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How to Set a Fire and Why

A Novel

Author Jesse Ball
Read by Emma Galvin
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On sale Jul 05, 2016 | 5 Hours and 32 Minutes | 978-0-451-48414-7
| Grades 9-12
A teenage girl. A shattering loss. An obsession with a secret arson club. This is the story of a girl who has nothing and will burn anything.
 
Lucia’s father is dead, her mother is in a mental hospital, and 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 pocketful of stolen licorice, a biting wit, and the striking intel­ligence that she tries to hide, Lucia spends her days riding the bus to visit her mother and following the only rule that makes any sense to her: Don’t do things you aren’t proud of. But when she discovers that her new school has a secret Arson Club, she’s willing to do anything to be a part of it, and her life is sud­denly lit up. As Lucia’s fascination with the Arson Club grows, her story becomes one of misguided friendship and, ultimately, destruction.
© Joe Lieske

JESSE BALL (1978– ). Born in New York. The author of fourteen books, most recently the novel How to Set a Fire and Why. His works have been published to acclaim in many parts of the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. He is on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, won the 2008 Paris Review Plimpton Prize, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and has been a fellow of the NEA, Creative Capital, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

View titles by Jesse Ball
Part One
In Which I Introduce Myself
 
1
 
Some people hate cats. I don’t, I mean, I don’t personally hate cats, but I understand how a person could. I think everyone needs to have a cause, so for some people it is hating cats, and that’s fine. Each person needs to have his or her thing that they must do. Furthermore, they shouldn’t tell anyone else about it. They should keep it completely secret, as much as possible.
 
At my last school no one believed me about my dad’s lighter. I always keep it with me. It’s the only thing I have from him. And 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 his regular one, the body that falls off us all the time. It’s what I have left of him, and I treasure it.
 
So, I said, many times I said it, don’t touch this lighter or I will kill you. I think because I am a girl people thought I didn’t mean it.
 
Someone told me they read in a book that a scientist saw a chimpanzee using sign language on a tree. Apparently the chimpanzee had learned sign language, and then it decided to use the sign language—and it used it on a tree. The amazing thing is, the story ends there. They made the chimp use it with researchers and such—no sign language with trees. I am completely against this sort of thing, and not because I think trees talk or anything—don’t worry, I am very clear-sighted. But still, I bet—you let this chimp talk to the trees and a decade later, well, you don’t know what happens, but that’s the point.
 
What I mean is, I have my own plans, my own ideas. Being kicked out of my last school—it didn’t really affect them. I guess I don’t really care which school I go to. But, I am sorry that I only grazed his neck with the pencil. I thought I could do better than that.
 
It was a pretty ugly scene. They had me sitting there in the principal’s room, with my poor aunt next to me (I live with my aunt—dad = dead, mom in lunatic house) and across from us the principal, and Joe Schott, and his dad and mom. His dad owns a car dealership, which means that everyone respects him, though I don’t know why. For instance, the workers at the deli call him boss even though he isn’t their boss. I’ve seen it happen.
 
Anyway, the secretary was there too, taking notes. The secretary is also the gym teacher, and I hate him, so, basically, apart from my aunt, a room full of enemies.
 
It wasn’t lost on me that the principal sat with the Schotts. They started it out in the worst way. The principal said to the secretary, are we ready to begin, and then it was, yes, I think so.
 
Schott senior said something like, Lucia, we are ready to forgive you, with this horrible expression on his face, and then Joe said, I won’t forgive the bitch. I’m going to miss at least two games, and then Schott senior put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and started to say something, but the principal cut him off—he said, hold on, let’s let her go first. Lucia, are you ready to begin? Do you have something to say?
 
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.
 
Well, they didn’t like that. Joe Schott is very admired in those parts, the town darling. There’s a burger named after him at the diner, and he even has his own house on his parents’ property—a “cottage” if you can believe it, which no sixteen-year-old guy should have. I know because a girl I was in study hall with went back there with him (he is good-looking). She is awful also, so I wish them well.
 
Lucia, if you are going to stay at this school, you must apologize to Joe and to his family.
 
I am sorry, I said, that I wasn’t clearer. Don’t touch my fucking zippo, Joe. Eventually, these people are all going to go away and you’ll be left alone. Do you understand?
 
My aunt squeezed my leg, so I didn’t say everything I wanted to.
 
She is really nice. I mean, my aunt is one of the kindest people in the world, I think. She must be. When we got back to the house, she said she was sorry that things had happened that way, with my dad dying, and with my mom going away, but that stabbing somebody wouldn’t fix it. She understood the sentiment, she did. Also, she didn’t care that I couldn’t go back to that school. She would find another school that would take me. The thing she was most glad about was: the police weren’t involved. Probably the school had wanted to avoid a scandal. But, a person only gets so many chances.
“The most remarkable achievement of this novel is its narrative voice. It belongs to Lucia Stanton, the novel’s disaffected, Holden Caulfield-style young narrator and heroine. Lucia is a marvelous creation and the richness of her voice — its intelligence, its casual precision — is felt on the very first page…. Sometimes, you hear the ghost of Kazuo Ishiguro’s flat, chilly style. At other times… Borges-like parable cross-pollinates with Margaret Atwood-style dystopia.”
—Anthony Domestico, The Boston Globe
 
 “A high-spirited, edgy coming-of-age novel… Ball has created a voice that echoes the beloved narrators of J.D. Salinger and John Green… With her tragic past, brilliant mind and subversive potential, Lucia could be thought of a young Lisbeth Salander, or a high-IQ, antiheroic Katniss Everdeen, but with a better sense of humor… This is perfect summer reading.”
—Marion Wink, Newsday
 
“Extremely well done: swift, sharp-tongued and enlivened by cockeyed humor.”
The Wall Street Journal
 
"How to Set a Fire and Why is a rare and startling work. Days after I read it, I find that I can't stop thinking about it, and what I've realized is that this is a book I will not forget. This is a harrowing, subtle, and absolutely electrifying novel."
 —Emily St. John Mandel, bestselling author of Station Eleven
 
“Characterized by Ball's stand-out prose, this book will find you in the deepest places.”
Bustle
 
“In Jesse Ball’s sixth novel—part thriller, part coming-of-age story—a teenager seeks escape through fire. . . . One of the triumphs of the novel is the delicacy with which Ball opens his narrator’s smart-aleck voice just wide enough to admit a sincere measure of wonder and dread. . . . Ball calls himself a fabulist but he is also a deeply moral writer, with a fine sense of tragedy. His view of the world might be described as tender nihilism. . . . Ball’s novels, despite their gamesmanship, eerie mysteries, and senseless acts of violence, are ultimately celebrations of compassion—our best hedge against suffering. . . . He poses an alternative vision of reality, filled with grand conspiracies united against oppressive systems of rule, Byzantine puzzles that can be solved with ingenuity, and romantic acts of heroism. His fiction is suffused with a melancholy that derives from the knowledge that the real world is indifferent to such elegant fantasies. . . . Ball invites his readers to join a secret confederacy that rejects modern life’s false parade of garbage. It is a confederacy that accepts the implacable demands of entropy and death but nevertheless seeks comfort in puzzle-solving, the exhilaration of a caper, and selfless acts of compassion.”
—Nathaniel Rich, The Atlantic
 
“Ball’s surreal novels… have made him into one of the most acclaimed experimental writers to come out of Chicago in years. Ball, who was just named a Guggenheim fellow, creates worlds that exist somewhere between the known and the unknown, the real and the absurd… His work has garnered attention… for its ingenious depictions of well-intentioned characters who must negotiate difficult mazes of tragedy and the unending tangles of unjust social systems…. Ball’s work is as spellbinding as it is daring.”
—Joe Meno, Chicago Magazine
 
« “In Ball’s latest imaginative and provocative novel, Lucia seizes her place among American literature’s brainy, questioning, besieged, and determined young female narrators…Ball’s pitch-perfect voicing is mesmerizing as Lucia chronicles her experiences to help her make sense of her predicament. A pithy, deadpan-funny, scalpel-sharp, and, beneath her flinty adolescent bravura, deeply compassionate observer, Lucia recounts her increasingly harrowing misadventures and presents a fiery manifesto… Readers will share Ball’s adoration of this incisive and valiant young survivor from whom life cruelly subtracts nearly everything but her incandescent intellect, blazing wit, and radiant sense of justice.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist (STARRED review)
 
“Immediately intriguing… Lucia's curation of the truth is the only one the reader knows. Ball's convincing connection with what it is to be a teenager is aided by the fact that Lucia is atypical… Her peculiar brand of nonconformity remains true to the nature of teen… but she also has a level of erudition and knowing that allows for great insight… All that's written, all Lucia's actions and decisions, seem not just believable but somehow right…There's beauty in the simplicity, in the story that's told, in the plight of one girl to find what's true.”
—Emma Young, The Sydney Morning Herald
 
“Lucia is a seriously troubled teen girl, ready to burn it all to the ground, who has her world entirely changed when she discovers the Arson Club at her new school. Covering questions of morality, choice, and destruction, the novel hits a chord with the rebellious, feeling, overwhelmed teen in all of us.”
—Elena Sheppard, HelloGiggles
 
“Jesse Ball has written an unforgettably memorable character in the pyromaniac Lucia, who anyone who was once a cynical teenager will recognize and relate to.”
—Jarry Lee, Buzzfeed
 
« "The beautifully blunt narration of a gifted delinquent propels this excellent sixth novel…. Lucia details a philosophy that smartly parallels the novel's own—namely, that writing literature is, like arson, an act of creation and destruction…. Thrilling…. A song of teenage heartbreak sung with a movingly particular sadness, a mature meditation on how actually saying something, not just speaking, is what most makes a voice human."
Publishers Weekly (STARRED and BOXED review)
 
“Told by a teenage protagonist who can’t manage to stay in school in spite of her knack for seeing straight through to the truth that underlies things. She’s a lovable misfit worth hanging out with.”
—Maddie Crum, The Huffington Post
 
“A troubled adolescent girl dreams of setting fire to the world. It starts with a stabbing and ends with a conflagration, and, in between, the novel never once telegraphs where it's going... It's never quite what you expected. In this stark epistolary novel, the author fully occupies the inner life of a teenage girl, Lucia Stanton… A brilliant portrayal of a girl who's quite aware of what she's going through.”
Kirkus Reviews
 
“I was captivated from the first line.  Introducing the teenage narrator of Jesse Ball’s novel How to Set a Fire and Why: Lucia. Who can’t stay in high school, who lives in a converted garage with her broke and eccentric aunt, whose garden is boisterously weedy, whose mother is in a mental institution, whose father is dead, and who always tells the truth about what matters.  Lucia belongs with all the great child truth tellers: David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield.  She has a rapier wit, an infallible nose for hypocrisy and injustice, and is always in trouble.  She is subversive and funny and has a capacity for love that outstrips her circumstances.  And she is much smarter than most of the plodding adults around her.  Her manifesto on arson read a little like parts of Walden.  I loved her and I loved the book, every page of it.”
—Peter Heller, bestselling author of The Dog Stars and The Painter
 
“If you didn’t know Ball’s off-kilter, engagingly experimental writing by the time 2014’s Silence Once Begun became a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, surely you started reading him when last year’s A Cure for Silence was long-listed for the National Book Award. And here’s another chance… Her father dead and her mother institutionalized, sharp-tongued, sharp-witted Lucia lives with her aunt and gets herself thrown out of school after school. At the latest one, she’s drawn to the secret Arson Club, a great place to meet like-minded teenagers, but you know it sounds bad.”
Library Journal

About

A teenage girl. A shattering loss. An obsession with a secret arson club. This is the story of a girl who has nothing and will burn anything.
 
Lucia’s father is dead, her mother is in a mental hospital, and 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 pocketful of stolen licorice, a biting wit, and the striking intel­ligence that she tries to hide, Lucia spends her days riding the bus to visit her mother and following the only rule that makes any sense to her: Don’t do things you aren’t proud of. But when she discovers that her new school has a secret Arson Club, she’s willing to do anything to be a part of it, and her life is sud­denly lit up. As Lucia’s fascination with the Arson Club grows, her story becomes one of misguided friendship and, ultimately, destruction.

Author

© Joe Lieske

JESSE BALL (1978– ). Born in New York. The author of fourteen books, most recently the novel How to Set a Fire and Why. His works have been published to acclaim in many parts of the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. He is on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, won the 2008 Paris Review Plimpton Prize, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and has been a fellow of the NEA, Creative Capital, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

View titles by Jesse Ball

Excerpt

Part One
In Which I Introduce Myself
 
1
 
Some people hate cats. I don’t, I mean, I don’t personally hate cats, but I understand how a person could. I think everyone needs to have a cause, so for some people it is hating cats, and that’s fine. Each person needs to have his or her thing that they must do. Furthermore, they shouldn’t tell anyone else about it. They should keep it completely secret, as much as possible.
 
At my last school no one believed me about my dad’s lighter. I always keep it with me. It’s the only thing I have from him. And 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 his regular one, the body that falls off us all the time. It’s what I have left of him, and I treasure it.
 
So, I said, many times I said it, don’t touch this lighter or I will kill you. I think because I am a girl people thought I didn’t mean it.
 
Someone told me they read in a book that a scientist saw a chimpanzee using sign language on a tree. Apparently the chimpanzee had learned sign language, and then it decided to use the sign language—and it used it on a tree. The amazing thing is, the story ends there. They made the chimp use it with researchers and such—no sign language with trees. I am completely against this sort of thing, and not because I think trees talk or anything—don’t worry, I am very clear-sighted. But still, I bet—you let this chimp talk to the trees and a decade later, well, you don’t know what happens, but that’s the point.
 
What I mean is, I have my own plans, my own ideas. Being kicked out of my last school—it didn’t really affect them. I guess I don’t really care which school I go to. But, I am sorry that I only grazed his neck with the pencil. I thought I could do better than that.
 
It was a pretty ugly scene. They had me sitting there in the principal’s room, with my poor aunt next to me (I live with my aunt—dad = dead, mom in lunatic house) and across from us the principal, and Joe Schott, and his dad and mom. His dad owns a car dealership, which means that everyone respects him, though I don’t know why. For instance, the workers at the deli call him boss even though he isn’t their boss. I’ve seen it happen.
 
Anyway, the secretary was there too, taking notes. The secretary is also the gym teacher, and I hate him, so, basically, apart from my aunt, a room full of enemies.
 
It wasn’t lost on me that the principal sat with the Schotts. They started it out in the worst way. The principal said to the secretary, are we ready to begin, and then it was, yes, I think so.
 
Schott senior said something like, Lucia, we are ready to forgive you, with this horrible expression on his face, and then Joe said, I won’t forgive the bitch. I’m going to miss at least two games, and then Schott senior put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and started to say something, but the principal cut him off—he said, hold on, let’s let her go first. Lucia, are you ready to begin? Do you have something to say?
 
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.
 
Well, they didn’t like that. Joe Schott is very admired in those parts, the town darling. There’s a burger named after him at the diner, and he even has his own house on his parents’ property—a “cottage” if you can believe it, which no sixteen-year-old guy should have. I know because a girl I was in study hall with went back there with him (he is good-looking). She is awful also, so I wish them well.
 
Lucia, if you are going to stay at this school, you must apologize to Joe and to his family.
 
I am sorry, I said, that I wasn’t clearer. Don’t touch my fucking zippo, Joe. Eventually, these people are all going to go away and you’ll be left alone. Do you understand?
 
My aunt squeezed my leg, so I didn’t say everything I wanted to.
 
She is really nice. I mean, my aunt is one of the kindest people in the world, I think. She must be. When we got back to the house, she said she was sorry that things had happened that way, with my dad dying, and with my mom going away, but that stabbing somebody wouldn’t fix it. She understood the sentiment, she did. Also, she didn’t care that I couldn’t go back to that school. She would find another school that would take me. The thing she was most glad about was: the police weren’t involved. Probably the school had wanted to avoid a scandal. But, a person only gets so many chances.

Praise

“The most remarkable achievement of this novel is its narrative voice. It belongs to Lucia Stanton, the novel’s disaffected, Holden Caulfield-style young narrator and heroine. Lucia is a marvelous creation and the richness of her voice — its intelligence, its casual precision — is felt on the very first page…. Sometimes, you hear the ghost of Kazuo Ishiguro’s flat, chilly style. At other times… Borges-like parable cross-pollinates with Margaret Atwood-style dystopia.”
—Anthony Domestico, The Boston Globe
 
 “A high-spirited, edgy coming-of-age novel… Ball has created a voice that echoes the beloved narrators of J.D. Salinger and John Green… With her tragic past, brilliant mind and subversive potential, Lucia could be thought of a young Lisbeth Salander, or a high-IQ, antiheroic Katniss Everdeen, but with a better sense of humor… This is perfect summer reading.”
—Marion Wink, Newsday
 
“Extremely well done: swift, sharp-tongued and enlivened by cockeyed humor.”
The Wall Street Journal
 
"How to Set a Fire and Why is a rare and startling work. Days after I read it, I find that I can't stop thinking about it, and what I've realized is that this is a book I will not forget. This is a harrowing, subtle, and absolutely electrifying novel."
 —Emily St. John Mandel, bestselling author of Station Eleven
 
“Characterized by Ball's stand-out prose, this book will find you in the deepest places.”
Bustle
 
“In Jesse Ball’s sixth novel—part thriller, part coming-of-age story—a teenager seeks escape through fire. . . . One of the triumphs of the novel is the delicacy with which Ball opens his narrator’s smart-aleck voice just wide enough to admit a sincere measure of wonder and dread. . . . Ball calls himself a fabulist but he is also a deeply moral writer, with a fine sense of tragedy. His view of the world might be described as tender nihilism. . . . Ball’s novels, despite their gamesmanship, eerie mysteries, and senseless acts of violence, are ultimately celebrations of compassion—our best hedge against suffering. . . . He poses an alternative vision of reality, filled with grand conspiracies united against oppressive systems of rule, Byzantine puzzles that can be solved with ingenuity, and romantic acts of heroism. His fiction is suffused with a melancholy that derives from the knowledge that the real world is indifferent to such elegant fantasies. . . . Ball invites his readers to join a secret confederacy that rejects modern life’s false parade of garbage. It is a confederacy that accepts the implacable demands of entropy and death but nevertheless seeks comfort in puzzle-solving, the exhilaration of a caper, and selfless acts of compassion.”
—Nathaniel Rich, The Atlantic
 
“Ball’s surreal novels… have made him into one of the most acclaimed experimental writers to come out of Chicago in years. Ball, who was just named a Guggenheim fellow, creates worlds that exist somewhere between the known and the unknown, the real and the absurd… His work has garnered attention… for its ingenious depictions of well-intentioned characters who must negotiate difficult mazes of tragedy and the unending tangles of unjust social systems…. Ball’s work is as spellbinding as it is daring.”
—Joe Meno, Chicago Magazine
 
« “In Ball’s latest imaginative and provocative novel, Lucia seizes her place among American literature’s brainy, questioning, besieged, and determined young female narrators…Ball’s pitch-perfect voicing is mesmerizing as Lucia chronicles her experiences to help her make sense of her predicament. A pithy, deadpan-funny, scalpel-sharp, and, beneath her flinty adolescent bravura, deeply compassionate observer, Lucia recounts her increasingly harrowing misadventures and presents a fiery manifesto… Readers will share Ball’s adoration of this incisive and valiant young survivor from whom life cruelly subtracts nearly everything but her incandescent intellect, blazing wit, and radiant sense of justice.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist (STARRED review)
 
“Immediately intriguing… Lucia's curation of the truth is the only one the reader knows. Ball's convincing connection with what it is to be a teenager is aided by the fact that Lucia is atypical… Her peculiar brand of nonconformity remains true to the nature of teen… but she also has a level of erudition and knowing that allows for great insight… All that's written, all Lucia's actions and decisions, seem not just believable but somehow right…There's beauty in the simplicity, in the story that's told, in the plight of one girl to find what's true.”
—Emma Young, The Sydney Morning Herald
 
“Lucia is a seriously troubled teen girl, ready to burn it all to the ground, who has her world entirely changed when she discovers the Arson Club at her new school. Covering questions of morality, choice, and destruction, the novel hits a chord with the rebellious, feeling, overwhelmed teen in all of us.”
—Elena Sheppard, HelloGiggles
 
“Jesse Ball has written an unforgettably memorable character in the pyromaniac Lucia, who anyone who was once a cynical teenager will recognize and relate to.”
—Jarry Lee, Buzzfeed
 
« "The beautifully blunt narration of a gifted delinquent propels this excellent sixth novel…. Lucia details a philosophy that smartly parallels the novel's own—namely, that writing literature is, like arson, an act of creation and destruction…. Thrilling…. A song of teenage heartbreak sung with a movingly particular sadness, a mature meditation on how actually saying something, not just speaking, is what most makes a voice human."
Publishers Weekly (STARRED and BOXED review)
 
“Told by a teenage protagonist who can’t manage to stay in school in spite of her knack for seeing straight through to the truth that underlies things. She’s a lovable misfit worth hanging out with.”
—Maddie Crum, The Huffington Post
 
“A troubled adolescent girl dreams of setting fire to the world. It starts with a stabbing and ends with a conflagration, and, in between, the novel never once telegraphs where it's going... It's never quite what you expected. In this stark epistolary novel, the author fully occupies the inner life of a teenage girl, Lucia Stanton… A brilliant portrayal of a girl who's quite aware of what she's going through.”
Kirkus Reviews
 
“I was captivated from the first line.  Introducing the teenage narrator of Jesse Ball’s novel How to Set a Fire and Why: Lucia. Who can’t stay in high school, who lives in a converted garage with her broke and eccentric aunt, whose garden is boisterously weedy, whose mother is in a mental institution, whose father is dead, and who always tells the truth about what matters.  Lucia belongs with all the great child truth tellers: David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield.  She has a rapier wit, an infallible nose for hypocrisy and injustice, and is always in trouble.  She is subversive and funny and has a capacity for love that outstrips her circumstances.  And she is much smarter than most of the plodding adults around her.  Her manifesto on arson read a little like parts of Walden.  I loved her and I loved the book, every page of it.”
—Peter Heller, bestselling author of The Dog Stars and The Painter
 
“If you didn’t know Ball’s off-kilter, engagingly experimental writing by the time 2014’s Silence Once Begun became a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, surely you started reading him when last year’s A Cure for Silence was long-listed for the National Book Award. And here’s another chance… Her father dead and her mother institutionalized, sharp-tongued, sharp-witted Lucia lives with her aunt and gets herself thrown out of school after school. At the latest one, she’s drawn to the secret Arson Club, a great place to meet like-minded teenagers, but you know it sounds bad.”
Library Journal

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