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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


Books by Debra Hamel:

THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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Collins, Paul: Sixpence House

  Amazon  

4.5 stars

Paul Collins has written something like the perfect book for bibliomaniacal Anglophiles. Sixpence House is the story of his migration--with wife and infant son--from San Francisco to Hay-on-Wye, a village in the Welsh countryside with some 1500 inhabitants--and, remarkably, 40 bookstores. Hay is a picturesque town, with cobblestone streets and thatch-roofed houses and its own castle, a half-ruined edifice occupied by Hay's self-proclaimed king, who happens to be, as are so many of Hay's inhabitants, a bookseller. Collins and his family rent an apartment in town (his mailing address becomes, simply, The Apartment: it's that small a village) and live out of their suitcases and stroller while house hunting and book buying. The author also works part-time for the king in his bookstore, a place crammed with more musty volumes than the royal's workers can ever organize.

Collins' attempt to buy an old house in Hay--he toys with purchasing the eponymous Sixpence House, a lopsided former pub that threatens to be a money pit--merely provides the skeleton for the author's delightful, meandering narrative. It is at times hilarious, as when, for example, Collins describes his first book-reading, or rather, his pre-reading sojourn in the bathroom:

"There's nowhere dry for me to put my papers down, so I have to tuck my papers under my chin while I pee, which works till--chiff--into the toilet, and I grab, and recoil, then grab again--and I have saved my manuscript, the thing I am still hoping to read from this evening, except for the first page, which is not just soaked, it is soaked with urine. I stand alone in the bathroom, horrified. I do not have another copy with me. But, what they do have here is--a hand dryer. And so there I stand, drying off my masterpiece over the ineffectual vent. It takes a long time. Someone finally walks in on my performance art, and there I am, drying my pee-soaked words--Hello, top of the evening to you. Finally I give up and throw the whole thing out."

In addition to urine-soaked manuscripts, there are recycled gravestones to read about, and near poisonous glasses of cider, and lyrical vomiting, and scheming Lords, and, everywhere, a bibliophile's revelry in old books. Collins, moreover, can write. Each page offers some beautifully or wittily phrased nugget for the reader to savor. (On the idea "that a character can develop a will of his own and 'take over a book,' Collins writes: "A character can no more take over your novel than an eggplant and a jar of cumin can take over your kitchen.") One can lament only that the book is not twice as long.

(Actually, one can lament something else, but read no further if you have not either read or written the book: I was convinced that the author would end up buying Sixpence House and living out an idyllic, writerly life among the eccentrics of Hay. Indeed, though all indications suggested otherwise, I was sure the last chapter would end with either Paul or his wife coming to his or her senses and announcing that, money be damned, they wanted that house! But, it didn't happen. The book ended well, tidily, that nice bit with the problematic passport and the affirmation of Paul's status, but I was unaccountably heartsick about it.)

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