We have an accord

Which is another way of saying, “I agree.”

I agree, after some reflection, with a Goodreads commentor who said of Marisha Pessl’s novel that at times the characters said things which were just not believable for high school students, no matter how erudite, to say.

I think they also did things at times which were less than believable, but mostly it was their speech.  The smartest kids I knew in high school, when out of school and among friends, talked more or less like high school students.  Maybe an SAT word or two crept into our sentences, but mostly, we were, like, you know, average kids.


I’ve really gotten into Simmon’s novel, The Terror.  I’m about 160 pages into it already, which is pretty far for me in this short amount of time.  So far I find it fast paced (despite warnings from goodreads commentors that it slows down, I haven’t seen that yet) and exciting.  The dialogue and adventure part reminds me of the best parts of Patrick O’Brien’s work – though I eventually gave up on that series because I wanted to read sea-adventure, not victorian love triangles that take place while on shore leave.  Give me more cannon fire and booty, more storms and reefs, man!  Anyway, The Terror, surprisingly, does that.  Even though they’re ice-locked in the Arctic.  The descriptions are awesome and the characters, so far, are genuine and believable.  The total atmosphere altering effect the presence of the native american woman has on the men is great!  The ice demon thing, so far, is great.  Now, here’s to hoping he doesn’t reveal too much about it.  Ever.  I hate monster stories that tell you everything about the monster.  Leave some mystery in it.  Please.  My imagination will run wild, I promise.  And it’ll be scarier.  Here’s to hoping.


Calamity of an Ending

Well, Pessl’s first novel didn’t quite end the way I anticipated, and I don’t know if that disappoints me or not.  Hannah Schneider turned out to be some sort of agent for a rebel pseudo-political group called the Nightwatchmen, and so did, apparently, Blue’s father.  The second is harder for me to swallow than the first.  Actually, I think I just decided, I didn’t like the ending. The story was so sinister, so believably dark up until she brought in this Nightwatchmen thing.  Hannah, the strange teacher, hugely popular and overly interested in minors (even sleeping with one of them), who happens to have the unfortunate experience of having someone die in a drunk drowning accident at her party.  Later, she is murdered/committed suicide in the woods – I like the suicide angle better, it fits her character better.  On the surface, cool as a cucumber, but underneath, solar flare.  Depressed.  Anxious.  Unsatisfied.  Gets her jollies by contributing to the deliquency of minors, overcoming that horrid feeling of never quite being popular enough when she was in school.  I think that’s a character more people could identify with.  As far as Blue’s father goes – well he was a weird one from the beginning, but a secret agent for a revolutionary group?  I have to stretch just a bit too much on that one.

All that aside, this was a great book.  4 stars.  It was fun to read, a surprising page turner, with colorful characters in which I think a lot of us could see a part of ourselves (usually parts we don’t like, too), and so it worked as a social mirror.  I liked the way it was written – as I noted, several fantastic observations and turns of phrase.  I just wished the ending was a bit more on the believable side.  But, it won’t deter me from her next book whenever it comes out, whatever it is.

I have turned now back to the realm of speculative fiction.  This time I chose Dan Simmons’ The Terror: A Novel.  I’ve read a lot of Simmons before and I like him.  I like how he’s almost perversely allusive to other works of literature and poetry.  The man is in love with Keats, for example.  But this book seems wholly unlike anything I’ve read by him before (both Hyperions, Ilium, Olympos).  I’ve heard really good things about it too – and so far, it has lived up to the hype.  I’m reading this book in in the beginning of summer in Florida, while running on the treadmill, and it made me feel cold.  (It takes place on a frozen ship in the Arctic, exploring unexplored regions in about 1847.)  His descriptions run chill all through your body.  “To touch iron was to lose flesh.”  The power of the ice as he describes it is incredible.  I’m looking forward to the sort of retro-adventure style combined with some good ole fashioned monster horror.  And if I know Simmons, his characters will be fun and empathetic.


I really liked this line. For me it carried a tremendous amount of emotion, but I’m not sure it was entirely meant to. Two years ago a dear friend of mine died and the paper had all of seven words to say about it. I wondered back then how a man’s life could be boiled down to seven words.

In the story, Hannah Schneider has just been found dead (either murdered or suicide, but in either case traumatic – by hanging with electrical cord) and the main character, Blue, is reading the obit. Pessl writes,

“Instead, according to the Pack, Hannah had simply “passed”; she’d been playing poker and decided not to take another card.”
~p. 356

We don’t deal with death well, as a culture, and I think this line says that beautifully.


“If you were young and mystified in America you were supposed to find something to be a part of.  That something had to be either shocking or rowdy, for within the brouhaha you’d find yourself, be able to locate your Self…”

~Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, p. 282

This reminds me so much of one of our (my group of friends and I) favorite anthems from high school.  Rancid’s punk-ska song, “Journey to the End.”  Both were true for me.

“There wasn’t always a place to go, but there was always a need and an urge to belong.”

~Rancid, “Journey to the End”


The story has taken on a slightly sinister air and I like it.  There was a death, an accidental drowning at a party of a drunken middle aged man.  But there is the question, how accidental was it.  Pessl hints around the edges of this question rather than asking it directly, and when she finally does, it comes from an emotive, hormonal, and unstable teen, the Blue-blood Jade.  And she herself is drunk when she raises it.

The group of blue bloods is strange, and yet it puts me in mind of similar people I knew when I was in high school.  There were always tales of drunkenness at things like Prom, and keggers held in the woods off Treeline Ave.  But for some reason, the kids in the book just seem a little bit darker, a little bit more sinister or tragic and I really like the way this is weaved into the narrative.

Finally, the character of Hannah Schneider is taking on a sinister air as well.  We know she dies, it says so in the dust jacket and in the first few pages of the book.  But so far, no indication that this will happen in the chronological narrative.  Hints of dark pieces of her past surface.  Her choice of reading material raises a few eyebrows – the biography of the Manson family.  The fact that she has no pictures, apparently, in her home.  No photos of family or friends.  Then, when a few old faded snapshots are found of young children, there is doubt that they are of her.  Oh yeah, and then there’s the fact that the bluebloods catch her prostituting herself one friday a month.  How odd is that?!  Obviously not hurting for money, she must be motivated to do this by some other reason.  And her choice of beaus – unsavory.  Wrinkled.  Malodorous.  In other words, the complete opposite of her.  It’s just weird, but all told in a very convincing way.

Blue’s (that’s the main character’s name) pseudo-adoption into the popular group the Bluebloods is also slightly sinister.  I get the feeling, along with Blue, that she hasn’t totally be accepted and that the rest somewhat resent her presence.  But Hannah likes her, they adore Hannah, and so they try to like her.  That to me is very dark too, because it all comes back to Hannah’s manipulations.

Somewhere in the book, she quotes a text that says something like an adult who meets their social needs more often than not with children, and shows extraordinary interest in children and their worlds, is not entirely sane or safe.  Now see, it’s lines like that that just make me shudder a bit…and keep turning the pages.  Despite what I may have initially thought, this story is a page-turner.

The Smart Girl

I’ve begun reading Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a book that makes me look WAY smart if I’m caught reading it in public, but which in actuality is a novel.  What’s the connection between this book and Oscar Wao?  Both novels are their respective authors’ first novels and both main characters are kids who don’t function in society the same way everyone around them seems to.  (I love finding this stuff, even if it means nothing.)

This book is kinda neat in its structure – each chapter is titled after famous novel or erudite tome of knowledge.  For example, the chapter I’m on right now is called “Madame Bovary;” I was tempted to skip this chapter because I hate that book.  Ever since I had to read it in high school (I never got much past the first fifty pages) I hated it.  Apparently it’s an important piece of literature, and I’ll give it that, just as long as I don’t have to read it.  Ok, I’m getting off on a tangent here.  Anyway, the title of the chapter cleverly gives some indication as to the events that will unfold therein.  I enjoy that little game Pessl provides for me.  (I’d say I’ve either read or am familiar with about 80% of the book titles she names her chapters after.)

So, what’s the story about?  So far it’s about a teenage girl who is the daughter of a traveling professor of some import (though you get the vague notion that he’s less important than he thinks he is).  This guy is always getting the designation of “Visiting Professor of Internation Politics” or the like wherever he goes, and boy does he go.  They’re at a different college every semester it seems and our poor protagonist is drug along for the ride.  Blue, that’s her name, takes after her father in that she is brilliantly book-smart, but she lacks his apparent social skills as of right now. She’s awkward and she knows it.  She doesn’t make friends.  What’s the point right?  You’ll just be moving in five months anyway.  It’s all a bit sad.

She show’s off her incredible education by referencing books and characters when talking about people.  For example, she might say something like: “Mr. X was tall and thin, with a pointy nose that directed the rest of his body in the way it ought to go.”  This will immediately be followed up with a parenthetical reference like: (See Audabon’s Field Guide to Birds, “The Blue Heron,”, p.134, fifteenth edition, 1993.)  I find that mildly amusing and somewhat annoying at the same time.  I found myself thinking last night, “How much time did Pessl have to spend researching all those damn references?!  I would get tired of that after about five or six of them and try and figure out some other way to show that my protagonist was well read in myriad fields.”

In the opening chapters, an apparent suicide occurs of a character we haven’t met yet, but then that is ignored as Blue goes back to tell about her life and how it got to the point where she started writing it down.  The character who apparently committed suicide has just recently been introduced and so the tension mounts.

So far it’s a pretty fun read.  It’s written with clever diction and syntax, and I like that.  But I wonder, if like her main character, does Pesss try too hard to convince us she’s smart? We’ll see, the jury’s still out.  But so far I am enjoying it.

(This is a rare string of three books in a row that I’ve really enjoyed – usually I don’t get that many in a row!)