Special Topics in Calamity Physics…Posted: September 11, 2007
About a month ago when I was restocking the shelves (at work), a certain odd looking volume caught my eye. The cover was very strange but the inside flap made the book look very interesting, so I pulled it down and bought it.
That book was Special Topics in Calamity Physics and it is one of the best novels I’ve read in years.
I don’t read a lot of “serious” (or “literary”) novels. I prefer my non-history reading to be quick, fun, and relatively easy to read. Hence my novel reading tends to be of lighter fare, usually Star Wars or D&D novels that I can devour quickly and have a good time reading.
That doesn’t mean I always go down that route. Sometimes while idly wandering a bookstore (or now, working at one) a certain book will catch my eye and I’ll pick it up. Sometimes this is an amazing, life altering experince and other times it’s an utter disaster.
Luckily Special Topics in Calamity is a success story.
I think the greatest strength of the book is how well the character of Blue Van Meer is evoked. The entire novel is spent inside her head and the author truly gives her unique voice. The first person narrative is filled with run-on sentences, academic asides, and lots of (things like this). It is the sort of writing style that, long time readers will note, was bound to charm me.
Supposedly this was a novel about a mystery, why did Hannah kill herself? But what makes this book so good, so interesting was that all of that is more window dressing. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is about Blue and her life and the lies that drive it. Oh sure you can piece together answer to the book’s central “mystery” (and its not the answer that Blue herself adopts) but fundamentally the book is about Blue.
In fact the best moments of this book are the small, character based ones. The awkward teenage moments that Blue finds herself in or the little asides that are less about Hannah and her fate but about the situation these characters live in are the books most effective moments.
Really, my love of this book rests on the characterization. The author’s sharp voice for Blue and the insights she provides to the people around her. It is on the strength the characterization alone that I recommend this book. You seldom find teenage characters (much less teenage girls) so well and honest evoked.