knows that, but in true revolutionary fasion of keeping the revolution alive, he attempts to befriend, his captor, not an enemy, but a young man, with a narrow vision, whose vision Guevara may be able to expand to the point wherein the young man becomes dissatisfied with his government and becomes the next Che Guevara.
Gustavo, an ex-soldier, who now works with the main character deliverying furniture, claims to have been there for the legendary photo of Guevara taken after his death, a photo that the media published and made a big deal of. The image is said to in ways imortalize Guevara as a martyr. To add to the effect of marter, the main character compares Guevara's image to Jesus Christ.
I like other things that this story brought out about Guevara's character, like he had asthma and a fondness for practicle jokes. I like the character Laurent, the onld crazy man, who would be president. I think that when Ponce warns the main character not to laugh at Laurent for his ambitions, it is an instruction to the reader to beware as well, because people who probably shouldn't be in power, can find themselves, to the horror of a people, at the helm of power.
I liked the lines:
1. "the monied southern male," (183).
2. "surffed the truck" (188).
3. "the moral authority of a death mask" (189).
4. "the walls sweat tears of nicotine," because it drew a reaction from me, grossed me out (191).
This story wasn't confusing for me in itself, but I don't know a whole lot about Che Guevara, so I wonder how much of this story warrants merrit. I did look up the photo. It does look like images made of Jesus.

The overall theme of the book seems to be people in situations wherein they're forced to behave certain ways, for whatever reason: People who live life very much as hostages, people who want to be free. I think this is the overall theme of the book and I think that point is driven home when one begins to ponder what "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers," the last story, has to do with the first seven. The little girl was in a hostage situation, but she comes to comprehend that she can be free of it all if she just gets rid of her extra finger.


Lonnie

Anonymous said...

I agree with Suzanne about cheering for Syto to get away with the cocain. It was a shity situation all the way around, but the poor guy didn't have many options that made sense for the situation.



Lonnie

Anonymous said...

Interesting to me was that in "Near Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera," there's a group of men, the rebels, trying to destroy beauty, the birds, so that they can make money; whereas in "Asian Tiger," there's another group of men, the generals, trying to destroy some other men, so they can make beauty, a golf course.



Lonnie

Nicole said...

- Near- Extince Birds of the Central Cordillera
- Very unique descriptions of people. “He resembled a late period Jerry Garcia in fatigues, a heavy man with steel-rim glasses, double bags under his eyes and a dense brillo bush of graying hairs.” (page 4)
- Very neat anaglogies. “Alberto’s jaww made a twisted, muching motion, like he wwas trying to eat his tongue.” (page 4)
- I really like the character Alberto in the first story. He is, like described, “a benevolent uncle.” He is very insightful and has a soft side to him.
- One of my favorite parts was on page 9 during the conversation between Blair and Alberto about the usefulness of beauty and pleasure and the argument that these two are apart of a revolution.
- A definite theme of freedom and what it consist of. I feel like Blair is a lot like the birds. A very rare breed.
- Overall I enjoyed the story. I think the writer did an amzing job at setting up the characters and the analogies he used. By biggest concern wwas the title. I hated the title!

Amanda Bramley said...

At first I had a very difficult time connecting to this collection. I almost felt as if Fountain's language and subject matter were put together in a profound way that was almost trying to be over my head. With the help of my librarian, I did research on Che and found out some very interesting facts about him. I wish I would have done the research before reading.
Throughout all of the stories, I found a theme of false hope and doing the "wrong" thing for the "right" reasons, especially in "Reve Haitien" and "Bouki and the Cocaine".
My favorite one would have to be "The Good Ones Are Already Taken" and that may be because it was less political than the other stories. I wonder if the marriages to a spirit is a real phenomenon.
Overall, I was very impressed with his description and imagery. I also really liked the way the he chose to end each story, some things/events left undone and others implied.

Amanda Bramley said...

I agree with Lonnie about the views of countires and beauty and money. I would not have noticed the opposite connection. But after reading Lonnie's comment, it is so obvious to me.
I am rereading The Great Gatsby right now and the character of Hayden in "Asian Tiger" really reminds me of Jay Gatsby, I'm not sure why.

Dacia said...

This story collection wrapped me up. By that, I mean, I was there ... in Sierra Leone. I was there in the jungle. I was there in Haiti. I smelled the air in each place. I saw the colors. I felt the darkness of the jungle, of the broken-down homes. Ben Fountain is an author I will read again. His writing is intellectual. I am a fan of light-learning in fiction, and he has cornered that market. Wow. I appreciate his effort here to open up our American eyes to the world around us ... that lives in a more realistic world than we do here in our comfy "free" land. Pain, war, fear, and joy (pure joy) are found world around in third world places.

I loved the thinking in "The Lion's Mouth" that Jill comes to on page 171. "They were finished, their lives were over--if not now, then soon,.... Her work was a delaying action at best .... She couldn't save them, she couldn't save anyone but herself, .... " And in throwing caution to the wind and becoming involved in a blood diamond trip, she comes back to who she really is ... someone full of compassion who helps others in need ... no matter that there may not be true salvation at the end for them. I loved that story. I liked the ending ... "We need to know what to do with these people now." Hmmm ... Life is life. The best thing we can do is try to improve someone else's.

Although theses stories are so full of information and scene, they are accessible. I like that. He draws the reader in. Just the right amount of description, and never too much ... except in the last story, "Fantasy for Eleven Fingers." Honestly, I skimmed it after the first three pages. The other stories, I devoured. It seemed written more like an encyclopedia entry. Rather, blah, blah, blah ...oh and then ... blah, blah, blah. Oh, I sound snippity. I don't mean to be.

There are many many long paragraphs in these stories. Somehow, I didn't mind. Each story led me on a journey to foreign places and taught me things I did not know. I shared with my husband that I enjoyed the insight ... learning how other people live is sometimes hard to swallow.

Why is the Che Guevara story the headliner? Anyone?

Dacia said...

Mason ... ah, Mason ... The last line of Reve Haitien ... "He cradled the unformed dream in his hands and wondered who to give it to." That touched me. This is the compassion coming through again. This Mason is a good man. The world needs more good men.

Michelle Marek said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it was definitely something new and diverse; unlike many of the short stories I enjoy reading. I found it very different from Sedaris as well as it brought in a variety of culturally based ideas. There was an overall message that pulled me through each of these stories regarding an individual problem in one's life: from the idea of what to do with bags of cocaine, how to move a group of people whenever you only have one car, or how to get home. Every main character wanted something. They yearned for something different than the life they were living and their current problematic situation. Che Guevara can relate to this with the idea of change; a change needed in Cuba.

Overall, I agree with many that this book broadened my view of literature as I opened up to a culturally and politically based book. I don't think I would have picked it out on my own, but after I read through the whole thing, I was able to appreciate the type of literature that it is.

Michelle Marek

Michelle Marek said...

Another one of my favorite stories was The Lion's Mouth. I found this story to be moving coming from a woman's point of view. I think that she had a great pull over the other individuals in the story. Jill found a way to exchange diamonds for the lives of many men and women. Without being harmed, she leads them all away from their unfortunate situation (page 180). I think that it's nice to see a woman stand up to all of these men and teenage boys and demand her way. In a story, these ideas make it different from other stories about a woman who is on a job. Jill is not afraid to challenge the country and their ideas. Also, I thought that in this story, a suspenseful turn involved her situation involving the Russian who wanted her to stay with him (page 167). She remained strong in her willingness to make her way out of a possibly horrific situation. I definitely saw the story turning in a different direction, but was surprised as she bargained a kiss with her non-harmful exit.

I also really enjoyed Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. I think that these stories were simpler and more symbolic in my eyes as each short story related to an overall issue. I would have liked to seen more stories styled like this. I think that it makes for a more inclusive read when the writer is using 1st person. I was able to see more visually, especially in Love and Revelation, as most teenagers are good at making interesting observations.
1. "As the youngest, and the only boy, I was expected to say nothing, but an opera went off in my head whenever I saw Mrs. Broun. That opera, of course, was the sound of sex, and the news that she hated her husband gave me a secret thrill, though hate was probably too strong a word-" (page 184). I had never thought that an opera could go off in one's head. I thought this was a great use of a metaphor.
2. "I watched her eat, her graceful juggling of purse and plate, and how she'd tap her ears from time to time to make sure that her earrings were still in place." (page 185). These are simple things that we see everyday, but how they are placed on the page and in an easy-to-read style make all the difference in physically making a picture in our minds.

Michelle Marek

Carin Thumm said...

I had a hard time with this collection. I'm not sure why but I really had to force myself to read it. Something about the whole thing was just ... off putting for me. I can't put my finger on it - but I guess we don't have to like everything we read.

That being said it was hard for me to pick something out of the collection that I liked - but one story stuck with me - The Good Ones Are Already Taken. I think one reason that it stuck with me so much is that in my undergrad I did a research project on voodoo (it's origins, where it's practiced etc) and was already very familiar with the concept of the religion as a whole. That research crossed over into my writing for a time as I wrote, what I thought at the time, very carefully crafted stories of possession and other "mysterious" aspects of the the religion. Whatever I thought of my writing then I can say now that it wasn't all that great - but to see Ben Fountain do what I had been striving for, and do it well, makes me want to be better at my craft.

Carin Thumm said...

I found Amanda's comment about how the character of Hayden in "Asian Tiger" really reminds her of Jay Gatsby interesting. I thought about it all night not really sure I see the connection but I have pulled The Great Gatsby off my book shelf to read again.

Anne Freeman said...

I agree with many of you...I probably wouldn't have read this book on my own, but for the most part, I did enjoy it. (In a sense, it felt like Hemmingway to me, I'm not sure why. I don't care for Hemmingway, which made this one difficult for me)

Like Linda said, I didn't really get the last one, (eleven fingers), I thought it was odd choice to end with it.
The only connection I could see to the rest of the stories, was it dealt with the idea of motives behind our actions, that we sometimes do horrible things with good intentions. But the rest of the stories dealt with an American in a foreign country...something that is absent in that last one.

I really enjoyed the authors use of descriptive language, it helped me "see" places I will never actually visit. But sometimes, I got distracted by the use of "native" words. As a reader, it kept pulling me back from the story. I understand it was intended to make the story feel more realistic, but it just didn't work for me.

By far, my favorite was the Lion's Mouth. I loved all of the contrasts, Jill v. Starkey, the beauty of diamonds v. the violence of Sierra Leone, following the law v. doing something good.

Anne Freeman said...

About the title, I struggled with that a little bit as well.
The best reason I can think of is that it deals with brief glimpses of life outside of America, outside of the materialistic life we are used to. Plus, many of the stories dealt with people that had good motives, but committed questionable acts. Similiar to Che, fighting a revolution for better conditions for people.

Amanda Bramley said...

Well, after reading all of your comments again, I really think I agree with all of you:
- "Eleven Fingers" being my least favorite- but I do see a good message, sometimes disconnecting (in Anna's case- literally)- with a part of ourselves in order to find happiness
- Anne's comment especially about good people committing questionable acts; morally correct vs. the law
-I also agree that I would not have picked this up on my own, but I'm glad I have expanded my horizons
-I think I figured the Haydan/Gatsby thing out- I see them both as characters who know a lot more than they let on-- and have ties with the corrupt (be if golfing or orgaznized crime, and even bootlegging- as in Gatsby's case,and my previous connection may also be that the many things I am reading/teaching right now are starting to blend together
-I still feel as if I'm left with some questions about the collection of stories, and I can't put my finger on what those questions are...strange...I know... I think I need to think about it more.
-Amanda Bramley

Nicole said...

One of my fav reads was Fantasy for Eleven Fingers. Although there was less dialogue then the other ones, it still made up for it in descriptions and story-telling. What amazes me the most is the writer's knowledge in so many different subjects. Each story is different and on different topics.

Betty Taylor said...

The story I enjoyed in this book was The Good Ones are Already Taken. Melissa's stuggle first with being a young army wife and then her husband's religious change was written in a manner in which any wife could relate too. Fountain's portrayal of Melissa's inter thoughts and desires was the allure of the story for me as a reader.