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Specimen Days: A Novel Paperback – April 18, 2006

3.9 out of 5 stars 107 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Book Description: In each section of Michael Cunningham's bold new novel, his first since The Hours, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, an older man, and a young woman. "In the Machine" is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. "The Children's Crusade," set in the early twenty-first century, plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city. The third part, "Like Beauty," evokes a New York 150 years into the future, when the city is all but overwhelmed by refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth.

Presiding over each episode of this interrelated whole is the prophetic figure of the poet Walt Whitman, who promised his future readers, "It avails not, neither time or place ... I am with you, and know how it is." Specimen Days is a genre-bending, haunting, and transformative ode to life in our greatest city and a meditation on the direction and meaning of America's destiny. It is a work of surpassing power and beauty by one of the most original and daring writers at work today.

More from Michael Cunningham

The Hours

A Home at the End of the World

Flesh and Blood

Whitman Sampler

The Portable Walt Whitman

Specimen Days & Collect

Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose

Whitman Sampler
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Engaging Walt Whitman as his muse (and borrowing the name of Whitman's 1882 autobiography for his title), Cunningham weaves a captivating, strange and extravagant novel of human progress and social decline. Like his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Hours, the novel tells three stories separated in time. But here, the stage is the same (the "glittering, blighted" city of Manhattan), the actors mirror each other (a deformed, Whitman-quoting boy, Luke, is a terrorist in one story and a teenage prophet in another; a world-weary woman, Catherine, is a would-be bride and an alien; and a handsome young man, Simon, is a ghost, a business man and an artificial human) and weighty themes (of love and fear, loss and connection, violence and poetry) reverberate with increasing power. "In the Machine," set during the Industrial Revolution, tells the story of 12-year-old Luke as he falls in love with his dead brother's girlfriend, Catherine, and becomes convinced that the ghost of his brother, Simon, lives inside the iron works machine that killed him. The suspenseful "The Children's Crusade" explores love and maternal instinct via a thrilleresque plot, as Cat, a black forensic psychologist, draws away from her rich, white and younger lover, Simon, and toward a spooky, deformed boy who's also a member of a global network committed to random acts of terror. And in "Like Beauty," Simon, a "simulo"; Catareen, a lizard-like alien; and Luke, an adolescent prophet, strike out for a new life in a postapocalyptic world. With its narrative leaps and self-conscious flights into the transcendent, Cunningham's fourth novel sometimes seems ready to collapse under the weight of its lavishness and ambition—but thrillingly, it never does. This is daring, memorable fiction.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (April 18, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312425023
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312425029
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (107 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #114,424 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By James Hiller VINE VOICE on June 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Michael Cunningham has proven himself to be one of today's finest writers. From his stunning comprehensive book "Flesh and Blood" to what I believe one of the best books ever written, "The Hours", Cunningham's great literary gift is his careful use of words; i.e. making the words work for him, instead of he working for the words. Such is the case with his latest book, "Specimen Days", just recently released.

A compendium of three stories, like the Hours, Specimen Days tells three separate stories in three separate times, and like the Hours, they are interconnected. The first story is one of an industrailized New York, where machinery rules, and a young boy copes with life and death, and his infinite knowledge of Walt Whitman. The second story takes place in modern New York, as a black psychologist deals with terrorism in today's age. The third story zips along to a futuristic New York, with a trio of futuristic entities as they make their way through this world.

Whereas the Hours has clear and amazing connections, the reader must work more for the connections in this book, however, they are there. The most obvious one is Cunningham's use of essentially the same three characters in each story, continuining along with their own stories, There are more subtle and rich connections, and they are worth the discovery.

However, the thing I am most impressed about with this book is Cunningham's writing. There is a scene in the first story that exemplifies his writing style, and the beauty of his words. Lucas, a deformed adolscent, is sent on a mini-quest by none other than Walt Whitman, and Lucas finds himself in Central Park at the Bethesda fountain. As Lucas peers beyond the angels hands, he sees the impressive starlight, never having seen it before.
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Format: Hardcover
I fell in love with Michael Cunningham's writing with his spectacular opus, "The Hours." I continue to love his style and voice in his latest, "Specimen Days."

Each scene's crispness of style and beautiful eloquence kept me enthralled from the first page to the last. The masterful usage of Whitman's own poetic talent profoundly adds to the novel as a whole and never detracts from Cunningham's own powerful and unique voice throughout his narratives.

I was particularly fond of the novellas "Like Beauty" and "The Children's Crusade." I found these two stories to be of considerable importance to our lives and I reread them both for their deep message and artistic voice.

The clever and imaginative style combined with a painter's eye for imagery makes it as memorable as the Hours and it absolutely stands on its own as a fantastically accomplished feat. There are few authors who can tap into true creativity these days like Cunningham can and any fan of his work should be quite satisfied with his latest!

Can't wait for more! I also highly recommended the exceptionally beautiful novel, "Anna's Trinity" by Howard Cobiskey
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Format: Hardcover
Following publication of his paean to universality, LEAVES OF GRASS, Walt Whitman spent much of his Civil War years as a nurse in the war hospitals around Washington, D.C. His experiences dealing with the human ruination visited by war upon ordinary souls led to two great but lesser known works, a book of poetry entitled DRUM TAPS ("O Captain, My Captain") and a collection of essays about the horrors of war published in 1882 under the title SPECIMEN DAYS. Michael Cunningham's SPECIMEN DAYS draws not only its title but its thematic soul from Whitman. Rather than the Civil War, however, Cunningham focuses on humanity's war against itself and the planet on which we live. His is a story of terrorism told in three parts, beginning with industrial terrorism, moving to post-9/11 acts of random terrorism, and ending with a futuristic parable of ecological and religious terrorism.

The first section of SPECIMEN DAYS is entitled "In the Machine." The main character, Simon, has just died, literally eaten by a metal stamping machine in a factory referred to as "the works," a Dickensian horror chamber of industrial mindlessness. Simon's betrothed, Catherine, works as a seamstress, sewing sleeves to bodices at a dress company named Mannahatta. Simon's birth-deformed, 12-year-old brother, Lucas, takes Simon's place in the same factory, on the same machine. Lucas's belief that he can hear his dead brother's voice in the machine leads him to a seemingly demented act that saves Catherine's life.

In the second section, titled "The Children's Crusade," Catherine becomes Cat, a 30-ish black woman trained as a psychologist, all intuitions and hunches. Cat works for the police department, taking hot line calls of would-be bombers and deciding which ones to take seriously.
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Format: Hardcover
Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days is the most disappointing book I've read this year. It simply doesn't live up to its own promise. What starts out so well written and thematically rich, gets lost, seems to bog down and flounders at last to a desperate and irresolute conclusion. Cunningham sets himself a difficult task by trying to structure Specimen Days like his previous novel, The Hours, with its three different tales set in three different historical periods with the common denominator being the work of a single towering literary figure, in this case Walt Whitman. Such a constraining strategy risks coming off as gimmicky if Cunningham doesn't deliver the goods, but early in the book it looks like he is going to rise to the challenge, saying something profound about our view of terrorism post-9/11. But then he abandons that trajectory and serves up a weird science fiction tale instead, one which owes more to Stephen King's The Dead Zone then to anything preceding it in this book.

It appears Cunningham loses his nerve. What he seems to be flirting with saying, halfway through the second story in Specimen Days - a story set in present day New York in which the heroine has to cope with a group of suicide bombers who are children - is that we owe it to ourselves to try to understand the people who are trying to kill us, that terrorists, too, are human beings, and that denying their humanity and simply trying to exterminate them may not be the best long term solution to the problem. This idea bubbles near the surface when Cat, the heroine, attempts to disarm a child who is carrying a bomb and may set it off at any moment, killing them both: "Cat was seized by a spasm of dreadful compassion. Here was a monster; here was a frightened child.
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