Wednesday 22 August 2012

Life in Ten Houses

I hadn't heard of Penguin Specials until I stumbled upon this ad in the Weekend Australian Magazine last week. 

A new series of ebooks designed to fill the quick read niche. I knew that I would immediately need to read Sonya Hartnett's Life in Ten Houses. I like her work, am interested in her writing, and am about to head off to Melbourne. YAY!

Very quickly it was sitting on my ipad, even though I'm not all that well acquainted with ebooks as yet. And of course, I picked up a few other Penguin Singles while I was there. They have a free sampler available, which looks like a good bet. I also bought Will Self's The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Prawn Cracker- who could resist such a title? and Bob Brown's One Person, One Value.

So even while each inidividual Single is cheap, they're not when you buy 3 at once. Actually I can't see the price now that I've bought it, but I think this 24 page morsel was $3.99. I'm not sure whether that represents value or not. I suspect I lean to the side of not. It was great to read, and if I thought most of the money went to the author I'd be quite happy with the price, but I can't imagine it does.

Life in Ten Houses is a meditation on the difference between a house and a home, and the influence of a house on a writer. Actually it's an interesting insight into Sonya Hartnett's world. Sonya is a proud Melburnian, and rightly so. Melbourne was named a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008. Only the second city in the world at that time to hold such an honour. The first was Edinburgh. The list now includes Iowa City, Dublin and Reykjavik. A third of Australia's writers live in Melbourne, and a third of our bookstores are open for business there!

Sonya Hartnett grew up in the eastern and northern suburbs of Melbourne, and she describes them as the "roof and walls and floor as well as the launching place of my imagination". She describes the many houses that she has lived in over the past 12 years. 10 addresses is too, too many in such a short time, but perhaps logically she loves "the packing, the regular reassessing of the worth of those objects that share my life".

Sonya is really on a quest for her Last House, the place she will live out her days, "which is less a specific building than some corner of the world that miraculously confers upon me a sense of eternal contentedness". I really like that conceptually, I'm not in my Last House. I wonder where it will be?

Particularly interesting were the sections where she discussed her writing. She discusses her writing process, her need to write, her anxieties. A decade ago she was "partially employed" by her writing and supplementing her income by working part-time at the Hill of Content bookshop, a door I'm bound to darken in the next fortnight. Thursday's Child was her cornerstone book, career changing, and yet inspired by "hours spent in idle observation of the ants that dug ceaselessly at the foundations of the house". Having seen a stage show adaptation of Thursday's Child that makes perfect sense.

Sonya Hartnett is typically categorised as a children's author. She did win the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2008. And yet she states that she has written three children's books of the 20 or so she has now published. She points out The Silver Donkey (2004) "the first of my children's novels", and The Children of the King (see my review), "the third of the children's novels". Sadly, she doesn't mention what she considers her second. The Midnight Zoo?

Somewhat humbly she claims to be "no social commentator", and then asserts

I am an examiner of the ancient subjects- friendship, nature, family; forgiveness, courage, loyalty- and in a world where jets fly into buildings and teenagers sew their lips together while politicians justify their inclination to lie, it's right to keep such themes alive. Indeed it was around this time that I began to consider writing more specifically for children: children's literature narrows the focus of those grand old subjects, distils them into their purest and most noble form.
I think that I'll wonder most about this question:
Do the books we need find us, or do we shape ourselves around the books we find?

1 comment:

Marg said...

I have read a couple of these shorts type books now, and I really think it will depend on how well you connect with that particular author and story as to how much value you think they represent. A couple of dollars isn't much if you love the short story that you read but it could feel like a lot if you didn't enjoy it and found yourself contemplating how short it really was!