Monday, October 11, 2010

Book Review: Nothing Left to Burn by Jay Varner

I read this book because I'm going to be meeting the author at an event tonight, but me reading a memoir, especially one published by Algonquin, really doesn't take much arm-twisting!

Jay grew up in a very small town in Pennsylvania, the son of the fire chief, and the fire house always was the #1 priority in the house, outranking Jay and his mother. Naturally, this caused resentment and difficulties, which were not helped by Jay's father's early death due to cancer. After college, Jay returns to the small town to work at the newspaper, and he is assigned to the fire beat.

Most of the book is a sweet and nostalgic story of growing up poor (his father is excited about them moving up to a double-wide trailer) in a dying part of America. Although Jay actually grew up in the 80s, it has a feel of older times, the 60s or even older, with wood-burning stoves, town parades, and shoveling snow. The book is a touching homage to his father, who Jay as an adult is starting to understand. Not only was being the fire chief a position of real responsibility and respect in the town, but his father was in his way doing penance for the crimes of his father, Jay's grandfather, who was an arsonist.

I think the book isn't helped by the treatment - the title, cover and description all make it out to be a big conflict between arsonist and fire chief, that there will be a big, bad surprise, that it will be very exciting, but that's not what the book is, and setting people up to expect something other than what the get is a sure-fire way to assure disappointment. The book is about a boy who wants to go to Hershey Park with his Dad, and be big enough to ride the rollercoasters. It's about a boy who wants to connect with his father and be the #1 thing in his life, and his sorrow and eventual acceptance that he will always be #2. To say the book doesn't match up with the title and cover should in no way be a criticism of the book itself - it's a criticism of the publisher. I get that the hook they've set up is easier to pitch becuase it's very exciting, but it sets up unreasonable expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed the book which is a fast read. But it's the story of a family, coming together and then falling apart, with a crazy grandfather and disliked grandmother, a beloved father, and respected mother. It's the story of illness and death, and moving on. Touchingly told and brutally honest, this memoir will stay with me for a long time.

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