Horrible Children and Worse Adults

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Reading Challenge: A New York Times Bestseller

Warning: this book inspired a few strong feelings so things could get spoilery somewhere along the way. I’ve tried to keep it vague but you may pick up some hints.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics has been on my to-read list for a long time, possibly since it came out. I remember reading a blurb and thinking it was about a weird, smart girl at college with some mystery thrown in and therefore it was right up my alley. I even think I had the impression that the heroine, Blue, got involved with her dad’s college class and it all Changed Her Life. Somehow I was picturing a Libby on Wednesday but for adults.

I don’t know what blurb I was reading, but that was pretty much wrong. Sure, Blue probably fits the “weird smart girl” description, but she’s in high school, her dad’s a professor, and he doesn’t have much to do with her school or does he? I got that pretty much right away, that I had to revise my expectations of what the book was about (not the last time I had to do that). That was the first thing I realized. The second thing I realized was that I really hated all of the characters, yet wanted to keep reading.

I’ve said it before: I need somebody I like to get through a book. They don’t have to be likeable people I’d want to befriend in real life, but they do need to be a character I’m willing to spend time with. And I didn’t want to spend time with any of these people, not even Blue. My feelings towards them, especially in the first couple hundred pages, ranged from mild irritation to massive dislike. That’s usually enough to make me put a book down for good. Yet this managed to be just as absorbing as it was frustrating, and that was the great success of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Yes, towards the end it was like going for a long run – just grit your teeth and keep going – but I did keep going, for some mysterious reason, and I made it through.

Let’s talk characters for a minute. Blue is surrounded by great posers (from inside her head, we can’t tell if she’s one of them). The greatest poser of them all is her father, a womanizing, pretentious, bullying, grandiose, larger-than-life liar. I’m willing to award him a medal for Great Character, but only if you keep him far, far away from me. The other great poser is Hannah Schneider, the “it girl”-type film teacher who keeps a collection of teenagers under her spell. We’ll get to her in a minute. The other posers are Blue’s fellow teens, Jade, Leulah, Charles, Milton and Nigel. They pose, preen, and pretend and hang on every word out of Hannah’s mouth. I couldn’t stand them, either (exception to follow) and when Jade recounted a harrowing collective experience in the woods I actually started laughing, although I don’t believe the scene was supposed to be funny, because I was picturing this:


I’m sorry, he panicked and fell off a cliff? I’m sure that’s awful. No, no, I’m not laughing. I swear. These are tears of empathy. I’m snickering with you.

If the focus of the book had remained on the teens, the title of my review would have been “Horrible Children,” because they were. But Hannah Schneider and Blue’s dad and other adults interfered, and boy, did they ever. There were multiple scenes where I wanted to scream at them “these are children, you sick, twisted, self-absorbed assholes!” They did a lot that would have been unforgivable in reality. Lucky for them they’re in a bittersweet coming-of-age story (or are they?).

Now, Hannah Schneider was a major character and Blue liked to remind us how magnetic and mysterious and “it” Hannah was. She wanted to appear like this to the teens, and apparently did.


Now, to give the book credit, there are vague gestures at how creepy and disturbing it is for an adult to need a collection of teenagers surrounding and admiring and wanting her. But even seen through Blue’s eyes, I never found Hannah fascinating, just creepy and sad and unforgivable, and the way she kept insisting that Hannah was just so magnetic kind of spoiled whatever allure or “it” the character might have possessed if we could have seen it. Rather than being told about it again and again. That to me was what made Blue’s dad the successful character and Hannah not so much.

The only character I thought contained some element of “it” and charm and interest was actually Nigel, one of the teens. I wanted him to have more screen time, once I got straight which one was Nigel and which was Milton. I actually wondered about him and thought he stole his scenes. Aside from Blue, he seems to be the only one who isn’t completely under Hannah’s spell, and he seems less needy and fragile than the others – or, just as needy and fragile but in a more interesting way. I give him First Runner-Up in the Great Characters pageant, and he can actually come over for a cup of tea, as long as he doesn’t stay too long.

Now I can’t talk too much about plot without running right into spoilers. But I do have to mention the third-act twist, which was where I went “oh, I guess I thought I was reading this one book but now it turns out it was something else all along.” There were hints throughout that make it all consistent in hindsight, so I can’t complain or mutter loudly about “so I guess M. Night Shyamalan got final edits, huh.” Some of the hints were fairly pronounced. So I asked myself “self, why didn’t you see this coming?” The answer was “because I didn’t trust the author to explain any of this, so I ignored it all.” I thought Marisha Pessl was going to sail off into the sunset and blithely abandon us with all our questions, feeling like we just weren’t smart enough. To give her credit, she did explain, mostly, and reserved that exit for one of her characters.

So, verdict? I won’t read it again. I loathed almost all of the characters. On the flip side, the book was put together with a lot of skill and had some of the magnetism I didn’t see in Hannah. It also had a cinematic quality in spite of the citations and literary references, and would probably make a decent movie. I’ll remember it. But I’ll remember it as something to be admired from a distance, rather than loved up close.

Recommended pairing: Bourbon, obviously.



And We’re Back, With a Few Tangents

The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris.

Reading Challenge: A self-improvement book.

I struggled to find a book for this category. I can safely say it’s a genre I’ve never seriously investigated, and every one I peeked at with the reading challenge in mind made me want to vomit within a sentence or two. But recently I decided that the only thing required to qualify a book as a self-help book is that it imply that only following its recommendations to the letter can get you what you want. And hey, improving myself as a writer counts as self-improvement, don’t it?

I’ve been writing since I could, well, write, and I’ve had a strange relationship with books on writing since anyone asked me to read one. The first “how to do creative writing” book I encountered was Writing the Natural Way. It was for a community college writing class, I was 17, and I hated the book as only a smart, self-important teenager can hate a book. I’m pretty sure my professor was shocked that a how-to book on “unlocking the right brain” could arouse that amount of passion one way or the other. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure it was nowhere near as bad as I thought at the time. What I do remember is having the sense that the author was telling us that only through using her technique could we write successfully. Excuse me, lady, I’m pretty sure Jane Austen didn’t use fucking “clustering”! I don’t think so! I wasn’t old enough or wise enough to plumb the book for what could usefully be gotten out of it while taking some of the more absurd claims with a grain of salt. So, instead, I just really, really hated it.

So when I approached The Weekend Novelist it was with the lessons of Writing the Natural Way in mind. I flipped through it at the bookstore and said “oh! Writing exercises!” Those I like. Writing prompts, characters sketches, excellent. Even better, the book contains advice on plot structure, which I have always desperately needed. Characters I can do. Dialogue is fun. Plot kills me. Give me plot structure advice. I beg you.

I got advice on plot structure, and writing exercises, and examples from classic books. The examples were interesting: some of them went better because I was familiar with the book, others went worse because I was familiar with the book (my inner 17 year-old is insisting I mention that they clearly don’t understand Jane Eyre at all). Others just made me want to never, ever read the book they used as an example (Amsterdam sounds like a book I would hate even worse than Writing the Natural Way). I’ve started working on some of the exercises and I see the value to them. I’m not going to do the ones that seem pointless (“write your character’s dream” might be good advice, but, no thanks). Yes, I had to ignore some “only our way will work” rhetoric, but not all that much. I definitely recommend this if you’re restarting your writing, prepping for National Novel Writing Month, or otherwise trying to get moving or find ways to deepen what you’re working on.

The thing I did find hard to ignore about this book was…okay, let me put it like this. I’ve been listening to this podcast, “Classic Film Jerks,” while I run, okay? And they have this segment where they observe things that hopelessly date movies, see? And it’s called “so old” but it’s in this unbelievable geezer voice and…well, anyway, there were a lot of moments when reading this book that I’d hear that “so…old…” cue in my mind. For example, when they mentioned movies as something you really should accept as a touchstone of culture, and how you can get one from your “local video emporium” (so…old…). Now, when this book was originally written, you could probably get something from your “local video emporium.” But they’ve revised since, certainly enough to bemoan the “Age of Screens” we live in and coincidentally sound even more SO…OLD.

I also couldn’t help waiting for the advice that went “finally, run your novel-in-progress through a little process we like to call ‘the real world exists’ for any perpetuating of harmful stereotypes. For example, consider the fact that your bisexual character seduces absolutely everyone, and carefully review your descriptions of your Native American female lead for fetishistic language.” I waited in vain. I know, I was hoping for too much. And based on the rest of the book the authors would probably fail to understand what I was getting at and remind me that I am a product of the Age of Screens, young whippersnapper that I am.

Recommended pairing: Gin rickey, anyone, to go with the breathless discussions of F. Scott Fitzgerald? I think we must!



Summer Reruns

So, I have a confession to make. I’m having an issue. It’s not an issue I’m proud of, and it’s not a thing I need to bring attention to with the celebrity status of having like 6 followers on WordPress. It’s this: I’m having trouble reading. I have reader’s block.

Not as widely-known as writer’s block, this little-known affliction’s primary symptom is a total inability to sit down and read a book. Although for some this may not seem like much of a problem, for those of us who live by the word, it causes a lot of distress. I’ve been trying to read two radically different books, The Feminine Mystique and The Night Manager, for roughly a month. It’s not happening. I’m returning them both to the library today with hopes of starting fresh with something else. In the meantime, I’ve pulled out Terry Pratchett’s witches for a reread on my morning commute, hoping to ease myself back into reading something new. I don’t know why I’m having this problem – although I’m guessing having a new and stressful job may have something to do with it – and I hope it’ll be fixed shortly.

In the meantime, I’m going to post a few of my greatest hits from Goodreads here. Now, by greatest hits I mostly mean “reviews my sisters liked” because that’s how I’ve been judging my success as a Goodreads reviewer to date. But I’ll also include my one most popular review from the site. So without further ado, here goes: two books I really loathed and one I didn’t.

First up, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. I had more or less forgotten about this one until my little sister reminded me of its existence with a sarcastic text. But here’s what I had to say about it back when I read it:

Choosing a light read is a tricky business. It’s like icing on a cake – too little, and all you have is cake; too much, and you’re overwhelmed with fluff and sugar. I picked up this book because I wanted to read something with no murders in it, and besides, Napoleonic spy capers with women! Fun stuff! Surely this was the right amount of icing. I was even willing to overlook the fact that the contemporary heroine, Eloise, was the type that knew what brand her boots were and just had to mention it. I was willing to award this book ALL the breaks, just because I wanted something that would not rip my heart out.
Sadly, as other readers have noticed, there’s very little capering in this book. Minimal caper. It’s a Regency romance novel, interspersed with a few chapters of a contemporary researcher, who, in spite of being a PhD student smart enough to con a committee into sending her overseas, is the kind of person who will, after a man is rude to her once, be repeatedly rude back, even in the face of his preternatural patience. Have I mentioned this is someone who has something she wants? He is! She will also hate women who are more polished than she is and embarrass herself through repeated clumsiness. In short, she’s a familiar romantic comedy type, but I’d have to seriously question Harvard’s admission process if she existed in real life.
If it sounds as if I thought the contemporary pieces were the worst part of this book, oh, think again. They were actually a bit of a relief, although both storylines featured proportionately equal amounts of “endearing” clumsiness. I kind of wish I’d done a word count for “ouch,” “urgh,” and “ow.” They were numerous. The historical parts were MUCH worse. My poor husband, reading in the same room with me, was subjected to a lot of moans and groans on my part, sarcastic commentary such as “oh, good, he has piercing green eyes, I was worried he wouldn’t,” and the moment when I said “no, wrong. WRONG!” That, I’m pretty sure, was when Amy, the nauseating heroine of the historical bits, hears the Purple Gentian reference something she has only told to his alter ego, Richard, and decides that it MUST mean that he’s her true love, fated to be with her. Not that he actually is Richard. This was, however, also the scene where I discovered my new favorite line in literature, “the moist thrust of the Purple Gentian’s tongue.” There was so much bosom-heaving and ass-checking-out that I was rooting really hard for the leads to just do it already so the rest of us could be spared them lusting after each other. Since clearly the author wasn’t going to do us all a favor and kill them off, the least she could do was make them stop gazing for a hot second. There were secondary characters I DIDN’T totally hate, but the leads I did. I was very sorry we had to read about them the whole damn time.
The writing was, oh, how do I put this? Bad. The writing was bad. I feel a little harsh saying this, because clearly this author was enjoying herself as she wrote. She liked her characters and I’m sure was chuckling as she wrote some of the lines I found so vomit-worthy. But the writing was really bad. The dialogue in the historical pieces would throw in some era-appropriate terms, but otherwise they talked like the contemporary characters (I can’t say they talked or acted like real people at either end). They said “um” a lot. Sometimes when they were speaking French, which I happen to know isn’t something you SAY in French (3 semesters of college French speaking, here, she says, buffing nails on shirt).
Why, then, is this book two stars rather than one? Mostly because the packaging is so misleading. It seems unfair to rate the book on what it’s being billed as, rather than what it is. If it had been billed as a Regency romance I would never have read it in the first place, but at least I would have known more or less what to expect. But since I DID get conned into reading a Regency romance, it did give me an opportunity to have a think about the genre. Its existence implies that there are in the world women (definitely a genre aimed at women) who get all hot and bothered at the idea of being bossed around and scolded. Women who think it would be sexy as hell to have a guy with piercing eyes (always piercing eyes, or a piercing gaze if you’re fancy/a better writer) and a “face like a thunderstorm” demand “what were you thinking, you little fool? Don’t you know you could have been hurt?” before sweeping her into his arms and asking brokenly (usually brokenly, sometimes softly or “with sudden and unexpected tenderness”) “Don’t you know what it would do to me if something happened to you?” Followed, natch, by the passionate kiss as he gives in to his feelings.
Thinking about this stuff now, I am actually really intrigued. I have to admit this does nothing for me – I’m not into being patronized or having my intellect called into question, although I’m also not impetuous and nor do I bounce with frustration so maybe I’m not really a heroine either – but ARE there people who really find this hot escapism? Is being scolded a minor subset of BDSM culture? I WANT TO KNOW! Because I’m so confused by this idea! I can kind of get the idea of fantasizing about being a damsel in distress – because I think most people like the idea of being valued so much by someone who would drop everything to come save you if you needed it. Who doesn’t want a guy who has your back? But a guy who saves you and then yells at you about it? Is this really what does it for some people? I AM SO CURIOUS.
Anyway, there’s a whole series of these books, so clearly the author got in some more practice and may have improved since then. The book was kind of fun to read, in the spirit of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and if you’re into heaving bosoms and male assholes who can’t stop staring at your heaving bosoms because they’re so in lust/love with you and female assholes who yell at you for maybe making fun of them that one time, well! I have a book for you! But it also contains the phrase “the moist thrust of the Purple Gentian’s tongue.” I think we can all agree that this is wrong.

Entertained yet? On to the next, which I feel I should post because I’ve been referencing how much I hate this book in many of my more recent reviews: The Family Fortune by Laurie Horowitz.

Laurie Horowitz’s Literary Offenses

I’m sure smarter people than I have established rules for When it is a Good Idea to Retell a Story. This is really just my best way of describing why I really hated this book. Yes, the first really jarring moment was when I realized the author had gotten the location of a Boston landmark, the hanging teakettle sign that emits actual steam, wrong by a wide margin (Kenmore Square and Scollay Square/Government Center are about five subway stops away from each other and, while both are tourist destinations, they are REALLY DIFFERENT).
So here are the rules I think this author has broken:

1) Make the story accessible to people who haven’t read the original
In all fairness, this is a problem I’m assuming. I HAVE read the original. And every time a character appeared, I said to myself “oh, that must be this person. Heather and Lindsay instead of Henrietta and Louisa! I TOTALLY GET IT!” But I could never think of them as their own characters. Every name was in quotation marks in my mind. I couldn’t think of them as separate people, and I suspect most of the major characters never came into their own as separate people. I got the distinct impression that someone reading this story and completely unfamiliar with the source material would feel like he or she was missing something important, some in-joke. And frankly, I think accessibility is more important than fidelity, especially because you are trying to add something new if you think a book could use a remake. I know plenty of people who love the movie “Clueless” who have no idea it’s based on “Emma.” Or they didn’t, until I told them.
2) If you are changing the temporal location of the story, make sure it has a point.
I would think that the main reason for updating a Jane Austen novel would be to show that manners and mores that seem really silly to us reading the novels now haven’t changed as much as we think. Horowitz wrecked this early on with a sentence about how “Miranda” talked like she was from the 19th century, excusing the stilted language she was shoving into her character’s mouths. The language itself didn’t improve from there, but that line REALLY highlighted the problem.
3) Women. We’re, like, liberated now and stuff.
When you bring your female characters into the 20th/21st century, you do have to make some adjustments. We do have more options now. You don’t have to give your heroine a PhD in rocket science, but you have to realize that certain advances have been made.
I always felt that Anne Elliott knew she was a worthwhile human being, and the joke around her family was that they were too self-absorbed – in their various ways – to realize it. “Jane,” meanwhile, came across as unspeakably pathetic for the majority of the book. I could go back and count the number of times I saw the word “spinster” or she thought about how she behaved as “the single woman,” but I have my health to think of. I cringed as she constructed a fantasy around a man she’d never met, I shuddered when she tried to show off ice skating and fell, and almost vomited when she “oh well maybe I’m not sure”d her way into bed in the most repulsively-described almost-sex scene I’ve ever read that didn’t involve rape. Yes, being a single woman at 38 in upper middle class American society comes with its stigmas. “Jane”‘s all seemed self-imposed.
4) Men. They haven’t actually gotten worse.
“Max” was not very well developed, and “Guy”‘s impositions bordered on psychotic. If your 21st-century male is less believable than an Austen hero – and I’d argue for Captain Wentworth as just as dreamy as Mr. Darcy any day – HOLY CANNOLIS do you have a problem. As for “Guy,” I just couldn’t believe he would fool anyone for a minute considering how over-the-top his attentions were. Besides, it made me really sad to have our updated Captain turned into a womanizer.

Aside from these constantly violated rules (that I just made up), I was disappointed with how crudely done the supporting characters were. The Miss Musgroves may have been silly, shallow girls in the original but they never came across as complete morons; college students – I repeat, COLLEGE STUDENTS – “Heather” and “Lindsay” had apparently never heard the word “anarchy.” There was never anything about “Priscilla” that made it credible that “Jane” would ever listen to her in the first place, and her depiction just got more and more cruel. I will say “Teddy” improved and “Dolores” was reasonably well-developed by the standards of this book. There was also something disturbingly snobby about the skiing business. While a skiing accident is a decent substitute for “the steps where Louisa Musgrove fell,” “Jane” seemed to feel the problems around the trip were totally the fault of the two girls for not knowing how to ski and that this was yet another reason to look down on those idiots.

However *deep breath* I’m happy to report this made kind of a fun hate read. I’ve never hate-read anything before. And the good news is that the original is in no way diminished by this travesty; it’s kind of like having a toddler draw in crayon all over your copy of the book. The one copy is a mess now, but there are plenty of others out there.

 Now, what I like to think I’ve established here is the sense that I react to books I dislike in the following fashion:
This is all true. But sometimes I read a book I have mixed feelings about, and that was the case with Errol Flynn’s autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. This is a review a lot of people have liked, and not just members of my immediate family. I sense the popularity of the review is because not that many people have read this weird book, because Errol Flynn is about as hot a topic in entertainment these days as Fredric March or Don Ameche. It’s too bad, in a way, because a book with such an interesting anti-hero should have appeal for the Mad Men and Breaking Bad crowds:
It was kind of a relief to finish this book. Reading it was kind of like having an extended visit from a drunken uncle who has great stories, zero self-awareness, some uncomfortable opinions, and ventures into TMI especially when talking about boobs. Uncle Errol never learns from his mistakes. He pinches your cheeks and causes a lot of awkward moments. He’s sipping vodka and fondly believes you think it’s water. After several shots from his “water bottle,” he starts philosophizing like a drunk college senior. You’re never sure whether to believe his stories about the crocodiles and swindling natives in Papua New Guinea.
Uncle Errol’s never boring, but you do wind up feeling pretty sorry for him (and any woman who had to deal with him on a regular basis, except maybe Lili Damita, who honestly does sound pretty terrible).
And that’s our clip show, ladies and gentlemen. I’m hoping to return to regular blogging after I beat this horrible case of readers’ block. Currently taking recommendations for easy reads right now, especially anything that takes place on an island, in Europe, was an Oprah pick or a New York Times bestseller, or qualifies as a 20th century classic.