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Special Topics in Calamity Physics Hardcover – August 3, 2006

3.7 out of 5 stars 507 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine

With a murder that occurs in the opening pages and a narrator who joins an elite clique of students, Special Topics bears resemblance to Donna Tartt's 1992 classic, The Secret History—as the novel's publisher is more than happy to remind us. Critics call this comparison a publicity coup, as the two novels differ greatly in narration, orchestration, and tone. Organized as a "Great Books" course, the novel requires careful attention (and literary knowledge) from its readers, especially when Blue spouts esoteric tidbits. Although most critics were utterly compelled by Marisha Pessl's debut novel, a few thought it mean-spirited and too smart for its own good. "A 500-page headache is as possible as a bracing joyride," notes the New York Times.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 514 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (August 3, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067003777X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670037773
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.6 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (507 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #758,442 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Amy Tiemann VINE VOICE on August 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Part of me is tempted to give "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" 3 stars, but that would give the impression that I found it mediocre and passionless. On the contrary, part of me loved the book to 5 stars, but the excessive loquatiousness of the narrator's expression nearly drove me to distraction. So my mathematical reducion will stay at 4 stars, with reservations explained. By Chapter 8 I was still not engaged enough to convince me that I was going to actually read the whole book. But by the end I stayed awake reading as late as I could one night, and stole away enough time the next day to finish it. Reading this story was like running a reverse marathon that started out as a meandering stroll and ended in a sprint.

And when I say marathon, I mean marathon. Most reviewers have noted the length of the book, weighing in at over 500 pages. Individual sentences stretched on and on with strange metaphors, literary allusions and references, and parenthetical comments galore. Much of it was dense academic blathering--in character, to be sure, but still very annoying to read. Oftentimes I'd find myself strugging with a long sentence, breathlessly awaiting a period like a drowing person begging for someone to throw her a life preserver. If you can get through this style of writing, there is a compelling story waiting to be decoded, but this book won't be for everyone. Though I felt like I was cheating a bit, after the first half of the story I gave myself permission to give up on close textual analysis and read like a skipping stone. The author's pacing picked up in the later stages of the book as well, but as a reader I did make a conscious choice to step in as an editor.

If you still think you'd enjoy the book, I'd say stop reading the reviews and just go read it.
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Format: Paperback
After reading several reviews of Special Topics in Calamity physics, I was hesitant to read the book, but I am very glad that I did. Although the other reviews are correct in saying that the beginning is rather slow, the book gains speed right around page 170. However, the information provided to you in these first 170 pages ends up being rather important by the end of the story. There are a lot of little things, mostly small bits of information about Hannah, but other things as well, that end up coming into play much later in to book, somewhere around page 400. I agree that parts of the text could have been cut out, but I fail to comprehend why one would want to do so. Marisha Pessl's writing technique kept me entertained throughout the 170 pages of seemingly useless information. I found myself captivated by her use of both citations and wonderfully detailed descriptions. Also, Pessl's twists in the story are far beyond what I expected. They kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the book. I was especially interested in Nigel, although I am not sure why. I don't identify with his character per se, but I wish she had developed his, and all of the Bluebloods characters a bit more. The only thing about this book that I didn't like was the lack of an ending. I understand that that was somewhat the point, to leave it open for interpretation. It was even mentioned earlier in the book how much Gareth Van Meer hated absolute endings because it left nothing up to the imagination. So although I think that this is a fitting ending, I, being one of the "Americans" that he speaks of, wish that the ending had been at least a bit more definite. All in all, I think that Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a very well written book. It is not, however, a "quick read" (Although it may be considered one for Blue.)
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Format: Hardcover
Like others reviewing this book part of what intrigued me was the title, because I also have some background with physics.

Like others, once I began it I found it to be a slow read but have stuck with it for whatever reason, be it a masochistic tendency to finish something started or a hope to see potential realized.

I won't make the mistake of attacking the author for her choices in the novel or drawing assumptions about her talent; I can hardly fault her for her colorful language when it is often my favorite type of writing.

Indeed, Pessl is at her strongest when she is comparing things to other things via her wordy similes and metaphors and this is perhaps the book's chief failing: she so often compares characters to "Snow Egrets" or a "Saguaro cactus" that it is difficult to see them as people. In fact, the book seems to revel more in words and descriptions than in people.

Garreth, the protagonist's father, disdains to teach at upper-tier schools because he feels they are not in need of enlightenment, and instead ordains himself a sort of Prometheus bringing fire to his romanticized Common Man.

This feeling of superiority on the parts of Blue and her father to every other person is what most grated me about this novel, as it seems it did other people. Garreth creates an idyllic image of the Common Man and seems to feel they are blessed to have him bring wisdom to their poor, ignorant lives and yet he is recounted as driving 20 miles out of his way to avoid eating at a roadside diner where the common kind of man eats. Garreth seems to detest every student he has, giving them derisory nicknames and ridiculing them to his daughter; one wonders why it is then that he bothers to teach?
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