Friday Reads: American Fire


“Friday Reads” is a weekly blog written by reference librarian Faith Lee about great books, magazines, and the occasional reference work.    Topics may be new titles added to the library, selections from the Staff Picks shelf or about something she recently read.  Admittedly, there is a definite slant toward nonfiction, because, well, she’s a reference librarian and likes to learn new things.  Guest bloggers take a turn sometimes too.  No matter the source, good reads are featured here. 

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This month the Narrative Nonfiction Book Club started a new 6-month session with the theme, “Connect the Dots.”  Readers will be asked to identify some small, but interesting likeness between the first book in the session and the second book, and then another connection between the second book and the third, and so on.

To start off our new session I chose American Fire:  love, arson, and life in a vanishing land by Monica Hesse because it has a connection with last month’s book, Oneida:  from free love Utopia to the well-set table by Ellen Wayland-Smith.  In Oneida, there is a lengthy discussion of the mysterious burning of the Oneida Community’s archived historical papers.  Why were the papers burned?  Who did it?  What is the significance of fire?  The dots (fires) were easy to connect with American Fire:  love, arson and life in a vanishing land.  Future connections will be smaller and subtler.

American Fire, published in 2017 to rave reviews and nominated for an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America, tells the true story of a rash of fires that consumed a struggling rural county on the Eastern Shore of Virginia a few years ago.  Abandoned buildings that signified a more prosperous past were set ablaze almost nightly for months before the arsonists were discovered.  A troubled but truthful man confessed to setting all 62 fires, at the urging of his girlfriend, whose love he was desperate to keep alive.

Part mystery, part love story, part vignette of this nation’s changing economy, American Fire is a well-researched, compelling narrative that made for a lively book discussion.  Some of us were convinced by the author about the motivation for arson and were sympathetic to the culprits, but others in the group didn’t buy-in to the explanation.  Professional reviewers said, “Hesse is a lovely stylist.” (Jennifer Senior, New York Times), “The book has the brisk diligence of big-city journalism (…) and the languid chattiness of the small town …” (Karl Vick , Time), a “vivid depiction,” (Ilana Masad, and “One of the year’s best and most unusual true-crime books.” (Randy Dotinga, Christian Science Monitor).  Give it a read and post your thoughts on the book here.  We’d love to know your reaction.  Were you convinced?

Edgar Award winners will be announced on April 26, 2018.


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