Synopses & Reviews
From the highly acclaimed author of Daughters of the Revolution and The Bostons (winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for fiction) comes a lyrical, visceral collection of short stories about sex and scars, waste and promise, with an eclectic cast of characters spanning generations and cultures.
In "Francis Bacon," an aspiring writer crafts sexual fantasies for an Upper East Side mogul. In "The Snake," a restless psychologist sheds one existence after another, continuously restarting her life. In "The Boundary," a resident artist on a Native American reservation connects with a charismatic, deeply troubled teenager. In the surreal "She Bites," a man builds a doghouse as his wife slowly transforms. In "Opal Is Evidence," a woman and her ten-year-old daughter, who suffers from a brain tumor, house-sit at the yurt of marijuana farmers. In "The New Skin," a man literally unpeeled by horrific burns gradually recovers. And in the transcendent, three-part title story, two close friends confront cancer and suicide. Cooke's searing tapestry, peopled by characters who disappear and reemerge throughout the collection, explores lives ruled by illness, ritual, desire, and angst. At once philosophical and compulsively readable, Amor and Psycho dives into our dark spaces, confronting the poetry and brutality of human existence.
"Psyche, rechristened Psycho by high school 'witchy girls,' is the star of the local poetry slam team. Psycho is smart, funny, and maybe a little psychic, and though she's been known to adjust facts 'for realistic effect,' as the narrator tells us, she is instantly likable. Which makes it hard not to miss her when her story morphs into those of two other women in her town, a foggy place up the coast from San Francisco where 'poetry is a blood sport.' In her second story collection (after The Bostons), Cooke delivers tales of cancer; bosses who stop paying their employees; a teacher and her Native American charge, both with boundary issues; an ambitious young writer who works for a Hustler-like magazine; and a mysterious culture, the Mezima-Wa. Cooke's stories twist and turn, playing games with language. They don't stop where you think they will (or, sometimes, where you think they should), and even when they disappoint (as in 'She Bites,' a note-perfect reckoning between man and contractor, form and function, that turns into magical realism 101), they leave you with something: shards of phrases; a lifetime of attitudes conveyed in a word or an aside; or odd, perfect details that stick in your mind. Agent: Laurie Fox, Linda Chester Literary Agency." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Carolyn Cooke’s Daughters of the Revolution was listed among the best novels of 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle and The New Yorker. Her short fiction, collected in The Bostons, won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and has appeared in AGNI, The Paris Review and two volumes each of The Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Amor and Psycho, a lyrical, visceral collection of short stories about sex and scars, waste and promise, from the acclaimed author of Daughters of the Revolution.
1. The myth of Amor and Psyche revolves around themes of love, trust and betrayal. How does Carolyn Cooke apply those themes in her stories?
2. Several of the stories touch on the notion of looking beneath the surface—for example, in “Aesthetic Discipline”: “The Brazirs understood the discipline of surface—the depth that was protected by surface. The surface functioned as the depth.” (p. 24) What is Cooke saying about how we live?
3. Cancer affects characters in multiple stories. What do the characters’ different responses tell us about them?
4. In “Francis Bacon,” the narrator says, “I realized that choice and freedom are not necessarily optimal conditions for work, and that the most confining, restricting and repulsive situations sometimes open themselves up to be investigated, like the terrifying ‘orifices’ within the ‘figures’ of Bacon.” (p. 11) How do choice and freedom figure into this story? Into the collection as a whole?
5. “Dr. Drema’s chief interest in life lay in the study of symbols—and what animal is more symbolic than a snake?” writes Cooke in “The Snake.” (p. 30) What does the snake symbolize for Dr. Drema? In what ways does she resemble a snake herself?
6. In the title story, it’s clear how the Georgie and Babe sections intersect. How does Psycho figure in?
7. Why does Babe fill her home with stones?
8. “The Boundary” is about a woman’s relationship with an adolescent boy, but on page 96, she mentions Georgie from “Amor and Psycho.” What is the connection?
9. In that same story, the narrator says, “From Aunt Bea I learned that you could hate your life and still love life.” (p. 84) How does this prove true in other stories in the collection?
10. The narrator of “Among the Mezima-Wa” describes a series of unusual rituals matter-of-factly. Does she really accept her son’s fiancée and her family?
11. In “Isle of Wigs,” Cooke writes, “The years she had herself been a child still felt more real than the years she had been a mother. She thought of her mother brushing out her hair at night by the warm stove, and then, more dimly, of herself, brushing Fay’s hair.” (p. 118) Why did Sura run away from her mother? What does she expect from her own children?
12. In “She Bites,” Cooke veers away from the realism of the earlier stories. What is she saying here?
13. What is “The Antiheroes” about? Who are the antiheroes?
14. On page 147 Riva has an encounter with a raccoon in her house. What does this represent?
15. Discuss this passage from “Opal Is Evidence”: “Apple juice, cell phones, aluminum cookware, fluoridated water, formaldehyde carpets, lead toys, lead fish. My father still smokes, his farm a poison swamp. Opal poisoned before she was conceived. What more evidence do we need? Opal is evidence.” (p. 160)