The Beautiful Miscellaneous: A Novel

( 5 )

Overview

NATHAN NELSON IS THE AVERAGE SON OF A GENIUS. His father, a physicist of small renown, has prodded him toward greatness from an early age — enrolling him in whiz kid summer camps, taking him to the icy tundra of Canada to track a solar eclipse, and teaching him college algebra. But despite Samuel Nelson's efforts, Nathan remains ordinary.

Then, in the summer of 1987, everything changes. While visiting his small-town grandfather in Michigan, Nathan is involved in a terrible ...

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Overview

NATHAN NELSON IS THE AVERAGE SON OF A GENIUS. His father, a physicist of small renown, has prodded him toward greatness from an early age — enrolling him in whiz kid summer camps, taking him to the icy tundra of Canada to track a solar eclipse, and teaching him college algebra. But despite Samuel Nelson's efforts, Nathan remains ordinary.

Then, in the summer of 1987, everything changes. While visiting his small-town grandfather in Michigan, Nathan is involved in a terrible accident. After a brief clinical death — which he later recalls as a lackluster affair lasting less than the length of a Top 40 pop song — he falls into a coma. When he awakens, Nathan finds that everyday life is radically different. His perceptions of sight, sound, and memory have been irrevocably changed. The doctors and his parents fear permanent brain damage. But the truth of his condition is more unexpected and leads to a renewed chance for Nathan to find his place in the world.

Thinking that his son's altered brain is worthy of serious inquiry, Samuel arranges for Nathan to attend the Brook-Mills Institute, a Midwestern research center where savants, prodigies, and neurological misfits are studied and their specialties applied. Immersed in this strange atmosphere — where an autistic boy can tell you what day Christmas falls on in 3026 but can't tie his shoelaces, where a medical intuitive can diagnose cancer during a long-distance phone call with a patient — Nathan begins to unravel the mysteries of his new mind. He also tries to make peace with the crushing weight of his father's expectations.

The Beautiful Miscellaneous is an extraordinary follow-up to Dominic Smith's critically acclaimed debut, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. This dazzling new novel explores the fault lines that can cause a family to drift apart and the unexpected events that can pull them back together.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"With an exquisite ear not just for language but for emotional truth as well, Dominic Smith has written an ambitious and strikingly unusual tale about what it's like to grow up in the shadow of a brilliant father and under the force of his expectations. I finished this book in awe of Smith's imagination — and of his enormous heart." — Julia Glass, author of Three Junes and The Whole World Over

"The Beautiful Miscellaneous is one of the most original coming-of-age stories I've read in a long time. It's about gawkiness, particle physics, bereavement, and memory, but it's also a dazzling inquiry into a universe that is at once breathtakingly elegant and irrevocably mundane. Anomalies, graces, the tedium of grief — it's all here, cast in Dominic Smith's smooth, dazzling prose." — Anthony Doerr, author of The Shell Collector and About Grace

"The gifts of knowledge that failure brings is the subject of this deft and generous novel about fathers and sons. The phenomenon of love still being, pretty much, the most extraordinary phenomenon of them all, withstanding the ambitions of lesser dreams." — Joy Williams, author of Honored Guest and The Quick and the Dead

Publishers Weekly

Smith's novel of the painfully ordinary son of a brilliant scientist, and his sudden acquisition of marvelous powers of memory, is read by Garcia with a taste for melodrama. Garcia's melodramatic streak is understated, prodded less by emoting than by tone of voice and careful pauses. Each sentence ends with a slight downturn, as if inflated hopes have rapidly dwindled to nothingness. Garcia, a stage actor by training, treats Smith's novel as an extended monologue to be performed, summoning the moods and sensations of its prose via subtle shifts of emphasis. The result is a performance-driven audiobook, rendered in minimalist fashion. Simultaneous release with the Atria hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 23). (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
Young Nathan may be extremely talented, whiling away his summers in whiz-kid camps, but he's not the prodigy his father dreams of until he emerges from an accident-induced coma with a rare condition that lets him memorize...everything. With a five-city tour; a BookClubReader feature. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
He's no genius, but he's hardly normal; a boy struggles with this quandary in this finely modulated second novel (The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, 2006). Nathan Nelson is an only child burdened by expectations of genius. The problem is not his high-minded but practical mother; it's his father Samuel, a college physics professor in their Wisconsin town. Samuel has large ambitions of his own (he is looking for the ghost particle), but he takes Nathan's mild precocity for genius. He subjects him to frequent math and science drills. For his tenth birthday in 1980, Samuel plans a surprise trip to California. Disneyland, hopes Nathan, but no such luck; they visit Samuel's shrine, the Stanford Linear Accelerator. The fact is Samuel, while trying to do the best by his son, is clueless about kids and has no people skills. A crisis erupts at the seventh-grade science fair when Nathan, seeing the rest of his childhood gobbled up by similarly dreary events, deliberately flubs the championship question and gains a respite. This is where an interesting novel becomes even more so. Nathan's grandfather, drunk, causes a deadly highway accident. The old man dies; after a brief near-death experience, Nathan emerges from a coma to find he has synesthesia-some sensory boundaries have dissolved; words have colors and tastes; he can perform astonishing feats of memory; his father's hopes of genius surge back. Nathan attends an Institute for the unusually gifted, but again he disappoints his dad, who will soon learn he has an inoperable brain tumor. There are moving scenes before and after his death as Nathan realizes that behind his difficult exterior, Samuel did harbor unconditional love for him. Thereare also plenty of lighter moments, and the unerringly true dialogue is a delight; one dinner-table conversation of a "normal" family, eavesdropped on by Nathan, deserves to be anthologized. A luminous addition to novels about fathers and sons.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743271257
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,532,424
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Dominic Smith grew up in Sydney, Australia and now lives in Austin, Texas. He holds an MFA in writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly.

His awards include the Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize, and the Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. In 2006, his debut novel The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

Dominic serves on the fiction faculty in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and has taught recently at the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University. Find out more at www.dominicsmith.net.

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Read an Excerpt

one

As far as near-death experiences go, mine was a disappointment. No bright whirring tunnel or silver-blue mist, just a wave of white noise, a low-set squall coming from an unknown source. I was gone for ninety seconds and spent the next two weeks in a coma. I sometimes imagine the moment when my miniature death ended and the coma began. I picture it like emerging from a bath in absolute darkness.

I woke in a hospital room during the last week of July 1987. I was seventeen and it was the middle of the night. A series of machines stood around my bed, emitting a pale, luminous green. I stared at a heart monitor, mesmerized by the scintilla of my pulse moving across the screen. Tiny drops of clear liquid hovered, then fell inside an IV bag. Voices — muffled and indistinguishable — carried in from a corridor. I felt unable to call out. I lay there quietly, looking up at the ceiling, and waited for someone to confirm that I was back among the living.

Copyright © 2007 by Dominic Smith

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Introduction

Introduction

At seventeen, Nathan Nelson is the mildly gifted son of a genius. Hisfather, Dr. Samuel Nelson, is a particle physicist whose three passionsin life are quarks, jazz, and uncovering Nathan's prodigious talents.Consequently, Nathan has spent his formative years in whiz-kid summercamps, taking trips to particle accelerators, and plotting simultaneousequations to the off-kilter riffs of Thelonious Monk. An only child,Nathan is painfully aware that he "swims like a tadpole in the deepestplace of the bell curve" and slouches through puberty looking for anescape from his parents' lofty dream.

Everything changes when Nathan is involved in a terrible accident. Aftera brief clinical death and a two-week coma, he awakens to find that hisperceptions of sight, sound, and memory have been irrevocably changed.The doctors and his parents fear permanent brain damage, but the truthof his condition is much more unexpected and leads to a renewed chancefor Nathan to find his place in the world.

Nathans father arranges for him to attend the Brook-Mills InstituteaMidwestern research center where savants, prodigies, and neurologicalmisfits are studied and their "talents" applied. Immersed in thisstrange atmospherewhere an autistic boy can tell you what day Christmasfalls on in 3026 but can't tie his shoelaces, where a medical intuitivecan diagnose cancer during a long-distance phone call with apatientNathan begins to unravel the mysteries of his new mind and triesto make peace with the crushing weight of his father's expectations.

Reading Group Guide for The Beautiful Miscellaneous

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. Nathan's parents seemto live apart from both outsiders and each other. Discuss Nathan's relationship to his parents. How are they connected to and disconnected from one another? Why do you think they keep a distance between themselves and people outside the family?

2. After the accident Nathan's father says, "This was not supposed to happen." (p. 65) What role does fate play in this novel? Was the accident "supposed" to happen?

3. Nathan's father says that Nathan's grandfather "thinks God's an old guy witha beard and an ulcer and a scoreboard." (p. 71) Nathan's father believes in a "unified field." (p. 70). What are Nathan's beliefs about God? Do his convictions change through the course of the book? How?

4. Synesthesia, Nathan's condition, is described as a blending of the senses. How does the author use sensory details in his writing to convey this condition?

5. Mozart, perhaps the most famous historical child prodigy, is mentioned earlyin the book as part of an experiment on rats. (p. 44) Identify and discuss the skills of the other prodigies at the Brooks-Mills Institute. Who is the most talented? Who is the most driven to use his or her talents? Why?

6. Toby asks Nathan what he is "in for," (p. 112) referring to the Brooks-MillsInstitute as if it was a jail. Is the Institute a kind of prison? If so, for which students? What benefits do they get from being at the Institute?

7. Nathan refers to silence as the "sound of not remembering." (p. 131) What does he mean by this? Soon after, Dr. Gillman says, "Forgetting is when things slip [out]. Not remembering is when you filter things out." (p. 132) Do you think he is right? Why or why not?

8. Dr. Gillman says to Nathan that knowledge is pointless unless you do something with it. Nathan asks in return, "Why does information have to be useful? Does music need to be useful?" (p. 133) Discuss their arguments. Who do you agree with?

9. Generally, Whit is interested in the world on a planetary scale while Nathan's father focuses on particle and subatomic science. Where do Nathan's interests fall in the scope of the universe?

10. Collision, whether it be particles, cars, or people arguing, plays a large role in the book. Which of the many sudden impacts, either physical or emotional, are the most important in the novel?

11. Toward the end of the story the author includes letters from Nathan to his father. Why? What do these letters reveal about Nathan that the author might not have been able to convey in another style of writing? How do these letters connect, compare, and contrast to Nathan's father letter to God?

12. At many times in the book Nathan is clearly the central character. His father, however, casts a long shadow over Nathan's life and the course of the novel. Who is the most powerful driving force of the action in the book?

13. What is the significance of Nathan's father's watch? What role does time play in the story?

14. Clyde Kaplansky says, "Memory can be the way back or the way forward." Whatdoes he mean by this? Do you think he is right? Why or why not?

15. What does Nathan learn after seeing Darius/Taro?

16. What is the meaning of the title The Beautiful Miscellaneous? Discussthe arc of the storyline. What is the central conflict? What is the rising action? What is the climax? Does it have one?

Tips to Enhance Your Reading Group

1. The Stanford Linear Accelerator is one of the world's leading research laboratories. Established in 1962 at Stanford University in Menlo Park, California, whose mission is to design, construct and operate state-of-the-art electron accelerators and related experimental facilities for use in high-energyphysics and synchrotron radiation research. Learn more about the center at: http://www.slac.stanford.edu/

2. The Davidson Institute at the University of Nevada (http://www.ditd.org/) is an example of a nonprofit school for America's gifted children. To learn moreabout how education for the gifted functions on a state by state basis visit:http://www.gt-cybersource.org/StatePolicy.aspx?NavID=4_0

3. Each year the USA Memory Championships are held. To learn more about the event or how to participate visit: http://usamemorychampionship.com/

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

At seventeen, Nathan Nelson is the mildly gifted son of a genius. His father, Dr. Samuel Nelson, is a particle physicist whose three passions in life are quarks, jazz, and uncovering Nathan's prodigious talents. Consequently, Nathan has spent his formative years in whiz-kid summer camps, taking trips to particle accelerators, and plotting simultaneous equations to the off-kilter riffs of Thelonious Monk. An only child, Nathan is painfully aware that he "swims like a tadpole in the deepest place of the bell curve" and slouches through puberty looking for an escape from his parents' lofty dream.

Everything changes when Nathan is involved in a terrible accident. After a brief clinical death and a two-week coma, he awakens to find that his perceptions of sight, sound, and memory have been irrevocably changed. The doctors and his parents fear permanent brain damage, but the truth of his condition is much more unexpected and leads to a renewed chance for Nathan to find his place in the world.

Nathans father arranges for him to attend the Brook-Mills Institutea Midwestern research center where savants, prodigies, and neurological misfits are studied and their "talents" applied. Immersed in this strange atmospherewhere an autistic boy can tell you what day Christmas falls on in 3026 but can't tie his shoelaces, where a medical intuitive can diagnose cancer during a long-distance phone call with a patientNathan begins to unravel the mysteries of his new mind and tries to make peace with the crushing weight of his father's expectations.

Reading Group Guide for The Beautiful Miscellaneous

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. Nathan's parents seem to live apart from both outsiders and each other. Discuss Nathan's relationship to his parents. How are they connected to and disconnected from one another? Why do you think they keep a distance between themselves and people outside the family?

2. After the accident Nathan's father says, "This was not supposed to happen." (p. 65) What role does fate play in this novel? Was the accident "supposed" to happen?

3. Nathan's father says that Nathan's grandfather "thinks God's an old guy with a beard and an ulcer and a scoreboard." (p. 71) Nathan's father believes in a "unified field." (p. 70). What are Nathan's beliefs about God? Do his convictions change through the course of the book? How?

4. Synesthesia, Nathan's condition, is described as a blending of the senses. How does the author use sensory details in his writing to convey this condition?

5. Mozart, perhaps the most famous historical child prodigy, is mentioned early in the book as part of an experiment on rats. (p. 44) Identify and discuss the skills of the other prodigies at the Brooks-Mills Institute. Who is the most talented? Who is the most driven to use his or her talents? Why?

6. Toby asks Nathan what he is "in for," (p. 112) referring to the Brooks-Mills Institute as if it was a jail. Is the Institute a kind of prison? If so, for which students? What benefits do they get from being at the Institute?

7. Nathan refers to silence as the "sound of not remembering." (p. 131) What does he mean by this? Soon after, Dr. Gillman says, "Forgetting is when things slip [out]. Not remembering is when you filter things out." (p. 132) Do you think he is right? Why or why not?

8. Dr. Gillman says to Nathan that knowledge is pointless unless you do something with it. Nathan asks in return, "Why does information have to be useful? Does music need to be useful?" (p. 133) Discuss their arguments. Who do you agree with?

9. Generally, Whit is interested in the world on a planetary scale while Nathan's father focuses on particle and subatomic science. Where do Nathan's interests fall in the scope of the universe?

10. Collision, whether it be particles, cars, or people arguing, plays a large role in the book. Which of the many sudden impacts, either physical or emotional, are the most important in the novel?

11. Toward the end of the story the author includes letters from Nathan to his father. Why? What do these letters reveal about Nathan that the author might not have been able to convey in another style of writing? How do these letters connect, compare, and contrast to Nathan's father letter to God?

12. At many times in the book Nathan is clearly the central character. His father, however, casts a long shadow over Nathan's life and the course of the novel. Who is the most powerful driving force of the action in the book?

13. What is the significance of Nathan's father's watch? What role does time play in the story?

14. Clyde Kaplansky says, "Memory can be the way back or the way forward." What does he mean by this? Do you think he is right? Why or why not?

15. What does Nathan learn after seeing Darius/Taro?

16. What is the meaning of the title The Beautiful Miscellaneous? Discuss the arc of the storyline. What is the central conflict? What is the rising action? What is the climax? Does it have one?

Tips to Enhance Your Reading Group

1. The Stanford Linear Accelerator is one of the world's leading research laboratories. Established in 1962 at Stanford University in Menlo Park, California, whose mission is to design, construct and operate state-of-the-art electron accelerators and related experimental facilities for use in high-energy physics and synchrotron radiation research. Learn more about the center at: http://www.slac.stanford.edu/

2. The Davidson Institute at the University of Nevada (http://www.ditd.org/) is an example of a nonprofit school for America's gifted children. To learn more about how education for the gifted functions on a state by state basis visit: http://www.gt-cybersource.org/StatePolicy.aspx?NavID=4_0

3. Each year the USA Memory Championships are held. To learn more about the event or how to participate visit: http://usamemorychampionship.com/

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

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  • Posted April 10, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Loved this book!

    I picked this book up with no idea what to expect. I loved it! I read it in two days. I thought the book was very visual and easy to imagine the characters, who were very interesting. I definitely recommend this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2007

    Amazing

    This is a great story, you are immeadiately drawn in from page 1. Even from the first handful of pages I was able to visualize the setting & sense the real emotions between the characters in the story. I devoured this book over the weekend and read nonstop.

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