January 22, 2017 | Rome, Italy | Clear 14°C
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Bios & Memoirs



In the spirit of "Dr. Strangelove," French novelist Michel Houellebecq puts a brilliantly comic spin on a sensitive topic.

Dear Thief

Samantha Harvey's novel-length letter to a long-lost friend is as brilliant as it is sad.

Tyler's Last

"Tyler's Last" evokes the ghost of Patricia Highsmith in a thriller of global complications.

One Out of Two

Put mischievously spinster twins in a small Mexican city and out come sly laughs.

Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue

André Alexis's stunning "Fifteen Dogs" confers canines with human sensibility, and the greater gift of empathy.

This Census-Taker

China Miéville turns too arcane in his latest foray into the Stonehenge-styled surreal.

Zero K

Don DeLillo's latest future-sprawl, cryonic freezing included, doesn't quite know what it most wants to say.

Swallowed by the Cold

Jensen Beach's 15 stories are set in Sweden and convey equal doses of wisdom and melancholy.


Amelia Gray is adept enough with grotesqueness to make it feel second nature, and that's a gift.

Missing Person

Modiano's slender 1978 psychological thriller remains a superb and disturbing Parisian novel.

How to Set a Fire and Why
By Jesse Ball
Pantheon, 2016. 304 pages

Lucia Stanton is a hoodie-hidden teenager in a bombed out and existential universe, or as close to oneas Jessie Ball can concoct from the project wilds of an imagined American city. Her father is dead, her mentally ill mother lives in a home, and she lives with her penniless aunt. It's a perfectly fringe life. So what to do to make sense of such a senseless existence? Outcast Lucia chooses arson as Black Block-style lip service to anti-capitalism ("We must convince the wealthy that they cannot have more than they need.") Arson is mellifluent affirmation ("Arson, arson — how it rolls from the tongue!") Arson is education. "Each fire is a small thing. I am just beginning a long process. I am coming into a kind of inheritance."

But Ball wrestles with his liquorice-loving Lucia. On the one hand she's down and out, on the other she's shrewd and brilliant, an adult mind in the body of a terrorist teen. It's often unclear whether Lucia is a Holden Caulfield poster child for adolescent alienation or a metaphor for some larger and more insidious urban ruin. She's a "Fight Club" character without a persuasive supporting cast. Her purpose is no purpose, which lighting things up illuminates.

This is a quietly unsettling story without a hint of sentiment. It makes futility into an accomplishment, thus defeating the conventional concept of life promise. After setting her final fire, Lucia sees herself as absconding with a friend "to some corner of the earth where we can survive what we are, what we've done, what's been done to us," a place she's convinced will "probably be … a lot like this one." Teenage wasteland is grim indeed.

Reviewed by Book Staff
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