Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sixpence House

Here's how I found this book. I was reading something online recently that mentioned the works of Harry Stephen Keeler. Keeler was a mystery writer in the 1930's and 1940's who wrote a large number of books. His books seemed a bit odd and one of the things I discovered about him was that, in an effort to pad his books to meet minimum word counts mandated by his publisher, he would insert entire short stories written by his wife into his novels. The character in Keeler's book would be doing something and stumble across a book. The character would then sit down and read the story in the book, which Keeler printed in its entirety, and then when the story was over, he would continue on with the action. Keeler, perhaps not surprisingly, was placed in a psychiatric institution by his mother when he was in his twenties. Perhaps also not surprisingly, I found myself captivated and wanting to read his books.

Two problems. They are out of print and very expensive.

Lo and behold, though, Paul Collins took it upon himself to reprint one of the novels with the assistance of McSweeney's. Collins was also behind McSweeney's re-issue of Geoffrey Pyke's To Ruhleben and Back, a book that has forever been on my to read and to acquire list. Pyke's biography, Pyke, the Unknown Genius is an absolutely fascinating read. I started to explore Collins some more and found he wrote the book Sixpence House.

This book is about Collins' move with his family to a little town in England called Hay-on-Wye. The town is notable in that it has forty booksellers and 1500 residents. My kind of town. Most of the "action" that takes place concerning Collins and the town involves the hunt for a house in which to live. Collins, his wife and his toddler son move to England from San Francisco to leave city life and raise their child more in the country. Collins finds, though, that the older houses which intrigue him and his wife are too expensive and require too much work. There are also few people their age living there. The Sixpence House is a former bar that the couple are interested in buying to convert into a home. They find that the work necessary to make it livable is far too great and ultimately, they move back to the States. Collins is now a professor at Portland State.

Although the book tends to return to the whole move, it really is about a hundred different things. Collins goes off on tangents that aren't always connected to anything. My biggest problem with the book was that he never really delved too in-depth into any of them. He talks a lot about his explorations of books. Much more so than those of the booksellers that occupy the town. Collins is extremely well-read and I admire his ability to take on books that most people, including myself, would never think about picking up. I like to think my reading tastes are diverse but Collins puts me to shame.

Collins also writes about politics, he applies for a spot on the House of Lords, discusses differences in life in America and England, the trials and tribulations of being a first-time author, the publishing world, and many more topics.

I loved this book immensely. One of my co-workers is from England and when she saw that this book came in for me, she requested a copy, too. The book being disjointed and the immense number of typos (really shocking from a publisher like Bloomsbury) prevent it from being a two star book for me. As someone who loves books and esoteric stuff, I really admire Collins and will have to go about acquiring the books he has written and those he has reprinted for McSweeney's.

1 comment:

Mark's Ephemera said...

I read this book a few years back. I've forgotten all the details, but I vaguely remember the dump pile of books. Sad, in a way.

Thanks for reminding me of it.