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

2.94 of 5 stars 2.94  ·  rating details  ·  4,998 ratings  ·  1,186 reviews
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. Filled with wacky scenes and oddball characters, this novel will amuse many readers.
Hardcover, 305 pages
Published 2007 by Algonquin Books
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Jason
Dec 02, 2007 Jason rated it 1 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: nobody, really...
I really wanted to love this book. I couldn't tell you why, but I wanted this one to be a triumph.

But, considering it took countless small bursts of very reluctant reading over the course of the entire fall to get through it, I have to classify this one as a total bust. Even more disappointing still is that I don't even have a great reason other than to say that it was just bad!

The first and foremost problem here is that the narrator is a total disaster. Sam is a convicted arsonist who, through
...more
Oriana
You know, I really considered giving up on this about sixty pages in, and I probably should have; it never got any better. It was just so un-compelling. And the main character was really unlikeable, which drives me nuts. It reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces, which I don't remember much but definitely remember hating; this had the same kind of bumbling, not-very-smart protagonist who just doesn't seem to get why bad things keep happening to him. He was so whiny and stupid and boring. Why sho ...more
Deborah Edwards
Sep 02, 2008 Deborah Edwards rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone with an open mind and a sense of humor
This book is a really fun read without being a frivolous read. In fact, the author takes on a myriad of dark themes, but in the voice of his main character, Sam Pulsifer, has a way of making even the most atrocious goings-on seem hilariously funny. Sam is a self-confessed bumbler, habitual liar, and accidental arsonist, and yet in the hands of Brock Clarke, somehow none of that seems unusual. And believe me, that's not the half of the unusual aspects of this book and its characters. Like Irving ...more
Caryn
Aug 29, 2007 Caryn rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: ... actually, I don't think I would recommend this book at all.
Shelves: fiction
I have to admit, I think I was expecting something completely different out of this book.

It started out well enough: Sam Pulsifer, a native of Amherst, Massachusetts, "accidentally" burned down the Emily Dickinson house when he was eighteen. He has, since then, served his time (seven years in a minimum security prision, hanging out with corrupt bond analysts), gone to college (he has a degree in packaging science... he helped invent the zip loc bag), gotten married (to a tall woman named Anne Ma
...more
Andrew
This was a great story with an interesting narrative style, ruined by yet another pinball protagonist. I'm sick of novelists annoying me with characters that bounce around while people do things around them and especially to them. Instead of acting, they choose the path of silence, the path of not doing anything. For instance, every chance the protagonist gets to make a choice--- especially an important one, he does nothing at all. The worst part is that this bullshit indecisiveness is usually p ...more
Gunjan
I loved this absurdly funny little book and I had to go ahead and take the one star off of my rating because some of the things Clarke writes and that our main character Sam conveys, are true enough to make you want to crawl away and hide. And you know, I just gave five stars to the last book I reviewed and I'm not trying to earn a reputation here. Besides, it's not like anyone's reading this. Except you.

A few favorites-

"After all, wasn't this what college was all about? Emptying your mind of th
...more
Marcus
Oct 16, 2008 Marcus rated it 1 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: ansolutely noone
I picked this one up because it had a lot of great reviews. That'll teach me. There have been few books that have given me less likable characters, or storyline. The initial idea is a really good one, and I really hoped for some sort of saving grace in it all, but I never once found myself rooting for the protagonist, he was merely protagonizing to read about. If ever there were a book I'd warn people against reading this would be it (or Jpod by Coupland, but don't get me started on that just ye ...more
Gregory Baird
“An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England” is the odyssey of Sam Pulsifer, a perpetual but completely accidental ne’er do well. His life story is rather convoluted, so suffice it to say that he snuck into the Emily Dickinson home one fateful night, eager to check out the veracity of several spooky stories his mother told him growing up, and unwittingly started a mighty conflagration that reduced the historic landmark to rubble and killed the amorous couple he did not know was inside. ...more
Janell
Seldom do I start reading a book and think "I really like this", only to get about halfway through and find I dislike it so much I cannot finish. This was the case here. What happened for me is that the quaint soliloquies of the main character started out fascinating, then just became annoying. Without giving too much away, I'll say that I kept finding myself saying "I can't believe you're going to let that happen! You idiot!" It's not that I can't stomach a character who makes poor choices, but ...more
Chad Sayban
More reviews at The Story Within The Story

Sam Pulsifer is an everyman – if you consider it ordinary to accidentally burn down Emily Dickinson’s house and go to prison. Now released, can Sam find a new life as a husband and father while trying to prove his innocence when other writers homes start going up in smoke?

“Fear and love might leave a man complacent, but jealousy will always get him out of the van.”


Every so often, a book grabs your attention with the opening sentence and holds you all t
...more
Melanie
I'm normally a great believer in the first-sentence test, and I bought a copy of this book based almost exclusively on its doozy of a first sentence ("I, Sam Pulsifer, am 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 and, as letters from scholars of American literature tell me , for which I will continue to pay a high price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter"). Alas, the ...more
Thryn G
The inside back cover compares this book to Confederacy of Dunces, Catch-22, and The World According to Garp . This does not match my experience- really, as far as I'm concerned, the only way these books are the same is that they all consist of pages filled with printed English words, bound on a side, and suitable for carrying with you.

An Arsonist's Guide isn't funny, isn't biting, isn't heart-breaking, or even all that interesting. It's pretty sad when someone's self-immolation doesn't provok
...more
Patrick
This is a Weenie book, similar in the navel-gazing tone to the works of Sedaris, Burroughs and the Grand Schnitzel Eggers.

Unlike those writers, Clarke writes in a traditional style - past tense - and with some sort of plot.

So when the Weenie moments occur, and the narrator goes off on his weird life, it fits into a dramatic scheme. It's not the typical Weenie bleats.

Hey, I like that. The Weenies are now, officially, "The Bleat Generation."
Kat
“I wish I’d paid more attention to Anne Marie back then, but I didn’t. Oh, why didn’t I? Why don’t we listen to the people we love? Is it because we only have so much listening in us, and so many very important things to tell ourselves?” Sam Pulsifer, the narrator and protagonist of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, poses this question to himself early in the novel. This pondering points to two key themes: the human need to narrate and our fascination with ourselves. As a tee ...more
Dave
A great title, an interesting premise and a boatload of good reviews persuaded me to pick up this book for a buck at a library sale. Wow -- what a disappointment! I've never come across a character in fiction who was so annoying, unrealistic and just plain stupid. But not stupid in an entertaining sense, just stupid in an annoying f-ed up stupid sense. I don't mind authors who have characters write in the first person who have clouded judgment or who deliberately mislead you or who don't learn a ...more
F.R.
This novel has a smart concept: A man who’s served a jail sentence for burning down Emily Dickinson’s house (and killing two people who were inside it at the time) returns home to his parent’s. Almost immediately after he arrives someone starts setting fire to the homes of other famous New England authors.

At points it also displays a witty, distinctly literary style. There are amusing vignettes concerning successful authors of today (J.K. Rowling, Cormac McCarthy – although I may have misidentif
...more
christa
Life lesson learned about myself while reading An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke: I prefer my slapstick humor visually served up by Leslie Nielsen, as opposed to in book form, like this.

Sam Pulcifer accidentally burns down Emily Dickinson's house and inadvertently kills a mid-coital married couple that was hip-locked in a bedroom. He does time in prison with memoir-writing white-collar criminals, and afterward goes off to college, meets and marries his wife. P
...more
Ellen
It took me three weeks to read a book that I should have completed in three days. The fact that I forced myself to finish it is an indication of how disinterested I was in the story. The characters were unlikeable, the style rambled, and I did not find anything about it "funny" or "heartbreaking", as described on the jacket.

There is something about this style of writing that makes my eyes glaze over. The main character was so self absorbed that I skipped whole pages of navel-gazing just to get t
...more
Kelsey
I liked this book but found it hard to keep my interest for more than a few pages at a time. I wanted to know what would happen to the characters but I didn't care very much for any of them so it didn't matter to me what the outcome was. I did like Sam's insights. He was actually a pretty wise observer but when you're a bumbler like he is it's hard to know such a thing about yourself. And now I feel as though I'm writing in his voice so I'll stop!
kira
Meh. I enjoyed this book, however I didn't find it "Absurdly hilarious... searingly funny" (Entertainment Weekly) or "Wildly, unpredictably funny" (New York Times). Instead I'd rate it perhaps "occasionally chuckle-worthy." Okay, it's a satire of memoir, the literary world, and many other things. I appreciated that. But I just didn't really care about Sam or any of the characters, and as a "mystery" it was pretty weak. However there were some good scenes and clever lines, so all in all I'd give ...more
Jillian
Blech...This book...wasn't what I thought/wanted/expected/hoped it would be. What was I expecting? Good question. That's like someone saying, "That's not what I thought you were going to say." And then when asked what he THOUGHT the other person would say, that same person responds, "I don't even remember anymore." Does that make sense? ( Should I delete that part of this review? Oh man. Am I coherent at ALL?)

I wouldn't say this is a horrible book, but I do think that your enjoyment rests solely
...more
Cami
I'd give this 3.75 stars.
On sheer nerve, the author brings us to an alternate reality where the Emily Dickinson home is no more and many other author's homes are doomed to the same fate by a suspect host of quirky individuals that fill these pages.

I'm surprised by all the negative reviews on this book. I'd like to restrain myself from sounding like a reading snob, I can't help but think they just didn't "get it."

It is full of self-depreciating humor that, true, is sometimes so painful and close
...more
Tortla
The writing brimmed with a nagging...wrongness. Like:

"His eyes were fixed on Lees Ardor; he had this aroused, glazed look on his face and kept smoothing and stroking his tie, and you didn't have to be an English major or a reader to know what that symbolized."
Does Clarke mean signified? Does he mean for Sam Pulsifier to mean signified but get it wrong in a demonstration of his bumblingness? Or does Clarke not have a great grasp on the difference between symbols and signifiers? Or does he mean so
...more
Rachel
"If you tell the truth, you will start crying and never stop, and what good will that do you, or anyone else for that matter? Besides, would anyone want to read a true story that made you start crying and never stop? Would you want to read such a story? Would you read it because it was true, or because it made you cry? Or would it make you cry because you thought it was true? And what would you do, what would you feel, who would you blame, if you found out it wasn't?"

This book makes me sad, but
...more
Mark
A quirky sad/funny, mystery/comedy/tragedy that disturbs one moment, tickles the next, and left me uncomfortable more than I wanted to admit. At times it read like "Holes" for adults.

On one level, this book is a satire on the literary world and its pretensions. The author even makes a cameo appearance as a writer the main character/narrator makes fun of. Along the way there is a mystery to be solved, but the mystery is never so deep as to get in the way of the deeper mysteries the novel wants to
...more
Charles Matthews
Whimsy, satire, and black comedy. Those are three tough genres to pull off, especially when you try to do them all at once, as Brock Clarke does in his new novel. And Mr. Clarke has dared us not to read his book by giving it one of the most intriguing titles to be seen on shelves this fall: “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.”

This is the odd odyssey of Sam Pulsifer, who went to jail at age 18 for burning down the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, Mass., unwittingly killing the
...more
Maggie
Sam Pulsifer begins his faux-memoir with an explanation: he’s a convicted murderer, arsonist, and not much of a literature fan. Sam is also a “bumbler,” and I suppose that accidentally burning down the Emily Dickinson House and killing the two people still inside was his ultimate bumble. For his crime, Pulsifer serves ten years in a white-collar prison, and upon release discovers he is widely reviled by the denizens of his hometown of Amherst, MA, explaining "...in the Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore ...more
Maria Headley
This has gotten a lot of press, but I wasn't in love with it. Good writing, for sure, and innovative conceptually, but I found myself never with the protagonist, and I wanted to be. He is at once innocent and completely culpable, at least in terms of his own assessment of himself, and this makes for an odd narrative point of view. The narrator spends a lot of time judging himself, and sometimes it feels like sitting in on someone's therapy, someone you actually didn't want to know this well. Thi ...more
Jason
While it's a little difficult to dissect this book, due to its hilarity and absurdity that is contrasted by an absolute seriousness, it is a book worth dissecting.

Sam Pulsifer is a bumbler. He accidentally burns down the Emily Dickenson house--killing two people and he accidentally falls into his life after 10 years of prison. Things devolve quickly because of a single, sudden event because Sam manages to bumble around in just the wrong ways.

In one respect the bumbling makes this book what it
...more
Valentina
Sam Pulsifier is an accidental arsonist. As a teenager, he once burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, killing two people in the process. Pulsifier is also a compulsive liar and chronic failure at a variety of things, someone who generally lacks the courage to ask even the simplest question or to tell even the most fundamental truth...until of course he redeems himself in the oddest and senseless of ways at the end of the book, after going through myriad vicissitudes an ...more
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Too Slow 3 34 Nov 03, 2013 04:20PM  
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Brock Clarke is the author of three previous books: The Ordinary White Boy and two story collections. His stories and essays have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, OneStory, the Believer, the Georgia Review, and the Southern Review and have appeared in the annual Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South anthologies and on NPR's Selected Shorts. He lives in Portland, Maine, and teache ...more
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“Fear and love might leave a man complacent, but jealousy will always get him out of the van.” 19 likes
“If only my mother had a book to hold, she wouldn't have looked so lonely. And maybe this was another reason why people read: not so they would feel less lonely, but so that other people would think they looked less lonely with a book in their hands and therefore not pity them and leave them alone.” 17 likes
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