Thursday, February 5, 2009

Marisha Pessl/SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS


Blue van Meer, an oppressively well-read high school senior, has spent her life in the passenger seat of her widower father's car as they drive from university town to university town, averaging three moves a year. As a result, Blue has an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare, resistance movements, and deceased film stars, but not a single friend. For her senior year, however, Professor van Meer decides they will settle in a town with a very good private school so Blue will be sure to get into Harvard. The unsocialized Blue finds herself sucked into a clique of charismatic seniors, the "bluebloods," who gather together under the wing of their film teacher, Hannah Schneider, the most charismatic of them all. It isn't many weeks into Blue's settled life and tenuous new friendships that things become strange and begin to go wrong--and Blue, in her innocence of people, has an awful lot to untangle.

Although this book is more than 500 pages, I found it going very quickly. Pessl's style is compulsively readable and compelling--this despite the fact that there are (often humorous or imaginary) bibliographic citations worked into almost every paragraph. The whole book is nerdishly delectable like that--in that you'll find it delectable if you are *that* sort of nerd. I have met people who loved it as well as people who couldn't stand the style and didn't make it past 20 pages. For the latter group, I feel a little sorry, since they never made it to what turns out to be a multifaceted and mind-tripping little plot.

I, personally, liked it a lot, although I think it's a risky recommendation for people who don't tend to like the kinds of things I read.

I won't say more here, because I don't want to put spoilers directly into the review, but if other people have read it, please let me know! I'd love to talk about the end (so those who haven't read, perhaps shy away from the comments).

17 comments:

Lisa said...

Sounds like one I'll like...I am moving it up a notch on my TBR pile. You know what I like -- think I'll like it?

Jaye Wells said...

I'm listening to it on audiobook, so that might alter the experience. But I'm loving the story so far. I'd also highly recomend the audio version because the voice work is excellent.

I_am_Tulsa said...

Hi! I'm new on blogger and am really happy to find such a neat site. I read this book about 2 years ago, so my memory of the book will have to be refreshed.
I usually write by personal book reviews in special notebooks but I couldn't find my entry for this one!
However, I do remember enjoying it. The daughter-father relationship was interesting and I also kind of wished that I was as smart as Blue...

Ben-M said...

I read this quite some time ago, so my memory is a little hazy.

I started out liking this book for its style and interesting portrayal of a particular type of character. By well over half way through I found it very tedious, like sitting in a movie theatre looking at your watch and wondering how much longer you have to wait before you can do something fun like get stuck in traffic.

One of the pacing issues for me was that the book started out with an indication that the character's teacher is murdered. As a hook, it set certain expectations, but then didn't continue to deliver; By 2/3rds of the way through I was almost wondering if the alleged murder was ever going to happen at all, or if it was to be merely a trivial thing with little aftermath.

Consequently, I found the ending - or I should say, the appendix - intriguing. On the one hand, it told me anything I missed when I skimmed the last 20%. On the other hand, (thanks to my particular experience) why was it really necessary if the book could hold a reader's attention well enough in the first place?

No doubt someone who enjoyed the book might consider the appendix in a completely different light.

moonrat said...

Lisa--I do. This does seem like your type.

Jaye--I NEED to get into audiobooks! I was thinking of buying an iPod shuffle specifically for books. My parents have been reeeally getting into them.

Ben-M--I too found it got tedious 2/3 of the way through. I fear that being an editor, I always look at books and think about where I would cut. In this case, I know exactly where I would have cut. But I liked it a lot nonetheless.

Opinion said...

The thing to take away from Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the contents page. One should make time and read and re-read the wonderful works listed there and not bother with what follows.

Christy Raedeke said...

"Nerdishly delectable" is my favorite takeaway from your review! I really liked this book - though ached for some editing 2/3 the way through.

The whole way through I was thinking it read a lot like the bastard love child of THE SECRET HISTORY and THE INFINITE JEST.

moonrat said...

Christy--ha! I love it.

Yeah, I gotta admit 2/3 of the way in I was like, "so this is just a knockoff of SECRET HISTORY, eh?" and was pleasantly surprised when she offered more. I'm glad it took the turn it did--otherwise there was a lot of familiarity about the plot.

But yes, "ached for some editing" myself. So it's not just because I'm an editor?

So far, NO ONE has talked about the ending!! Not a single person wants to try to flush it out with me?!

a stitch in time said...

I read it quite a while ago, and I was half pleased, half disappointed. I did like the voice and all the nerdy citation stuff sprinkled in, and yes, the plot was kind of nicely mind-twisting towards the end.

But sometimes, it was just a bit too unbelievable, and a bit too know-it-all for my taste. And the end left me somehow unsatisfied, though I couldn't tell why.

I put it in the shelf, pretty sure that I will not re-read it, or at least not soon.

I_am_Tulsa said...

I reread the last few chapters, and now I remember why I hadn't written any notes on the book. If Blue's speculations about her father were true, the story suddenly becomes unreal to me. I think as I was reading, I was hoping that this bright girl would be all wrong (me not being very smart, can get a kick out of this.)
So, I came to the conclusion that this was a story about a girl with an amazing imagination (thanks to being very well read), and for her, high school stinks and she can't trust the adults around her . But that's the way life is and her "story" was her way of coping with it.
I'm not saying I didn't like it. I did! There just might've been a lack of 'closure'....

moonrat said...

Hmm, that's an interesting take.

**warning!! spoilers!!**

I have to say, the ending upset me a little. Two things:
1) I think the epilogue was a bit of a cop-out. Although it was well done, and perhaps the only way to resolve the story (one without resolution). But I did feel just a TEENSY bit cheated. I'm not sure I would want it changed, exactly. But.
2) I just can't buy the abandonment. I can't. I don't even know where to go with it. It doesn't matter if EVERYthing is correct; it doesn't make sense, from a character perspective. Throughout, we are repeatedly shown (and told) that he would do anything for Blue, and then boom! A little heat and gone? It doesn't make sense, and made me really sad.

**end spoilers**

Jolie said...

*carefully does not look at other comments*

This sounds like something both I and my best friend would love ... I may have to purchase a copy for us to share. Thanks for a useful (as yours always are) review!

Mary said...

It's been over a year since I read it and as you'll see from my comment on your blog, I loved it. As far as the end: I think she sets it up pretty well. I don't not buy it but I did hate it. It's one of those things that makes you think, though, and there are a lot of layers to sift through, which for me is part of what makes a book both entertaining and meaningful. The epilogue I hated except for the last couple of lines, which I just had to refresh myself on. I wouldn't even have remembered it if I hadn't gone back and looked, though other parts of the narrative are still fresh (like the goldfish). I do think Pessl's a very smart writer and all of it--the technique-y stuff and length and ending--are there not for lack of control or editing, but because she believes in them. And I'm willing to give her that because so much of the book was exceptional. (And I think the narrative as a whole smacks of someone doing a damn good editing job, an intentional one).

Jena said...

I read this book on my honeymoon, and I highly recommend it to people who get a geekish glee out of fiction that includes citations (I thought once or twice that if Hermione Granger were a muggle, she might be a lot like Blue)--but you're right, I wouldn't recommend it to those who aren't already fiction lovers.

I_am_Tulsa said...

@Jena I love that... "if Hermione Granger were a muggle"!

Trampled Pixie said...

I read this book about two years ago, but I remember that it was the first thing to properly hold my attention in a while. There were definitely parts where it slowed down in that, "Is this section actually imperative to plot...at all?" but it maintained being a good read overall. One of the parts that's sticking out in my head, currently, is the section where Blue was watching the news following the hiking incident. It felt surreal to me, but in that imaginative sort of way.

Actually, 90% of the book felt very surreal--definitely an effect of our lead character/narrator living so completely in her head. I don't think we're *meant* to know what's actually real and what isn't.

The ending threw me for the same reasons. A man that doting wouldn't up and vanish, even after having his entire library chucked at him, and not over something like what Blue discovered/insinuated.

Overall, though, regarding the whole trippy plot and ending, I really appreciated the fact that Pessl *didn't* tie up all the loose ends. Leaving things unknown leaves even more room for the reader's imagination to fill the gaps as they choose, which is half the fun of it.

Saphira said...

I'd offer a detailed opinion, but I really can't do any better than this BBC reviewer. Less focus on trying to impress me...would have impressed me. If I hadn't been reading it for my MFA program, I would have taken Dorothy Parker's advice and thrown it with great force. Sorry.