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An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England Paperback – September 2, 2008

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 317 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; Reprint edition (September 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565126149
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565126145
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (116 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #435,377 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best of the Month, August 2007: In An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New Englan, the quirkiest title for a book since Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Brock Clarke lights up the page with the chronicle of a man who, as a teenager, accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, killing two people. ("It's probably enough to say that in the Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore of big gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches at Salem, and then there's me.") After serving ten years in prison for the crime, Sam Pulsifer moves on with his life, but the emergence of a copycat who's turning New England's literary landmarks to ash puts Sam back in the spotlight and on a quest for the truth. Comparisons to The World According to Garp and A Confederacy of Dunces may be bold, but this heartfelt, funny, and highly entertaining tale promises to be Brock Clarke's breakout book for certain. --Brad Thomas Parsons --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

I really wanted to like this book starting out.
The main character is boring, there is no humor, and the only thing interesting about this book is its title.
Melissa L. Shogren
This is the longest 300-page book I have ever read.
Mara Zonderman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 28 people found the following review helpful By S. J. Hall on September 25, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Think a mini version of Marisha's Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and you'll understand the world that awaits you in Clarke's book. Like Pessl's novel, Clarke's novel has an intellectually sophisticated narrator, who utilizes a wealth of complexly constructed sentences to tell his multilayered tale of coming of age and attempts to solve two mysteries, and who has interwoven all throughout the text countless observations and aphorisms about life.

Specifically, our narrator Sam Pulsifer is trying to unravel the mysterious surrounding his parents' lies and strange behavior and who is attempting to, and then starts succeeding at, burning down homes of famous authors around the New England area. The end result of Pulsifer solving both these mysteries is that he is baptized by obliteration into adulthood; the world he thought he knew disintegrates before his eyes, and he begins to attempt to atone for all the years of not taking responsibility for his actions.

Now granted, Clarke's novel isn't quite the masterpiece that Special Topics in Calamity Physics is, however that does not diminish the fact that this is a novel you should considering reading because it still is very entertaining and moving; it is a well paced jaunt, told with humor, charm, wit, sadness, self-depreciation, and tinged with heartbreak, about a topic I think we can all agree is quite perplexing - Life.
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32 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Corinne H. Smith VINE VOICE on September 9, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Sam Pulsifer is a bumbler. And in true bumbler fashion, he doesn't know he *is* one until he meets white-collar criminals in prison who scoff at such individuals. Sam is an innocent soul: a blissfully naïve young man who accidentally starts a fire in an historic house and accidentally kills a married couple secretly meeting inside it. This is his story, which he begins for us after his 10-year incarceration and the resumption of his life. The narrative is conveyed in first person by Sam himself, written at a time in the future when hindsight is 20/20 and he can keep us interested by providing forecasts in regular asides: "This turned out, much later, to be something of a mistake on my part, but how was I to know that at the time? How are we supposed to recognize our mistakes before they become mistakes? Where is the book that can teach us *that*?"

Sam goes to college, gets a good job, marries well and has two children before the big trouble starts: someone else begins to set fire to other historic homes in New England, and fingers start pointing once again at Sam. But we readers know he didn't do it, don't we? Having read lots of literature in his lifetime but not detective stories, Sam doesn't quite know how to go about investigating the situation and clearing his name. In Sam's case, ignorance is not necessarily bliss; and he unwittingly gets himself in deeper trouble as he goes along. But at least he realizes his limitations: "The truth is that the world is full of bumblers exactly like you, and to think that you're special is just one more thing you've bumbled." Low self-esteem is one of Sam's personal demons.

What sounds like serious business is really a comic tragedy, with many humorous moments found in Sam's assessment of what Life throws at him.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Seven Kitties on September 30, 2008
Format: Paperback
In the interests of full disclosure: Brock Clarke is the brother of one of my coworkers and he came to present at our fledgling Creative Writing conference out of fraternal affection and perhaps a free (steamtabled) dinner. Thus, to counter the really base ad hominem attacks appearing in these reviews, my impression of Brock Clarke, Human Being, is quite menschy.

I also got to hear him read the first chapter of this book at our little conference, so maybe that experience put a better idea into my head of what Sam Pulsifer's voice should sound like: something between gullible and sardonic. Thus when I sat down the other day to read this book, I might have had more preparation to this character's voice than other reviewers.

I think this book *is* hilarious, but I acknowledge that if you're not one for literary allusions, you'll probably hate this book and deride the author as pretentious. There's also some stuff that I think if you haven't been to grad school or worked in a college will also sail right over your head, such as Lees Ardor and her knee jerk antagonism. I think every college worth its salt has a Lees Ardor. (I'm afraid at my school it might be...*me*!) And Harry Potter parents might feel a little defensive after reading this.

The plot is absurd, but not absurdist, and even when I was caught thinking Pulsifer sure was being a moron, I found myself reading along for absolute treasures in prose as some other reviewers have quoted. One of my favorites is when he speculates about his wife whether he's actually made her happy or just too busy to cry.

If you're looking for realistic fiction with deep round rich characters and a suspenseful plot, this will surely disappoint.
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Format: Hardcover
(3.5 stars) The guilt of Sam Pulsifer, who describes himself as "the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, and who in the process killed two people, for which I spent ten years in prison," permeates this memoir of a lost life. Now in his late thirties, he is the happily married father of two children, a man who managed to graduate from college and get a terrific job as a packaging engineer. All is going well--until Thomas Coleman, the son of the couple who died in the Emily Dickinson House fire, about twenty years ago, appears on his doorstep. Coleman promises Sam that he will continue to pay for his crime in ways he never dreamed of.

Sam has never told his wife Anne Marie about his past, and she has no suspicions at all about his missing ten years, but before long, Sam is locked out of his house and living with his parents, and Thomas Coleman's car is parked in her driveway. Soon the homes of other writers--Edward Bellamy, Mark Twain, and Robert Frost--are torched. The police, of course, gravitate to Sam's door. As the crimes increase, Sam's domestic life---with his father, mother, and Anne Marie--becomes even more convoluted.

Author Brock Clarke does a masterful job of creating a breezy, conversational point of view, and his dialogue is natural and often filled with dark humor. As the crimes become more numerous, Clarke ratchets up both the suspense and the number of suspicious characters, leaving the reader hard-pressed to figure out how Sam will ever surmount his increasingly formidable challenges. As the cast of outrageous characters grows, Clarke keeps the humor high, and his use of absurdist details, wild scenes, and in-jokes about writers and their work keep the reader amused.
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