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How to Set a Fire and Why

3.56  ·  Rating details ·  5,084 ratings  ·  752 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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Average rating 3.56  · 
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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
L A i N E Y
”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.”

Oh How to Set a Fire and Why what an odd little book you are. What an oddball collection of characters you got and the sweetest sweetheart of an Auntie there is. I feel you. I feel you even where the writing is very detached and I certainly feel you when it ma
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
Jan 22, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019-read, usa
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
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. ...more
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. ...more
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. ...more
Feb 14, 2017 rated it did not like it
Readers are like small time loan sharks, to whom authors are perpetually in debt. The reader agrees to invest their time, and expect to be paid back with a good story. Readers don't care if you hit a dry spell. They don't care if the baby is crying all night. They don't care if your adjunct classes are eating more of your time than you expected. Payment is due on the last page.

Page 50: "Now, Author. I'm agreeing to give you the time, but this wasn't a gift. You have to pay this back."
"Of course
“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
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
Willa McAllister
Dec 25, 2018 rated it did not like it
Freaking hated this book. Only read it cause i have a reading challenge to finish. Let this book serve as a reminder that if a book description includes “edgy, raw, and hilarious” is actually means boring, pretentious, and mind numbing. Sometimes men just should not write.
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
Apr 03, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
Lucia Stanton has some issues. As the novel opens, she is being expelled from her school for stabbing a fellow student with a pencil. In her eyes, this was perfectly reasonable behaviour because she had warned her victim what would happen if he touched her most treasured possession: a cigarette lighter that had belonged to her father.

That’s when I said, your little prince basketball hero shouldn’t have touched my lighter. Then I wouldn’t have put a pencil in his neck.

(Entirely coincidentally, th
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
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!)
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.
Sometimes events speed up. You think you have a handle on them. You think you understand how one thing follows another, but then it turns out you can't even perceive what is about to happen, and before you know it, not only that but other things too-they all have happened and you're left standing in the rubble trying to figure out what to do. p228

What is a pacifist who has issues with fire doing reading such a flagrant, incendiary title?
In fact, I deplore the logic, quite liked the
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'
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. ...more
Paul Fulcher
Dec 04, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019
The lighter does not have to be a very nice one. In fact it should be as non-descript as possible. You will keep it in a pocket as a sort of token. Stick your hand in there and remember; all the buildings that exist, all the grand structures of wealth and power, they remain standing because you permit them to remain. With this little lick of flame in your pocket, with this little gift of Prometheus, you can reduce everyone to a sort of grim equality. All those who ride on a high horse shall be m ...more
Feb 18, 2022 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition

At times there was a plot then it would go off on its own path to talk about something random and slowly make its way back to the "main plot". Similar to Sally Rooney there are no quotation marks in conversation but in this style, I don't mind since it was broken down by paragraphs whereas Rooney had it within paragraphs making it harder to decipher. Lucia has a bleak life as the story progresses and she doesn't really do much to help it since that's what she knows and the story goes around r
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
Jun 12, 2018 rated it did not like it
You have got to be joking me.

J.D. Salinger…really?


I wanted to like this one so, so much, but I just couldn’t.

You go into it, thanks to the blurb on the front, expecting a witty, wild story with an imaginative plot similar to The Catcher in the Rye, at least in some ways. I get it, I see what the author was trying to do here, but I feel it was executed very, very poorly. The number one reason?

Nothing. Happens.

There’s no plot, no story to keep you interested an
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
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
May 20, 2016 rated it did not like it
Horrible. I couldn't get into this book and couldn't wait to finish reading it even though I didn't want to actually finish reading it. ...more
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
Esmé Boom
Nov 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
How to Set a Fire and Why is easily one of my favourite books of 2020. I loved main character Lucia, but not as much as I loved Lucia's aunt. I love how Ball has written Lucia: she's emotionally a teenager, but her intelligence is obvious without it being mentioned all the time. Full of wisdom and cynic witticisms, this novel is laugh-out-loud funny, compassionate and manages to never loses a beat in its pace ...more
Ray Sinclair
Sep 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
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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

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32 likes · 1 comments
“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?” 6 likes
“We deceive ourselves into thinking life is long, but fire reminds us—it is a flickering. Life is a flickering—and then it is gone. So, we must make the most of it.” 6 likes
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