Special Topics in Calamity Physics

( 116 )

Overview

Marisha Pessl's mesmerizing debut has critics raving and heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of this "cracking good read" is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge. But she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway school, she finds some - a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder ...
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Special Topics in Calamity Physics

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Overview

Marisha Pessl's mesmerizing debut has critics raving and heralds the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of this "cracking good read" is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge. But she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway school, she finds some - a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna Tartt (then invites the rest of the Western Canon to the party) in this novel - with "visual aids" drawn by the author - that has won over readers of all ages.
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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the most flashily erudite first novel since Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. With its pirouettes and cartwheels, its tireless annotations and digressions, it has a similar whiz-kid eagerness to wow the reader.
— The New York Times
Donna Rifkind
Blue's cross-referencing mania can be surprisingly enjoyable, because Pessl is a vivacious writer who's figured out how to be brainy without being pedantic.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
A whirling, glittering, multifaceted marvel.
The New York Times
Vogue
Place[s] the author alongside young, eclectic talents like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Zadie Smith.
Los Angeles Times
Hip, ambitious and imaginative.
The New York Times Book Review
This skylarking book will leave readers salivating for more. The joys of this shrewdly playful narrative lie not only in the high-low darts and dives of Pessl's tricky plotting, but in her prose, which floats and runs as if by instinct, unpremeditated and unerring.
Critic's Choice People
Pessl's literary pyrotechnics are just a sideshow; it's her irresistible heroine Blue who makes the novel's heart beat. (People, Critic's Choice)
The Christian Science Monitor
Wholly original and riotously entertaining.
Salon.com
An arresting story and that rarest of delights, a great ending. (Salon.com)
The New York Times
Required reading for devotees of inventive new fiction.
Publishers Weekly

Pessl's showy (often too showy) debut novel, littered as it is with literary references and obscure citations, would seem to make an unlikely candidate for a successful audiobook. Yet actor and singer Emily Janice Card (a North Carolina native like the author) has a ball with Pessl's knotty, digressive prose, eating up Pessl's array of voices, impressions and asides like an ice-cream sundae. Card reads as if she is composing the book as she goes along, with a palpable sense of enjoyment present in almost every line reading. Her girlish voice, immature but knowing, is the perfect sound for Pessl's protagonist and narrator Blue van Meer, wise beyond her years even as she stumbles through a disastrous final year of high school. Card brings out the best in Pessl's novel and papers over its weak spots as ably as she can. Simultaneous release with the Penguin paperback (Reviews, May 22, 2006) (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Publishers Weekly
Pessl's stunning debut is an elaborate construction modeled after the syllabus of a college literature course 36 chapters are named after everything from Othello to Paradise Lost to The Big Sleep that culminates with a final exam. It comes as no surprise, then, that teen narrator Blue Van Meer, the daughter of an itinerant academic, has an impressive vocabulary and a knack for esoteric citation that makes Salinger's Seymour Glass look like a dunce. Following the mysterious death of her butterfly-obsessed mother, Blue and her father, Gareth, embark, in another nod to Nabokov, on a tour of picturesque college towns, never staying anyplace longer than a semester. This doesn't bode well for Blue's social life, but when the Van Meers settle in Stockton, N.C., for the entirety of Blue's senior year, she befriends sort of a group of eccentric geniuses (referred to by their classmates as the Bluebloods) and their ringleader, film studies teacher Hannah Schneider. As Blue becomes enmeshed with Hannah and the Bluebloods, the novel becomes a murder mystery so intricately plotted that, after absorbing the late-chapter revelations, readers will be tempted to start again at the beginning in order to watch the tiny clues fall into place. Like its intriguing main characters, this novel is many things at once it's a campy, knowing take on the themes that made The Secret History and Prep such massive bestsellers, a wry sendup of most of the Western canon and, most importantly, a sincere and uniquely twisted look at love, coming of age and identity. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Precocious Blue van Meer is used to moving around with her professor father, who travels from job to job and affair to affair. But she's not prepared for the consequences when both a friend and a favorite teacher die tragically. A much-touted debut; with a seven-city tour. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Donna Tartt goes postmodern in this eclectically intellectual murder mystery. Blue van Meer, daughter of a womanizing widower, has spent her entire life following her erudite father on six-month stints to the small posts he chooses at obscure universities. During her senior year in high school, though, she convinces him to let her stay put for the entire academic year, which she will spend at the St. Gallway School in Stockton, N.C. There, while immediately proving her academic prowess by besting the presumed valedictorian, she also finds herself courted by an intriguing faculty member, Hannah Schneider, and is reluctantly accepted into her group of student followers: Milton, Charles, Leulah and Jade, each of whom seems to be hiding something about their past. The group meets at Hannah's every Sunday for international cuisine and intellectual banter, and soon Blue is also going on social excursions with the girls and secretly lusting after Milton. Things go awry when Blue and her compatriots break into Hannah's house and witness the mysterious drowning of one of Hannah's friends. The drowning becomes a rallying cry for the group to find out more about their teacher's secret life. The plot thickens again when Hannah herself dies, leaving Blue to put the pieces together and determine the truth. Who was Hannah Schneider really? What was the nature of her various relationships? And why did she welcome Blue into her clique so readily? The writing is clever, the text rich with subtle literary allusion. But while even the gimmicks work well (chapters are structured like a literature syllabus; hand-drawn visual aids appear throughout), they don't compensate for the fact that The Secret Historycame first. Sharp, snappy fun for the literary-minded.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781615558162
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 5/10/2007
  • Format: CD
  • Pages: 22
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Marisha Pessl

Marisha Pessl is the author of Night Film and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her bestselling debut, which was awarded the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize (now the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize) and selected as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. She lives in New York City.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 116 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(53)

4 Star

(18)

3 Star

(11)

2 Star

(7)

1 Star

(27)

Your Rating:

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 116 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Brilliant Plot, Wondeful Writing

    I really wanted to give this book five stars. I REALLY did. Pessl is a first-rate writer. I kept a pen with me the whole time I was reading so I could underline my favorite passages. The plot keeps you turning pages voraciously. It is so tightly woven that you're blown away by the conclusion, realizing that the author had it all intricately mapped out from the very beginning. And the main character, Blue...when I finished the book I felt a little sad that I couldn't follow her on her journey.

    BUT, Pessl's genius is also her downfall. As a rule, I'm a big fan of superfluous verbosity, but I have to admit that I got a little exhausted at points. The constant interruption of her sentences with parenthesized information tended to get irritating, and I'm sure I ended up skipping over some of the doubtlessly insightful information therein - but I just really wanted to get along with the story. Also, while clever, her incessant literary references became cumbersome at points (and sometimes weren't all that clever). And while many of her metaphors were stunning, I think there are probably 10,000 instances of the word "like" in the book, which can get tedious.

    So, while I absolutely LOVED this book, couldn't put it down, and would highly recommend it, I couldn't give it the five stars I reserve for the crème de la crème.

    But regardless, I stand humbly in the long shadow of Marisha Pessl's genius.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2006

    read the secret history instead

    i am hard-pressed to remember a time when i was less impressed by a novel, but i suppose i have now learned my lesson (see 'buying books based on publisher-generated hype', stevens 1986). The characters were flat and unbelievable, and the author seemed more intent on impressing the reader with her pretentiousness than on creating a good novel( see 'substituting pedantic style and obscure references for good writing: your key to literary success' journal of writing, nov. 2004). The pseudo-surprise twist at the end fell incredibly flat, and seems inspired by too many tv shows and movies where it is considered avant-garde and masterful to drop a bomb at the end in order to shock the audience, no matter how ill-conceived and out of context it may happen to be (see 'suprise twists: use them to disguise bad writing', wilson, et al, random house 2001). if you think the review with citations was annoying, imagine an entire book filled with them. save yourself the trouble and go read 'the secret history' by donna tartt. it is no academic masterpiece, but it is a great read with some good commentary and characters, and it is obviously the book that pessl read and is trying to copy.

    7 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 29, 2009

    Different

    I really enjoyed the over-the-top campiness of this novel. I found myself laughing out loud while reading the book. As someone who loves to read, I appreciated many of the literary references in the book.

    The main character, Blue, transformed a bit through the process of the book, but her main core remained unchanged. I found her fascination with her father a little weird, but the flaw is understandable, given her constant movement and lack of other figures in her formative years.

    The plot twist at the end was a little implausible, but the suspension of disbelief is a great thing. I did go back and reread the beginning after I finished the book to see what I had missed the first time.

    Overall, a good, funny read that does require a little whimsy. I can see that this would not be for everyone, but I really liked it.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 31, 2008

    Clever, Funny and a Little Mean

    I hate Marisha Pessl the way everybody in her book hates Deity Looks Edition, which is to say I don't hate her at all but want to wake up tomorrow and be her. That is to say, in my mind she is America and I am a Russian Mail Order Bride; she represents endless opportunity and talent and I represent moldy bread at the end of a two hour wait in snow. <BR/>Anyway, enough about how Marisha Pessl turns me into a communist lesbian and on to why I'm hyper hyper gay for this book. I'm an elitist. I read books. And, jesus, do I love my celebrity gossip. And this is a smart, well written, dry and extremely dark compilation of all things wonderful.<BR/><BR/>For a full review, check out: http://thebooksnob.blogspot.com/

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2006

    A Bit Too High-Brow

    I was lured into buying this book due to all of the great reviews it received. However, I found it very irritating to have to stop and think about this reference or that, these parenthetical comments or that...I felt that the author over compensated with the academic and literary prowess at the reader's expense. I didn't really get half of the references, eventually stopped trying to, and found myself skipping entire pages in search of dialogue or paragraphs that were related to the actual story line. Maybe I just wasn't smart enough for this book. I did not enjoy it very much.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    Why. Why?

    I mean really? Any comparison to Donna Tartt is ridiculous. This book started out with some literary promise and interest but by the idiotic denoument I could not believe the waste of time I spent reading this self involved tripe

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 11, 2012

    This writer is amazing. Don't read if you're just looking for pl

    This writer is amazing. Don't read if you're just looking for plot; this book is almost ALL character development. I'd say it's a tough read too, although that's what I enjoy. I can't wait for her next book. I feel supremely educated after reading this book and want MORE. I underlined, highlighted, and made notes throughout the book. If you like your books gift wrapped and tied with a bow at the end, don't read. This is for those who can appreciate literary excellence!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Random facts, Purple prose, Teenage Angst, and Murder

    At its base, this is the story of a smarter-than-average teen-aged girl learning whom to trust. It is set primarily in an upper class east coast town and private high school. I live in California, so I can't tell you if the atmosphere is accurately described. It seemed cliche to me.
    So did the In Crowd that our heroine, Blue, is thrust in to.

    Blue's father has been her life until he decides that they should suspend their peripatetic ways for her senior year of high school. She begins to learn about kids her own age through the agency of a quirky film history teacher, Hannah, who feeds dinner to the aforementioned In Crowd on Sundays. They all worship her, so when she asks them to include Blue in their reindeer games they attempt to comply. Not graciously, though. The story gets darker from there.

    The most noteworthy aspect of this novel is Blue's voice. After her mother died, her genius father raised her in his own image. He is a teacher of political science, his specialty is revolutions. He moves from college to college as a special lecturer. The car games that they play as they drive around the country will make factoid freaks drool. He is also quite a ladies' man.

    So Blue is more than precocious intellectually. Her narrative wanders off on literary, political, cinematic, and geographic tangents. There are even footnotes added for academic comic relief. I suppose it is possible that these tangents are a purposeful delaying tactic that the author starts using long before the suspense begins to build. Perhaps I have just ruined the parlor trick.

    But in spite of my obvious reservations about the rococo quality of the prose, I read the whole thing. I was pulled through it, I continued to find ideas and turns of phrase that entertained me, and I did get caught up in the mystery.

    I found the ending anticlimactic, but appropriate. I will follow that example.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2007

    A reviewer

    You can plow your way through this tedious novel by skipping all the citations and reading just the first and second sentences of each paragraph. There is probably a world record here of how many analogies and metaphors can be crammed into a chapter. I guess I must be too ancient and unhip to 'get' it, but this is neither good writing nor thoughtful editing and I am lucky that a friend loaned it to me so I'm not out the price of the book, just the time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2012

    Precocious

    Although the author seems determined to make us work for the answer to whodunnit, this novel is one of the most fun books I have read in a while.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 13, 2011

    Certainly interesting

    Slow to get into, but ultimately worth it. Fun, smart, incredibly witty--Pessl has a knick for good prose. :) Recommended!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    An Inspiring Read from a New Writer

    I had originally picked up Pessl's Special Topics to complete a deal on books, but had no intention on reading anything above and beyond the ordinary. It turns out to be a wonderful tale of young confusion and wild twists all made by the unusually tedious yet ornate style.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 10, 2010

    Liked it

    A friend of mine lent me this book, and then I went on to buy it for myself, because I am planning to reread it at some point.
    First off, the idea is original, the style, while not yet refined, is not bad, and enjoyable. The story is compelling, exciting, and it entangles you entirely. It is a novel that is very hard to put down.
    I was sometimes tired of all the references. It was too obviously clever and smartish in a way. And I also thought the ending was a bit anticlimatic, and a lot of questions remained unanswered, which was obviously done on purpose, but hey, I still complain.
    Great characters as well. Little Blue is a bit clueless, a bit too clueless for my taste, but anyway. Good read, I really recommend it to all.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 8, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Fun Read

    I found this to be a fun book. Interesting characters and intriquely written. At times I gave myself permission to skim, as Pessl's style (due to the main character) is sometimes tiring. Worth it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2008

    Footnotes*

    *An overly used device in this book that quickly runs out of cleverness.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2014

    hades cabin

    Here

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2013

    Horrible

    This is the worst book I have ever read. And I am a lit graduate of UNC. I wish there was a "zero" grade.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2013

    Special Topics In Calamity Physics Review

    Having just finished the authors second book, Night Film, I was pretty excited to read this...those looking for another Night Film will most likely be disappointed. That being said, this story is still a great literary read ala The Secret History (Donna Tartt).

    I will say the first half was a bit long winded and the authors use of references/citations annoying (interesting evey once in a while: disturbing interuptions the rest of the time). Not much of the plot starts kicking to life until somewhere around mid-book the last section finally reeling you into the promised mystery & thought provoking pieces.

    As for the big twist ending? I had guessed at the majority of it fairly early on and as the plot rolled out it only confirmed my suspicions. However there were a lot more details revealed at the end which filled it out and at least made it satisfying if not surprising.

    The story is also an elegant and poignant look at coming of age and features some very real characters (worts and all) and painfull and sometimes beautiful truths.

    - Miss Paraprosdokian -

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2013

    Somewhere Between Good and Very Good. It was a fun read, a good

    Somewhere Between Good and Very Good. It was a fun read, a good story, but the CONSTANT literary reference interruptions got really irritating, to the point where it didn’t seem to be adding to the plot and began to feel like the author was simply trying to impress the reader with her literary knowledge. I found myself skipping whole paragraphs that seemed to be nothing more than superfluous literary references. My annoyances with the book didn’t end there. I found the characters to be flat and stereotypical despite what seemed like a painstaking effort by the author to develop them. In the end, I just really didn’t care about any of them, except perhaps for Natasha who doesn’t really ever appear in the story except as a memory. I also felt the book was way too long for the story it was telling and truly dragged on at times. It wasn’t until the last 100-200 pages or so that the pace really picked up and it became, for me, a “page-turner”. And then, after all that, the end just left me feeling unsatisfied. (I’m having a hard time explaining why I felt that way without giving away the plot.) I wasn't sure whether to give the book 3 stars (good) or 4 stars (very good), but between the incessant literary references, the 2-dimensional stereotypical characters, the slow pace, and the disappointing ending, there was enough to detract from what was otherwise a great story. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2010

    Wonderful, unique novel

    This book was absolutely amazing. The author's writing style is unique and rich with vocabulary and interesting facts. In no way do I agree with some of the other reviewers and think that she is "showing off". She is a genuinely good writer and I look forward to her second novel.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 116 Customer Reviews

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