An Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes In New England

An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes In New EnglandAn Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes In New England
by Brock Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Publisher:  Algonquin Books
Release Date:  September 4, 2007
Category: Fiction
Setting: Amherst, MA
Author Website:

An Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes interested me for several reasons. First, I’m from New England. Second, I’m an avid reader. Third, I’ve actually visited the homes of some of these famous authors.  All of which explains why my best friends gave this to me as a gift. I have to say, however, that the title immediately made me pause; I couldn’t imagine how any writer could ever think about burning down the homes of this country’s most famous authors. I was speechless. I had to read it.

Arsonist’s Guide reminds me of Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. I loved Winesburg. I read it in high school when I lived in Massachusetts, and it is one of the reasons that I tell myself I don’t mind living hundreds of miles from the ocean now… because at least I’m in Ohio near Winesburg (Note: Anderson’s book is set in the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio which is based loosely on the author’s childhood memories of Clyde, Ohio and should not to be confused with the actual town Winesburg, Ohio.)  And that is an example of the long way around the storytelling bush that you’ll find in the Arsonist’s Guide. If you like stories with misfit characters who bounce around in circles before finding their way then you’ll like Arsonist’s Guide. If you prefer stories that building up from the opening to a climax in straight line, then this probably isn’t the book for you (I’ve reviewed plenty of other books on that might interest you).

Sam is an accidental arsonist, but an arsonist none the less. His life is a list of accidents: good and bad.  He is surrounded by dysfunctional relationships. You start reading this book expecting there to be great big famous house fires – and there are – but there are massive explosions in all sorts of relationships that surround Sam. We learn everything through Sam’s eyes. There isn’t a lot a dialogue. And except for the occasional fire, there isn’t a lot of action. Yet a lot happens in this story.

For example, Sam has a complicated relationship with his parents. And I suppose, like every child, he doesn’t really understand the relationship that his parents have with each other. And to be honest, his parents’ relationship really is complicated. As a bumbler, Sam seems destined to repeat his parents’ mistakes. You can see the train wreck that is Sam’s life coming but like all rubberneckers driving by an accident, I just could put the book down to prevent myself from seeing it happen. I had to see it. I had to know more. Like Sam, I wanted to know the answers even though knowing the answers might not change anything.

Arsonist’s Guide was a slow-paced book and yet I found myself reading faster with anticipation at the end. I waved away a hungry husband to finish reading the last twenty pages – and really, isn’t that a sign of a good book when you delay feeding your own family so that you can stay in fantasy land a little longer.

As a reviewer, Arsonist’s Guide is one of those books that I find is hard to explain without giving it all away. The main character is an arsonist (which is not something I can relate to). There is a lot of emotional angst (which is not something I usually enjoy in a book). I felt at home with a lot of the Yankee rationalization (which might be called “just plain crazy” in other parts of the country). Put that all together and the rational side of me says this should have been a sad story, but the book reader in me knows it wasn’t.

  • Am I glad I read it? Yes.
  • Do I think everyone would like this book?  No.
  • Do I think Sam is a hero?  Yes.

And you are just going to have to read the book to find out why I think so.

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