Monday, June 10, 2013

Penguin Specials

I am intrigued by the Penguin Specials - bite sized ebooks that can be read in a sitting. Penguin has a long tradition of exploring short form literary non-fiction and fiction, publishing it in cheap and accessible formats, and so it is little wonder that they have found a way of exploiting the potential of digital publishing. I was enchanted by The Element of Need by James Bradley, a short haunting meditation on the violence of the city of his young adult years and was terribly interested when I saw Sonya Hartnett had also written one - I bought both at the same time. Shortly after I was given the opportunity to review Gideon Haigh's The Deserted Newsroom via Netgalley.

Hartnett could write a shopping list and it would resonate with mysterious and unsettling possibility. In some ways shopping list is an apt description of Life in Ten Houses, though it is a list of what she has already shopped for and bought - a list of the houses she has purchased over a period of about 15 years and a reflection of her writing life within them.

In typical Hartnett style this is very pared back, incredibly potent in terms of sense of place, telling and yet so much left unsaid. As someone who arrived to late to the real estate boom I had to stifle jealousy in places. Yet what shone through for me was a kind of connectedness through place (a similar experience to reading Sophie Cunningham's Melbourne).

James Bradley's The Element of Need is subtitled Murder and Memory in Adelaide. I spent six months in Adelaide at the age of 19 and I have to say I found the city a strange and disturbing place - mannerly on the surface and underneath, shadows - though my experience was tinged with bad love and homesickness. I remember talk of serial killers, at the time it was considered very dangerous to walk through the parklands which entirely surround the city centre. There was a spate of attacks going on.

Bradley's account of his own young adulthood in the city, layered with the city's shadowy past, is compelling, like a long dream. I have not read many essays that examine so closely the experience of being a young adult in Australia's regional centres, and I was totally beguiled by this violent, poetic, reflective piece so beautifully balanced against a bigger picture.

The Deserted Newsroom is comprised of five pieces that originally formed part of Crikey's Brave News World series. Haigh deftly navigates the pitfalls and possibilities of a changing industry, negotiating the optimism, nostalgia, gloom, despair and utopian idealism of a decentralised media to examine the deeper implications in the changes that have already taken place and what this might mean for the future of news circulation and consumption.

I often say when I give talks about being a writer that I am not a journalist because it takes me too long to decide what I think about things. As much a junkie as the next person for the fast news cycle that abounds in online news reporting, I actually much prefer longform, deep, contemplative writing that can only happen in retrospect. The Penguin Specials offer an intriguing opportunity for curating, inspiring or archiving a variety of cultural projects and in this case it is particularly fascinating to think of the context of publication - a piece of digital writing about the future of digital writing, particularly in light of the Penguin Random House merger and what that might signify for the Penguin brand.

These specials remind me of a written form of a really good podcast. The kind of thing to have on the Kindle to read when you want something reflective, intelligent but achievably consumable (say when you have a sleeping baby in the backseat of the car and you want to give them another twenty minutes rest). Pricing is a bit arbitrary, Bradley's is $3.11, Haigh's is $4.16. I am not sure how the pricing will work for them, on the one hand, a few dollars is not much to pay, but in a competitive industry, where so many apps, podcast, epubs and other media are vying for our time and bit change, it is possible that even $4.16 might seem prohibitive. Hopefully not, because the above titles are highly recommended.

This is a mash up of reviews that have already appeared on Goodreads but I wanted to put them together.

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