Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (1 of 24), Read 82 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Sherry Keller shkell@earthlink.net

Date: Saturday, April 15, 2006 01:37 PM


Cindy, I'm moving your note over here. We usually start a new thread for the actual discussion:


Well, today is the 15th, so....


I absolutely loved Hours, and have read his other two books as well, so it was with high hopes and great expectations that I went to the bookstore and picked up this book in HB as soon as it came out. Oh my. I really was so disappointed.


Now, its been awhile. But what I remember was the rather torturous way Cunningham was trying to fit everything from the book into the poetry of Woodsworth (yikes, is that right?). The history sections (esp the Triangle Fire) were on target, but his futuristic look at the world didn't capture my imagination (and I love fan/sci fi). It was also obvious that some reincarnation was involved. Sometimes that works - in Dream of Scipio Ian Pears does an excellent job of showing the cycle of reincarnation, how each couple moves through time, and how we keep trying till we get it right. I think thats what he was trying here, but it didn't work for me.


The other thing I noticed was the lack of humor. This is such a tragic book, - but even Hamlet has comic relief. One thing I loved in The Hours (and what the film missed completely) was the gentle humor, the day to day bits of life that make people smile. I needed some of that here.


Ok, so tell me what I missed. :) Cindy


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (2 of 24), Read 72 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Sherry Keller shkell@earthlink.net

Date: Saturday, April 15, 2006 01:45 PM


It worked for me, Cindy. Walt Whitman was the poet whose work kept cropping up. And maybe since I just finished a section on Whitman (who has a book and a poem called "Specimen Days") in my video class on American Classics, I really connected with the poetry, since it seemed so familiar and I could sense what Cunningham was doing. I thought SD was a bit odd, but I think it had many things to say about transformation, loyalty, connection with the environment and connection with one another. I really liked the last segment, even though I didn't start out liking it so much. The idea of the dawning of humanity in the android was quite touching. I don't think Cunningham was really asking the reader to believe in reincarnation, I just think the linked characters represent characteristics of beings in our world. I think the point is that there is a kind of mysterious continuity within all of us. A very Whitman kind of concept.


Sherry


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (3 of 24), Read 74 times

Conf: Reading List

From: R Bavetta xyzrbavetta@prodigy.net

Date: Saturday, April 15, 2006 01:52 PM


I didn't warm up to this book, either. I kept thinking there were connections I was missing.


Ruth



Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.

-- Rene Magritte


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (4 of 24), Read 73 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Jane Niemeier jniemeie@hotmail.com

Date: Saturday, April 15, 2006 03:14 PM


When I started the first section of this book, I thought that I had never read such a depressing story where there was absolutely no hope. We know from the beginning that Lucas is not quite right in the head and that he has a weak heart. Here he is at 12 years old trying to support his mother who is out of her mind with grief and her father who is dying of a work-related lung disease. Most of the time Lucas doesn't have enough food, and then he spends most of his paycheck on the bowl. What is the significance of that bowl? Is it supposed to be from a different planet? When Lucas left his father's breathing device outside the door and it was stolen, I thought things couldn't get worse, but of course they did. He put his hand into the machinery and inadvertently ended up saving Catherine from the factory fire.


I found it interesting that the first segment focused on Lucas, the second on Catherine and the third on Simon, although the three characters were in all three segments. I didn't find the last two segments to be quite as bleak as the first one.


Jane


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (5 of 24), Read 75 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Dale Short dshort@bham.rr.com

Date: Saturday, April 15, 2006 03:23 PM


I just got this one from the library but haven't started it yet.


It did throw me for a loop when I first searched the library catalog by title and found the book Specimen Days credited to Walt Whitman. Thought I was in the Twilight Zone for a second.


The Hours was the first Cunningham I read and I admired it a lot though the pace and digressions frequently frustrated me. Interesting, that book being so tied to Virginia Woolf and this one apparently tied to Whitman in some fashion. Has anybody read Cunningham's earlier fiction to know if these author-homage themes are new territory, or a recurring aspect for him?




>>Dale in Ala.


http://www.writerstoolkit.com

http://fullclearlight.blogspot.com


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (6 of 24), Read 71 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Ricki B r.m.b@ntlworld.com

Date: Sunday, April 16, 2006 08:44 AM


First I apologise - I've been about three weeks behind the rest of you on the last two books - I stopped to read Suite Francaise and am midway through Jonathan Stange....

Anyway I'm about halfway through the first section of this and am finding that I feel as if I am floating through the story - not really reaching the tragedy of the characters that is being described. I wonder does he tend to write in this almost otherwordly poetic-ness... Anyway I promise I won't write another word till I have finished it.


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (7 of 24), Read 72 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Anne Wilfong annewilfong@comcast.net

Date: Sunday, April 16, 2006 03:01 PM


I'm about half way through the second section. Life is getting in the way of serious reading time right now!


Someone asked me the other day, "What are you reading?" when I had my book out at the coffee shop. I was just starting the second section, and I honestly replied, "I've got no idea!"


I still have no idea other than the names are the same...


I agree with Jane, the first section was so morbidly depressing. As was life for many people in that era.


I'll have more to say when I put the pieces together...but my goodness, I love how this man writes!


Anne


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (8 of 24), Read 58 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Anne Wilfong annewilfong@comcast.net

Date: Wednesday, April 19, 2006 11:11 AM


Well, this thread has not quite taken off...


I haven't finished yet, and was loving it till I started the third section. When I realized we were dealing with aliens, my eyes glazed over and I nearly broke out in hives (as Ruth so eloquently puts it!)


But, I cajoled myself into reading on, since I like Cunningham's style. And so far, it's okay. I don't think this section is as polished as the others. And I'm seeing metaphors for our country's current immigration issues. I'll probably finish this today.


I still don't quite know what the hell I'm reading, though.


Anne


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (9 of 24), Read 61 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Jane Niemeier jniemeie@hotmail.com

Date: Wednesday, April 19, 2006 05:36 PM


I wanted to mention something that Cunningham put in his "Author's Note".


He is talking about writing about historical events:


I know novelists who wouldn't think of tampering with recorded fact, and I know - and greatly admire - a certain writer who invents everything, from habits and customs during the time of Christ to botany and the workings of the human body. When questioned about it, he simply says, "It's fiction."


I knew right away whom he was talking about: Jim Crace. I remember Crace coming on here and saying that he made up all the parts about how the human body decays in BEING DEAD. We also read the QUARANTINE which discussed the "death" of Jesus after the 40 days of temptation in the desert.


Anyway, I thought that it was interesting that Cunningham brought this up.


Jane


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (10 of 24), Read 62 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Sherry Keller shkell@earthlink.net

Date: Wednesday, April 19, 2006 05:45 PM


You beat me to it, Jane. I meant to bring that up and totally forgot about it. Doesn't it make you feel like you're "in the know?"


Sherry


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (11 of 24), Read 65 times

Conf: Reading List

From: R Bavetta xyzrbavetta@prodigy.net

Date: Wednesday, April 19, 2006 05:48 PM


I recognized Crace in that passage, too.


Ruth



Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.

-- Rene Magritte


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (12 of 24), Read 69 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Cindy Ash

Date: Wednesday, April 19, 2006 08:16 PM


Hee, so did I. Love his work! Fav is probably Quarrantine.


Ok, this is the third time I am posting this. The last two messages were posted, but disappeared. Is somebody trying to tell me something, or is this site getting really wonky?


>The Hours was the first Cunningham I read and I admired it a lot though the pace and digressions frequently frustrated me. Interesting, that book being so tied to Virginia Woolf and this one apparently tied to Whitman in some fashion. Has anybody read Cunningham's earlier fiction to know if these author-homage themes are new territory, or a recurring aspect for him?


I have read his other two books. Flesh and Blood is about a dysfunctional family, three generations worth. Normally this is not a type of book I enjoy, but it really is good. IIRC, at the end he has his family end up in the future, so he is playing with that a bit.


The other one Home at the End of the World concerns three friends who move in together to start a new life. Lots of very topical themes. I don't recall off hand if there is any author theme connection, but its been a while (btw, they made a movie of this a few years back)


I do think one of the problems I had with this book is the same one that sparks other's interest - I am not a big fan of poetry, esp American poetry from that time period. (When I went to read Possession the first time, a friend suggested I not read the poetry. Good advice. Loved the book, read the poetry the second time and enjoyed it, so there is hope for me!) So the Whitman connection didn't do much for me. I appreciated what Cunningham was trying to do, but there was something missing for me.


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (13 of 24), Read 63 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Dale Short dshort@bham.rr.com

Date: Wednesday, April 19, 2006 10:46 PM


Hi, Cindy: Ahh...I see the problem. If you'll hit "All messages" at the top left, you'll see that your earlier post is actually the first in this new thread but because it was moved here from the old thread it's technically under Sherry's ID.


I still haven't started Specimen Days, which is on my bed table, but the notes in this thread have really piqued my interest, especially the mystical connection and his reference to inventing "history" a la Crace, a writer I greatly admire.


It also occurs to me that E.L. Doctorow has imagined some compelling alternate history as well, though in different ways: Ragtime comes particularly to mind. I haven't read his new one set during the Civil War.


I haven't read a whole lot of Whitman and know very little about his life, but a really good English prof of mine was a Whitman devotee and his enthusiasm was contagious. The few poems I've read (such as "Body Electric") have resonated with me and seemed way ahead of their time. I'm looking forward to seeing what Cunningham does with the Whitman connection.


(PS: Cindy, I also threw in the towel on Byatt's Possession because of the poems so your friend's suggestion seems to be a good one...)





>>Dale in Ala.


http://www.writerstoolkit.com

http://fullclearlight.blogspot.com


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (14 of 24), Read 61 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Dale Short dshort@bham.rr.com

Date: Wednesday, April 19, 2006 11:11 PM


Speaking of "invented history" and of being behind in one's reading, I had no idea until just now that Doctorow, a favorite of mine, published a 2001 novel named City of God that is totally unconnected to the 2002 Brazilian film of the same name.




>>Dale in Ala.


http://www.writerstoolkit.com

http://fullclearlight.blogspot.com


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (15 of 24), Read 52 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Ricki B r.m.b@ntlworld.com

Date: Thursday, April 20, 2006 02:22 AM


My last reply got lost somewhere in the ether - shall try again. I'm now about 3/4 way through the second section and couldn't resist another comment. Once Cunningham started writing about the fire in the first I thought his writing suddenly took off - possibly, and this is just a suggestion, because his description seemed to have been affected by the events of 9/11. Where I've thought he has been less than convincing has been in the descriptions of the not exactly average young boys - books like The Curious Incident of the Dog..., or even Lord of the Flies ( an several others that I am not with it enough to remember at the moment), bring the disaffected, out of place, or , do we still say, handicapped, better to life.

As for the bowl which was mentioned earlier - I thought that was fascinating - the importances and almost reverence of it by people poor and in limited conditions in the first section, then the almost-dismissal-but-not-quite by was it Steve (sorry book not in front of me) in the second. The perceptions of the poor and the wealthy.

I, too, like Crace - the stories nearly breathe through the spareness of his writing.


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (16 of 24), Read 40 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Katharine Higgins katharinehiggins@prodigy.net

Date: Sunday, April 23, 2006 02:38 PM


The only other book I have read by

Michael Cunningham is THE HOURS

which I did not like very much; however, I

did enjoy SPECIMEN DAYS, particularly

the second story. I liked the way

Cunningham took Whitman's idea of

'eternal return' and showed it working

through different times and individuals.

Although I do not know that much about

Whitman himself, I did read LEAVES OF

GRASS years ago and have always liked

it. I place him with the New England

transcendentalists in his basic ideas and

philosophy. I do know that during the Civil

War Whitman served as a nurse in Army

field hospitals where he saw much pain,

suffering, and death which was probably

a transformative experience for him.

In the poem, Whitman suggests that the

here-and-now-concrete-everydayness of

living isn't really that important, that life

and death are all one. In this book,

Cunningham seems so preoccupied with

death and transcendence, that one could

almost think of it as a meditation on

death.

But it has worked for me. What I liked

about SPECIMEN DAYS was the way he

worked the 'eternal return' idea into each

of the stories, giving them a unity that was

interesting and compelling despite the

unsavory aspects of particular situations.

I also, felt that the snatches of poetry

which Cunningham's characters quote in

each story effectively contributed to that

theme.

"the smallest sprout shows there is

really no death...

all goes onward and outward, nothing

collapses, And to die is different from

what anyone supposed, and luckier."

Finally, I think Cunningham is a writer of

grace and style. I enjoyed reading it and I

will look forward to further works.

Katy Higgins


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (17 of 24), Read 42 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Jane Niemeier jniemeie@hotmail.com

Date: Sunday, April 23, 2006 06:40 PM


Hi Katy,


That is an excellent point about the "eternal return". However, there doesn't seem to be much hope in any of the situations. The characters are returning but to what purpose? If life is as bleak as Cunningham sees it, perhaps it is better not to return.


Jane


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (18 of 24), Read 36 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Sherry Keller shkell@earthlink.net

Date: Monday, April 24, 2006 07:36 AM


Katy, a very good analysis. I'm going to quibble a little bit, though. I don't think Whitman thought everyday life was unimportant, he certainly celebrated it and the people who were living it, but you're right about how he saw death. He democratized everything--thought everything was equally good and interesting, even death. I agree wholeheartedly about how the lines of poetry fit in with what was going on in the book. I liked how Cunningham rearranged things, but in a way kept them the same. The Catherine/Cat character was a strong woman in all three parts, but her role changed in the story each time. I sense that the three main interchangeable characters serve some archetypal function in the stories, but I can't quite put my finger on what they are, especially the boy. Why was the boy always disfigured and always a little other-worldly. What do you think that character represents?


Sherry


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (19 of 24), Read 37 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Dale Short dshort@bham.rr.com

Date: Monday, April 24, 2006 09:53 AM


Sherry & All: I just started Specimen Days last night so I'll be bringing up the rear in the discussion here.


I'm not very far in yet, but I'm enjoying it at the level of language and images. I'm also picking up very slight echoes of two other fiction writers I admire who have a gift for re-imagining historical time periods: E.L. Doctorow and Mark Helprin.





>>Dale in Ala.


http://www.writerstoolkit.com

http://fullclearlight.blogspot.com


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (20 of 24), Read 40 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Anne Wilfong annewilfong@comcast.net

Date: Monday, April 24, 2006 10:16 AM


Sherry,


Your thoughts seem to echo my own.


If there is truly reincarnation, are we doomed, like Lucas, to keep coming back in a less than perfect body? Or always a woman? Do we have the same lessons to learn, as though we're caught in a time warp?


Cunningham does his job as a writer by making us ponder these things long after the book has been read.


Nonetheless, I was not to crazy about this book. I couldn't piece the three sections together well, other than the names and Whitman's words. I may not have been looking deeply enough, but by the third section, I just didn't really care. I wanted to be done with aliens.


Anne


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (21 of 24), Read 30 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Cindy Ash

Date: Saturday, April 29, 2006 09:51 PM


Question - there were a few posts in the temporary board posted. Can those be moved here?


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (22 of 24), Read 24 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Sherry Keller shkell@earthlink.net

Date: Sunday, April 30, 2006 07:52 AM


I meant to do that. Thanks for reminding me, Cindy.


Like you, Anne, by the third section I just didn't much care. When I put down the book at the end, I had the urge to say, so what? Okay, we had these common threads of names, and white bowls, but what else was common? What was the over-arching theme that tied these together?


It could be reincarnation, as you suggested, but if so, what is the lesson that is never learned? R


R wrote:


Like you, Anne, by the third section I just didn't much care. When I put down the book at the end, I had the urge to say, so what? Okay, we had these common threads of names, and white bowls, but what else was common? What was the over-arching theme that tied these together?


It could be reincarnation, as you suggested, but if so, what is the lesson that is never learned?


R




Maybe the lesson that is never learned is that the lesson is never learned...


Anne




Having read only a few of the posts in this discussion -- hit and miss -- I had/have every intention of reading it but still it slipped through the sieve when I made a stop at the little chain bookstore yesterday to replace a misplaced copy of a specific book -- d***. Heh -- both for the misplaced volume requiring a purchase of a second copy and for forgetting Cunningham's book.


Even so -- I must respond to Anne's comment just now -- my hairdresser and I were having this very conversation yesterday while she shampooed, cut and styled my hair. We are always falling into very deep topics during my not very frequent appointments and agreeing that one cannot always discuss heavier topics with just anyone in our circles. Which is why Anne's thought was such a potent reminder of why we keep this wonderful group and assemblage together through the many incarnations from Prodigy to the internet and from WebBoard to message boards -- whatever happens we push through in order to continue conversing about books nominally but even more importantly about the deeper topics which those books so often serve up.


Obviously -- Specimen Days has to be moved to a must go get it immediately status on my own list -- so perhaps I'll pick it up at the library before I do my dreaded grocery shopping this afternoon. Then if I can put down the Fisher and Reichl tomes a while I can attack this one.


Dottie -- thinking clearly I am back in reading mode at least for the moment -- hooray!


my hairdresser and I were having this very conversation yesterday while she shampooed, cut and styled my hair. We are always falling into very deep topics during my not very frequent appointments and agreeing that one cannot always discuss heavier topics with just anyone in our circles.


LOL Dottie I love you. That just tickled me. And I need a good giggle right now.


Beej


Always happy to provide comic relief around CR, Beej! Dottie


I also thought the last part the weakest. By that time in the book, his purpose really lost me. Yes, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it - but its a theme that others have presented in better books, esp Ian Pears Dream of Scipio. By the end, like others here, I found myself quickly forgetting the characters or mixing them up. Reading this discussion has helped remind me of some parts that I thought good, but also reminded me how really disappointed I was with it. Cindy


Sherry


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (23 of 24), Read 18 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Mary Anne Papale cbamapreads@comcast.net

Date: Saturday, May 06, 2006 09:07 PM


Sorry to be late to the dance, but I just finished this book. I did like reading it, although I'm glad for the posts here because I'm not entirely sure what it means. This is a strange feeling: knowing that you liked reading something, and not understanding much of what you've read.


MAP


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Topic: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (24 of 24), Read 18 times

Conf: Reading List

From: Pres Lancaster preslan369@yahoo.com

Date: Sunday, May 07, 2006 11:34 AM


John says you should try reading Beckett.


pres


Being dead is no excuse.


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