Wheeler Centre Staff Best Books 2014

Every year at this time, the Wheeler Centre staff share our favourite books of 2014.

Emily Sexton, head of programming

Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands

Halfway through reading Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, an early copy of this Melbourne-San Franciscan-New Yorker author’s debut landed on my desk. It’s funny because as much as Lena’s book is fun, Ulman’s is simply wonderful and it immediately zoomed to the top of my list for 2014. Full of unsettling and glorious portrayals of female desire, these women are conflicted, fierce, funny and strikingly familiar. Ulman has an immense talent for writing authentic voices for characters from a vast range of contexts; I am really looking forward to seeing more from her in the future. (Out through Penguin in March).

Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath

A bit of a catch-up read, as this marvellous novel was released in 2009 (and won the People’s Choice Award for the NSW Premier’s Prize at the time). A multi-generational story set in Tasmania, Kennedy’s ability to create thick, faulted characters really drew me in, and the finale is breathtaking.

Anna Krien’s Night Games

I come from an AFL-obsessed family, it’s in my blood. But I’m a feminist too (and the two things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive). So Anna Krien’s terrific book, so curious and exploratory, sat perfectly for me. Her testing and teasing out of so many assumptions changed the way I felt about football.

And then my team lost the Grand Final by not even trying, so all things considered: maybe it’s time to get more into Women’s Hockey.

Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen

My previous role as Next Wave’s artistic director occupied one corner of what determines ‘success’ and ‘potential’ for new artists and their careers; therefore this compelling account of Adam’s short, loud, complex life rang very true, and very sad, for me. I found it both terrifying and terrific; like Anna Krien’s work I really did appreciate the ambiguity and areas of grey that Erik accounted for within his biography.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy Snow Bird

It’s impossible for me to get close to a) how brilliant, piercing and unique this book and writer is or b) Porochista Khakpour’s pitch-perfect review in the New York Times, which even namechecks Jerry Saltz (and if you haven’t followed this legendary art critic on Instagram already you are missing out – trust me). I can only say that on emergence, I felt Oyeyemi had rearranged my brain parts and taught me a different way to read. A post-racial, queer retelling of Snow White, I think I’ll be returning to this book again many times in the future and I feel hungry to explore more of Oyeyemi’s previous novels.

Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things

Now this is a bit of a leap, because I’m only 100 pages in – but by gosh this is an exciting read. The endorsements from Philip Pullman and David Mitchell, two of my most favourite authors, should have been all I needed to get stuck in right away. Melding science fiction, a love story and an exploration of faith that transcends borders, its storytelling is both masterful and entirely approachable and funny at the same time. I heard over the weekend that Faber has determined this to be his last book, so I’m going to savour every last drop of it over summer. It also gets my personal prize for prettiest book cover… so shiny!

Helen Withycombe, programming coordinator

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

A fast-paced and well-crafted book, I found it shocking and heartbreaking, while being darkly funny at times. I couldn’t believe that it was from the same author of The Jane Austen Book Club!

Yes Please, Amy Poehler

Besides being ‘uncontrollable laughter on public transport’ funny, it increased my respect for this clever woman with a social conscience who changes the world though comedy. And to make this reading experience even better, indulge in the audiobook version. You won’t be disappointed.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A fearless and at times funny exploration of race and identity in America and Nigeria, with a love story at its heart.

Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan

A book that really got under my skin: in turns it broke my heart, turned my stomach and made me proud of my heritage.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett

I belatedly came across this collection of essays this year, but I loved Patchett’s explorations of writing and love in its many forms.

The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

A wonderful saga that follows the lives of artistic teenagers who meet at a creative arts summer camp – for fans of Franzen and Sittenfield.

To Name Those Lost, Rohan Wilson

A ripping historical thriller set in Tasmania that was such an all-encompassing reading experience I even dreamed about it!

Jaclyn Booton, general manager

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

An incisive and unstinting collection of essays. Roxane Gay embraces her own imperfections as a consumer of popular culture while holding fast to the expressly feminist critiques she makes of much of it. (PS. She’s team Peeta and that makes me Team Gay, all the way.)

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

All the ways in which families are inspirational, damaging, and inextricably part of who we are. Plus the best ‘big reveal’ of the year.

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

I guzzled this down, binging on the perspectives, characters, and voices we don’t get enough of in Australian literature. Delores and Ella eating spaghetti from a tin. Asanka’s terrifying boat trip. And Avery, upside down on the monkey bars, ‘stuck as buggery’. Painful and poetic.

My Story by Julia Gillard

One third of the book is spent on how it happened and two thirds on why. It’s a politician’s tale, giving little of the personal away. But as a primer on how to Get Shit Done (set goals, establish relationships, respond creatively to obstacles, stay focused), it’s a solid instruction manual.

People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman

Released waaaay back in 1991 but a beloved favourite and stand-out re-read in 2014. An ensemble of characters living – and dying – in the early days of Act Up! activism in New York City. The central love triangle of Peter, Kate, and Molly is brutal but beautiful and People in Trouble also rates a mention as my most loaned book this year (so thanks for indulging me, Team Wheeler!).

Lucy De Kretser, project coordinator

My top pick of 2014 is, hands down, Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke. At the Wheeler Centre, we have been lucky enough to have seen this incredible, poetic collection of short stories go from an unpublished manuscript to a rapturously received published book, so deserving of the wide praise it has received. I have also loved reading Maxine’s profiles in the Saturday Paper this year, seeing her perform poetry, contribute to panel discussions, and support emerging writers. What a literary star.

I thoroughly enjoyed Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, for its fascinating study of the machinations of the court room and Garner’s startlingly incisive observations of character.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was published in 2013, but I read it this year and it was an absolute favourite. I simply did not want it to end, and it left me wanting to gobble up everything that she has ever written. Flawless.

And finally (I do enjoy including a film), Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater, was such a stunning portrayal of childhood and adolescence, a coming of age story without the clichés, and a fascinating project that translated into a captivating cinema experience.

Tamara Zimet, publicist (‘The No More Little White Gloves List’)

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This one ignited the same kind of wide-eyed evangelical zeal that Anna Krien’s Night Games sparked last year. She’s unconventional, wry and fiercely intelligent. These are diverse and soaring essays on feminism, Hanna Rosin, Scrabble, race, Tyler Perry, Sweet Valley High, Shonda Rhimes and Gay’s own experiences. I wanted to read this aloud to strangers on the tram, but I’m trying to be less obnoxious at 8.30am.

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

It felt like we collectively lost our minds over Serial this year, and this was a great guide for wading through the many ethical dilemmas of Serial and the obsessive response to it. Plus there’s the great opener: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamieson

This collection of essays is an exploration of empathy, pain and suffering. There are pieces on poverty tourism, Morgellons disease, ultra-marathons, prison and the West Memphis Three. The WMT essay really complemented The Journalist and the Murderer and unpacks further the ideas of redemption and reclamation, both of the victim and the accused.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

I wish she skipped the whole part at the beginning about how she doesn’t know how to write a book, because she does and she’s really good at it. Yes Please is open, hilarious and clever and delivers important truths such as: ‘Calling people ‘sweetheart’ makes most people enraged.’

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The story is interspersed with blog posts by the main character, Ifemelu on her page; Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Americanah is a funny, smart, sweet, hard-hitting and at times deeply uncomfortable book about race and belonging, stretching across three continents. The NYT said that Adichie possessed ‘the ability to lambaste society without sneering or patronizing or polemicizing’ and because it’s the NYT, because that sums up my feelings exactly, and because there is no way I could have ever said it better myself, I’ll leave at that.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

I found this book mesmerising and unsettling from the very beginning - it truly scared me and I felt on edge the whole way through. I think Evie Wyld is an absolute master. Her event – in conversation with Ben Law – was also my favourite Wheeler Centre event of the year.

Filmme Fatales (Issue 3) – Edited by Brodie Lancaster

Filmme Fatales is one of the best publications going around and sits in the place where feminism and film intersect. Brodie is a great editor and is brilliant at commissioning the best local and international writing talent and pairing them with equally great illustrators. Issue 5 was the Power Issue and featured Tavi Gevinson’s college application essay (Brodie writes for Rookie), an interview with filmmaker Gillian Robespierre and another with the head of SXSW film, Janet Pierson. My favourite piece in this one was by Anton De Ionno and featured a particularly amazing illustration of The Hairy Bird. I am just always so impressed with what Brodie creates. No More Little White Gloves.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

This is the first in the series and was such an accurate and vivid description of friendship and the confusion of growing up that I ordered the second one before I had finished it. I am intrigued and frustrated about the mystery surrounding Ferrante, mostly I am blown away by her talent but also because I’m extremely nosey and because she – whoever and wherever she is – is on top of my Guest Wish List for the Wheeler Centre.

Men We Reaped – Jesmyn Ward

This is an early pick because I’m only 1/3 of the way through, but I’m calling it early. It’s a memoir about the violent and unexpected deaths of five young men in a very short period, all of whom were close to Ward, including her brother. ‘That’s a brutal list,’ she writes, ‘in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.’ It’s a story of the morbid reality of growing up poor and black in Mississippi. As Ward writes, at ‘the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing’. I thought of this book as 25,000 people marched in the streets of New York this past weekend, holding signs that say ‘Black Lives Matter’, chanting ‘I can’t breathe’ and unfurling a banner reading, ‘When we breathe, we breathe together’. As Ward sits with the widow of a friend who is murdered, she think ‘I’m only 26 … I’m tired of this shit.’ She’s an excellent writer and I think this book is important, especially now.

Shannon Hick, marketing manager

Shamefully I hardly read any newly published books this year. If this was a best of 2014 TV shows I’d be killing it right now. That being said I did read actual books this year, and those that stand out for me were:

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

The August 2013 issue of Vanity Fair had an article about the courtroom battle between the fiercely private author Harper Lee and her agent Samuel Pinkus. Having never read the book at school I put it on my ‘to read’ list for 2014. This year, Marja Mills’ The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee was released amid some controversy regarding claims of Lee’s cooperation, and, I was reminded again I needed to read the darn thing.

I’m so glad to have read this book. It’s so beautiful, I can’t rave about it enough. Scout is such a divine character, I feel like we would have been best friends growing up.

Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness) – Francoise Sagan

This was assigned reading in 2014 as part of my book club. When I say assigned, I mean it in the nicest way of course. Unless I treat it like school work of some kind, I’m hopeless at reading things on time!

Touted as the French F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sagan’s novel tells the tale of Cecile, a 17-year-old school girl holidaying with her widowed cad of a father and his lady friends. It is a story about how love can be twisted, manipulative and all-consuming. It made me want to take a long vacation to the beach – minus the dramatic ending of course.

Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the stories behind themWendy MacNaughton, Isaac Fitzgerald

So simple and so clever. Every tattoo tells a story … or so they say. And why not get people to share those stories with you? That’s the gist of this book, beautifully illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Cheryl Strayed, Roxanne Gay, rockers from Korn, professors, cafe owners and librarians share the significance of their symbols through story. My favourite is Siobhan Barry’s, she just really fucking loves pizza! Keep an eye out for Knives & Ink, coming soon.

Jon Tjhia, online manager

This year, I indulged a foolish impulse and allowed myself to read a very long, somewhat scolding critical appraisal of a book I was halfway through reading. The book was How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti. In spite of how obsessed I’d been in the past few years with ideas of what criticism should do and be, it was odd and bracing to suddenly feel new, ambivalent layers of mental processing arising between each sentence and my enjoyment of it. After a halting second reading, I feel both deeply affectionate and naggingly judgmental about the book. Eek!

On the other hand: nothing but affection for NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, which painted itself beautifully on the inside walls of my head. Holly Childs‘ experimental novella, No Limit, was a vivid, anxious foray into the media-soaked, dis/connected headspace of its protagonist –a dystopia on E, and a promising start for local imprint Hologram Books. And I took a lot of pleasure in puzzling over Haruki Murakami’s latest, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Not 'puzzling’ in a Wind-Up Bird Chronicle magical realist way, so much as pondering why it was so sticky, in spite of its relatively prosaic ideas and sometimes clumsy or robotic prose.

You’ll find no such complaints, by the way, about the (radio) writing of Natalie Kestecher, whose work I really binged on this year. It still surprises and annoys me that writers like Natalie are anything less than household names in word-friendly circles, even in this so-called golden age of radio. We’re no longer talking books, of course – not even audiobooks – but I easily ‘read’ far more great writing through my ears than I did otherwise.

Ania Anderst, receptionist

I wasn’t drawn to many new books this year, instead got stuck into some oldies but goodies.

Hands-down favourite of the year has been Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble, an incredibly realistic fiction tale set in New York during the AIDS crisis and told from the perspective of three characters; Molly, a young dyke, her married lover Kate, and Kate’s husband Peter. Thanks Jaclyn, TWC’s general manager, for lending me this gem!

People in Trouble got me searching for everything Schulman, which lead me to her non-fiction book Israel Palestine and the Queer International, the story of Schulman, a Jewish New Yorker, diving head first into the politics of Israel Palestine after she is invited to speak at Tel Aviv University’s LGBT Conference. Initially she accepts the invitation, then declines, and instead goes on a tour of Israel/Palestine guided by queer BDS activists, discovering Palestine’s queer community and creating a way to strengthen queer solidarity while uncovering Israel’s homonationalism.

Elilot Perlman’s Three Dollars — simply couldn’t put this one down.

Oren Gerassi, technical coordinator

There are too many books to read and too many things to do.

2014 was a year of short attention span, due to life events being too significant to ignore. This year I somehow also managed to complete a physics course. Leaving aside the reading of badly edited educational publications, the combination of unexpected life events and science studies inspired my year of literature to skip between sweet prose, history and science writing. It was fun.

My highlights are:

Mike Goldsmith - Discord: The Story of Noise

Robert Hughes - The Fatal Shore

Leonard Mlodinow - Euclid’s Window

Yoel Hoffmann - Moods

Tel Aviv Noir - A collection of short stories edited by Etgar Keret and Asaf Evron

Jo Case, senior writer/editor

I have a ridiculously long list of best books of the year – and when I realised this, I decided to go with my favourite books by Australian writers (because so many of my favourite picks were, anyway, by local authors). My top ten is below.

Shy by Sian Prior

In Shy, Sian Prior twins the narratives of her social anxiety and the devastating, sudden loss of her ten-year relationship to a famous partner, her safe anchor in a world where she often feels uncertain. Why are the two linked? Because shyness, she concludes, is a fear of rejection – and this was rejection on a grand scale. Beautifully written, honest and insightful.

Mothers Grimm by Danielle Wood

I fell deeply in love with this savagely witty, deliciously satirical collection of stories that takes fairytales as springboards to explore contemporary motherhood: the expectations, competition, consumer accessories and primal feelings. With these stories, Wood questions what we value as a society, and in each other.

The Poet’s Wife by Mandy Sayer

Mandy Sayer cements her reputation as one of Australia’s finest memoirists, following Dreamtime Alice and Velocity with this brilliant dissection of a flawed relationship and a burgeoning creative life. Intimacy is messy — that’s why a book like this, charting its contradictions and strange logic from the perspective of one broken marriage, is valuable. I loved it.

The Feel-Good Hit of the Year by Liam Pieper

Sad, tender, funny and bursting with strange charisma, this memoir was my biggest surprise of 2014 – and marks the arrival of a major new Australian writer, as Liam Pieper tells the tale of growing up in a bohemian weed-loving family and becoming a drug-dealing wannabe gangster, trying to look cool but ultimately searching for acceptance.

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke takes the reader on a virtuoso tour around the world with Foreign Soil, her debut collection of short stories. With settings as diverse as Footscray, London, Jamaica and the seas between Sri Lanka and Australia, she inhabits – with seeming ease – characters who range from a Sudanese single mother refugee in Melbourne entranced with a new bike, to a naïve girl in Jamaica whose promising start in life is jeopardised by pregnancy and an angry black activist in London. Fierce, empathetic and impressive.

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

I adored Sonya Hartnett’s previous novels for adults about suburban children consigned to the social fringes who yearn to fit in – Of a Boy and Butterfly. Golden Boys revisits this subject matter with elegant, disquieting ease, following the adolescent heads of two very different families, each discovering unwanted truths about their fathers as they cross the border form childhood.

Laurinda by Alice Pung

Think Mean Girls in Melbourne’s inner west, as a girl from a migrant working-class family gets a scholarship to an exclusive girls' school – and is forced to weigh the privilege gained against the personal compromise she must make to fit in. Love the way Pung juxtaposes the concerns and priorities of her classmates and their families with hers: i.e. sourcing the best sourdough versus occupying her baby brother while her mother sews clothes in the garage.

The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama by Julie Szego

This was a late discovery, after it landed on my desk as one of the shortlist for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards – but I tore through it in a night. Julie Szego uses the case of a Somali man wrongly imprisoned for rape (but not entirely innocent of misbehaviour, as it turns out) to explore the way cultural assumptions intrude on the legal process and – as Anna Krien does in Night Games – the grey areas between ethics and the law. Riveting.

The Family Men by Catherine Harris

A compelling look at the intersection between the media and sporting celebrity in Australia, centring on a sex scandal threatening to surface for the next-generation golden boy in a famous football family. Harris follows the separate trajactories of the guilt-ravaged, flawed but vulnerable boy and the underage girl in the lead-up to (and aftermath of) the event, dropping clues to what happened, but making us hunger for the full story … and ultimately complicit.

How to Get There by Maggie Mackellar

Maggie Mackellar’s first memoir, When it Rains, is a superbly moving (and impressively crafted) book about grief, loss and recovery, following her husband’s suicide and her mother’s death of cancer, within 18 months of each other. This sequel of sorts is a roadmap out of grief, as ten years later, she builds a relationship with a man who writes to her from rural Tasmania, and dares to make herself vulnerable again.