Sunday, February 7, 2010

Question: Would you set fire to a dead author's house because you really, really, really hate his or her books? Right now, I can't think of any. Living authors, yes. I know of a lot. I can't picture myself flying off to England and then setting fire to Jane Austen's house just because I can't finish any of her novels (all those gossipy characters just drive me mad). Nor do I imagine burning Saul Bellow's house because I have all these pent-up bittnerness inside me that I'm never going to write beautiful sentences as much as he had.

Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, a superbly well-written book, is a novel that explores this issue. We meet Sam Pulsifer, a man who accidentally burned Emily Dickinson's house when he was a teenager and was sent to prison for 10 years because of this. After his time behind his bars, he builds a new life: getting a college degree, marrying a beautiful woman, having kids, living in an upper middle class neighborhood in New England, and working for a packaging company. Sam never reveals his past to his wife. But his peaceful existence is shaken when 4 other writers' homes are burned in New England, and he's the only suspect for all of them.

Now why would all these cases of arson be linked to Sam, you might ask. Well, aside from his past crime, it turns out that while he was in prison, people have written letters to him asking him to burn this and that dead author's house because these people have something against these writers. When Sam was released from prison, his father showed him the box of letters from people asking Sam to burn these houses. Now, several years later, a few of these letters are missing, and the authors' houses mentioned in these letter are being set on fire, one after another.

Based on the plot, Arsonist is a mystery, with Sam as the unwilling detective motivated to find who could possibly be framing him for these crimes. Of course, there's Thomas Coleman, the son of a couple who was killed when the Dickinson house went down. There's also his drunk mother, a character who seems so sad and angry because of Sam's father's illicit affair. One shouldn't count out Sam's wife, Anne Marie, who can be very opinionated, especially after being left in the dark of Sam's past. And there's a whole cast of other characters as well, people who have a bone to pick with Sam.

The mystery storyline in Arsonist is just secondary. Clarke's novel is a satire on the world of books, authors, writing, and the literary academe. Clarke even has included funny episodes. His black humor pokes fun at people who are so into Harry Potter and what can go horribly wrong during a book reading by a prominent author, just to name a few. One hysterically funny bit is when Sam spies on a book discussion attended by people who obviously haven't read the book but who end up discussing their personal lives.

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is so enjoyable that it made me want to go on a tour of all the dead authors' houses in New England. (I never knew that there were that many in that area.) Read it! If you love books or are passionate about your favorite authors, you'll see yourself in the myriad of characters in the novel. Clarke's style of writing isn't straightforward. He often injects short events from Sam's past in the present narrative. The result isn't disappointing though. On the contrary, he has created very believable, three-dimensional characters in his novel.

Read this book if:
  1. You read only novels by dead authors.
  2. You love a well-written mystery.
  3. It's been a while since a book made you laugh and cry at the same time.


Diane said...

This title caught my eye when it first was released here, especially since I'm from New England. I just may have to pick this one up Peter.

Thanks for enabling me :)

Peter S. said...

Hi, Diane! Wow! I envy you. I've always thought that New England is where I'll be spending the rest of my life.

Evanescence said...

It's interesting seeing where classic authors lived, near where I live is Haworth, where the Brontes house is/was and the subsequent museum. But it's also other properties that were used by authors and I always feel they should be preserved too.

There was a house near me up for sale, that was used by a Bronte to write a book, when visiting a friend. I always hoped that who ever bought it, would preserve it for the sake of literary history.

Peter S. said...

I have to agree! These houses should be preserved. Perhaps they may inspire people to write good fiction.

naida said...

This sounds interesting! Great review.
I think it's great that they preserve dead authors homes, they are a piece of literary history.
As for myself, i've always wanted to visit Jane Austen's home :)

Anonymous said...

If I'm gonna burn some author's house...

Couldn't think of any author whose house I'd like to burn, really.

nice blog, btw.

Evanescence said...

I can think of some authors, not necessarily ones that are no longer with us!

mel u said...

great title for a book-sounds very interesting

Anonymous said...

I'd burn down Hitler's house.

The bit about people meeting to discuss books only to end up discussing personal lives sounds like my book club.

Charlie said...

The reason for so many dead writers in New England, I think, is because it's the oldest part of America. I once visited Nathaniel Hawthorne's house in Salem, MA.

I would never burn anything down, unless one of my home experiments blew up, but their is a living writer's home I wouldn't mind visiting with a baseball bat.

As usual, Peter, you came up with another interesting read.

Alexia561 said...

Haven't heard of this one, but it sounds interesting. Enjoyed your review, and have added it to my wishlist.

Can't think of anyone I don't like enough to burn down their house, but like Charlie, there are a few I wouldn't mind visiting with a baseball bat! *L*

Peter S. said...

@Naida: Yes, literary history indeed!

@Stella Anne: Thanks for dropping by.

@mel u: Yes, it is very interesting.

@StephanieD: That book club sounds fun.

@Charlie: And who is that living writer? Hehehe.

@Alexia: You and Charlie should get together and discuss your author peeves.

David Wagner said...

Excellent review! I'd never heard of the book... now I'm tempted to buy it and let it age on my shelf for a while, as the months tick by without me reading it! Sadly, that's the reality of the situation. But I will grab it if I see it somewhere... thanks for the review.

Peter S. said...

Hi, David! Thanks for dropping by again!

Mark David said...

Hahahaha! Like I've said before, Peter, I can always rely on you to feature the insanely interesting books which I probably would not have heard of if I didn't visit your blog.

Very unique concept for a book! Thanks for posting this :)

PS: I'm currently reading Pride and Prejudice and I must say that I'm sorry you didn't like it. I certainly can understand why, but for some reason I just smile and laugh at the whole thing and so now I actually find the book rather amusing. But we'll see, I'm only a few chapters in. Hopefully I'll be able to stand all those gossiping ladies ;)

Anonymous said...

"Question: Would you set fire to a dead author's house because you really, really, really hate his or her books?"

No, i would consider doing so to one who refuses to finish his series soon. George R.R. Martin, take heed. LOL!

A Buckeye Girl Reads said...

I love the title of the book! This sounds like a great read-I'm adding this to my ever growing want to read books. :)

Anonymous said...

I bought this book on the recommendation of a friend and I still haven't read it. Thanks for reminding me it's still waiting patiently on the shelf. If I don't get to it soon it might combust ;)

Peter S. said...

@josbookshelf: Oh no! Hehe. Really, George R.R. Martin should just finish his series.

@Buckeye Girl: Yes, the title is indeed very catchy.

@stacybuckeye: You'll enjoy this, I'm sure.

Tina said...

Great Review....I'd kinda blown past this one last week someplace else, but this is definitely going onto the TBR pile. Sounds like one we may want to get for our New England library's mystery lovers.