Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Book - 2006
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A darkly funny coming-of-age novel and a richly plotted suspense tale told through the distinctive voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. After a childhood moving from one academic outpost to another with her father (a man prone to aphorisms and meteoric affairs), Blue is clever, deadpan, and possessed of a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge--and is quite the cineaste to boot. In her final year of high school at the elite (and unusual) St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina, Blue falls in with a charismatic group of friends and their captivating teacher, Hannah Schneider. But when the drowning of one of Hannah's friends and the shocking death of Hannah herself lead to a confluence of mysteries, Blue is left to make sense of it all with only her gimlet-eyed instincts and cultural references to guide--or misguide--her.--From publisher description.
Publisher: New York : Viking, 2006.
ISBN: 9780670037773
067003777X
Characteristics: 514 p. :,ill. ;,24 cm.

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m
m0mmyl00
Aug 30, 2017

Despite using one of the literary devices I enjoy least, the author created a diabolically convoluted, intriguing, engaging tale. Her writing was what I think of as "tricky," constantly calling attention to itself, using metaphor after metaphor after metaphor, as well as what must have been hundreds of quotes from other works to forward the plot as well as define the characters. It totally worked.

Blue Van Meer was the only child of a professor who taught at a different small college every year. He had a literary quote for every occasion, and Blue adopted his habit of calling on quotes to explain her own thoughts. Newly arrived at yet another high school, in the town of her father's new teaching position, she was sort of adopted by the "cool kids" who hung out with a cool film teacher named Hannah. Hannah respected them despite their ages, and challenged them to be themselves and honor their individuality. In turn, they revered her. However, Hannah was not what she seemed. She and Blue's father had a shared mission (rooted in politics and philosophy) and it ultimately led to her death and his abandonment of the daughter he cherished. I've thought about this book often since finishing it.

j
Jem_hollobon
Sep 17, 2016

Like some other readers, I found my engagement waning, about a third (to half) of the way through, and I was tempted to abandon ship.
But I am so glad I persevered - is is hard to overstate how much the second half improves. It became unputdownable.

Highly recommended.

d
danielestes
Jun 21, 2016

Blue van Meer isn't all that different from other teenage girls, other than she's exceptionally smart and has lived in far too many places for someone so young. Her father, Gareth van Meer, is an eccentric and affably lovable presence in Blue's life, who, as a restless college professor, routinely accepts new job positions all across the country. This is why Blue is so well-traveled, but she adores her father so it's a comfortable arrangement. (Blue's mother passed away a decade before.)

On the cusp of finishing high school but nevertheless starting out anew once again—this time it's at the St. Gallway School in Stockton, North Carolina—Blue falls in with a questionable clique of friends who call themselves the Bluebloods. Through them she is introduced to the curious and socially unwieldy Hannah Schneider, a film teacher at the school, whose relationship with the Bluebloods is more like a permissive older sibling than as an authority figure. And, little does Blue know, her life is about to be forever changed.

Unlike most books I finish, persevering through Special Topics in Calamity Physics was a hard-earned effort. Marisha Pessl has composed a complex narrative comprised of nuanced character development, ostentatiously long sentences and a smattering of cultural references, often directly cited, scattered about like sprinkles on a cake. And, I didn't check, are any of the citations made up? A few seem like inside jokes. Some readers may be turned off by the book's overt cleverness, but it grew on me. Like I said, hard-earned. It was as if I could feel my reading skill leveling up after each chapter. By the end, the story coalesced so unexpectedly that I now consider it one of my all-time favorites.

Side note: Randomly, while I was about 2/3rds of the way through, I picked up and skimmed a few pages from another novel. It was an average paperback for the masses, but since I was already heavily immersed in Marisha Pessl's world, the variation in quality between the two was jarring. The difference was like tasting a fine Cabernet Sauvignon vs chugging a grape juice soda.

morrisonist Aug 07, 2015

here is an online review of the book https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSkDuaig_WY

WVMLStaffPicks Jan 22, 2015

If you enjoyed The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, you'll love Pessl's novel. When Blue van Meer and her curious group of friends become very entangled with one of their teachers, their lives are never the same.

g
gendeg
Jan 11, 2015

Abandon ship! Abandon ship! Sorry, I couldn't take it anymore, the narrator droning on and on in that preternaturally precocious tone of hers. Over-wrought writing. Pessl's narrator makes constant writing-clogging literary and cultural references. It's just the epitome of literary writing gone bad. It strains, it over-preens.

I agree with one reviewer who said: "The laborious process of reading this book felt like 514 pages of a precocious child shrieking, 'Aren't I clever?' into my face, only they were pronouncing clever incorrectly because they were not, in fact, very bright, and also projecting spittle into my face every single time." Except, kudos to that reviewer for finishing. I made it only half way. There are some riveting sections here and there, and the premise is great. So many other readers found this novel brilliant and were enamored with the writing style. BUT...I just couldn't move past the main character without entertaining homicidal thoughts. Yeah, it was that bad for me.

For a good, brainy mystery steeped in academia and the antics of blue bloods-behaving-badly, stick with Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

Chapel_Hill_MollyL Jan 09, 2015

Maria Pessl is a wonder at what she does--this book is very funny and very smart. I will admit that there were times I was not sure I could go on reading--Special Topics in Calamity Physics is long, discursive, exploding with outside references, and in a style that can be, at times, off-putting. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the romping and ridiculous plot. In fact the ending is such an intriguing twist that I might just read the whole thing again to find all of the little Easter eggs hidden along the way.

p
Persnickety77
Nov 19, 2014

I found this book to be too 'precious'. Sometimes it made me laugh out loud, which I don't do often with books. Pessl also has some great metaphors, and it's obvious the woman is very, very smart. But the plot is, in a word, ludicrous. It's supposed to be sort of suspenseful but I found myself not caring about any of it.

r
rlinda
Mar 30, 2014

I have read this book twice and plan to read it again and again. The metaphors, references to other texts, images are so beautiful and meaningful and surprising. The story is strange, with unexpected turns, but so fun.

niftygal Jun 09, 2013

heard about author in EX - other book Night Film

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Amandatoryrant Jul 09, 2012

Amandatoryrant thinks this title is suitable for 14 years and over

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m
m0mmyl00
Aug 17, 2017

"May your studies continue to the end of your days. May you walk a lighted path. May you fight for truth -- your truth, not someone else's -- and may you understand, above all things, that you are the most important concept, theory, and philosophy I have ever known." -- Said by Blue's father to her on the occasion of their dinner together celebrating her acceptance to Harvard.

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