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Severance: Stories Paperback – April 30, 2008

4.2 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Lively writing and a catchy conceit make this collection from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain a thought-provoking, if morbid, read. Sixty-two entries, each in the voice of a beheaded historical, mythical, animal or modern figure, make up the collection. Each is exactly 240 words, Butler's estimate of the number of words that could be spoken by a decapitated head before oxygen runs out. Among the post-mortem monologues Butler imagines are John the Baptist, Medusa, Cicero, a chicken, Nicole Brown Simpson, Maximilien Robespierre, Valeria Messalina and himself, "decapitated on the job" in 2008. Though clever in arrangement (Butler convincingly constructs the mind of a dragon, then puts his killer, St. George, on the next page) and complex in its considerations (religious faith is an ongoing theme, from the apostle Matthew's recollection of conversion to a Yemeni executioner's discovery that "the mercy of God seeks sinful love before righteous hatred"), the collection's darting attentions and fractured narratives may frustrate readers. Several entries take a light tone, but what lingers is an unsettling sense of the absurdity—and prevalence—of violence. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* No, this isn't about postemployment pay packages. Severanceis about the severing of heads from bodies. Butler is a commanding and ingenious writer with a love of high-concept undertakings--think Tabloid Dreams (1996) and Had a Good Time(2004). But even for Butler, this collection of unpunctuated prose poems is daring, a book based on two heretofore unrelated facts: theory has it that consciousness lasts for one and a half minutes after decapitation, and people can utter 160 words per minute when agitated. Butler did the math, so each spurt-of-consciousness story is 240 words long. And he did the research, unearthing 62 individuals who lost their heads in executions, at the hands of murderers (most often husbands), and in accidents (Jayne Mansfield). The results are compositions of disquieting beauty, cathartic wit, and transcendent empathy. Most of the decapitated men and women Butler portrays devote their last synaptic firings to memories of sensuous pleasure, while others, including Cicero and Marie Antoinette, return to childhood. The stories grow more viscerally disturbing as Butler moves forward in time. There's Nicole Brown Simpson, for example, and Tyler Alkins, the civilian truck driver beheaded in Iraq. Butler's singular perspective on human bloodshed and the power of the mind make Severance not only unique but also unforgettable. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Chronicle Books (April 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0811860981
  • ISBN-13: 978-0811860987
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,361,526 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Robert Olen Butler has inspired writers in many ways over many years: via webcasts, workshops, lectures, readings, in manuals, and by the example of his work. "Severance" is the latest distillation of his talent and creative wit, served up for us as a gruesome but gorgeous imagining and garnished with bookmaking craft excellence. Any way one, well, slices it, "Severance," the book, is an object of haptic and visual beauty; "Severance," the stories (or, better, vignettes), is a master work of concept, research and passionate prose. As I did, you will read it quickly then find yourself going back for more, often. As a Writer and a Reader, I highly recommend "Severance" to those familiar with Butler's short stories, collections (Good Scent, Tabloid Dreams, Had A Good Time) and novels, but I especially envy those who pick up this book and discover the voices of Bob Butler for the first time!
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Format: Hardcover
Butler has created an incredibly interesting portrayal of human life and death in one amazing book. The book is based on the premise of Dr. Dassy D'Estaing in 1883 that after decapitation, the human mind remains conscious for 1 ½ minutes. In addition, people speak at approximately 160 words a minutes when in a heightened state of emotion.

Based on these premises, Butler creates a series of stories that represent the thoughts of real people who have been decapitated and their thoughts in the 90 seconds following that decapitation. These people are in fact real people who had been decapitated. Most of them were decapitated via the guillotine. Some of the people Butler portrays in the book are as follows: Marie Antoinette, King Louis the XVI, Jayne Mansfield, John the Baptist, The Apostle Paul, Sir Thomas More, Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots, Robespierre, Robert Kornbluth, Nicole Brown Simpson and many more.

Each story is exactly 240 words; representing the amount of words that would be spoken in 90 seconds, post decapitation. The stories are in essence the distillation of an entire lifetime, through the eyes of the deceased person. The elements of their life that are of significance to the victim are presented by Butler to the reader.

The book is experimental in its form. And the creation of the stories and their content are uniquely fascinating. Butler has in fact created a truly brilliant concept in this book. The people are mostly recognizable by name, but also Butler gives a very brief comment on each one of them indicating who they were. The book is highly recommended for readers who enjoy unusual and expertly written short stories with a surreal content that tickles the imagination. Severance is truly a cerebral experience for those readers who wish to be intrigued by what might flash before a person's eyes upon the knowledge that their death is imminent.
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Format: Hardcover
There are a lot of things to admire about this collection--Butler is very creative with his choices of heads and often tackles the question of what final thoughts may go through a mind in its final 90 seconds between decapitation and death (according to the famous epigram by Dr. Dassy D'Estaing) in intriguing ways . Butler manages to surprise often in this historical sequence, from convicts to unfaithful (maybe) spouses to beasts and myths to royalty. The premise itself is intriguing--a sequence of monologues from decapitated heads working on the conceits that a head can live for 90 seconds after decapitation and humans speak at a rate of 160 words a second when in a "heightened state of emotion," for a grand total of 240 words for each monologue. Butler also mixes humor and pathos through many of these choices, to deal with the horror of violence (as in the monologue from Nicole Brown Simpson) to the lighter side of decapitation (as in a chicken chosen to be an evening meal).

But despite all of this praise, I must admit that I found the basic motif a little tiresome in its less than stellar moments. Butler is very much of a formalist, and sticks to his guns when it comes to form rather than exploring within it. Butler's best book, _A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain_, suffers less for this and only stifles itself in minor moments. In collections like _Tabloid Dreams_, however, the conceit (in this one, Butler takes _Weekly World News_ headlines and uses them as the ground situations of stories) wears thin after some gems because he remains rooted to that premise rather than exploring the boundaries of it.

This book suffers the same fate.
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By Jack Slay on November 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This little book is flat-out brilliant. Butler captures the final thoughts/fleeting images of 62 decapitations, some famous (John the Baptist, Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette), some ludicrously unknown (Mud, a prehistoric fellow done in by a saber-toothed tiger; St. George's dragon; an Alabama chicken).

These quick vignettes, each one exactly 240 words (the book's epigraphs and other Amazon reviewers will explain), capture with beauty and startling clarity that precious last moment. Often touching, occasionally humorous (the chicken! at long last we know that elusive answer!), these prose poems sing. Demented, yeah, but also wonderful, this book a roaring tour de force.
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