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Severance: Stories
by Robert Olen Butler
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Reviewed by: John L. Hoh, Jr.

This book will be seen by some as intriguing and by others as macabre. I lean to the former group.

The premise of the book is this. It combines Dr. Dassy D'Estaing's statement: "After careful study and due deliberation it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation" with Dr. Emily Reasoner's opinion: "In a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute." You probably have guessed where this book is going.

To be sure one has to wonder what the author heard or read to set him off on this tangent.

The book looks at various figures throughout history who have been separated from their head. This ranges from Mud, a prehistoric man, to Medusa and John the Baptist. The apostles Paul and Matthew are also mentioned. Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots), and Marie Antoinette are royalty feature herein. Chicken, listed as American pullet, offers a bit of whimsy. The author is even featured as the last head. Hmm, did he compile this book knowing he would lose his own head, or just surmise what he might think if the fate befell him? For more contemporary fare there is Nicole Brown Simpson. Granted her head may not have come totally off, but I understand the manner of killing was similar.

At the formula dictated by the above two quotes, there are 240-word "thoughts" that may have raced through the minds of the unfortunate heads. Herein lies the beauty of the book and shows a profound sense of history and research. The 240 words tend to be about events that were defining moments in each person's life, not necessarily how painful the final seconds felt. John the Baptist thinks about the man from Nazareth who asks to be baptized. Matthew thinks about the prophet that dares challenge him about the tax to be levied.

In keeping with the theme of the suddenness of the lost head and the expiration of the same head the 240 words tend to start and end in mid sentence or mid-thought. It is hard to say "sentences" because the thoughts run on as if one single sentence. It highlights the trauma of the moment to be sure.

I enjoyed reading this book, as macabre as it may appear.

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