Just in case any of you were wondering if I had crushes on female authors. . .


My science training tends to color my thought processes in strange and funny ways. Science is all about theories and the “facts” to support them (See Roberts Hooke and Boyle 1650-1703). It oftentimes seems to be at odds with my love of fiction, which requires a conscious suspension of disbelief (see also dramatic convention). Somehow though, my brain has learned to reconcile the two (see right vs. left brained funderstanding.com, 2007).

I love a well formatted document (Publication Manual, APA 2001) or a heavy tome about something interesting (see Selfish Gene, Dawkins, 2004).  I also love an unabashed classic of literature (see Penguin Classics) but when a great novel comes along that tickles that sciency part of my brain, it’s a uniquely pleasurable experience (October, 2001).

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was one such novel.  It got a lot of laypersons’ criticism because of her predilection for footnotes (see Larry O’Brien, knowing.net, 2005), which oftentimes took up more of the page than the main story line. However, I dove into this book with delightful abandon, practically applauding each new tangent (tan x = sin x/cos x). How lovely, these pretend references to other works! If only they existed so I could read them, however dry they proved to be. How adorable the quotes of more imaginary authorities put forth as “proof” of some fictional magical theory or other! It’s stories within stories (see Neverending Story, Ende 1993). Genius, Ms. Clarke. Simply genius.

Jonathan Strange is not, however, a book that one rereads without a large chunk of time on one’s hands. Of course I have such chunks with my 3 hour commute, but they really should be devoted to new reading, not old. So I despaired at finding another such book. Then I started Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Pessl, 2006) a book that was similarly underestimated by many readers of popular fiction.  And I was ecstatic. 

The book’s narrator Blue is, not surprisingly, a Renaissance Genius Child (see Leonardo DiVinci-esque) and daughter of a nomadic, mediocre professor. While dragging her from teaching post to teaching post across America, listening to heavy handed books on tape, he has taught her the importance of living your life like you are writing your Life Story (CP, Introduction). Blue however, lives her life more like a play or movie than a book (see Shakespeare “All the world’s a stage. . .”). Marinated in such a mix of academic, popular media and esoteric flavors, her tale is filled with Important Capitalized Events, snarky Nomenclature and a series of hysterical but subtle references that take time to digest (see enzymes in the alimentary canal).

This books offers the best of both worlds for me. There is a sparkling plot which promises to be interesting and a surfeit of eclectic characters. Swirling around them both are endless side-notes and references, allusions and asides that are not only nerdy but hilariously funny.