Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books

by Paul Collins

I mooched this book last year during the Something About Me Challenge. It was one of the books Nattie listed as one that told something about her. The part of the title - Lost in a Town of Books - naturally drew my interest. I didn't get it read for the Something About Me Challenge, but since it was on my shelf, it was available for some of this year's challenges.

Sixpence House is a memoir of Paul Collins' experiences in the bookish town of Hye-on-Wye. He moved from San Francisco to the small community in the Welsh countryside.

One of my favorite parts of the book was Collins' comparisons of things English with things American from aspects of daily life to food and architecture. For example, the shower: "Every shower in Britain has some sort of Heath Robinson mechanism who devised for all British showers cheap plastic box with tubes that go nowhere and buttons that do nothing, except for the one that will scald you. Apparently it is some kind of filtration system for removing any pleasure one might have in washing. When I was a little boy in America, the pounding water pressure would allow me to stand with my eyes closed in the sower and imagine that I was flying a wounded P-57 back to base, with rain whipping into the cockpit; or to pretend that I was getting heroically smashed against a brick wall by a water cannon wielded by riot police. But I'm not sure what British boys can imagine in their showers. {Perhaps they pretend that they are standing under a rusted and leaking pipe in an unlit boiler room. Or that someone is weeing on them from a great height." (I've experienced showers just like that in America.)

Collins told about his love of literature that developed when his parents would go to antique sales. He always came away from those sales with books. He especially like old science books. "My most beloved book was a relative youngster: a 1951 volume by Willie Ley called Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel. And yet the creamy plate paper, the yellow embossing of a pointy fifties sci-fi rocket on the cover, the feeling of reading Ley's speculations on a moon shot and knowing more than the author did - the true classical sense of irony, where the audience is aware of the ending even as the players of history are not - these things appealed to me in a way that I couldn't explain." As a science teacher I used to experience this feeling often.

I laughed and was amazed at this accounting: "This is a country where citizens will not grumble or take action at much of anything unless it interferes with their cup (of tea). Some years ago, a species of English tit bird discovered that if they pecked through the foil cap on milk bottles, they could suck down a cream feast so sumptuous that they could barely stagger away afterward on their little bird feet. Other varieties of tits quickly learned by watching, and suddenly the nation's cream teas was in moral peril; whereupon redesigned bottle caps were procured with impressive alacrity."

I enjoyed this morsel from a letter from Helen Hunt Jackson to Emily Dickinson(before Dickinson was well published): "I have a little manuscript volume with a few of your verses in it - and I read them very often - You are a great poet - and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you not sing aloud." I think we could all take that counsel to heart - whatever our gifts and talents are we should share them with those around us.

All-in-all I really enjoyed Sixpence House. I found myself wondering if I could ever convince Candleman to spend a year in the Welsh countryside.


jenclair said...

I read a favorable comment about this one on someone's blog a while back. I love the quotes you chose, and I'm adding it to my list.

J Scott Savage said...

Maybe that explains why the Boston Tea Party had such an impact. And let me just say that I think they've imported those boxes to virtually all Marriott hotels in the US.

Tricia said...

Having lived in England for six years, I can totally relate about the shower. I had a great laugh reading that.

Booklogged said...

Jenclair, I've read some negative reviews, but I enjoyed it.

Scott, indeed the Boston Tea Party would be a big slap in the face, wouldn't it?

Tricia, I wished I'd lived somewhere in Europe so I could really experience a different way of living. I did live in St John's, Newfoundland but I was young and don't remember much.

Suey said...

I really liked this one too when I read it back awhile for this same challenge. It really did make me want to spend a year hanging out in Wales, or England, or Scotland... or anywhere over there!

Lesley said...

I read this last year for my Armchair Traveler challenge, and quite liked it, if only for the experience of living vicariously through him for a short while. Although I don't think I would have returned back stateside!

Les said...

I bought this while vacationing in Seattle several summers ago. Read a few chapters and set it aside for something else. I really should give it another try. I love the passages you quoted.

Jeane said...

This sounds like a really great book. I really enjoyed reading the parts you quoted.

Anne Camille said...

I was dreaming about Hay-on-Wye while napping earlier today, so it's funny that I read this post today. I had read Collins book before I wandered through Hay a few years ago. Unfortunately, I didn't get to stay there long enough to meet some of the eccentrics he writes about, and didn't spend nearly enough time in the bookstores. Is there ever enough time to spend in a book store? I think not!