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How to Set a Fire and Why

3.61  ·  Rating details ·  2,919 ratings  ·  445 reviews
Lucia's father is dead; her mother is in a mental institute; she's living in a garage-turned-bedroom with her aunt. And now she's been kicked out of school—again. Making her way through the world with only a book, a zippo lighter, a pocket full of stolen licorice, a biting wit, and striking intelligence she tries to hide, she spends her days riding the bus to visit her mot ...more
Paperback, advance reading copy--galley, 320 pages
Published July 5th 2016 by Pantheon
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3.61  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,919 ratings  ·  445 reviews

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Do you remember as a child how easy it seemed to solve life's problems? If all the rich people shared their excess, then there would be no poor. Simple, right? In How to Set a Fire and Why, a teenage girl: Lucia discusses how she would go about making this the norm. No homelessness, no hunger, no more daily struggling, and certainly no fat old money staring down their noses at the one's who weren't born so lucky. But Lucia is sort of special. Her personal life stressors combined with her impatie ...more
Jan 22, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: usa, 2019-read
Jesse Ball is one of the most interesting writers around PERIOD. He is fearless, inventive, and somehow manages to have a distinct voice although his books all have their own peculiar vibe: I just loved the enigmatic Census (winner of the Gordon Burn Prize 2018, and rightly so), and while it would be more apt so say that I rather admired than loved "How to Set a Fire and Why", the sound of its teenage narrator Lucia intrigued me. To write from the perspective of a rebellious teen can easily take ...more
Jessica Sullivan
This is my third Jesse Ball novel and I have to say: I can’t think of another contemporary author who has such an original and inventive voice and style. The best thing about Ball is that he’s no one-trick pony: the only thing his books have in common is that they are each wholly unique.

In How to Set a Fire and Why, his protagonist is a teenage girl named Lucia, who tells us her story through a series of journal entries. The best way I can describe Lucia is like this: Imagine Holden Caulfield if
Lucia Stanton is a cynical 14-year-old misfit who lives with her elderly aunt in a garage. At first she only supports the idea of arson, but events draw her into getting personally involved. This is one of those fairly rare novels that stand out immediately for the first-person voice. Lucia reminded me of Holden Caulfield or of Mim Malone from David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. She’s like a cynical philosopher. For as heartbreaking as her family history is, she was always either making me laugh or imp ...more
Michael Livingston
Jul 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I loved this - Lucia's voice is blisteringly funny, dark and unapologetically idealistic. She's been dealt a shit hand in life and she's angry at the fakes, idiots and condescending adults that she has to deal with every day. The writing is fantastic - I completely bought into Lucia as a narrator and was knocked out by her smart, sad and hilarious take on the world. I'm definitely going to chase down more of Jesse Ball's books.
“I … thought about the fire. I know it was just an abandoned building but I felt like something had happened, a real thing for once. My aunt’s stroke had felt pretty real too. I guess real things happen all at once, and then you go back to the false parade of garbage that characterizes modern life”

How To Set a Fire And Why is the sixth novel by American author, Jesse Ball. Lucia Stanton lives in virtual poverty with her elderly Aunt Margaret in a garage at the back of a messy garden. She has be
Mar 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
Wow, what a book. I can't figure out another author who writes like Jesse Ball does. He suffuses so much artistry and philosophy into his writing and characters that his books are hard to classify. Longer review to come. This is a toughie to digest, but I am very impressed and highly recommend it.
Jan 06, 2017 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
May 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
If J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield had a tryst with Stephen King’s Carrie, perhaps she would be a bit like Lucia Stanton – cynical, disillusioned, subversive, self-aware, and lost.

Her father is dead, her mother is ailing, and she lives full-time with her destitute yet caring aunt, in a converted garage. Every day, she wears the same “uniform” to school, where she is marginalized. Unlike her schoolmates, who are burning with the promise of adolescence, Lucia’s flame may be predestined to quickl
Carla Stafford
Oct 10, 2016 rated it really liked it
Lucia is a tough, young woman who doesn't fit in. Her dad is dead, her mom is in an institution, and she lives with her (seemingly and endearingly) batty but philosophically enlightened old aunt. Lucia is well read, and even more well spoken-she has nothing but her somewhat twisted ideals, the notebook she writes random predictions in, and her stolen licorice. Lucia is an avid reader, with advanced thoughts and a vocabulary that would shame the kids of Dawson's Creek. All Lucia has leftover from ...more
Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac)
Lucia is a badass teenager, living with her aunt in a garage converted into a rental suite they haven't been able to pay the rent on for quite a while. She visits her mom in the mental hospital once a week despite her mom having no idea who her daughter or she herself is. Lucia's most treasured possession is her dead dad's Zippo lighter, which she guards with her life because "every time someone touches it there is less of him on it. His corpse is actually on it—I mean, not his death corpse, but ...more
Sep 27, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017-reads
What the actual heck did I just read?

Update: I finished this more than a week ago & I'm still confused AF.
This is my first book by Jesse Ball and I can say with full confidence that a new author has joined the ranking of favourite authors.

Going to the teenage years. The years where one is supposedly at the apex of their life. Where emotions run high and life is set against you. This is the stereotypical view of a teenager and their mental state. Into this world comes Lucia and she full of rage. Tentatively waiting for her ignition.

Realistically speaking life is not a very happy one. It's not life'
Sep 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Nice piece of contemporary pop fiction told by a 14 year old who has some problems and more than average intelligence.
Jaclyn Crupi
Jun 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I have wanted to re-read this for ages and it's even better on a second reading. Jesse Ball truly is the real deal. He spoiled us with three books in as many years and I'm not coping well waiting for what comes next. This book is for those who love unique character studies/voices along the lines of Eileen and Sorry to Disrupt the Peace.
Jul 25, 2016 added it
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So last week I wrote about Before the Fall and how I felt its author couldn’t write female characters with depth. Jesse Ball shows that male authors can write multidimensional female characters. Lucia, the protagonist and narrator of How to Set a Fire and Why, has a bit of masculine swagger, but a lot of women (including me) can relate to that to some degree. Lucia is a tough, sarcastic, whip-smart young woman. She has been dealt a lot of reverses in
Kyle Muntz
May 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
I have conflicted feelings about this novel--it's a complete departure for Jesse Ball, and in a lot of ways it's a success. It's a kind of anti-coming-of-age novel made up mostly of detached, but fascinating and counterintuitive moments of introspection; the whole thing is fun to read, but there's also something sort of... thin to it. But it does a lot of things very well, and it's surprising how Lucia's voice carries a book so light on narrative or fleshed out characters. Not that the character ...more
Joachim Stoop
Oct 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
How versatile one can be!?
This book is typical and atypical Jesse Ball. Loved it!

Two tips: 1. Read it as young adult
2. Listen to the audiobook (the voice of the girl is exactly like the voice of the girl in the book!)
Jul 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Jesse Ball continues to impress me. How to Set a Fire and Why is about living with different morals, and the consequences of doing it. Ball constructs two morality systems–one, a hedonistic one that Lucia's family lives by, and the other an anarchist one focused on bringing about wealth equality, the credo of the arson club.

Lucia slowly grafts the second onto the first one in the midst of her life unraveling, figuring out what it means for her to be true to her morals in society. This is complic
Ray Sinclair
Sep 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Laura Sinclair
Jesse Ball is brave to create this book’s narrator, Lucia Stanton, a character that brings Holden Caulfield so quickly and strongly to mind. Come too close to HC and Lucia Stanton will be labeled derivative. Stray too far and the authentic voice of a smart, cynical, disillusioned, wise-before-his/her-time young adult will be lost. Ball found the sweet spot in between with this sad, wonderful story. High-schooler Lucia is living in a garage with her aunt. They are so poor that Lucia shoplifts for ...more
Laura Hogensen
Aug 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
As a reader, this makes you separate yourself from the narrator. Lucia is clearly damaged and trying her best to cope. Because she's brilliant, her deadpan narration of her life and the things that happen to her might lure you in to thinking this is all ok or normal. Far from it. This was a hard read for me because the whole time I knew that things aren't going to be "ok". There was never going to be magical adult intervention. And while I cheered Lucia's ingenuity, I was also angry at the world ...more
Oct 22, 2016 rated it it was ok
Quick read. A teenager angry at the world and processing her own angst.
First 50 pages were good, after that it was really boring. She makes predictions about how life will go, but it's mostly just her routines, and because they are routine, that's what happens.
Isabelle Smith
Sep 09, 2016 rated it it was ok
It's another book written by a man who thinks he understands the mind of a teenage girl. This book is not what I expected, it actually focuses more on her relationships with her family that the arson club, which makes this book very cliche and played out.
Patty Cottrell
Mar 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is one of my favorite Jesse Ball novels.
Jan 29, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I’m not sure how to describe my thoughts on this book. It gave me so many feelings about what the world is really like. I mean, I know that there is a reality in which we all live but the way that Lucia expresses her thoughts, in this very stream of consciousness way of conveying her beliefs and convictions was so refreshing.

Young protagonists always get a lot of flack for their immature nature, and maybe Lucia isn't an exception, but she's definitely ahead of her peers when it comes to dealing
Apr 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A main character in the spirit of Holden Caufield would generally cause me to run away screaming, not because of Holden Caufield himself but because of the countless hackjob imitators who have written characters like him. But I trust Jesse Ball because he's wonderful, and he definitely delivered here. Lucia is the best pissed off teen I've read in a long time.

My book club is currently reading some serious young adult trash right now, which casts into further relief what this novel accomplishes w
Feb 24, 2019 rated it it was ok
I just kept on chugging along waiting for this damn book to get to the f*cking point 😑. Its written semi-diary like and the main character is just some full of herself juvenile delinquent lost and wasting her intellect because she had sh*tty role models in her life. I hate to say it but this is what happens when a man tries to write like he’s a teenage girl and fails because he has no experience as a damn teenage girl ... let alone one with that much built up angst 🙄🤦🏻♀. *Sigh* What a f*cking wa ...more
Robert Wechsler
Jul 09, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: american-lit
I read this right after reading Christine Schutt’s novel Florida. They have a lot in common. Both are the first-person stories of girls whose fathers are gone, whose mothers are institutionalized, who live with relatives, and who are smart, bookwormy outsiders. Both are told in childlike but intelligent voices, although Schutt’s narrator is much more lyrical than Ball’s. Schutt’s narrator is an adult looking back, while Ball’s is sixteen.

Novels and films about the childhoods of smart outsiders a
Aug 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Jesse Ball's How to Set a Fire and Why offers readers insight into the depths of loss, the power of love, the immortality of parenting, and the meaning of genius.

The protagonist, Lucia, lives with her aunt after her father dies and her mom winds up in a mental institution. Their relationships with Lucia, however, linger long after they've been extinguished by death and disease. So, anyway, Lucia lives with her aunt in a little converted garage behind some guy's house and they are very poor - bu
Jun 19, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

This is a story for those that enjoy a bit of anarchy in their reading. Lucia Stanton lives with her elderly aunt with limited means since her father died and her mother is now in a mental institution. This has been her reality since she was small. Now in high school, she has been kicked out of one and now entering into a new situation. With anger issues and feelings of loss, she thinks she can actually try to make friends. The only remaining item from her father is an old Zippo light
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Jesse Ball (1978-) Born in New York. The author of fourteen books, most recently, the novel How To Set a Fire and Why. His prizewinning works of absurdity have been published to acclaim in many parts of the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. The recipient of the Paris Review's Plimpton Prize, as well as fellowships from the NEA, the Heinz foundation, and others, he is on the fa ...more
“Maybe you can see from this that I am quite familiar with being in detention. Matter of fact, I feel like I have always been in detention. I am an old veteran of detention, like one of Napoleon's soldiers limping back from the battle of Moscow. No, not like them--they were chumps. More like--one of the girls who died in the Triangle Fire looking out the window and realizing it is too far to jump, then jumping.” 4 likes
“Can you imagine? That you can say something, offhand, and it can matter, it can really matter to someone else? Can you imagine what it's like to hear something like that? To hear someone say something and feel the world ripple around you?” 4 likes
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