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Special Topics in Calamity Physics

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  39,040 ratings  ·  5,237 reviews
Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel and a richly plotted suspense tale told through the distinctive voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. After a childhood moving from one academic outpost to another with her father (a man prone to aphorisms and meteoric affairs), Blue is clever, deadpan, and possessed of a vast lexicon of literary, ...more
Hardcover, 514 pages
Published August 3rd 2006 by Penguin Books Ltd
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Christina Blue is referring to what a thoughtful, attentive listener Hannah is; the gaps are meant to show how Hannah would sit and listen to you without talkin…moreBlue is referring to what a thoughtful, attentive listener Hannah is; the gaps are meant to show how Hannah would sit and listen to you without talking. (less)
This question contains spoilers… (view spoiler)
Amanda Claiborne A multiple choice test that asks you to weigh in on whether you believe what Blue believes she has discovered.

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Average rating 3.71  · 
Rating details
 ·  39,040 ratings  ·  5,237 reviews

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Aug 28, 2007 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: easily impressed high school students
Reviews of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” and the Bottle of Açaí Juice I Bought for Lunch Cleverly Masked as SAT Test Questions

(a) Special Topics in Calamity Physics
(b) The bottle of açaí juice I bought for lunch
(c) Both a and b
(d) Neither a nor b

(1) __ I had heard good things about it
(2) __ I bought it on a whim
(3) __ If feeling extremely charitable, I might call it “frothy”
(4) __ It seemed sort of good in the beginning, but by the end I was like, “Blaahahhgajh. End, end,
Oct 04, 2007 rated it liked it
There’s a special cold black place in my heart for writers under thirty who come out of nowhere with a best-selling much-praised first novel for which they receive huge advances and instant fame. The feeling is called jealousy - deep, shoulda-been-me jealousy that clouds my ability to judge the book itself.

Which brings us to Marisha Pessl and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Every big review I read of it was glowing and every writer under thirty I talked to said it was a piece of steaming shi
Apr 03, 2007 rated it did not like it
Shelves: novels, 2008
Donna Tartt wrote a splendid book called The Secret History which both celebrated and skewered hyper-intellectualism as well as explored the process of interacting with a text and the pleasures of narrative devices. This book follows roughly the same storyline (and, incidentally, the storyline of Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight, down to the "study questions" at the end), except there's absolutely no reason for the precious chapter titles and the annotated references - they have no bearing on th ...more
Doug Bradshaw
Jan 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I've read other reviews and I believe the negative reviews have been written by people who didn't take time to really read the book and follow it all the way through. It would be easy to do. It's not a book you can speed read. (See Ulysses by James Joyce) Sometimes I'll tear through a good book in a couple of days. But there is so much in this book that you have to take your time to really comprehend it and get the good stuff out of it. Marisha's writing technique is totally unique with her hund ...more
Mar 19, 2008 rated it it was ok
I really wanted to like this book.

But it’s a train wreck. The literary carnage is so grotesque and horrifying, you can’t help but look, read. (And I promise you, just take my word for it, that metaphor is better than most that Pessl uses in this debut novel of hers.)

Despite what Bayard says, it’s amazing what happens when you stop talking about a text and actually interact with it. I’ll tell you what happens: disappointment. Utter, utter disappointment.

For all intents and purposes, the book does
Jan 03, 2017 marked it as dnf  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: i-own-it, 2017
I tried with this book. I gave it 150 pages, and at this moment in time I just can't get into it. The constant literary allusions and pop culture references, mixed with the didactic and wordy writing style kept pushing me out of the story. I'd skim whole paragraphs just to find the important, plot-moving parts of the sentences. I held out hope for this one because I chose it for book club (sorry, friends!) and it's been on my shelf for 2+ years, so I felt like I had to conquer it. But it's only ...more
Raeleen Lemay
Yesterday it took me 5 hours to crawl through 18 pages, so I think it's safe to say I'm not really into this. I adored Night Film, so I thought I should give this a try, but it's not really my thing. Oh well!
This is a story told through books themselves, a whodunnit, a coming-of-ager. Some will find this book too gimmicky...the use of a syllabus outline, the visual aids, the fact that the first word of the book is dad and the last word is me (thus encapsulating the entire story arch), the final exam. But this book made me feel the way I did during a college lecture on Lolita, where the professor broke down Lolita by numbers, the numbers of the license plates, the hotel room numbers, etc. They all sw ...more
Let me start by saying that I did like this book. I did. Ms. Pessl is probably too smart for her own good, but that's never stopped me before.

That said, as with most over-intelectualized writings, I had trouble getting close to her, to her work. There's such a lot of time spent obfuscating, demonstrating how clever she is, developing stacked metaphors and allusions, that the story is difficult to get lost in. You are constantly reminded that you are reading a novel by a very smart young lady. A
Jul 19, 2008 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: No one. Ever.
Shelves: fiction
What have I learned? I've learned that apparently it's possible for a large number of fawning reviewers to confuse "pretentious" with "intelligent". I very likely got what I deserved when I chose to ignore a clear warning, namely the so called "Glossary of Terms" inside the dustjacket which introduced our 16 year old heroine, Blue van Meer, as "a brainy, deadpan, preternaturally erudite girl who...has a head crammed full of literary, scientific, and philosophical knowledge." Admittedly, I was ta ...more
monica kim
Oct 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-i-loved
This is a unique book in that you really won’t understand the point of anything until you finish.
Nick Black
Jun 04, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: eight year old girls
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 05, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was about one-quarter of the way through this book when I had a strange revelation. It was, basically, kind of formulaic. And yet, the formula was rare and unpredictable. See, several years ago, I read Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a dark book about a group of preciously sophisticated, murderous wacked-out Classics majors at a small liberal arts college. I was captivated. Six months ago I read Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket's) The Basic Eight, about a group of precociously sophisticate ...more
Dan Schwent
Jun 08, 2018 marked it as to-read
This one is going back on the pile. I made it over 100 pages this time. That's something, right?

My problems with this book are the glacial pace and overwritten sentences. It's like an even more wordy Donna Tartt book. I don't need literary references cited in every paragraph and overblown dialogue and flowery language for the sake of flowery language don't impress me at this stage in the game. The pretentious, pompous tone of the book is also a turn-off. Picking up the book to read it began feel
Nov 26, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2008, adults
This first bit is my initial reaction to the book. I'm keeping it up because I still think it's valid. However, see bellow for my post-reading thoughts.

Oh, how I hate this book. The parenthetic statements are making me homicidal. The dad is a jackass of unparalleled proportion, and I have yet to see Hannah do ANYTHING that warrants Blue's fascination. Sure, she picks up strange men in diners, but really, who hasn't? The writing is way too fond of its own wit, and I'm sick of all the figurative
Jason Pettus
Jun 27, 2007 rated it really liked it
(Full review can be found at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [].)

Okay, I'll admit it -- that whenever I hear of another young, good-looking first-time author in New York getting an obscenely high advance on their first book and suddenly becoming The Talk Of The Town, I automatically become suspicious, as sure a response from me as Pavlov's dogs salivating at the sound of their little bell. And that's because I've been around various people in the New York litera
Edward Lorn
Nov 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Fans of literary fiction.
Let's get my one and only complaint about the book out of the way.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is hard to get into. I started it numerous times it, but it kept losing my attention. Then my good friend Thomas Stromquist mentioned it was on his TBR, so we gave it the old buddy-read try and I finally got past the first 50 pages. It wasn't until Blue met Hannah that the story grabbed me. That is not to say that the opening pages are unneeded. The exact opposite is true. Everything here comes
Sep 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
If the whimsy of "Bonjour Tristesse" met & mated with all that malignant magic from "The Secret History" this would be their child. This Gen-Nexter novel holds the pulse of the zeitgeist under its overachieving, overintelligent finger and lets it be known: this is the novel for our generation, for the eager me!me!&onlyme!s. The heroine is such a brat, the reader oftens remembers past characters like these: uberegotist humanoids--selfish to the extreme, & SMILES--here is their side of the story ( ...more
Sep 03, 2007 rated it it was ok
Struck by a severe attack of the cutes, an over-worked bag of metaphors, and flimsy characterization. The dialogue is unnatural and in most cases unfitting for the characters (Dee and Dum's conversations in particular strike me as unreal for high schoolers). Most of these things are stylistic and, while annoying to read, can be groomed out with some forethought and good editing. The book, as has been acknowledged by other people, could easily be a hundred pages shorter than it is.

Blue I found s
Andrew Smith
Mar 18, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: not-finished
I only got about 20% of the way through this one. But do keep in mind that it’s a big book: over 500 pages or 21 hours of listening. I don’t like giving up on books and I’d really enjoyed her 2014 novel Night Film so I did try to stay with it. The problem is that though there’s a relatively enticing story here the telling is just so protracted, so tiresome that I lost the will.

It kicks off by introducing 24-year-old Blue van Meer who’d lost her mother early (car accident) and is now touring Am
Jan 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I could easily attend a semester-long seminar about this book. Holy "coming of age with murder, suicide, conspiracy theories, and turns you don't see coming because you aren't worthy to walk in the same light as Marisha Pessl" shit, this book was great. Better than Night Film. Bravo.
May 06, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who once loved The Secret History, spawn of academics, over-readers
Special Topics... has certainly stirred the passions of readers and critics...especially those who love-to-hate first novels by young, successful authors. At the sight of Marisha Pessl's author photo -- lovely, unsmiling introspective waif -- I had to hold down my hate reflex with both arms, both legs, and my forehead. Yet twenty pages later, any evidence of hate (or even a struggle) was gone. I was captivated.

Blue Van Meer lost her mother at a very young age and now hops around the country wit

What Special Topics in Calamity Physics is: a book about a sixteen-year-old girl and her dad living in a new town. What it isn’t: a book about physics. What it is: a book about a sixteen-year-old girl, her five uber-cool new friends, and one doting teacher. What it isn’t: all that it appears to be. Really, the story is indefinable. At its heart it’s a murder mystery, but to say that is also rudely dismissive--of its thoughtfulness, its quirkiness, its complexity. Special Topics
Shannon (Giraffe Days)
This was a weird case of having high expectations and having no expectations, and being disappointed in one and reasonably well satisfied in the other. Overall, though, I didn't like it, and found it to be pretty obnoxious.

The best way to introduce this one is to use the blurb off the back:
Calamity Physics: The resulting explosion of energy, light, heartbreak and wonder as Blue van Meer enters a small, elite school in a sleepy mountain town. Blue's highly unusual past draws her to a charismati
Apr 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked this book a lot. Ms. Pessl has a very unique voice. I suspect she is much like the central character Blue, erudite and very well read. Based on this novel and her second Night Film, I think she would be a fascinating dinner companion. Her writing style is however not for everyone. Throughout Topics Blue expresses herself using footnoted metaphors referencing obscure texts. I found this style to be interesting, entertaining and a good fit for Blue's character, but over time it does wear, ...more
David Katzman
Jan 28, 2012 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Fans of Gossip Girl and MENSA club meetings
Special Topics in Mixed Feelings. Report from the Gifted & Talented program: there was much brilliance on display in the novel in question. My report from detention: some qualities of it irritated the hell out of me and one glaring structural element weakened it.

The premise: A genius high schooler is being dragged by her widowed, genius college-professor father from small college town to small college town and transferring from school to school. Said genius high schooler (one Blue van Meer) land
Brilliant rendition of an unforgettable brainy teen who feels compelled to leave her world of books to solve the mystery of a teacher’s death. Many will find the book too long with not enough meaningful human action, but I found the world of the lead character’s mind grew on me as a doomed, but attractive, refuge from the narcissistic void facing many youth today.

Sixteen year old Blue van Meer moves to a small town in North Carolina with her political science professor dad and recounts her seni
My initial interest in this book was mainly down to the fact that I had read numerous reviews comparing it to Donna Tartt's The Secret History, one of my favourite novels of all time. Having finished it, I can now say with confidence that these comparisons are fairly inaccurate and really quite lazy. The obvious similarity between the books is that both concern an elite group of young people in an academic setting (in this case, a much-admired clique known as the 'Bluebloods' in an American high ...more
Sep 10, 2007 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: apparently, anyone who isn't me
Shelves: gave-up-on
i didn't really read this. i read about 30 pages before announcing (to the book's cover), "I HATE YOU, BOOK. SHUT UP!" anyone who wants more details as to why i despise the book that everyone else is raving about might need to buy me a drink first.
This book is a lot to take in. Unfortunately, for me it went from a solid 5-star to a lukewarm 3-star in the last 20%. Full review to come.
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Marisha Pessl grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and now lives in New York City. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her debut novel, was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. It won the 2006 John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize (now the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize), and was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. Her ...more

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