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Original Essays | September 17, 2014

Merritt Tierce: IMG Has My Husband Read It?

My first novel, Love Me Back, was published on September 16. Writing the book took seven years, and along the way three chapters were published in... Continue »
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An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England


An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England Cover

ISBN13: 9781565125513
ISBN10: 1565125517
Condition: Standard
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Dayle, January 19, 2012 (view all comments by Dayle)
The ironies and dark humor of this look back on the protagonist's prolonged fall from grace among the proud, well-read citizens of his home town (not to mention his parents, who unfortunately happen to be teachers of English literature), is a delicious ride. The foreshadowing makes it clear early on the narrator is doomed, but the tale is so ridiculously absurd and quirky that the reader is drawn in completely, and is in effect an accomplice to all the ill-advised choices made by the story's character. Fun reading whether you are the bookish type, or someone who likes to play with matches.
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katknit, February 3, 2009 (view all comments by katknit)
The Pulsipher family epitomizes the word dysfunctional. Not abusive, exactly, but profoundly disconnected. Their son, Sam, whom they've raised mostly via assigning him books to read, is an ex con, an "accidental" arsonist whose fire at the Emily Dickenson house killed a tour guide and her husband. Sam served his time and is now married, with 2 children, and his family believes Sam's parents are dead. Then the son of the Dickinson fire victims blows his cover, big time. Sam returns to his parents house, and now must cut his way through the jungle of lies that form the foundation of his life.

The Arsonist's Guide is two books in one. The reader follows the memoir, falsely marketed as fiction, during which Sam relates his life story and also talks about his "nonfiction" guidebook. This is more than a simple novel. That Sam has been damaged psychologically by his upbringing is evident at once. Denial is his lifeline, but his heart is good. As his conquers the jungle of lies, he ponders the nature of love, of stories, of life, of guilt, and of forgiveness. Readers familiar with the landscape of New England will enjoy the countless references and descriptions, which, as a native New Englander, I can say are spot on. So is his skewering of modern suburbia - Sam buys his wife and kids a house in the "Camelot" subdivision. His neighbors are deeply offended when he mows the lawn shirtless. Readers familiar with symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome will wonder about Sam's unusual personality traits - his relentless literalism, his difficulties with 2 way relationships, his intense shyness. His little boy seems to share some of these characteristics. But Sam is far from alone in his strangeness - he is surrounded by maladjusted people. Arsonist's Guide is laugh out loud funny in places, satirical nearly everywhere, and tragic in others. Author Clarke has managed well the difficult task of bringing an original perspective to age old problems.
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Shoshana, September 20, 2008 (view all comments by Shoshana)
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is best read as a spoof of fictionalized memoirs. Some reviewers haven't liked this novel; my guess is that they are reading it straight rather than as a parody of the genre. Of course the protagonist acts stupidly. Of course the characters are either flat or larger-than-life (My Friend Leonard, anyone?). It's meant to be absurd, and it means to draw attention repeatedly to its own artifice. In this sense, though it's written in a pretty straightforward narrative style, it is really better classified as postmodern than as classically-organized fiction.

Here's a reading strategy: First read James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, published as memoir but now widely accepted to be self-aggrandizing fiction. Then read (not watch) One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest for a narrator who's having trouble grasping what's happening in his life because his internal chatter is so pronounced. Finally, read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for a narrator who knows less than the reader does as he struggles to solve a mystery. Now read An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, the putative memoir of Sam Pulsifer, who as a teenager accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House, killing two people and setting in motion the events of the rest of his life.
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Zmrzlina, August 2, 2008 (view all comments by Zmrzlina)
Those people who like to read books where they see themselves in the characters... I hope those people read this book. And I hope they see themselves. And then I hope they stop trying to find themselves in characters in books.

This book is a comedy in the same way the movie American Beauty is a comedy. Both end with the characters happy. It is a beautiful, sad ending.
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Taynb, April 20, 2008 (view all comments by Taynb)
A fascinatingly written book where you might think where the pages would turn but then there is another kink that would throw you off. There you start thinking wait a minute... A must read.
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Product Details

A Novel
Clarke, Brock
Algonquin Books
New england
Dickinson, Emily
Literary landmarks
Black humor (Literature)
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.0 x 6.0 in

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An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England Used Hardcover
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Product details 305 pages Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill - English 9781565125513 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Hilariously twisted and yet somehow still burning with heart, An Arsonist's Guide will be eminently accessible (and very funny) to readers of any background. Lit majors, however, may take special delight in watching the source of so many dull lectures go up in smoke. No matter, Clarke's name is one you'll be hearing more and more.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Clarke's fourth book (after the story collection Carrying the Torch) is the delightfully dark story of Sam Pulsifer, the "accidental arsonist and murderer" narrator who leads readers through a multilayered, flame-filled adventure about literature, lies, love and life. Growing up in Amherst, Mass., with an editor for a father and an English teacher for a mother, Sam was fed endless stories that fueled (literally and figuratively) the rest of his life. Thus, the blurred boundaries between fact and fiction, story and reality become the landscape for amusing and provocative adventures that begin when, at age 18, Sam accidentally torches the Emily Dickinson Homestead, killing two people. After serving 10 years, Sam tries to distance himself from his past through college, employment, marriage and fatherhood, but he eventually winds up back in his parents' home, separated from his wife and jobless. When more literary landmarks go up in flames, Sam is the likely suspect, and his determination to find the actual arsonist uncovers family secrets and more than a bit about human nature. Sam is equal parts fall guy and tour guide in this bighearted and wily jolt to the American literary legacy. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "[A] refreshing send-up of the self-indulgent memoir, with a cast of characters by turns tragic and absurd."
"Review" by , "Clarke...has created a character feebly struggling against fate in a situation both sad and funny, believable and preposterous."
"Review" by , "A serious novel that is often very funny and will be a page-turning pleasure for anyone who loves literature."
"Review" by , "Brock Clarke is our generation's Richard Ford, destined to be as influential and as celebrated. And his arsonist, Sam Pulsifer, is an Everyman surburban nomad, a literary misadventurer who is as insightful and doomed as he is heartbreakingly hilarious. I love this book"
"Review" by , "This is a sad, funny, absurd, and incredibly moving novel. Its comic mournnfulness, its rigorous, breakneck narrative, delight....Clarke [has] given us a wonderful book about life, literature, and the anxieties of their influence."
"Review" by , "While I was reading this dark, funny, tragic novel, I would look at the people around me and feel sorry for them because they weren't occupying the same world I was; they weren't living as I was, inside the compelling, off-kilter atmosphere of Brock Clarke's pages. This is the best book I've read in a long time."
"Synopsis" by ,
 A lot of remarkable things have happened to Sam Pulsifer, beginning with the ten years he spent in prison for accidentally burning down Emily Dickinson's house and unwittingly killing two people. Emerging at the age of twenty-eight, he creates a new life as a husband and father. But when the homes of other famous writers go up in smoke, he must prove his innocence by uncovering the identity of this literary-minded arsonist.

"Synopsis" by , It may not have been Sam Pulsifer's intention to torch the Emily Dickinson House, but he served ten years in prison for his crime. After his release, the past comes crashing through his front door as the homes of Robert Frost, Edith Wharton, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne go up in smoke.
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