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Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

Instructions for reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Step 1: Ask yourself if you would like to spend a week (or more, depending on how fast you read) with a new geeky, brilliant best friend. Really brilliant. As in annotates her own thoughts with encyclopedic attributions and classic Greek texts brilliant. If the answer is yes, proceed to step 2.

Step 2: Check out a copy of Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Penguin Books, 2006) by Marisha Pessl at your local library or purchase it at the nearest independent book store. (Hint: it’s worth buying).

Step 3: Develop patience (or muster whatever patience you already have). This is a long novel (514 pages in hardcover), and despite ample foreshadowing and small sputters, it doesn’t really take off until midway through the book. It takes a good amount of words to build a story with a plot and characters like those in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, as well as vast amounts of accumulated supporting evidence to make that story believable.

Step 4: Cultivate an attitude of delight and appreciation. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is not a blockbuster movie, where large things happen loudly every 38 seconds. This book is more like a busy coffee shop a block away from a large University in a small Midwestern town – there is plenty of drama, but the drama is constructed of words and looks, and the special effects come in steaming mugs with literary quotes on them that require a ‘cooling off’ period before you can fully appreciate them.

Step 5: Read this book while sitting in a chair, possibly with a pen and paper handy for taking notes. Do not take this book on a backpacking trip (too heavy), on a weekend trip with the girls (really, really hard to have a lighthearted weekend if you are pulling yourself from these pages in order to do so) or to a physics convention (because it’s not at all about physics). Also, do not read this book while drunk (it will require a fully sober brain to appreciate it), sleepy (it will likely not help wake you up), or lazy (this book requires active curiosity). Actually, it doesn’t matter how or where you read this book. Just read it.

Step 7: Be alert for writing that will set your body humming like a literary tuning fork when struck against the perfect verb. Pessl can, and frequently does, write paragraphs that read like a drive down Lombard Street:

Jade was the terrifying beauty (see “Tawny Eagle,” Magnificent Birds of Prey, George, 1993). She swooped into a classroom and girls scattered like chipmunks and squirrels. (The boys, equally afraid, played dead.)

Step 8: Gasp when you realize that Marisha Pessl was under 30 when this novel was written.

Step 9: Persevere. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is worth showing up for the entire semester. One could argue (I am arguing, in fact) that the best part comes towards the end. Don’t skip around, don’t borrow anyone’s notes.

Step 10: Pay attention. There is a quiz at the end.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2014 in Fiction

 

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The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

My Christmas wish list had one thing on it this year: a copy of Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of all Things (Penguin Group, 2013). Thankfully, I got it. Then it sat on my shelf for four months. FOUR MONTHS! Ostensibly, it was because I was in the middle of a few other books. Then I found other books to read, and then others. Eventually, I realized I was avoiding reading it. I knew why. Just before Christmas, I (unintentionally) read one negative review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book. The reviewer panned it, their biggest complaint being that it was really about masturbatory sex.

Well. Combine that with the fact that it was about moss, science, and history (I mean, come on, moss?), and it was almost enough for me to skip it. But I am a Liz Gilbert FAN (the capital letter kind), so I did read it. And loved it. Just exactly as much as I hoped I would.

I love Liz mostly because Eat Pray Love and Committed, as well as every essay, TED Talk, Facebook post and interview she has put out there are all consistent with who she is: a woman on a mission to understand how things work, and make her findings understandable to everyone else through her glorious authorial voice. I loved The Signature of all Things because it does this in a most ambitious way. It is a brave thing, given what many of her peers are writing about (time travel, dystopian futures, and manipulative modern characters like those that inhabit Gillian Flynn’s horrible book Gone Girl), that Gilbert would choose to write a quiet masterpiece about an ugly spinster who lived in the 1800’s and studied the evolutionary habits of mosses as her life work. What could be less sexy? What could be less compelling?

And yet, what could be more powerful?

By imagining a woman of 200 years ago, Gilbert strips her of the labels we paste on women today, and uncovers the timeless issues that face all women. The Signature of All Things is the story of Alma Whittacker, born in 1800 to a rich American botanist. Instead of being petite, beautiful, and smart (the current trend in female protagonists: Hello, Katniss!), Alma is large, unlovely, and smart. Yes, Alma explores her own sexuality, and it is a powerful part of her story, but The Signature of all Things is really about Alma’s quest to assimilate the sum of her experiences, which are profound, into an understandable theory of life. Not everyone, I understand, spends a good part of everyday pondering the very small (at times) or very large (at times) divide between science and spirituality, but I do, and Alma Whittacker certainly does and, thankfully, Liz Gilbert does.

What an ocean of story Gilbert has created for reader’s to immerse themselves in! I surfaced once in a while to marvel at the amount of research (and envy the amount of travel) that went into the book, and then ponder the size of the blender that mixed it in so seamlessly with the story. If you are on the fence about reading this book, just read it. If you love Liz Gilbert, you will likely love it. If you detest Liz Gilbert (maybe Eat Pray Love was a bit too whiney for you?) my guess is you will still find yourself enjoying this book.

Go, Liz!

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2014 in Fiction, Uncategorized

 

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Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Most people under thirty (and many people over thirty) are edgy these days; our soft, organic, human curves honed to sharpness by the razor edges of technology. Our minds are edgy, as television and movies are edgy – jumping from thought to thought, chore to chore, channel to channel. Rainbow Rowell is edgy, too, and so is her writing. Rowell manages to skim along that razor with skill, keeping pace with the new way we think. Her writing seems effortless. Her fiction is fresh, exciting, and fun, along with being edgy. It’s also very, very real.

Fangirl (St. Martin’s Griffen, 2013)is a fairly straightforward story – twin sisters go to college. Each of them finds their own way. They have boyfriends, make new friends, work hard, make mistakes, etc. The rub comes as the sister’s co-dependent relationship crumbles. Cath, the painfully shy main character, is stretched to her limit as her sister Wren abandons her for her new friends. Cath buries herself in the world of fiction, particularly the fictional world of Simon Snow: reading it, writing fan fiction, and using it as an escape mechanism. Rowell weaves Cath’s story together with the fictional story of Simon Snow, and then throws in snippets of the fan fiction that Cath writes as well. Taken together, it’s a kaleidoscope of a story, a hall of mirrors in which one plot line is mirrored in another story, and again in another, distorted a bit each time. All of this is sewed together so seamlessly, it’s hard to see the skill involved in making this story sing.

But sing it does. Rainbow Rowell is writing great fiction, with great characters, great plot, and a sincere message. Somehow, she gets it just right. The characters shine as individuals; none of them perfect, all of them human and recognizable as facets of ourselves. There is enough movement to sweep you along, enough jumping to keep you tensed and ready to spring, enough humanity to grab hold of your compassion and tug you away from your own world into that of the characters.

If you are a fan of John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), you’ll likely enjoy anything written by Rainbow Rowell – they have similar messages and writing styles, and they use unconventional and powerful tools in their story telling that makes them interesting to read for people who have grown up in the digital age.

Rainbow Rowell succeeded in making Eleanor & Park one of the best written YA novels of 2013 (see my review here), and she succeeds again with Fangirl. I recommend it for anyone fourteen and up.

 
 

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The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares

The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares

You know how a great book sucks you under and keeps you there for hours and you come up sputtering and breathless, wondering where you are? Ann Brashares’ new book, The Here and Now (Delacourt Press, April 2014) is not like that. It is an interesting premise and a fast read, but I skimmed through it. At 256 pages, I couldn’t really dive any deeper.

The Here and Now is a tale of time travel. A faction of people from a harrowing ‘future earth’ come back and colonize the present in order to escape the horrible conditions of the future. They follow strict rules to keep from being discovered: they keep to themselves, avoid ‘intimate’ contact with others, try to fit in as best they can. These rules are enforced (sometimes violently) by the leaders of the group of travelers. Prenna, our teenage protagonist, falls in love with Ethan, a ‘time native’, and the two of them start to unravel the precarious chain of events that lead to the dystopian future Prenna has escaped.

It’s a great plot, if only marginally developed. I was with Brashares the whole way, but it was also flat and lifeless. There was no meat on the bones; no flesh on the characters. They remained cardboard cutouts, manipulated around the plot. Ironically, there was no past or background given for any of the characters, particularly Ethan, the ‘time native’. With no motives and no glimpse into the psyche of the characters, it was awfully hard to become emotionally involved and, at times, to understand the cause and effect of events.

This book could have been great, another Divergent or Hunger Games for YA readers. Instead, it feels rushed and undeveloped. I got something out of it, but it wasn’t the experience I was hoping for. I haven’t read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, the immensely popular YA books by Brashares, but The Here and Now falls short of its potential, despite its great concept and gripping plot. If I could go back in time, I’d advise Brashares to slow down; give us the time to immerse ourselves in this world she has created. But we need the whole world, not just the plot.

 
 

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Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos

As a recently appointed middle school librarian, I’ve been reading quite a bit of middle school fiction, which is different than YA fiction and, it turns out, just as appealing to adults. I laughed so hard reading Dead End in Norvelt that my husband nearly had to begin CPR on me. I went that long without being able to breathe. Seriously.

Dead End in Norvelt (Farrar, Straus, and Geroux, September 2011) was awarded the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year’s best contribution to children’s literature and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and rightfully so: Jack Gantos is a fantastic writer. He can write a scene, drench it in history, spin it into action, and set in on a plate with a side of laughter. He can create believable, quirky characters that you root for with all your heart despite their oddities. Most of all, though, Gantos knows how to tell a good story, one that’s hard to put down, that keeps you up and night, and that makes you laugh.

Dead End in Norvelt is set in Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962. The book’s 12-year-old narrator (also coincidentally named Jack Gantos) has been grounded for the summer. There are only two reasons Jack can leave the house:

  1. to help his father dig a bomb shelter in the back yard (by hand) and
  2. to help his elderly, arthritic neighbor write obituaries for the town newspaper (which turns out to be an alarmingly busy task, as the older people in the bucolic town of Norvelt are dropping like flies.)

Despite those limiting factors (or because of them), Jack manages to have an action-packed summer, one punctuated by dramatic events, each event triggering an uncontrollable nosebleed in our not-as-tough-as-he-wishes-he-was narrator.

This book is not for the faint hearted – I recommended it to reluctant reader, in hopes that the fast moving plot line and frequent hilarity would entice him to read it. He returned it two days later. “Mrs. Rutten, I could not read this book. I have a gag reflex problem, and every time the main character had a nose bleed, I had to vomit.” He shook his head sadly and dropped it into the return bin.

Okay, so maybe this book isn’t for everybody. But most people, kids and adults alike, will love it.

 

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Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Hild, by Nicola Griffith

The cover of Hild (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013) shows a woman in medieval chainmail, with large, serious eyes, painted with the same hues and patterns as the forest behind her.  The effect is of someone emerging from a landscape, or being camouflaged by it. Ironically, that’s a relatively accurate account of the reader’s experience with this book. It is not the landscape that conceals the intriguing 7th century character of Hild, a woman who held an powerful place in Britain and the Church at a tumultuous time in history, but the details.  Nicola Griffith, whose writing is absolutely luminous at times in this 560 page history lesson, dives too far into her treasure chest of research, filling the pages with so much information, it is hard to see the characters, let alone the plot. I was thankful Griffith included a glossary and pronunciation guide, but found myself wishing she had found a way to write Hild that didn’t necessitate the need for either of them.

With so little historical information surviving about her heroine, Griffith was free to make up the character of Hild, if not the facts.  She chose to paint her as a cold, cautious, calculating woman.  Unfortunately, as the main lens through which the story is told, the reader is left feeling that chill throughout the book. Hild was a long slog of a book that started slow, seemed to go nowhere, and ended with a whimper.

Truly, the cover may be the best part.

You may enjoy Hild if you are more a historian than reader of historical fiction.  If you are looking for great, engaging historical fiction though, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. The novels of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy are amazing, with real, warm blooded characters.  If you don’t mind a bit of fantasy with your fiction, try The Once and Future King, by T.H. White, or Mary Stewart’s Merlin Chronicles, both of which made me fall in love with the pre-Medieval days of Britain in the first place.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2014 in Fiction

 

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Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013) restored my faith in writing. It’s brutally honest, unpretentious. Savagely eviscerating. Exhilarating. Reading it made me lonely and mad and proud; in turns and all at once. Eleanor and Park is a beautiful book – beautiful because it’s true.

It’s a straightforward story: two misfit characters, poor white trash and weird Asian kid, fall in love, but Rainbow Rowell nails it all: plot, character, dialogue, scene. Her characters lay on the page in a spot of sunlight and bloom from spring into full summer in scene after scene after scene. Details strung together make mosaics of story and emotion. Rowell’s writing brings back all the agony of being an imperfect teen. (The bra strap held together with safety pins was the gem that really got me – what woman can’t relate to that?)

The Young Adult rating is just a rating – this book can and should be read by anyone over the age of 14. I wish there was a way to give Eleanor and Park to myself when I was young. As it is, a copy should be given and to every kid out there who is even a little different, and every kid who thinks they aren’t. Whether you are a teen reader, an adult with a teen, or just a citizen of planet Earth, give yourself the gift of reading this book. Eleanor and Park will put you right inside the heads and hearts of two teenagers who are not so different from yourself, and will change you forever.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2014 in Fiction, Young Adult

 

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