Summary and book reviews of Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

Specimen Days

By Michael Cunningham

Specimen Days
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2005,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2006,
    352 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

IN THE
MACHINE

Walt said that the dead turned into grass, but there was no grass where they'd buried Simon. He was with the other Irish on the far side of the river, where it was only dirt and gravel and names on stones.

Catherine believed Simon had gone to heaven. She had a locket with his picture and a bit of his hair inside.

"Heaven's the place for him," she said. "He was too good for this world." She looked uncertainly out the parlor window and into the street, as if she expected a glittering carriage to wheel along with Simon on board, serene in his heedless milk-white beauty, waving and grinning, going gladly to the place where he had always belonged.

"If you think so," Lucas answered. Catherine fingered the locket. Her hands were tapered and precise. She could sew stitches too fine to see.

"And yet he's with us still," she said. "Don't you feel it?" She worried the locket chain ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

About This Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about Specimen Days are intended as re-sources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this novel. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Specimen Days.


About This Book

Specimen Days, the much anticipated follow-up to Michael Cunningham's award-winning inter-national bestseller The Hours, reconfirms the author's daring imagination and storytelling gifts. Comprised of three thematically linked novellas, Specimen Days is both inspired by, and an homage to, American visionary ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews
Bookpage - Robert Weibezahl

Specimen Days is really three individually compelling stories that together form something greater. Cunningham's audacious eye, his ability to hone an unexpected image from an unlikely source, is in sharp focus, and the prowess he showed in The Hours for getting inside his character's heads is still in evidence.

Vanity Fair - Elissa Schappel

[Walt Whitman's] boundless spirit . . . imbues Specimen Days with a sense of wonder and magic.

USA Today

A smashing literary tour de force and an utterly invigorating reading experience. If this book does not make you jump up from the sofa, looking at life and literature in new ways, check to see if you have a pulse.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Engaging Walt Whitman as his muse, Cunningham weaves a captivating, strange and extravagant novel of human progress and social decline. .... This is daring, memorable fiction.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Starred Review. Brilliantly conceived, empathic, darkly humorous, and gorgeously rendered, Cunningham's galvanizing novel [is] about the quest for justice and freedom, the parameters of the soul, the hunger for beauty, and the fluid interface between the natural and the engineered.

Kirkus Reviews - Bruce Allen

The use of several recurring images (an ornamental white bowl, a fire in a sewing machine factory) and Whitman's visionary idealism superbly underscore a symphonic poem of sorrow, loss, survival - and hope: Cunningham's finest novel, and one of the important literary achievements of the new century.

O, the Oprah magazine - Vince Passaro

With imaginative daring and sentiment hardened by intellect and pain, Cunningham constructs three tales of New York...This is an astonishing accomplishment and the best book Cunningham has written.

Reader Reviews
Christie

This book is amazing!
This book was very interesting. I could not put it down. It just got more and more interesting. I wasn't expecting half of the things that happened. I recommend it to everyone!

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Beyond the Book

Walter Whitman (1819-1892) was born in Long Island, New York where his father worked as a carpenter and farmer.  He was educated in Brooklyn until the age of 12, after which he left school to work as an office boy, and soon after as a printer's assistant.  During the next few years he contributed articles to newspapers (including some of the earliest coverage of baseball games) and taught in various schools.  In 1838 he founded, and was the first editor of, the Huntington based Long Islander newspaper (which still exists today).  He continued to educate himself by attending the opera, theatre and through copious reading, and also found time to edit a couple of other newspapers including the Brooklyn...

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