Thursday, September 24, 2009

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

That title is a mouthful huh?

Sam Pulsifer is only good at two things: packaging science and bumbling. His first major bumble comes at the young age of 18 when he burns down Emily Dickinson's historical house and kills two people who were inside (he didn't know they were there.) Ten years later he's out of jail and ready to get on with his life which turns out to be nothing more than bumbled decision after bumbled decision.

It works against Sam that most the people in his life lie to him or attempt to manipulate him. It doesn't help that, years after his initial crime, homes of other famous writers are being burned down throughout New England. And then there's the fact that Sam never felt the need to tell his wife about the arson, murder, and that the orphaned son of the couple who died in the fire is out for revenge. Poor Sam right? Wrong. Sam is not a character you easily feel sorry for, if at all. He's just too much of a mess to garner sympathy. Even when he does "good" you still aren't compelled to like or even appreciate him. He's just not a hero. Sam Pulsifer is nothing more than the main character in a story.

So, how an a book with an unlikeable main character be good? Sam's life is such a mess you can't stop reading about it. The story is also told by Sam as a memoir allowing you to hear Sam admit to and show the reader his own examples of the bumbling choices he makes in life. Personalizing the story in this way makes the action more compelling. I never liked Sam as a person, but his story was great. You don't often get a mess to muddle through like this in a novel and I found it refreshing.

Actually, there are no characters in Arsonist's Guide that are truly likable. Most of them lie and deceive, keep secrets, or tell half-truths that nobody really believes anyway. The only thing to really like is the story itself. Not being distracted by the characters really allows the reader to get into the action. For this reason though, I'd only recommend this book to readers who aren't easily defeated when presented with an unlikeable character. I'd hate to have anyone start this book and give up before getting to the ending - it is a mystery story after all.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope

The Chronicles of Barsetshire are a collection of six books (I've made it through five already) published between 1855-1867. Each book involves different central characters, but all the stories take place in the same fictional county created by Trollope. Rather than review each book I've already read in the series, I want to talk about the series as a whole. Trollope is a great writer and his style, which I find unique to the time period he published in, is what makes this series most attractive.

The series consists of The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset. While, it's helpful to read the books in order - since once characters are introduced they're frequently referred to - it's not a must.

While the focus of each book is really on the various relationships between members of the county, Trollope also takes a stance on important issues of the day - particularly political parties, the state of the church, and how the social structure throughout England affects personal relationships. Making it through almost the entire series by now, I've found the stories and character struggles very interesting. The most unique feature of these books is the author's voice itself. Trollope is actually a character, butting into the narrative to support and guide the reader. Trollope does everything from warning his readers that there won't be one central hero to a story to reassuring us that because he hates suspense, he won't leave the reader guessing about the fate of his more beloved characters.

Trollope also uses unconventional methods to conclude his stories. While his characters mostly end up happy, all the stories don't conclude with everyone married to their true love and all the poor characters wealthy. Our Warden (who appears primarily in the first two books) repeatedly refuses positions within the Church that would allow him to live comfortably financially. The women in The Small House at Allington don't all get to marry their true love. Characters die leaving perfectly good wives widowed. These elements of reality make Trollope more like Hardy than Austen (if you were looking for a comparison.)

The pictures Trollope paints throughout this series of a particular county and all its characters is very vivid. He wants you to see this place as he sees it, so he digs deeply into detail when talking about specific places and people. If you're a fan of "classic" literature and enjoy books from this period (like the Bronte sisters and Dickens) Trollope might be worth a try. Give The Warden a shot and see what you think.