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April 2nd, 2003 | Books
 

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books; The Arbutus/Madrone files; Happy Ending

     
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sixpence house: lost in a town of books

by Paul Collins
(Bloomsbury, 240 pages, $23.95)

Collins will be reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005
W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday,
April 7.

Having enjoyed Collins' first book, Banvard's Folly, a marvelous compendium of interesting losers, I looked forward to his next book, detailing his time in Hay-on-Wye, the famed "town of books" straddling the Welsh-English border. Unfortunately, the book wasn't worth the wait.

I am, perhaps, not Collins' ideal reader, as I know Hay and a number of its denizens (I worked briefly for bookseller Leon Morelli, the arch-nemesis of the "King of Hay," bookseller Richard Booth). What is a fascinating town of cranks and eccentrics is lightly skimmed in Sixpence. Though Collins manages a good pencil drawing of "King Richard," the portrait lacks color and depth. So does the book.

Rather than delving into Hay's culture, Collins drags us to numerous properties and estate agents' offices as he and his wife try to find housing. There are moments when Collins seems to light on some insights on the diverse bibliomaniacs who call Hay home, but these sputter. The reader is better served by Iain Sinclair, who reveals the whole twisted and vibrant culture of Britain's book trade within the first few pages of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings.

There is some salvation. Collins has a bookman's eye for arcana, and Sixpence offers interesting quotes from forgotten books, directing the serious reader to new titles (Madge Jenison's Sunwise Turn is now on my hunting list). But too often these asides seem to serve as furniture for Collins' empty tale.

With his facile comparisons between America and the U.K., and his homely preoccupations with rising damp and raising junior, Collins seems to have finally filled a void in Dave Eggers' empire. The McSweeney's lot now have their own Peter Mayle. Steffen Silvis

the arbutus/madrone files
by Laurie Ricou
(Oregon State University, 256 pages, $21.95)

Arbutus and madrone are two names for the same odd tree, often identified with the Pacific Northwest. The author, a University of British Columbia English professor, employs this double title in The Arbutus/Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific Northwest to highlight his theme, best capsulized via a quote from Timothy Egan's The Good Rain: "Forget the boundary of Canada and America at the 49th parallel; the Northwest is united by landscape, not divided by latitude lines. The regional icons--salmon and trees and mountains and water--spring from the elements."

In a succession of "files," Ricou defines these shared regional characteristics by examining, and excerpting from, dozens of writers. He organizes this material under such "icons" as Raven, Rain or Sasquatch. Japan also gets nominated for inclusion in the region because of our Pacific Ocean Japanese current (or Kuroshio). This commonality leads to a poignant, almost heartbreaking file in which Ricou revisits the agonies suffered by Japanese Americans exiled to internment camps in World War II. Although perhaps not intentional, his recounting suggests a potential threat to our humanity in this war with Iraq. Could it lead to internment, in the name of anti-terrorism?

Sixteen striking color prints, along with black-and-white photos and drawings, enhance Ricou's messages (a Mark Tobey tempera, Skid Road, reminds us this is the correct historic logger term, not the bastardized "skid row"). The author has a lot to say, some of it profound. He argues that while the U.S. pioneers fought their way west, in Canada folks simply oozed west.

Ricou's writing can become pedantic, using stiff MLA-style referencing. He often exhibits an over-fondness for parenthetical phrases. Art Chenoweth

happy ending
by Mike Topp
(Future Tense Books, 54 pages, $5)

When applied to many contemporary authors, particularly women, the term "miniaturist" is seen as a slight--a trivializing of an author's choice of subject matter. Mike Topp's new chapbook, however, embraces the term in every sense by not only writing about the often mundane details of everyday life, but also by writing about them in as few words as possible.

This approach works both for and against the book. At times the writer is able to accomplish the aim of the miniaturist--to create a glittering world in a very small space, where every element contributes to the unity of impression, and where weighing the story down with additional words would destroy its ability to "pack a wallop." This is amply demonstrated in the story "Dad": "Dad was told by a fortuneteller that he would die September 9, 1998. The day came and went, and dad, who had died eight months previously, had the last laugh."

In other instances, however, the individual stories suffer because of the writer's refusal to flesh out material that demands deeper exploration, which would lend more gravity and originality. But the story "Executive Coach" is a perfect example of what Topp is capable of accomplishing by elaborating on a theme. It gives the reader the impression that the story was not merely the author's "first thought" but rather a carefully considered and polished "best thought."

Despite his sometimes encumbering earnestness, Topp has a fine sense of the surreal. His odd, sometimes black wit should be noted, as well as his unwillingness to mire his material in the gruesome self-obsession so common today.
Lisa Warner

 
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