2018 Favourites: Wheeler Centre Staff
As is the tradition, we finish the year with a list of books, films, television, podcasts and, really, anything that nourished Wheeler Centre staff during the past 12 months.
Ngaire Freeman, development coordinator
Sally Rooney captured my heart this year. Every time I think about the books that saw me determined, despite sleep or surroundings, to keep reading in 2018, I think of Conversations with Friends and Normal People. These books swept me up and took me to a place of teenage petulance and total charm that made me wince, gasp, wipe at my eyes and also laugh. At time the dialogue between characters is almost mundane and that's where these books pick up real points in my eyes. Rooney does not leave out the boring parts of love and life and feeds us the story as it really unfolds – one banal message after another. I have since forced these books on everyone I know.
Killing Eve, developed for television by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
There are so many things to say about Killing Eve. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing is spectacular, but the costume design was my sole focus. I can’t remember a moment recently where I’ve seen contemporary designers represented on such a commercial platform with such ease. First, Villanelle scales the walls of an Italian villa in a pussy-bow Chloé shirt and cut-offs, and then changes into a stolen Burberry lace dress she wears to murder the home-owner – but not before asking where he got his silk bed throw from. We then see her murder a beloved character in a spectacular Dries Van Noten brocade suit, and track down another victim in a floral Miu Miu bomber jacket and leather pants. By the time we see her in Paris wearing a lolly-pink tulle Molly Goddard dress paired with Balenciaga combat boots, I am helpless.
'In the No', a three-part mini-series on Radiolab
This podcast made me think critically about consent more than just about any conversation, essay or message has in the past few years. It is messy, contradictory and uncomfortable, and I am still thinking about it. It has been the source of many dinner table discussions, and while not a source of joy, it has forced a level of introspection that I have found incredibly powerful.
Shannon Hick, marketing manager
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Short stories are a welcome respite for me when I’m struggling through an overly ambitious to-read pile. I was lucky enough to read a proof copy of Friday Black and to say these are powerful and hard-hitting doesn’t do the book justice. The first in the collection, ‘The Finkelstein Five’, is a standout for me. Just read it.
'He Saw Our Darkness' by John Hayes in The Bitter Southerner
This year I tried to get over my own feelings of inadequacy around reading and appreciating music journalism and criticism. A regular diet of the Switched on Pop podcast and Jeremy D. Larson’s Pitchfork review of the Greta Van Fleet’s album has made me very content with my location in the kiddie pool of the music zeitgeist.
Not too long after Australia ousted yet another sitting PM in favour of a new leader with evangelical leanings, I came across this longform piece on Johnny Cash, himself a fervent evangelical. I read it and hung on to the sections that highlighted his wrestle with national and religious identity – relevant and timely not only in Trump’s America, but also closer to home.
Momentum Generation, directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist
I saw this documentary feature at MIFF and was transported back to my sandgroper adolescence in Perth, W.A. where beach culture was king and Kelly Slater was a deity. I now know this was thanks to the ratbags of this legendary surf crew, mere teenagers, who changed the trajectory of their sport. It’s an excellent examination of surf and sand, competitive sport, masculinity and friendship, and best of all, the nineties. It’s just been released for download on iTunes, so when it’s hot outside this holidays and you need a cool escape I’d recommend this gnarly film.
Sophie Quick, senior writer/editor
French Exit by Patrick deWitt
About a socialite widow who spends, and loses, a fortune and relocates to Paris with her son to start a new life. It's such a stylish and hilarious book. The dialogue is brilliant.
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
I was so hooked on this book and read the whole thing over the course of one pretty depressing weekend. It's not an easy read – Eggshell Skull is non-fiction/memoir about inadequacies in the justice system for dealing with sexual abuse cases – but it's compelling in exploring the price individuals pay for the biases of institutions.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
I didn't love everything about this book – it's the story of a young woman who tries to sleep through a year of her life using a cocktail of psychiatric drugs – but I really respected how truly messed up it was, both in its brutal, black humour and also just as an idea for a novel (a full-length book where the narrator's aim is to stay in one place and be unconscious as much as possible for as long as possible?!). I couldn't stop reading it, and I laughed a lot.
Harry Reid, receptionist
The Town by Shaun Prescott
After a year languishing on my ‘books to read’ pile, I tore through The Town in two days and cursed myself for every day I’d spent not reading it. A beautifully gloomy novel that so remarkably captures the feeling of ‘meet-you-at-the-Woolies-carpark’ small-town Australia. Five terrifying sinkholes out of five.
The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper
I just finished this, so a big sorry to all the books I read at the start of the year, but The Arsonist just pushed out everything else from my brain. A devastatingly excellent book.
Criminal, a podcast by Radiotopia
As a true crime podcast tragic I can’t believe I only tuned into Criminal this year, but I’ve torn through four years of episodes in about six months. It’s so good, and Phoebe Judge’s voice? If you know, you know. Iconic.
Lauren Bialkower, general manager
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
This beautiful book by Wheeler Centre guest Tayari Jones still haunts me half a year after finishing. Roy, a young black man, is tried and wrongly convicted of rape and his new wife Celestial must adapt to life without him. A story about the failed hopes of romantic love and the question all couples must navigate as they attempt a shared life; do they really belong together and will love conquer all?
The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two, Episode 10: ‘The Last Ceremony’
I spent many fun moments (24/7) debriefing and dissecting Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale with my office-mates this year and none provoked more devastation or horror than Episode 10, ‘The Last Ceremony’. It was the – spoiler alert – temporary reuniting of June with her daughter Hannah that tore at our heart strings and required copious amounts of chocolate and wine to come to terms with. The most incredible acting by Elisabeth Moss here, and an incredibly powerful and moving piece of television.
‘Five Women’, This American Life, 2 March 2018
I think this episode of This American Life is possibly the best podcast I have ever heard. It’s a different kind of #MeToo story, about several women who worked for the same man (as well as his partner) and all experienced different types of harassment from him. Not only are their particular experiences detailed, but we also learn of their lives beforehand: who were they when they first entered the organisation and how their personal histories shaped these experiences.
Sallie Butler, publicist
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart has got to be my favourite book of 2018. Taking place in three distinct places – her childhood home by the sea, a flower farm with her grandmother, June, and then the blood-red desert – it is a dark and delicate tale. After her family suffers a tragedy that renders Alice unable, or unwilling, to speak, Alice learns how to express her emotions with her grandmother’s native flower dictionary. In her twenties, after another tragedy, Alice flees to the dramatically beautiful central Australian desert. I read this book in a day – I could not put it down – and I, for one, cannot wait for the movie!
I love, love, love this series! It is really filling a Harry Potter-shaped void. The characters are delightful, the setting is rich and imaginative and Morrigan Crow is the perfect anti-hero. Yes, I know I am too old to be reading this, but I don’t care. I was hooked by the first chapter and devoured each book in one sitting.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
If Eleanor Oliphant was real, then there’s a very high chance I wouldn’t be friends with her – but I absolutely adored this book. Eleanor is a human like no other – she is an unusual and insightful woman who looks at the world in a different way to everybody else, a woman who will infuriate and exasperate you, and a woman you will empathise with in the most heartbreaking of ways.
Scott Limbrick, digital producer
Severance by Ling Ma
It's difficult to pitch Severance using the standard 'part X, part Y' framework, since it's so many different things at once. Following Candace Chen, a 'millennial drone' drawn to an almost mythological version of New York City, Ma's debut novel envisions an apocalyptic scenario only possible under late capitalism. As people succumb to a new disease, 'Shen Fever', they become trapped in hollow routines until they completely waste away – or are shot by survivors. The parallels between this gruesome form of death and Chen's office job overseeing the manufacturing process of specialist bibles are clearly drawn, and brutal. For a far better discussion, I'd also recommend Claire Cao's review in the Lifted Brow.
Recorded at the National Young Writers' Festival this year, both these episodes push the concept of the Nailed It series – to serve up the hottest takes – to its limit. Alistair Baldwin delivers a searing takedown of those who complain that people with disabilities get special treatment, 'and yet refuse to go to Bunnings, buy a stainless steel hammer for $4.50, and blast out their own kneecaps with blunt-force trauma'. And that's just in the first 20 seconds.
Taking a completely different approach, Chloe Alison Escott manages to weave a pitch-perfect homage to Metal Gear Solid (and its ilk) with the kind of intergenerational whinging only a well-remunerated opinion columnist can muster, while adding a heap of killer lines and surreal flights of fancy. I'll never be able to hear the words 'distinguished guests' the same way again.
Barry, created by Alec Berg and Bill Hader
There's been a lot of great TV this year (some covered by others in this list), but Barry seemed to fly a little under the radar in Australia – probably thanks to being confined to Foxtel. That's unfortunate, because it takes a concept that could easily fall apart – a hitman who travels to LA and decides to take an acting class – and makes some unexpected choices that have left me wondering just how they can bring everything back together in the next season.
Bill Hader and Henry Winkler deliver some of their best work, Good Place favourites like D'Arcy Carden and Kirby Howell-Baptiste round out the supporting cast and Atlanta's Hiro Murai directs a handful of stylish episodes. If you're already on board the expanding black comedy trend with Search Party, Killing Eve, The End of the F***ing World and Good Girls – or even if you're not – give Barry a try.
Veronica Sullivan, programming manager
Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork is a remarkable poetry collection, circling themes of country, law and identity. It’s both formally and linguistically playful, and utterly serious in its intent.
Silent Waves was the best podcast I listened to this year – a deeply personal story about host Raquel O'Brien’s family history of sexual abuse, it’s generous, gentle and profound as she explores how multi-layered traumas can echo through a family over many years.
Fiona Wright's The World Was Whole is a beautiful, frank, elegiac essay collection that ruminates on home, travel, illness, animals, Sydney, friendship and self. Wright is an intense and astute observer of herself and of the whole, fragile world.
The song of the year was Ariana Grande’s 'thank u, next' – a perfect pop song that has brought me buckets of joy, along with its iconic accompanying film clip.
And Sally Rooney’s Normal People is a wonderful, humane, perfect, utterly stunning novel which I read in one sitting and am already looking forward to revisiting.
Sophie Black, head of publishing
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin
The shape-shifting Axiomatic is the fourth work of non-fiction by Maria Tumarkin – for whom the sub-genre term creative non-fiction could've been coined especially – but it's the first to really retain her unique voice. Publisher Brow Books have done a superb job in being brave enough to give Tumarkin the freedom to play, and the reader is all the more challenged and richer for it.
This is the kind of writing that makes you catch your breath mid-sentence and if you're that way inclined, take a photo of the page (yeah, I did) or scribble a few lines down. Tumarkin writes about age-old concepts like the passage of time with a freshness and a clarity that provides beautiful flashes of recognition and insight.
The best 'break the internet' moment for me this year is a toss up between Childish Gambino's 'This is America' dropping and Janelle Monae's 'Pynk'. Can't decide what was more exhilarating: Monae's vagina pants or Glover with his shirt off (and everything that came after that, on an intellectual level of course …) Sometimes it's deeply satisfying to dive head first into the zeitgeist and join in a moment with millions of other people.
The Teacher's Pet by Hedley Thomas
If you want to exist in the space between immersion/addiction/fury and ultimately torturous listening, join the 17 million others who downloaded The Teacher's Pet this year. The Gold Walkley-winning investigative podcast made for infuriating listening if you were after skilled or at least just adept audio craft, or just good tape really. And yet, it was utterly compelling (until perhaps the two-hour long finale …) This was a classic case of a good story triumphing over small matters like editing or brevity. If I hear Hedley Thomas say 'soft soil' one more time I'll scratch my own ear drums out but for a time there, it was the soundtrack to my 2018, and one arrest later, I don't regret it.
Claire Flynn, ticketing and CRM coordinator
Something I haven't read yet, but can't wait to read over the break and gift to everyone I know is Blak Brow, an edition of the Lifted Brow created entirely and independently by a First Nations collective of editors, curators, academics, designers and activists.
The three things I read this year that had the biggest impact were the works of people dear to me.
My partner, Rebecca Harris, published Trauma informed practice in education, a resource based on her work in student and family wellbeing at Carlton Primary School. I think it's a vital read for all who want to create a more gentle and kind world.
The two other works aren't published (yet). One was the novel Voice of the Shadows, by the Wheeler Centre's very own Gab Ryan. Although she didn’t take on my feedback to make the ending 'gayer', she has written a fantastic novel that I hope finds a publisher and wider audience. Sign her up!
The last was my friend Lish's Masters assignment on intersectional counselling practices at a sexual assault service. Her work explores the skills and knowledges of Aboriginal women and women of colour, while also working with white women to interrogate whiteness and white privilege.
Thanks to all of you for teaching me how to be in this world and how to draw out the stories that matter.
Emily Harms, head of marketing and communications
Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia by Marcia Langton
Marcia Langston’s Welcome to Country speaks to us all from somewhere deep inside our land. This vital read has provided my kids and I with a better understanding of the sacred places and those who carry the traditions of care for this country.
Divided into two parts, Part One spans everything from pre-history, cultures and languages, kinship, art and performance to cultural awareness for visitors. Part Two, ‘Exploring Indigenous Australia’, covers every state and its local festivals, Indigenous histories and sacred sights.
I binge-watched Season One in a week. I love everything about this series so much – Sandra Oh, the stylish settings, the brilliant acting and that punchy script – that I almost didn’t notice the violence. A friend and ex-colleague started up a Facebook group for the necessary debrief where there was a lot of talk about a fridge full of champagne and that pink dress … Bring on Season Two!
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin
Bold, risky, wild, gut-wrenching and honest, Axiomatic is Maria Tumarkin’s fourth book of non-fiction but this is her finest.
The book is structured around five essays based on popular clichés. Time heals all wounds. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. History repeats itself. Give me a child before the age of seven … You can’t enter the same river twice. What Tumarkin does with the interpretation and interrogation of these clichés through a series of in-depth interviews is brilliant.
Sam Ryan, accounts
'The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome' by Adam Entous and Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker
The New Yorker have done a few stories recently on 'Havana Syndrome' – sudden and acute concussion-like symptoms suffered by US diplomats in Cuba – but this was the first article to really make me do a full-blown, out loud, embarrassing myself in front of strangers, Tim-The-Toolman-Taylor type noise. Spies! Politics! Trump! Severe headaches, dizziness and ringing ears! Read this piece and I guarantee you'll fall down the rabbit hole of needing to consume any and all articles on the syndrome. Also if you read them late at night you'll probably get a headache and convince yourself that you, indeed, have Havana Syndrome. Reader, you do not.
One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton
Quick disclaimer, Rick is an old mate of mine, yet before I started reading One Hundred Years of Dirt I had little notion of his family and upbringing. I've since been almost evangelical in demanding everybody I know – and some I don't – read this extraordinary take on class, poverty, violence, illness and addiction. This book in parts destroyed me and simultaneously forced me to cackle loudly and ferociously. There's an ease to Rick's writing which makes the text accessible for readers of any background without condescension or judgment, an ease which left me feeling almost at a loss when I finished the final chapter.
'Your Mum' by Ruby Gill
Okay look, another quick disclaimer. Don't listen to this song in public. Don't listen to it on public transport. Or on a plane. In an airport lounge. In the office. In a bar. In a car with other people. Maybe listen to it alone, on your walk home. Maybe.
Despite what I originally thought, this is not a song about what jerks yell at other jerks on the sporting field. Instead, in Melbourne-based Gill's own words '... We fall in love with people who remind us a little bit of our parents. But then, in a burst of 2am Freudian clarity and angst, we realise that those are pretty stifling expectations. So this is about being not good enough. About trying to be yourself in someone else's kitchen. About admitting that you're not f*cking fine.' So yeah, that's pretty happy isn't it? God, good one Sam, HAPPY DAMN CHRISTMAS EVERYONE.
Jon Tjhia, senior digital editor
Short Cuts by Falling Tree Productions for BBC Radio 4
For various reasons – audience- or finance-driven, perhaps – it feels like many podcasts are resigning themselves to a broadly agreed set of conventions and expectations. Short Cuts isn't pitched as ear-honkingly experimental, but it does its job beautifully; excelling at gently smuggling an incredibly broad range of sonics and stories into a welcoming BBC half-hour. The ease of listening to an episode belies the magic happening under the hood, where producer Eleanor McDowall gathers some of the world's finest radio-makers and writers around a loose theme. Start anywhere.
A nod also to the New York Times for Rukmini Callimachi's astounding investigative podcast on Islamic State, Caliphate, but also for their bold web-based audio experiment, 'Listen to the World'. I hope it encourages and emboldens other publications to do similar work. And a quick mention for Long Live the New Sound, a fresh entry this year, which is doing its public access best to make podcasting weirder.
Bad Baby by Negative Gemini
Negative Gemini is Lindsey French, a North American producer and songwriter of rave-soaked electronic pop. Their 2016 album, Body Work, is a fulsome exploration of soggy beat-driven sentimentalism, but its 2018 follow-up – the six-track EP, Bad Baby – offers a surprising stylistic left-turn, adding influences like … Blink-182. It's uncomfortable, idiosyncratic and raw, and miraculously, it works. It edges out La Luz's Floating Features and Melbourne group Totally Mild's Her for my most played new music of this year.
Beverly by Nick Drnaso
I hadn't fully clicked with graphic novels before this year, but with so many Australians publishing outstanding new work in the comics/graphic realm (Rachel Ang, Bailey Sharp, Grant Gronewold, Eloise Grills and so on), I gave myself an extra push – that paid off.
A highlight: Nick Drnaso's Beverly. Zero percent the most mind-bendingly inventive use of illustration I've ever seen (most of it is rendered in straight, austere lines and muted tonal fills), it offers a handful of interlocking stories about suburban American life that brim with expectation, tragedy, boredom and alienation. It's wry and frequently dark, and its frustrations are palpable.
(p.s. This tweet.)
Stella Charls, programming coordinator
Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat on Netflix
This year I fell in love with my new favourite person and fantasy best friend, Samin Nosrat. I bought and adored her extraordinary cook book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat last year but watching her Netflix series of the same name over the past few months has brought me so much joy. It feels revolutionary to see a woman experience this level of success in the very dude-centric foodie scene, let alone an Iranian-American woman with a heart of gold like Samin. I highly recommend listening to her on Julia Turshen’s Keep Calm and Cook On podcast – their conversation about mental health and money is incredible. (Samin also has a lot to say about how it feels to be so many people’s fantasy best friend – her own fantasy best friend is Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye, another person to be grateful for in 2018, although my heart lies with Bobby).
Staying by Jessie Cole
One of the first books I read this year, I’ve found myself often thinking back to Jessie Cole’s heartbreaking memoir Staying. This is a truly beautiful book – at once a literary achievement and an achingly human story of grief, loss and family. 2018 has gifted us so many brilliant works of non-fiction, but Staying has firmly lodged itself in my heart and I’ll be recommending it for a long time.
Witness is a curated critical website for the performing arts community, founded in March this year by Alison Croggon and Robert Reid. In less than a year Witness has firmly embedded itself into Melbourne’s performing arts community. I’m constantly in awe of their output, long-form reviews and mentoring programs (including their First Nations Emerging Critic program and New Review program with Footscray Community Arts Centre and Malthouse Theatre). Favourite productions from 2018 include 19 Weeks (Melbourne Fringe), The Bleeding Tree and The Fall (both at Arts Centre Melbourne), The Antipodes (Red Stitch), Ich Nibber Dibber and Going Down (both at Malthouse) and A Quiet Evening of Dance (Melbourne Festival). I've loved these shows, and am grateful that I’ve been able to turn to Witness to read in-depth criticism of them (written by those far more articulate than me!)
Plus thank u (next) 2018 for:
- Laura Jean’s Devotion (on repeat all year, every day)
- All the best movies: Lady Bird, Shoplifters, Cold War, Leave No Trace (& Ocean’s 8!)
- Honor Eastly's remarkable podcast No Feeling is Final
- Elif Batuman on Japan’s rent-a-family industry in the New Yorker
- The loveliest season of Survivor in years and years where everyone is sweet and kind!
Gab Ryan, events manager
I’ve read so much good stuff this year that it was too hard to narrow it down to three, so I’ve condensed it down to the two most compelling themes that emerged.
Retellings of old stories, myths, legends: These were novels that put a different slant on stories we’ve always known – or known of – by looking differently at women’s stories, toxic masculinity, and the way we make people into heroes or monsters. The best examples that I read this year were Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Maria Dhavana Headley’s The Mere Wife, Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Sarah Perry’s Melmoth.
Stories with gothic, fantastic or mysterious elements: I found myself drawn this year to some excellent stories that asked how things would change if just one thing was out of our normal, expected worldly experience – things like ghosts, werewolves and mermaids or haunting, deadly secrets. Examples of this are Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing, Krissy Kneen’s Wintering, Tiffany Tsao’s Under Your Wings, and Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina’s Catching Teller Crow. These books show us that it is essential to go beyond what we know in order to unsettle ourselves and the world we live in, to look outside the expected in order to challenge things such as violence against women, structural racism, mental illness, the legacies of colonisation and intergenerational trauma.
Helen Withycombe, head of programming
The Fragments by Toni Jordan
One of the most satisfying reads of the year. This novel is simultaneously a gripping mystery, a queer love story, and a work of historical fiction all wrapped up in an extended love letter to the written word. The story dashes between 1930s New York and 1980s Brisbane – which, it turns out, are really fun places to spend a bit of fictional time. The perfect holiday read.
Axiomatic by Maria Turmarkin
An absolutely life-changing book. Many parallels have been drawn between this and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and it is a worthy comparison. Tumarkin’s experimental and exquisite exploration of trauma through generations, and the way our past may inform our future left me deeply altered, and better for it. This book deserves all of the accolades and awards it's received.
The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper
Anyone who lived in Victoria in February 2009 remembers where they were on Black Saturday, but it has taken until reading this book for me to truly comprehend the devastation these fires inflicted upon the people of Gippsland and surrounds. While the depiction of events is at times chilling, Hooper’s nuanced and luminous prose elevates this book far beyond traditional true-crime or court procedural. An essential book for all Australians, and Hooper at her finest.
Jose Eveline, technical coordinator
El Cine Quema – Raymundo Gleyzer by Fernando Martin Peña
El Capitalismo de San Pedro Sula y la Historia política hondureña by Darío Euraque
'They Take Our Jobs!' and 20 Other Myths about Immigration by Aviva Chomsky
Talking to my Daughter about the Economy by Yanis Varoufakis
De Filmkrant / The Thinking Machine by Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin
Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, directed by Thom Andersen
Lucia, directed by Humberto Solás