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Special Topics in Calamity Physics
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Product Description

" This mesmerizing debut, uncannily uniting the trials of a postmodern upbringing with a murder mystery, heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in literary fiction

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a darkly hilarious 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.

Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class and containing ironic visual aids (drawn by the author), Pessl's debut novel is complex yet compelling, erudite yet accessible. It combines the suspense of Hitchcock, the self-parody of Dave Eggers, and the storytelling gifts of Donna Tartt with a dazzling intelligence and wit entirely Pessl's own.

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Customer Reviews:

  • Lots of Secrecy, Not Much Empathy
    Marisha Pessel has capitalized on our love of mysterious secret societies in this novel, a theme that has propelled other big books (think "The Da Vinci Code") to the bestseller list. Blue van Meer, the hyper-intellectual wallflower, is doomed to remain constantly on the road with her dashing father as he tours US universities after the tragic death of his wife. Their decision to stay an entire year in one town has dire consequences for them both. I wanted to care about all of the characters that find themselves in Blue's path, but found that task difficult. I certainly enjoyed pieces of this novel with the illustrations a particularly interesting addition, but found Blue rather tiresome. Without giving too much away, the ending wraps up cleverly, which helped redeem this book slightly in my long-term memory....more info
  • Love it for its language if not the story.
    I read alot. Sometimes several books a week. I am partial to novels. I was initially draw to this by the title. You must admit, it inspires curiosity.
    I read the book in 3 days despite its 514 pages. The story was interesting but not particularly compelling. What maintained my interest was the author's gift for simile and metaphor; a bit tedious at times; but wonderous to behold.
    I eagerly await her next offering....more info
  • All over the place
    I considered not writing this review, but I changed my mind when I thought about how helpful this could be to readers such as myself. I would consider myself to be an avid reader. I have read books from many genres, and though I have my preferences, I will try to read outside my preferences. This book however was way over my head. I could not follow the storyline. I found myself going over and over pages again, and still not understanding the direction. I did not feel any sort of flow. Occasionally I found myself laughing at a line here and there, but that certainly wasn't enough for me. I think the author tried too hard to show off her intellectual skill and forgot she was writing a novel worth reading. I know this sort of novel must belong to a genre, but I think, in future, I will avoid that genre. I prefer to be entertained by, engrossed in, and excited by a novel. I did not experience this with Special Topics......more info
  • Pretentious and overrated
    This book is intolerably pretentious, and the dialog and characterization are terrifically out of touch with anyone's reality. Has the writer ever visited an American private high school, an American college (even--gasp!--Harvard), North Carolina? It sure doesn't feel like it. Any predictable plot twists at the end of this novel aren't worth suffering through the self-congratulatory prose (laden with possibly the worst extended metaphors ever put to paper) one has to wade through to get there....more info
  • Brevity. Please.
    There's nothing to add to my review that has not already been said very well by others on this site. The book is too long and way too convoluted. I stopped caring about Blue and her absolutely worthless excuse for a father less than halfway through.

    The story could have been good except for the apparent desire of the author to try to impress us with her literary knowledge and give us the impression that she had read and was familiar with every movie, documentary, book, periodical, and reference work ever published. The ego of the author far surpassed her ability to write a novel that is inherently readable and worth my time to recommend.

    I'm sorry I spent valuable hours on it and would urge anyone who must read it to borrow, not buy....more info
  • The book I wanted to love, but couldn't
    The opening of Pessl's novel completely engaged me, with a level of with and intellect I've not encountered in ages. I'm a fan of self-consciously clever writers like Robertson Davies and Wodehouse, and was excited to have found a new author who might join their ranks.

    Well, I gave up on this book last night. I was halfway in, and realized that despite the cleverness of the protagonist's observations, I simply didn't care what happened next. This is due largely to the fact that although the protagonist is immensely clever and quirkily observant, she almost never actually says or does anything, instead propelled by the speech and actions of the clique she's fallen into. And since none of the clique are empathetic characters, I just didn't have enough to care about. Plus the overall pace of the book becomes painfully slow - I felt like I must be nearing the end, and saw by the placement of my bookmark that I was only near the midway point. She was just taking way too long to say way too little, so I pulled the plug.

    It's disappointing, because Pessl is one of the smartest and wittiest (and yes, there's a difference) writers I've encountered in years. Amazingly talented, really. I just hope she finds something more compelling to say with all that talent.
    ...more info
  • I LOVED IT! I HATED IT!
    What a book! I will remember that as one of the most unusual books I have ever read. I hated it. I loved it. I'm VERY happy I am through with it yet the fascination with her style of writing sticks in my mind. The use of allusion was brilliant as I could understand fully what she said in a short space with her allusions to other books, characters, etc. Of course, as the book progressed, I often had no idea what she was referring to with her allusions! Way too advanced for me. I also loved some of the pictures she painted of feelings and thoughts that caused some memories and deep "aha" moments to crop up.

    I will reread all the book marks I left in the book as they enriched my time. For a full reading, once is enough, even though I would definitely recommend reading it.

    ...more info
  • A very enjoyable read
    I really enjoyed this book, and despite the length it was a quick read, so don't let the number of pages intimidate you.

    Yes, the author's use of cultural references was a bit too much, but it did not take away from the story itself, which keeps building and and pulling you in the further you read. I read the last 100 pages in one evening because I could not put the book down (and as the parent of a young child, I generally take any opportunity I can to catch a few zzzzzs). When I finished the book, I started flipping back through it to see where certain clues hinted at the ending (in retrospect).

    You are left with genuine feelings for Blue (our heroine), and unlike most novels, everything is not tied up in a neat box. People can use their imagination to fill in the blanks, which makes each reader's experience a bit different.

    All in all, a very enjoyable read....more info
  • Very entertaining
    Enjoyed this book, was a work involving many interesting characters and was an entertaining yet thoughtful book. I really enjoy her writing style- nice to read a book by someone who has a knowledge of the English language. Will be passing this book on to my daughter and recommending it to her....more info
  • Unique, wonderful and disappointing
    I'm honestly torn -- I wanted to be able to give this book a higher rating, really I did -- but the fact is there's only so much clever I can take. And "clever" began to feel like the point of Pessl's weighty tome less than a quarter of the way through.

    I did so love the way she used Major Western Works of Fiction as chapter titles and then married her narrative within said chapters to the themes of those same Works. It was kind of fun to connect the themes, but I will say that I would have found it irritating had I not read a lot of those books and short stories already. As it was, I found myself using Spark Notes online a lot to read about the plots of those books i hadn't read, just so I'd be able to "get" it. Overall, though, that aspect of the book worked for me.

    What didn't work was the citations every third paragraph or so (The Elements of Style, Strunk & White, 1935) which, while amusing at first, became irritating (see Blistering Diseases and Dermatological Irritations, Frewer, 1989) in short order. Eventually, I stopped bothering to read them at all.

    Pessl also has a mad love of similes, and seeds them liberally into her text, like a farmer with a malfunctioning John Deere spreader. Or a demented Johnny Appleseed, suffering from an undiagnosed case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Or maybe a field of dandelions all gone white at the same time, then buffeted by hurricane force winds. Perhaps I've made my point. It gets OLD after a while, Marisha, and seems more like you're trying to impress the reader with your creative writing skills than trying to paint a vivid word picture for him. It's all style and no substance; more Martha Stewart pretty than Paula Deen scrumptious, if you know what I mean.

    And let me say a word or two about the characters here: I could not care less about any of them, with the exception, shockingly, of Jade, whom I found more interesting than all the rest of them put together. The Narrator, Blue (and I actually know a guy whose legal name is "Blue," so I'm not going to quibble over weird name here, although I gotta say, the fact that NO ONE in the entire book has a remotely common name is more than a bit strange. Milton??? C'mon.). . . .Anyway, Blue and her dear ol' dad, Gareth Van Meer, the itinerant professor, seem to think that they are so far above everyone else due to their intellectual "superiority" that it becomes nauseating at times. The fact that dad takes time to denigrate the doctor and nurses who are taking care of Blue in the ER after a traumatic event speaks volumes. Sure, it illuminates Gareths's character a wee bit, but seriously? Pretty sure that wouldn't be my first concern. Me, I'd be grilling my kid about what happened like a short order cook doing up a patty melt in a greasy spoon. Oh, sorry. Apparently I'm vomiting similes now. Who knew it'd be catching?

    But I digress. There is so little character development for some of the major characters -- mainly the Bluebloods -- that they aren't even caricatures, they're silhouettes (Oh, God, I can't stop!!!! Help me, please!!! I'm starting to remind myself of Dr. Phil.) Ahem. Anyway, a little secondary character development would have been nice. You'd think that there'd be room for it in FIVE HUNDRED AND FOURTEEN PAGES!!!!, no? Blue's character was so far removed from reality that I just couldn't swallow it. Yeah, she's incredibly smart, yeah she's brought up to despise those not as smart as she and dad are (i.e., everyone else on Earth, apparently), but she's supposed to be a teenager, for God's sakes. Where are the hormonal outbursts, where is the lack of good sense, where's the shoving aside of what your conscience tells you you "should" so you can do stupid stuff to fit in?

    Well, I could go on. Unlike Pessl, though, I won't. Read it if you're into literary allusion and themes, don't if you like character development and anything related to real life. There's some smart word play and amusing chapter titles, but Special Topics, in the end, is too clever by half....more info
  • An Engaging First Novel
    This is a first novel and a really impressive one, in my opinion. Pessl tells the story of Hannah, an intellectually precocious teenager being raised by her itinerant professor father who gets involved in solving the murder of a teacher at the private school she is spending a year attending. It's very cleverly plotted, often funny, interesting characters and the mystery is good, too!
    ...more info
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics
    A very enjoyable and thought provoking read. Pressl told an intriguing story while loading the book with pertinent aphorisms....more info
  • Fun with trivia
    I did not find this novel too cumbersome as the professional review implies. The book has an interesting plot combined with lots of references to movies and other books. I thought it was clever and fun....more info
  • Attention! Read the entire book!
    Several one star reviewers did not read past page 100. This book is very slow to start but it picks up the pace AND FAST. It is very well written and clever. Give it a go, you will love it!!...more info
  • A unique new voice
    The protagonist describes a tumultuous year in high school with a remarkably unique voice. The plot has an unexpected twist at the end and is generally entertaining throughout. Ultimately, however, this book is a bit tedious and self-absorbed. Good, but not great....more info
  • Give me a break!
    I so wanted to like this book after a review I heard on Studio 360, but I am embarrassed that I subjected my book group to it. Although some of the writing is fine, insightful, and funny, the idea that a high school teacher, Hannah, spending her free time and income entertaining her under-aged students is ludicrous (not to mention allowing a sleep over). No part-time teacher has the income to make dinners for 6 every Sunday, or to take six teen agers to a nice restaurant, drink a bottle of wine in front of them and pick up the tab (let alone keep a job). I can't imagine her editors let these complete flights of fancy through. ...more info
  • Hire me, Penguin! I could have edited this into something worth the hype.
    There's not much I can say that hasn't been said, but I would like to reiterate that there's a lot of good material here--it's just that there's even more bad material. The overall impression is that the author is smug and self-indulgent, eager to demonstrate both academic and pop-culture fluency. The frequent similies are downright stupid; the book would be better off without them. Someone's glass of iced tea was "like a sweaty upper lip." Or the other way around, maybe--I don't remember. Condensation. Who cares? What does it have to do with anything? Why do we need pointless details about EVERY character who makes an appearance in two of the novel's 500+ pages?

    The constant name-dropping and fact-dropping also wear on one's nerves. For all Pessl's supposed learnedness, she didn't do her homework on the basic character details like names and ethnicities. Gareth Van Meer is a German? How did he end up with a Dutch surname and the first name of a Arthurian Round Table Knight? And last time I checked, ze Germans have trouble wiss ze voiceless dental fricatives. Speaking of names containing sounds not native to the person's language--Geneva (presumably pronounced with a J sound) as a Russian Jewish woman's first name?! Russian women's patronymics and surnames sometimes end in -eva, but that doesn't make Geneva Russian, even if you pronounce it with a hard G. Speaking of patronymics, why does Blue's mother not have one, and instead have the Spanish/English middle name Alicia, AND have only a nickname (Natasha) for a first name?

    Another pet peeve was the book's obsession with Harvard. As a Harvard grad student, I can attest that many if not most people who go to Harvard for undergrad are riddled with insecurity for the rest of their lives and need to remind people constantly that they went there. (Of course, grad students are not immune. I go there, did I mention?) I pegged Pessl to be one of these, but a little biographical digging proved otherwise. Considered alongside the copious academic citations, are these references supposed to make the book a love letter to the academy in general? Why? Everyone in the academy hates it... So, I'm not sure why she goes to such pains to tell you how good Harvard is. Don't tell all the tourists in the Yard, but on the whole, the place is just average, or even a little below. Kind of like this book....more info
  • Great use of English language, which, alas, could have been much more.
    I can see where this book will be highly disliked by great many people and dismissed for been pretentious and empty, just like similar criticism besets works by Umberto Eco, not that I am trying to compare these two authors. And that would be most unfortunate, for important thing for the author is not try to write something smarter than the author is and I do not believe Marisha Pessl crossed that line. It appears to be her first book and we have no way comparing it to her other works. Though I wish she would release on her website her other stories, that she must have written in college.

    The book is written as a first person narrative by the main protagonist, Blue van Meer, a high school student. Who happen to be raised by her father, a widower, since her mother's apparent ( or so it seems ) death at the time when she ( Blue ) was in the kindergarten. Her father is an over-educated professor in political hooey. They travel from town to town, while he takes part time jobs of, what I would assume, a visiting professor. In the last year of the high school they settle in XYZ town somewhere in vicinity of Great Smoky Mountains, where Blue enters some kind of elite private school and by means of various happenstances enters group of, perhaps even more elitist than she is, so called Bluebloods, headed by the "Into to Film" class teacher Hunnah Schneider. As the story slowly unfolds and more and more details are reveal to clue us and Blue into what is to happen at the end. A mysterious drowning accident at the Hannah's party sets the narrative to a faster pace, which after even more baffling death of Hannah ["... hanging by her neck... I did not know how, in that instant, it was she. Because it wasn't Hannah, it was unreal and monstrous, something no textbook or encyclopedia could ever prepare you for"] becomes akin to a sprint when Blue, finally, discovers the truth about her father, Hannah and nefarious Nightwatchman (a clandestine group of modern day revolutionaries bent on undermining culture of greed and capitalist excess ), as a result of which her father disappears as well. The ending ties up many loose ends of the book and yet creates equal amount new questions. As story is written by, presumably, Blue, we are also left wondering if her account of events is sound and/or her analysis is completely valid.

    Since Blue and her father, always referred as Dad, suffer from acutely inflated sense of I.Q. (for Blue of value 175, page 427) the book is permeated by references of sources, real and imaginary, which in some perverted way is very much appealing to me and also serve the purpose of underscoring Blue's personality. The narrative does not carry any morale ( thank God ), but serves simple (though there is nothing really simple about that) purpose of intellectual entertainment. If one is looking for solutions to "humanity's most persistent questions" he should look elsewhere. Notable also, is that the author has knack for beautiful and often very poetic language. Every once in a while, one is struck by the descriptive power of a sentence or a paragraph, which seem to almost bring people and places to life. It is true that this book could have been much more than it is, but than, again, it would have been something else. At the end we are left with an impression that indeed "We are under an invincible blindness as to the true and real nature of things" (page 261)....more info
  • Pathetic
    You'd think someone who's as desperate to show off her knowledge as Marisha Pessl would at least take the trouble of doing research and ensuring that knowledge is correct. You'd be wrong.

    Ms. Pessl repeatedly uses terms incorrectly, and unnecessarily includes Spanish words and phrases, most of which are misspelled or used inaccurately. I got to page 100 and, exasperated, put the book away. Reading Pessl reminded me of what I think every time I see George W. Bush trying to show off his non-existent Spanish: "What a moron."
    ...more info
  • Long, But Well Worth It
    Up to about the halfway mark in this book, I was going to give it four stars, simply because of the length. By the time I reached the end, however, I had decided that this book actually deserved five stars. Yes, it's a little wordy, and yes, Blue's bibliographic asides can be irritating, but I found myself just skipping those. In any case, they are entirely in keeping with her character. I reached the end of this book thinking of that line in Amadeus where a man bemoans "all the notes" Mozart puts on the page. Yet, every one of those notes belongs there, and it's the same thing with this book. I really don't think any of it could be cut without changing the book dramatically (and to its detriment). Maybe (maybe) some of the Blueblood encounters could have been pared down, but really, while there's a lot of material in this book, in my opinion, the author tied it all together skillfully and each piece builds on the next rather smoothly.

    The first half of this book reminded me of a combination of The Secret History, A Separate Peace, and a John Hughes film, and yet this book is also so hard to define and describe. I absolutely loved it. I found the author's unique metaphors and similies delightful and clever. The writing is rich and beautiful and layered, and the story went in surprising directions in the second half. It provides a wealth of discussion material for book groups and certainly had me thinking about what had really happened to the characters in the end. Don't be put off by the book's length and at-times dense prose. It's well worth the time.
    ...more info
  • Details to distraction
    The author made a short story long. Tedious and distracting details slow the reader's flow. I was worn out by the time I reached the 2/3 point in the book and the ending suggests that the author shared my weariness.
    Paladin...more info
  • Save your time for another book
    I've never written an Amazon review before but feel I have to weigh in on this book. It's the most annoying book I've read in a long time. I stayed with it the whole way, expecting that it had to get better to live up to the hype I'd heard. But the ending is completely unsatisfying. The novel is poorly constructed, the characters lack true characterization, the whole effort comes across as the author's attempt to show off. This is an unsatisfying, overwritten, irritating novel....more info