Excerpt from An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

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

A Novel

by Brock Clarke

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke X
An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 305 pages
    Sep 2008, 305 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

It didn't work out. These things never do. You can't ever repeat the past, and the books I once believed to be so important and wise now seemed ordinary in the extreme, and I couldn't concentrate on them. Instead of thinking about how great Gatsby was or wasn't, I mezzed out on the grilled cheese bits that were lodged in Dr. Melton's goatee. And then there was the time when we were reading Dickinson's poetry and the teacher said that she would have taken the class to the Dickinson House for a tour except that it had been burned down years before, and as she tried to remember the name of the arsonist, I realized that I didn't want to tell my story—I knew it all too well. So in order to interrupt and escape the uncomfortable line of inquiry and the recrimination that was sure to follow, I faked a coughing fit and ran to the bathroom and didn't come back to that class for the rest of the semester, and the only reason I got a D and not an F in that class was the same reason I got a D and not an F in my other English classes: the school didn't want anyone to flunk out, because they needed everybody's full tuition. The school really was in horrible shape. There were piles of fallen plaster in the hallways. The drop ceilings were buckling. Even the crucifixes on the classroom walls were in need of repair.

So the bad grades were one reason I quit English, but there was another reason, a bigger reason: I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something else I should be doing, something I hadn't tried or considered, something new and better. There I'd be, sitting in Medieval Literature, supposedly learning to speak the Old English that Beowulf and Grendel spoke, and all I could hear was this voice in my head saying, There must be something else. Asking, What else? What else? This was a surprise, since I wasn't much of a striver and had never asked that question—What else?—out loud in my life. But there was the voice in my head, asking it for me.

Briefly: I quit English and literature and the people who wrote it—for good, I thought—and became a packaging-science major. This was a good move for three reasons. One, packaging scientists were less likely to know that I'd burned down the Emily Dickinson House, or even know who Emily Dickinson was, or even care. Two, I had a knack for remembering what kind of packing material was best for which fragile object, and I immediately understood why it was better that personal-size bags of chips be torn vertically, while family-size bags be torn horizontally, and where the tabs should be located to allow each sort of tearing. I never got anything lower than a B+ in packaging science and managed to do four years of coursework in two years, and immediately after college I got the job for which I was trained, in product development and testing at Pioneer Packaging in Agawam, just outside Springfield.

So those were two good things about switching over to packaging science. The third thing was that I met my wife.

Her name was (and is) Anne Marie, and I met her in our senior seminar in packaging science, the class where you finally stake your claim and choose your path, et cetera. Anne Marie was pretty, extraordinarily good looking, really, and tall, with long, long legs that looked about ready to run away from her torso, and lovely, curly black hair always fastened and arranged and piled high on the top of her head, and a smart smile that was so beautiful you didn't mind the way it made you feel so stupid. What else? In moments that required contemplation, Anne Marie smoked the kind of very thin, sleek cigarettes that, in my experience as a watcher of women, only very thin, sleek women are inclined to smoke. All in all, she looked like an Italian goddess, which was about right, since her last name was Mirabelli and her ancestors were from Bologna.

About my looks: I was tall and skinny as a kid, but with a big head. I looked like a vertical matchstick. I lifted weights in prison to some effect, including pulling muscles I didn't know I had, and this was another thing I bumbled. My face is the most prominent thing about me: it's red, and sometimes it looks healthy and windburned and full of what you might call life, and sometimes it just looks enflamed. If I were embarrassed, on a dark night you could find your way by the glow of my face. But the College of Me warned against being too hard on oneself, and so it should be said that I'm probably, everything accounted for, ordinary handsome. My teeth are only slightly crooked, and most of them are white. I have almost all my hair, which is curly and brown. My chest was concave when I was a child, but if you look closely, this is true of most children, and the weight lifting I did in prison helped with that, and while I don't actually have a barrel chest, I might have a half barrel. My legs aren't nearly as scrawny as they used to be, and have muscles and definition now. My nose would be Roman if my head were smaller. Even though I'm close to legally blind, I don't have to obscure my piercing blue eyes with glasses, because I wear contact lenses. They're the sort of eyes that can see right into your soul, if I'm wearing the lenses. But still, I wasn't what you'd call good looking. Plus, I was a virgin, don't forget that, and all of this is why I'd never spoken to Anne Marie, even though we'd been in five classes together: Anne Marie was clearly much too beautiful for me to speak to.

Excerpted from An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke © 2007 by Brock Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Overstory
    The Overstory
    by Richard Powers
    Many glowing adjectives can be used to describe a novel by Richard Powers: brilliant, moving, ...
  • Book Jacket: American Histories
    American Histories
    by John E. Wideman
    In American Histories, a collection of 21 short stories, John Edgar Wideman draws America's present ...
  • Book Jacket: I Found My Tribe
    I Found My Tribe
    by Ruth Fitzmaurice
    Ruth O'Neill was only 28 when she married film director Simon Fitzmaurice in 2004. Changing her...
  • Book Jacket: The Art of the Wasted Day
    The Art of the Wasted Day
    by Patricia Hampl
    Patricia Hampl wants you to know that daydreaming is not a waste of a day. Nor is spending time ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

A love story for things lost and restored, a lyrical hymn to the power of forgiveness.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Girl Who Smiled Beads
    by Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil

    A riveting story of survival, and the power of stories to save us.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

One of the most anticipated books of 2017--now in paperback!


Word Play

Solve this clue:

T E H N Clothes

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.