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Friday, May 15, 2009

Strange and Exceptional - "Severance: Stories" by Pulitzer Prize Winner Robert Olen Butler (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)



Robert Olen Butler at Wikipedia and at Florida State University
Order "Severance: Stories" HERE
Pre-order upcoming and highly anticipated novel Hell HERE

INTRODUCTION: The biggest benefit of doing reviews for FBC has been discovering new authors that I would most likely have not heard about. As mentioned in various posts, I have been generally up to date with what's been published in sf for almost 20 years now and in fantasy for maybe 8 or so, but for the rest it is hit or miss for obvious time reasons.

Also today the explosion of micro-publishers and independent authors makes it all but impossible to keep up even with knowing about all sff novels and choosing the ones I really want to read, so lots and lots of titles that I have greatly enjoyed and led me to other titles were found by chance and more recently by my association with FBC.

So when we received here an inquiry
from Mr. Butler about reviewing the upcoming novel Hell, with an extremely humble heading for such a noted author and Pulitzer prize winner, I immediately was intrigued and "headed out online" for excerpts, while later when I got hooked by what I found especially in Severance, I immediately visited my local library and came home with an armful of Robert Olen Butler books, many of which I plan to order and enjoy in time; Hell shoot up high on my scale of anticipated books and it became an asap one.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS The best that science knows about life after death is that the head retains consciousness for about 90 seconds after a decapitation. Since it is generally accepted that a person can utter about 160 words per minute when agitated and doing the math, we come up with 240 words a severed head can say.

So Severance: Stories is just that - sixty two 240 word "monologues" by severed heads of mostly famous historical characters that suffered beheading - ranging from executions to ritual suicides to accidents - from Cicero and St. Paul to Robespierre and Mishima, just to note some of the most famous examples, though you will find other well known ones like Mary Stuart, Louis XVI...


The last "severed head" is a fictional one, belonging to the author's alter-ego
. There are mythological characters and common ones (Gorgon, St. George's Dragon, a chicken that is served as dinner) as well as "regular" people caught in tragic circumstances.

Each story is prefaced by a short description of the "person" involved and the circumstances of the beheading, as well as the place and time. The order of appearance is chronological and the book itself as a physical object is extraordinarily well designed. For a taste of the stories and why I got hooked read an excerpt HERE

After reading the stories several times I will talk a bit about some of the personal highlights from this book, but I expect that anyone reading Severance will be touched and moved by different stories, since they are all so personal. Great kudos to Mr. Butler for getting all the sixty two voices just right.

Medusa
gorgon and former human beauty, beheaded by Perseus, circa 2000 b.c.
"dreaming, surely I dream now:..."

This story with a mythological underpinning is the second of the book and illustrates the mixture of myth and history in the first part of the collection.

Paul (Saul of Tarsus)
apostle, beheaded by the Emperor Nero, 67
"narrow the gate through to the warren of merchants past figs and linen..."

Religious dimension added to the mix; very moving overall; more apostles and saints to come.

Ah Balam
Mayan ballplayer, beheaded by custom as captain of losing team, 803
"life is held within the ball..."

Different cultures, same human story.

André Chénier
poet, guillotined by order of the French Revolutionary Tribunal, 1794
"great the minds in Mother’s gilded chairs.."

Favorite story - The French Revolution presents quite a few characters in Severance but the famous poet's story has always been a moving one for me.

Ta Chin
Chinese wife, beheaded by her husband, 1838
"straight and whole are my feet..."

Another moving story combining "regular" people and different cultures.

Rokhel Pogorelsky
Jewish woman, beheaded in Russian pogrom, 1905
"taste of horseradish taste of nettle..."

The extraordinary range of Robert Olen Butler shown once more; another favorite of mine.

Benita von Berg
German baroness, beheaded by Adolph Hitler for espionage, 1935
"dying tip of one cigarette..."

Another less well know historical character that I have encountered previously.

Chicken
Americaunas pullet, beheaded in Alabama for Sunday dinner, 1958
"little grit things in the straw here..."

No comment necessary.

Isioma Owolabi
woman of Bani, Burkina Faso, beheaded by fatwa, 2002
"Mother I cannot see your face..."

Another moving story featuring regular people and different cultures.

Robert Olen Butler
writer, decapitated on the job, 2010
"heedless words but whispered..."

Great touch and the one fictional story that I pray will remain fictional...

Severance: Stories is just amazing and a book I plan to sample again and again through the years. Highly, highly recommended.


Note: After the success of Severance, Robert Olen Butler turned his hand to famous couples ' monologues in Intercourse: Stories which are lighter, funnier but as good as the ones in this book. Look for a review of Intercourse here in the summer (Jun-Aug 09).

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