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Review – An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes In New England

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England
by Brock Clarke
303 pages

Two people in my book group agreed that this would be a good book to read and discuss. It’s definitely not a book I would have picked up on my own, but the enthusiasm with which my friend talked about this book and the idea that a book group encourages you to read something that you wouldn’t have otherwise read made me interested to read this.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (AAGTWHINE) (after I was reading the book and realized I wasn’t taking a fancy to it I found it funny that the anagram of this book has the word “whine” in it) is about a man, Sam Pulsifer, who accidentally set fire to Emily Dickenson’s home and inadvertently killed two people at the age of 18. He goes to jail for ten years, and shortly after he is released, other writers’ homes start being the targets of arson. That is the premise.

None of the characters were sympathetic. Sam might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but the other arsons are slightly smarter and Sam just walks into each arson situation, vaguely aware that it’s probably not a good idea, but unable or unwilling to extricate himself. He doesn’t elicit any sympathy from the reader, as he knowingly makes poor decisions. For example, Sam, not having told his wife about his past, at one point lets her believe that he is cheating on her rather than tell her the truth about what he did as a dumb teenager. His thought that she will ultimately forgive him does not come to pass.

It’s not just Sam who is frustrating: his parents are both liars and drunks; citizens write to Sam asking that he burn down other writers’ homes for lame reasons; Sam’s wife hooks up with another guy shortly after she kicks Sam out for “cheating” on her…and claims she likes this guy because what they have in common is that Sam hurt both of them. Everyone in this book is annoying, petty, and generally not that intelligent.

The author’s writing can be verbose at times in his descriptions. It got to the point where I could skip whole pages once I had a sense of the setting and go right for the dialogue. I hate to do that but there was no other way I was going to finish this book.

When we discussed this at our book club meeting, most everyone didn’t like the book. Some of us even went so far as to say we really didn’t like the book. The person who recommended it, though, had really put a lot of thought into what the author was driving at. I felt guilty for not finding a deeper level in this book, and my friend’s analysis of some of the passages made me appreciate the story and themes a lot more, though that doesn’t change how I feel about this book.

Rating: 65 out of 100

Has anyone else read this book? I have this feeling in my gut that this post is somewhat like speaking into a void…

| Tags: , , 23 comments »

23 Responses to “Review – An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes In New England”

  1. softdrink

    Never read it, never heard of it. And is that supposed to be poor Emily Dickinson on fire on the cover?


  2. mellymel

    i got it from the library a few months ago. after checking goodreads & amazon, i returned it without reading. and you have confirmed it 🙂


  3. bybee

    I think Kookiejar reviewed it on her late blog, A Fraternity Of Dreamers. I seem to remember that she liked it, but you know what a jerk memory can be…


  4. readerville

    Thanks for the review…I’ve been intrigued by the title a few times but have held off on picking this one up, and now I’m so glad. There are so many good books in the world, I don’t want to waste time on the less-than-good ones.


  5. Joanne

    Thanks for the review … I had been thinking about picking this up because the basic idea sounded interesting. But now Im glad I passed it up.
    It’s funny that the general reviews are dismal, but the “official” reviews were so positive.


  6. Will Entrekin

    Heard of it but wouldn’t dare pick it up. Always sounded to me like one of those painfully self-aware, uber-pretentious “literary” novels, a la All the Sad Young Literary Men. Nothing I’ve heard about the book makes me think it might be in the least bit actually any good, which this seems to corroborate.


  7. Nancy, aka Bookfool

    Kookie read it and enjoyed it. Bybee’s right. I’ve got a copy but haven’t read it. Not feeling too anxious to read it, after your review!


  8. bkclubcare

    Ok, I’m reading along and thinking I won’t need to read this and then you DROP the concept of what the author was driving at and…. and…. what? crap, now I’m intrigued. So was there deeper meaning? did you ‘get’ it or just felt bad that you didn’t read along trying to ‘get’ it. (oh, I’m trying to be snarky but I’m not very good at it, ya know. I don’t mean any meanness!!!)


  9. Kristen (bookclubclassics)

    Couldn’t even finish it… Self-important, self-indulgent, annoying… I could go on… 🙂


  10. Review, Interview & Giveaway « Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?

    […] My husband finished this book in two sessions. One session was at night when I was reading it and he said Whatcha readin’? (sound familiar?) So I showed it to him and next thing I know he’s read like five pages and so I graciously (*snicker* I think he had to pry it out of my hands) allowed him to read it while I read the other book that I wasn’t thrilled to start but ended up LOVING. He finished about half that night and the other half waiting for our plane to come back home. When I asked him what he thought, he said, It was good. I’ve asked that question a couple of times and he appears to be a man of few words when discussing books because that phrase is all I could pry out of him. He did mention he thought the discussion questions in the back were a little silly for a young adult’s fantasy book. I would probably agree…except that people can find deeper meaning in the strangest places, such as in the book The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. […]

  11. Anna

    I read about this book in Writer’s Digest several months ago, and I thought it sounded intriguing. Now I’m not so sure. I’ll still at least check it out.


  12. Barbara Michalak

    I read the book for my book group. I found the voice and the setup intriguing, but after a while it lost me. It really lost me when the bond analysts turned up on his doorstep as a group. What? And especially the inlaws in fancy dress. What? His mother’s personality and intentions are so important to the plot, but we don’t get a final read on them. This mother-hypnotized dimwit deserves to go back to prison for crimes he did not commit, and the author along with him, for a crime against the reader.


  13. Hilde

    Wow! Thanks Trish for that dead-on review. I read the first few pages and found them very funny. As I got further into the book I became increasingly frustrated with the total stupidity of the characters, particularly Sam. I too have been skipping pages and am having trouble ploughing beyond the two thirds mark. I read the last page which, based on the absurdity of the rest of the book, I found totally predictable. This is just an annoying book with dumb characters and an odd premise.


  14. Della

    I found it deeply enjoyable, even without the main character sympathetic. In fact, I am writing a literary analysis on it right now, and that is how I found this post. The self-importance and self-indulgence is meant to mirror our ridiculous culture. I am sorry that you all are too short-sight to let the obnoxiousness be the point.


    trish Reply:

    You’re entitled to your opinion…and I’m entitled to mine. 🙂


  15. JeanDavid

    I just finished the book. The book club I am in is reading it, and we will discuss it at our next meeting in a couple of weeks.
    The title made me think it would be a book like something by Donald Westlake, but it sure is not anything of the kind.
    I detest books like this. The poor guy ends up serving 10 years for an accident; I do not know what would have been appropriate, but that was bad enough. Then, by the end of the book, he gets another 20 years for similar crimes he did not do, but to which he confesses. It shows how demolished his personality had become by then.
    I suppose it was a true tragedy, in the sense that his destruction was, at least in part, a result of his own limitations, but for me there was no closure, no redemption, just the gratuitous mental destruction of an individual.


  16. Erin

    This book was hilarious. It was satire. The original reviwer skipped pages. How could it make any sense? I loved it. It was a great story. It was not meant to be realistic. It is kind of a love story to book lovers and a satire of writing and culture. It was brilliant. Vonnegutesque is how I would describe it. I just finished it and could not put it down.


  17. Emily

    I listened to it on tape and I really, really liked it.


  18. Emily G

    I really, REALLY liked that book. I listened to it on tape (Daniel Passer has a great voice). The writing style was great, which really brought the plot to life. Just the way the narrator goes about describing his surroundings and events is enough to make me want to read Clarke’s other books.


  19. Serena ()

    I have to say, I agree with your points here…and I can see the ridiculousness of the prose and the characters’ actions as a reflection of society, but there has to be a better way to execute that without totally putting off readers.


  20. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

    […] Reviews: We Be Reading Bloody Hell! It’s a Book Barrage Shelf Monkey Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’ Literate […]

  21. Lynn Eaton

    This is a book for readers of literature. If you don’t understand postmodern literature, or any of the writers that Sam mentions, you won’t find this book funny. HIs satire is brilliant, and he skewers society, as well as the literary establishment.
    Rather than being a story about Sam, this is a story about story-telling. Just so you know…


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