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Marisha Pessl – Special Topics in Calamity Physics

December 24, 2007

126. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (2006)

Length: 528 page

Genre: Literary Fiction

Started: 21 December 2007
Finished: 24 December 2007

Summary: Intelligent and overly-well-read Blue Van Meer’s childhood has been fragmented, an itinerant existence of following her brilliant father to guest professorships all over the country. They’ve settled down for her senior year at St. Gallway’s school in North Carolina when Blue is taken in by a mysterious but magnetic teacher, Hannah Schneider, and the group of students – Bluebloods – that gravitate towards her. However, when Hannah dies under mysterious circumstances, Blue seems to be the only one interested in and capable of putting all of the pieces together.

Review: If I were the sort of person who could put down partially-read books, this book would never have made it past page 35 – the first hundred pages (at least) meander aimlessly, in love with themselves, and basically did nothing more than annoy the everloving snot out of me. The plot does pick up eventually – and by eventually I mean around page 350 of my 514 page edition – but if ever a book cried out for an editor’s chainsaw, this is the one. The writing desperately, manically wants you to find it clever – and, to be fair, it is quite clever in places. What’s unfortunate is that no one told Pessl that clever writing is not the same thing as good writing, and that packing your book full of quirkiness and flighty turns of phrase and horribly ill-considered and inappropriate metaphors is not a substitute for actually getting down to the business of telling an interesting story. If you could magically strip away the inappropriate citations, film and literature references, “witty” aphorisms, and overabundant similies and metaphors (honestly, I don’t think there was a single noun in the the entire novel that wasn’t compared to something else), you’d be left with a (very short) mystery that isn’t all that interesting or mysterious (as soon as the first real piece of evidence drops, the rest of the resolution is remarkably easy to predict). I typically enjoy ironic, self-aware, postmodern literary fiction, but apparently only if it actually has something to say under all the linguistic tricks and self-indulgent cleverness. 2 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I’d pass, unless you’re in the mood for five hundred pages of constant reminding of how much cleverer than you they are.

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  1. p. 47: “Dad, hailing from his visiting professorship at Hicksburg State College or the University of Kansas at Petal, certainly had not been amassing great reserves of wealth (Federal Foram paid a derisory $150 per essay) and almost every other address at which we’d lived, the 19 Wilson Streets, the 4 Clover Circles, had been tiny, forgettable houses.” – laughable; ridiculous.
  2. p. 161: “Or maybe she was repeating a Shakespearean sonnet, #116, Dad’s favorite (“If there are authentic words of love that exist in this English language, these are the ones people with any real affection should say, rather than the shopworn, ‘I love you,’ which can be uttered by any hebetudinous Tom, Dick, or Moe”): “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments…”” – dullness of mind; mental lethargy.
  3. p. 161: “Well, Smoke’s eyes macumbaed from Nigel to me back to Nigel and I felt in that simple movement he grasped every embarrassment of our lives.” – popular dance music of Brazil; derived from the practices of the macumba religious cult.
  1. December 30, 2007 2:02 am

    The new blog looks great — very cool and peaceful, makes me want to relax and read a book…

  2. Mel permalink
    January 9, 2008 10:20 am

    Now I feel much better that I can’t finish this book, it looked great on Amazon, but once in my hands, it felt pretentious and tedious and long. I’ve got 23 other books in process and 143 to be read, better things to do with my time. I’m thinking I’m done feeling guilty for not finishing this one. Thanks!

  3. fyreflybooks permalink*
    January 9, 2008 10:58 am

    Yeah, I wish I could put books down, but I’m a compulsive finisher. Plus, a friend who typically has good taste in books swore that this improved by the end. If you’re interested, I’m totally willing to spill on the “solution” to the “mystery”, in case you need more convincing that it’s not worth battling though the intervening 500 pages.

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