Dinner and Dessert with Book Club.

Here is how book club normally works: we meet once a month, we talk books for about an hour, we stuff our faces, we chat about our lives and finish up with a series of inappropriate jokes. Honestly, they’re not fit for print. And we’re generally such nice girls…

Last night we met at Melissa’s to discuss An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clark; before we could get to that, we had to get down to the serious business of eating. Normally the host provides the obscene amount of food that book group requires, but since Melissa broke a metatarsal we decided to bring the food to her. We each took a course or item: Amanda = salad, me = dessert, Darlington = beverages, and Heather would pick up the pizzas from Za, since we all were coming from work.

Heather chose four pizzas — portabello mushroom, roasted red pepper, onion, roasted garlic and goat cheese; mac n’ cheese (elbow macaroni, caramelized onion, cream sauce, four cheeses and toasted breadcrumbs); broccoli, onion, garlic, diced tomato and four cheeses; and pear, sweet onion and Gorgonzola with toasted walnuts, dried cranberries, thyme and scallion. I was absolutely terrified of the mac n’ cheese pizza (pizza and pasta and breadcrumbs?!) but eventually I made my peace with it, though ultimately I decided that it was lacking depth of flavor. Something was missing from it, but I couldn’t determine what. (Nutmeg? More cheese? Salt?) Of the four, the pizza best-loved by the group ended up being the pear. Sweet and crunchy, it surpassed the others easily. I did really enjoy the roasted garlic on the mushroom/pepper combo, and the onion was nice on the broccoli and four cheese, but they couldn’t compete with the pear and Gorgonzola.

(I just found out that Za and EVOO share both an owner and a chef; I went to EVOO for the first time earlier this year and am now interested to actually dine at Za and then compare the two. I’ll give you an update once there’s anything worth updating on.)

While I was quite happy with the pear pizza, my favorite part of the meal was Amanda’s salad of greens, avocado, pecans, blood orange and Parmesan. She also made a sharp and tangy dressing that went amazingly with the salad. Though it may not be obvious, especially considering that I seem to write mostly about rich and decadent and cheese-filled foods, I truly am trying to eat as healthily as possible, so I’ve been very focused on salads lately. Even if I were less salad-centric, I know I would have loved Amanda’s salad.

I had volunteered for dessert duty out of sheer laziness — I knew that, if I baked cookies, they would be the lightest item to carry on public transit. I decided to try a new cookie recipe and not rely on the few I know I can bang out. (Now, I want to make something absolutely clear: I am not much of a baker. I mostly have only made cookies that are easy, like chocolate chip, snickerdoodles, etc. Anything that requires rolling pins or cutters is too complicated, and have more of a chance of me fouling it all up. That said, I love cookies. I love cake. I love sweets. I just can’t make them.) I ended up making cinnamon peanut butter chocolate chip, and was thoroughly unhappy with the result because they were crunchy. I was expecting a soft and puffy pillow of a cookie, but these were the exact opposite. The girls said they liked them, but I don’t know…

arsonists5.jpgOnto the book portion of the evening…

Arsonist’s is the story of Sam Pulsifer, a self-proclaimed “bumbler,” who had been arrested, tried and incarcerated for accidentally torching the Emily Dickinson house in his hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. Not only had he destroyed a landmark, in doing so he killed two of the museum’s tour guides — a married couple who were using chaste Miss Dickinson’s bed for an after-hours liaison — and effectively gets himself and his parents ostracized from the community. Sam is released from prison ten years later at the age of twenty-eight, completely determined to leave bumblehood behind. He marries, starts a family, moves to a posh tract-home neighborhood, and never once tells his wife of his past, going so far as to say that his parents died in a fire. In all likelihood, Sam would have happily remained on this course had he not been paid a visit by the son of the couple he unintentionally killed. After this, everything goes pear-shaped.

So. I really hated this book, so much so that I put it down at the halfway point and started reading a different novel; I disliked that book as well, but I was more interested in finishing it than returning to Arsonist’s. There was nothing that I considered enthralling about this novel — not the writing, not the plot, not the characters. Normally I can pull something of interest out of what I read (or what I eat or what I watch) but I couldn’t even do that here. The writing was boring, the plot was truly idiotic and the characters… Well, let’s just say that if Sam Pulsifer were real, I would want to deck him. Then I would move on to everyone else.

What is interesting to me is the fact that Melissa — who in spite of her foot, baked a ridiculously rich chocolate pudding cake — compared Sam in Arsonist’s to Christopher in Mark Haddon‘s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Sure, both characters tend to ramble and do make a bumble out of most things, but Christopher is autistic. Sam is just stupid. All right, perhaps that is a bit harsh. In spite of that, we did find ourselves wondering if there was something similar afflicting Sam. My verdict is no, but I’m open to hearing other readers’ opinions.

138 Massachusetts Avenue
Arlington, Massachusetts 02474