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2 Burnside Literature- A to Z

Specimen Days: A Novel


Specimen Days: A Novel Cover




Chapter One

Walt said that the dead turned into grass, but there was no grass where theyd 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.


“Heavens 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 hes with us still,” she said. “Dont you feel it?” She worried the locket chain as if it were a rosary.


“I suppose so,” Lucas said. Catherine thought Simon was in the locket, and in heaven, and with them still. Lucas hoped she didnt expect him to be happy about having so many Simons to contend with.


The guests had departed, and Lucass father and mother had gone to bed. It was only Lucas and Catherine in the parlor, with what had been left behind. Empty plates, the rind of a ham. The ham had been meant for Catherines and Simons wedding. It was lucky, then, to have it for the wake instead.


Lucas said, “I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end. But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.”


He hadnt meant to speak as the book. He never did, but when he was excited he couldnt help himself.


She said, “Oh, Lucas.”


His heart fluttered and thumped against the bone.


“I worry for you,” she said. “Youre so young.”


“Im almost thirteen,” he said.


“Its a terrible place. Its such hard work.”


“Im lucky. Its a kindness of them, to give me Simons job.”


“And no more school.”


“I dont need school. I have Walts book.”


“You know the whole thing, dont you?”


“Oh no. Theres much more, it will take me years.”


“You must be careful at the works,” she said. “You must—” She stopped speaking, though her face didnt change. She continued offering her profile, which was as gravely beautiful as that of a woman on a coin. She continued looking out at the street below, waiting for the heavenly entourage to parade by with Simon up top, the pride of the family, a new prince of the dead.


Lucas said, “You must be careful, too.”


“Theres nothing for me to be careful about, my dear. For me its just tomorrow and the next day.”


She slipped the locket chain back over her head. The locket vanished into her dress. Lucas wanted to tell her—what? He wanted to tell her that he was inspired and vigilant and recklessly alone, that his body contained his unsteady heart and something else, something he felt but could not describe: porous and spiky, shifting with flecks of thought, with urge and memory; salted with brightness, flickerings of white and green and pale gold, like stars; something that loved stars because it was made of the same substance. He needed to tell her it was impossible, it was unbearable, to be so continually mistaken for a misshapen boy with a walleye and a pumpkin head and a habit of speaking in fits.


He said, “I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume.” It was not what hed hoped to tell her.


She smiled. At least she wasnt angry with him. She said, “I should go now. Will you walk me home?”


“Yes,” he said. “Yes.”



Outside, on the street, Catherine slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow. He tried to steady himself, to stride manfully, though what he wanted most was to stop striding altogether, to rise up like smoke and float above the street, which was filled with its evening people, workingmen returning, newsboys hawking their papers. Mad Mr. Cain paced on his corner, dressed in his dust-colored coat, snatching distractedly at whatever crawled in his beard, shouting, “Mischief, gone and forgotten, what have ye done with the shattered hearts?” The street was full of its smell, dung and kerosene, acrid smoke—something somewhere was always burning. If Lucas could rise out of his body, he would become what he saw and heard and smelled. He would gather around Catherine as the air did, touch her everywhere. He would be drawn into her when she breathed.


He said, “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.”


“Just as you say, my dear,” Catherine said.


A newsboy shouted, “Woman brutally murdered, read all about it!” Lucas thought he could be a newsboy, but the pay was too low, and he couldnt be trusted to call the news, could he? He might lose track of himself and walk the streets shouting, “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Hed do better at the works. If the impulse overcame him, he could shout into Simons machine. The machine wouldnt know or care, any more than Simon had.


Catherine didnt speak as they walked. Lucas forced himself to remain silent as well. Her building was three blocks to the north, on Fifth Street. He walked her up onto the stoop, and they stood there a moment together, before the battered door.


Catherine said, “Here we are.”


A cart rolled by with a golden landscape painted on its side: two cows grazing among stunted trees and a third cow looking up at the name of a dairy, which floated in the golden sky. Was it meant to be heaven? Would Simon want to be there? If Simon went to heaven and it proved to be a field filled with reverent cows, which Simon would he be when he got there? Would he be the whole one, or the crushed?


A silence gathered between Lucas and Catherine, different from the quiet in which theyd walked. It was time, Lucas thought, to say something, and not as the book. He said, “Will you be all right?”


She laughed, a low murmuring laugh he felt in the hairs on his forearms. “It is I who should ask you that question. Will you be all right?”


“Yes, yes, Ill be fine.”


She glanced at a place just above Lucass head and settled herself, a small shifting within her dark dress. It seemed for a moment as if her dress, with its high collar, its whisper of hidden silk, had a separate life. It seemed as if Catherine, having briefly considered rising up out of her dress, had decided instead to remain, to give herself back to her clothes.


She said, “Had it happened a week later, Id be a widow, wouldnt I? Im nothing now.”


“No, no. You are wonderful, you are beautiful.”


She laughed again. He looked down at the stoop, noticed that it contained specks of brightness. Mica? He went briefly into the stone. He was cold and sparkling, immutable, glad to be walked on.


“Im an old woman,” she said.


He hesitated. Catherine was well past twenty-five. It had been talked about when the marriage was announced, for Simon had been barely twenty. But she was not old in the way she meant. She was not soured or evacuated, she was not dimmed.


He said, “You are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded.”


She put her fingertips to his cheek. “Sweet boy,” she said.


He said, “Will I see you again?”


“Of course you will. I shall be right here.”


“But it will not be the same.”


“No. It will not be quite the same, Im afraid.”


“If only . . .”


She waited to hear what he would say. He waited, too. If only the machine hadnt taken Simon. If only he, Lucas, were older and healthier, with a sounder heart. If only he could marry Catherine himself. If only he could leave his body and become the dress she wore.


A silence passed, and she kissed him. She put her lips on his.


When she withdrew he said, “The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless, it is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it.”


She said, “You must go home and sleep now.”


It was time to leave her. There was nothing more to do or say. Still, he lingered. He felt as he sometimes did in dreams, that he was on a stage before an audience, expected to sing or recite.


She turned, took her key from her reticule, put it in the lock. “Good night,” she said.


“Good night.”


He stepped down. From the sidewalk he said to her retreating form, “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise.”


“Good night,” she said again. And she was gone.



He didnt go home, though home was the rightful place for him. He went instead to Broadway, where the living walked.


Broadway was itself, always itself, a river of light and life that flowed through the shades and little fires of the city. Lucas felt, as he always did when he walked there, a queasy, subvert exaltation, as if he were a spy sent to another country, a realm of riches. He walked with elaborate nonchalance, hoping to be as invisible to others as they were visible to him.


On the sidewalk around him, the last of the shoppers were relinquishing the street to the first of the revelers. Ladies in dresses the color of pigeons breasts, the color of rain, swished along bearing parcels, speaking softly to one another from under their feathered hats. Men in topcoats strode confidently, spreading the bleak perfume of their cigars, flashing their teeth, slapping the stone with their licorice boots. Carriages rolled by bearing their mistresses home, and the newsboys called out, “Woman murdered in Five Points, read all about it!” Red curtains billowed in the windows of the hotels, under a sky going a deeper red with the night. Somewhere someone played “Lilith” on a calliope, though it seemed that the street itself emanated music, as if by walking with such certainty, such satisfaction, the people summoned music out of the pavement.


If Simon was in heaven, it might be this. Lucas could imagine the souls of the departed walking eternally, with music rising from the cobblestones and curtains putting out their light. But would this be a heaven for Simon? His brother was (had been) loud and rampant, glad of his songs and his meals. What else had made him happy? He hadnt cared for curtains or dresses. He hadnt cared about Walt or the book. What had he wanted that this heaven could provide?


Broadway would be Lucass heaven, Broadway and Catherine and the book. In his heaven he would be everything he saw and heard. He would be himself and Catherine; he would be the calliope and the lamps; he would be shoes striking pavement, and he would be the pavement under the shoes. He would ride with Catherine on the toy horse from Niedermeyers window, which would be the size of an actual horse but perfect in the way of toys, moving serenely over the cobblestones on its bright red wheels.


He said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” A man in a topcoat, passing by, glanced at him strangely, as people did. The man would be among the angels in Lucass heaven, just as plump and prosperous as he was on earth, but in the next world he would not consider Lucas strange. In heaven, Lucas would be beautiful. Hed speak a language everyone understood.


Copyright © 2005 by Mare Vaporum Corp

Product Details

Cunningham, Michael
Farrar Straus Giroux
Champa, Paula
Cumming, Alan
Short Stories (single author)
New york (n.y.)
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Publication Date:
June 7, 2005
Grade Level:
4 cds, 5 hours
8.25 x 5.5 in 1 lb

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Science Fiction and Fantasy » A to Z
Gay and Lesbian » Fiction and Poetry » Men's Fiction

Specimen Days: A Novel Used Hardcover
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Product details 336 pages Farrar Straus Giroux - English 9780374299620 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "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. Agent, Gail Hochman. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "Michael Cunningham is one of the most humane and moving writers we have; but the toiling quality of Specimen Days suggests that (unlike, say, David Mitchell) he may lack the naturally impassioned formalism required to make a multi-genre novel come truly to life." (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"Review A Day" by , "Cunningham dutifully includes all the things that Whitman surely would have written about had he lived today: September 11 and terrorism, Harvard MBAs, interstellar travel, the soulless modern office with its late-day, bottom-of-the-pot coffee sludge. It is a testament to the faith that we place in the novel that we sometimes think that it can do everything at once. But everything is a very big subject. Michael Cunningham's imagination is not as vast as Whitman's, and his talents are no match for so many multitudes." (read the entire New Republic review)
"Review" by , "Brilliantly conceived, empathic, darkly humorous, and gorgeously rendered...a genuine literary event."
"Review" by , "Cunningham's vivid prose captures the intricate weave of love and expectation that propels the hopes of one generation as it fades into another."
"Review" by , "[R]eads like a clunky and precious literary exercise...that intermittently reveals glimpses of the author's storytelling talents, but too often obscures those gifts with self-important and ham-handed narrative pyrotechnics."
"Review" by , "Specimen Days contains multitudes, all right — Whitmanesque awe for life's genuine wonders and dismay at its horrors — but they haven't been fused into any cause for celebration."
"Review" by , "While Specimen Days may have its flaws, it is clearly and often compellingly the work of a gifted storyteller with an ambitious mind and a lyrical writing style."
"Review" by , "[W]hen you close the book you won't be thinking about [its] minor flaws. Instead you'll be pondering Cunningham's big, haunting, beautiful vision of who we were, are and one day might be."
"Review" by , "[E]xquisitely written but bizarre and disjointed....As with...The Hours, Cunningham has set his three stories in three different eras, though here he stitches them together with far less finesse. (Grade: B)"
"Review" by , "Provocative and disturbing....Cunningham crosses genres elegantly. The naturalism of late 19th-century fiction becomes the police thriller, which ends up as science fiction."
"Review" by , "The novel succeeds in spite of itself. It is, in three daring swoops, a poetic meditation on what it means to be human, a cautionary tale about the separation of progress from morality, and an eloquent call to rebellion against the powers that be."
"Review" by , "Ultimately, this weird, confounding novel won me over (I still find myself thinking about it), and I've no doubt it'll be provoking all sorts of interesting conversations and arguments for months to come."
"Review" by , "Readers who want...The Hours all over again might be disappointed with this novel. It isn't seamless, and each story has a slightly fleeting feel, as though we are leaving one too soon to get to the next. But there's a quality of plain old pleasure here, too."
"Review" by , "[A] compelling read....Like Margaret Atwood and her chilling futuristic The Handmaid's Tale, Cunningham leaps into the realm of imagination. Yet because Whitman remains Cunningham's inspiration, the novelist offers a form of hope."
"Review" by , "[A] tour de force — a show of the astonishing variety of styles and voices of which he's capable....[A] book that's passionate in its weaving together of images and ideas, both startling the mind and touching the heart."
"Review" by , "[A] work of genius so original it unfolds with a whiff of inevitability. You will find it hard to believe it did not exist before....Cunningham knows that beauty and sadness always come hand in hand, but he asks, do they have to be united by destruction?"
"Review" by , "Intelligent, emotionally complex, and immensely readable even while weighted with a deeper grief and despair. This is an astonishing accomplishment and the best book Cunningham has written."
"Synopsis" by , The same group of characters — a young boy, an older man, and a young woman — are present in each historical period of this genre-bending, haunting, and transformative ode to life in New York. The novel provides a meditation on the direction and meaning of America's destiny.
"Synopsis" by , A driving, panoramic novel of four strangers whose personal struggles with grief become interconnected through their quest to reunite the body and engine of a vintage car.
"Synopsis" by ,
A beloved car becomes a piece of us—a way back into our histories or forward into our destinies. For Emerson Tang, the only son of a prominent New England family, that car is a 1954 Beacon. A collector—of art and experience—Emerson keeps his prized possession safely stored away. But when his health begins to fail, his archivist and caretaker is approached by a secretive French painter determined to buy the Beacon at any cost. They discover that the Beacon has been compromised and that its importance reaches far beyond Emersons own history.

Soon they run into another who shares their obsession: the heir to the ruined Beacon Motor Company, who is determined to restore his grandfathers legacy. These four become unlikely adventurers, united in their aim to reunite the Beacons original body and engine, pitted against one another in their quest to claim it. Each new clue takes one closer to triumph, but also takes these characters, each grieving a deep loss, toward finding missing pieces of their own lives.

A fast-paced ride through the twentieth century—to modernism, fascism, and industrialism, to Manhattan, a German zeppelin, a famed concours in Pebble Beach, and a road race in Italy—The Afterlife of Emerson Tang takes us deep into our complicated automotive romance. A novel of strangers connected across time, through a car that is so much more than a car, it asks us what should be preserved, what memories to trust, and whether or not some of the legacies we hold most dear—including that grand contraption, the automobile—can be made new again.

"Synopsis" by ,
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.

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