Best Books 2013: Wheeler Centre Staff (Part Two)

Jon Tjhia, Online Manager

Another year. In this one, I gleaned massive enjoyment (and that ‘world opening up’ feeling) from a handful of books that I was lucky enough to finish reading.

Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound (edited by John Biewen, coedited by Alexa Dilworth) is ostensibly a how-I-did-this book about creative radiomaking, but it’s also an endearing portrait of the sometimes haphazard, awkward and even dithering approaches of some great talents – including a heartening number of Australians (that too few of us are aware of).

George Saunders' Tenth of December – gosh. This collection of short stories is filled to the edges with tenderness and brutality, executed through deft, humble, oddball prose. Read it, and then read more free Saunders stories on the internet, and listen to this wonderful interview at The Organist, and weep.

Other highlights from my underperforming year of reading include: Sufficient Grace (Amy Espeseth), The Cook (Wayne Macauley), Retromania (Simon Reynolds), Freeloading (Chris Ruen), Amazing Babes (Eliza Sarlos and Grace Lee), Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Louis Niebur), Aya (Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie). Embarrassingly – or maybe encouragingly – there’s a tall stack of great and not quite finished books at home, patiently awaiting that long train ride; that trip to the beach; that lost weekend.

Katherine Lynch, Executive Assistant

Herewith my list, in no particular order:

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Boomer and Me by Jo Case

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Dìaz

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (classic)

The True Deceiver and Art in Nature (short-story collection) by Tove Jansson

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Jo Case, Senior Writer/Editor

Two books I’ve been pressing on (and lending to) everyone this year are extraordinary Australian memoirs: Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson (currently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction) and Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards. Both of these books bowled me over with their insight, intelligence and envy-inducing mastery of craft.

In Boy, Lost, Olsson tells the story of a stolen child in her own family, and links it to Australia’s history of stolen children. Why did so many people do nothing to help? What is the impact on a personal level? What does it say about us as a society? Olsson’s mother was escaping an abusive husband on a train from Brisbane to Cairns when the husband boarded the train, took the baby from her arms, and threatened to kill her if she ever did anything about it. Decades later, mother and son were reunited. Olsson reconstructs their parallel fractured lives, from the inside as an intimate observer and from the outside as a journalist and biography. Moving, thought-provoking and stunning.

Kate Richards is a medical doctor who writes about living with psychosis - like Olsson, both from the inside and the outside, as a professional who makes scathing, informed critiques about the health care system and the sometimes astounding lack of empathy or effectiveness she finds as a patient. Richards takes the reader deep inside a world both terrifying and magical, alternatively lucid and illogical, as she veers in and out of insanity. The contrast between the woman who chillingly, with avid intent, attempts to sever her own arm with a scalpel in the opening pages, and the woman who joyfully immerses herself in literature and music, is stark. I haven’t read a book this compelling, affecting or insightful about mental illness since Anne Deveson’s classic memoir of parenting a child with schizophrenia, Tell Me I’m Here, which I re-read this year – and wept and marvelled over.

Another book I talked about constantly this year was Anna Krien’s marvellous, Garner-esque work of long-form journalism, Night Games, which used the rape trial of a footballer as a frame and jumping-off point to examine sexual politics, sport, attitudes towards women, consent and the law. Krien raises important questions and bravely navigates murky ground; you get the sense as a reader that she is not bounded by politics or preconceptions, only by the truth as it reveals itself to her. And the writing is just superb. Read in tandem with your significant other; then discuss. You’ll discover a lot. (Thankfully, my partner got a gold star in this exercise - phew.)

I published a memoir about motherhood this year - as did two other Australian writers I massively admire. I devoured and adored Monica Dux’s Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting), a smart, frank and hugely funny book about the culture and lived experience of pregnancy and early motherhood, drawing on research and lived experience - written with heart (and slivers of memoir that are alternately laugh-out-loud and touching). And likewise with Anna Goldsworthy’s Welcome to Your New Life, a beautifully crafted, archly funny, warm and revealing memoir about pregnancy and motherhood, and entering uncharted (intense) emotional territory for the first time. I recommend both as perfect gifts for new or expecting mums.

Best fiction of the year? I loved Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda - typically compelling, clever, character-driven and confronting fiction from one of our best writers. Tsiolkas combines great characters, cutting cultural analysis and page-turning plots in a way that looks easy, but is surely anything but. At the heart of it is the question of what makes a life worthwhile, and the tension between ambition and contentment, achievement and intimacy. This book kept me thinking and talking about it for weeks afterwards.

Tamara ‘Reno’ Zimet, Publicist

The Flamethrowers - Rachel Kushner

This book ignited one of the stupidest literary debates in recent memory; ‘Can a woman write a Great American Novel?’ The answer to which Kushner seemingly replied, ‘Fuck, yes.’

This is a brash, bold story that seamlessly takes readers from the world of high-speed motorcycle racing on the salt flats of Utah to the New York art scene and the revolutionary workers protests in Italy in the 70s. Rachel Kushner’s voice is fierce and whip-smart, and one of the reviews commented on the ‘velocity of her words’ – the perfect description for her storytelling. This book also made me wish my nickname was ‘Reno’.

Night Games - Anna Krien

There’s a moment in The Fault in Our Stars (one of my other favourites below) when one of the characters explains how her favourite book fills her with ‘weird, evangelical zeal.’ That’s pretty much how I feel about Night Games, Anna Krien’s sharp and damning piece of literary journalism, and why I recommended it to everybody this year.

Night Games begins with the rape trial of an AFL footballer and uses the trial as a starting point to explore the relationship between of sex, power and sport and what we accept as part of ‘our culture’. Krien navigates this difficult terrain with an almost impossible balance of incredulity and empathy. It’s also about the nature of consent, and Krien imparts the fact that ‘no’ means ‘no’, but ‘yes’ doesn’t always necessarily mean ‘yes’ with great skill and necessary sensitivity.

This book made my blood boil, and I don’t think that it received the attention that it urgently deserves. Somebody commented when it came out that one of two things was always going to happen: Sporting codes would comment and react, or they’d ignore it. Unsurprisingly it was the latter. It’s frustrating that it didn’t make more of an impact outside of the people that were always going to read it (which is obviously not due to the amazing work done by Black Inc., but a decision made by these sporting codes).

In a town so enraptured with the AFL, it should be mandatory reading. If a copy somehow didn’t land on the desks of David Smith and Andrew Demetriou, I hope it finds its way into their Christmas stockings.

Love, Dishonour, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish - David Rakoff

I first came across David Rakoff through This American Life, the weekly public radio show out of Chicago. This is Rakoff’s final published work (he died of cancer earlier this year aged 47) and is written entirely in verse, which I thought would be annoying, but it isn’t. Instead, Rakoff is honest, crass, clever and very, very funny as he jumps from character to character through the decades. Rakoff never ceased to be self-deprecating and acerbic and above all, charming. I’ll miss reading him.

Boomer and Me - Jo Case

Last year Chris Flynn (whose book Tiger in Eden is terrific) said in our Working with Words interview that you should ‘write a memoir only if you have been to the moon, served as president of your country or climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro after losing both legs to a Mako shark. Otherwise, use your imagination and make something up.’ Thankfully, Jo Case ignored this advice and has produced a beautiful memoir about motherhood and Asperger’s that manages to be heartfelt without being trite and honest without being exploitative. Jo has written so generously about the everyday challenges of motherhood and relationships. When her son Leo is diagnosed with Asperger’s, it causes equal amounts of chaos and calm. It takes guts to write like this.

The Embassy of Cambodia - Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is one of the best, and she’s proved that she can do more with 68 pages than other writers can with 680. It’s an extended version of a short story that was originally published in the New Yorker and I’m so glad she revisited it. This made me want to seek out more short-form fiction. It’s lovely.

Goat Mountain - David Vann

Goat Mountain is haunting. It starts with an act of senseless violence – a consequence of a split second decision – that sees the relationship between three generations of men on a hunting trip rot over the course of a few days. I actually found myself gasping and recoiling while I read this, extending my arms and holding the book away. It was an unexpected physical reaction, but David Vann is an incredible storyteller, and this book attacks and dissects ideas of manhood, violence and killing in a manner that left me reeling.

The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

I don’t even know where to start with this one. It wasn’t published this year, but I only heard about it after it was included a few times on last year’s Staff Picks list. The Fault in Our Stars tells the story of the relationship between teenage cancer patients Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, who meet at a cancer support group. It made me laugh and cry on the tram, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It broke my heart. Okay? Okay.