Excerpt from Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics

by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2006, 528 pages
    Apr 2007, 528 pages

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As it turned out, Jessie wasn’t pregnant. She had an exotic strain of stomach flu, which she’d eagerly confused with morning sickness. While we prepared for Harpsberg, now a week behind schedule, Jessie performed sad, sobbing monologues into our answering machine. The day we left, Dad found an envelope on the porch in front of the front door. He tried to hide it from me. “Our last utilities bill,” he said, because he’d rather die than show me the “hormonal ravings of a madwoman,” which he himself had inspired. Six hours later, however, somewhere in Missouri, I stole the letter from the glove compartment when he stopped at a gas station to buy Tums.

Dad found love letters from a June Bug as monumental as an extraction of aluminum, but for me it was like coming across a vein of gold in quartz. Nowhere in the world was there a nugget of emotion more absolute.

I still have my collection, which tallies seventeen. I include below an excerpt from Jessie’s four-page Ode to Gareth: You mean the very world to me and I’d go to the ends of the earth for you if you asked me. You didn’t ask me though and I will accept that as a friend. I will miss you. I’m sorry about that baby thing. I hope we keep in touch and that you will consider me a good friend in the future who you can relie on in thickness and thin. In lou of yesterday’s phone call I am sorry I called you a pig. Gareth all I ask is to remember me not as I have been over the past couple days but as that happy woman you met in the parking lot of K-Mart. Peace be to you forever more. Most of the time, though, despite the occasional buzzing sounds reverberating through a quiet evening, it was always Dad and me, the way it was always George and Martha, Butch and Sundance, Fred and Ginger, Mary and Percy Bysshe.

On your average Friday night in Roman, New Jersey, you wouldn’t find me in the darkened corner of the parking lot of Sunset Cinemas with the Tanned Sporto with Shiny Legs, puffing on American Spirits waiting for the Spoiled Pretender (in his father’s car) so we could speed down Atlantic Avenue, scale the chain-link fence surrounding long-out-of-business African Safari Minigolf, and drink lukewarm Budweiser on the tatty Astroturf of Hole 10.

Nor would you find me in the back of Burger King holding sweaty hands with the Kid Whose Mouthful of Braces Made Him Look Simian, or at a sleepover with the Goody Two-Shoes Whose Uptight Parents, Ted and Sue, Wished to Prevent Her Ascent into Adulthood as if It Were the Mumps and certainly not with the Cools or the Trendies.

You’d find me with Dad. We’d be in a rented two-bedroom house on an unremarkable street lined with bird mailboxes and oak trees. We’d be eating overcooked spaghetti covered in the sawdust of parmesan cheese, either reading books, grading papers or watching such classics as North by Northwest or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, after which, when I was finished with the dishes (and only if he’d sunk into a Bourbon Mood), Dad could be entreated to perform his impression of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone. Sometimes, if he was feeling especially inspired, he’d even stick a piece of paper towel into his gums to re-create Vito’s mature bulldog look. (Dad always pretended I was Michael.): Barzini will move against you first. He’ll set up a meeting with someone you absolutely trust, guaranteeing your safety. And at that meeting you’ll be assassinated . . . it’s an old habit. I’ve spent my entire life trying not to be careless. Dad said “careless” regretfully, and stared at his shoes. Women and children can be careless, but not men . . . Now listen. Dad raised his eyebrows and stared at me

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Excerpted from Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Copyright (c) 2006 by Marisha Pessl. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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