Best Books 2013: Wheeler Centre Staff (Part One)

Yesterday, some of the authors we worked with this year shared their Best Books of 2013. For the rest of the week, we’ll be presenting the picks of Wheeler Centre staff, in three parts. Today, find out what head of programming Simon Abrahams, programming coordinator Donica Bettanin, project coordinator Lucy De Kretser and series producer Gemma Rayner have nominated as their Best Books of 2013. Feel free to add your own picks (or arguments) in the comments section!

Donica Bettanin, Programming Coordinator

The Tenth of December, George Saunders

2013, or, the year I fell for Saunders. It started with his 2006 collection In Persuasion Nation. Then his essays, collected in The Braindead Megaphone. Most recently, The Tenth of December. His stories are surprising, often triumphs of satire, always seeking to reveal something about how we relate to each other. He’s funny. Not funny like boom-tish, funny like he sees absurdity and striving and compromises and he magnifies them somehow so that as a reader you’re so thrilled that he gets it and you feel special because you get it too. He’s smart, funny, kind and literary — this crush is serious.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

In We Need New Names we meet Darling: ten years old, living in a shanty in Zimbabwe under the Mugabe regime, dreaming of another, better, life in ‘Destroyedmichygen’ USA. Darling’s voice takes hold immediately and her self-possession and faith that things will work out are irresistible. It’s no spoiler to reveal that she does make it to America, and some of the book’s most interesting threads play out to devastating effect here, exploring identity, displacement and disappointment. Bulawayo was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award, and rightly so. A stunner.

A couple of others: Kirsten Krauth’s Just a Girl, which vividly took me back to being a young woman grappling for the first time with sexual power and vulnerability; Boomer and Me by Jo Case, for her pitch-perfect words and the care and affection that underpin her storytelling; Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire for taking me on a fascinating, heartfelt tour of modern Shanghai; and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, because friends, we need to keep thinking about this stuff.

Lucy De Kretser, Project Coordinator

My top pick for 2013 is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, hands down. The exquisite writing and beautifully drawn characters allow access to a part of Australia’s history that I often shy away from due to discomfort with the nationalist overtones that so often dominate. Mateship isn’t mentioned once in this book, but the love between men is described in such a way that I was coughing tears the entire way through. It says something important that I am not quite able to articulate myself, but, weeks after finishing the book, continue to feel deeply.

At the beginning of this year I finished the Edith Trilogy by Frank Moorhouse. The third book, Cold Light, was published in 2012, but of course I had to make a start on the first two before I could read it, so it slipped into my 2013 reading list and I am cheekily including here! Edith Campbell Berry is the most wonderful character I have ever met. So unique, so admirable, so flawed, surprising, fascinating, intelligent, vulnerable, brave. Cold Light sees Edith move from Geneva to the fledgling city of Canberra, which changes the tone of the series somewhat, but as an Australian history diehard, I was in my element with this one. The furniture, the architecture, the clothes, the commies, and the end of a wonderful road travelled with Edith.

Another cheeky inclusion is Robert Connolly’s film adaptation of Tim Winton’s The Turning. I savoured all three hours of this uniquely Australian production, which features some of our best talent and captures the spirit of the book wholeheartedly.

Gemma Rayner, Series Producer

Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia was a stand-out for me this year (published 2011) . Drawn from innumerable historical records, it is a surprisingly vivid and riveting account of Australia’s landscape, land-management strategies, and people at the time of European settlement. Ultimately revelatory – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I was also completely, and voyeuristically, absorbed by the lovely Jo Case’s memoir of Aspergers and motherhood, Boomer and Me. Refreshingly honest and gently paced, it’s a beautiful meditation on managing intimate relationships, life’s hurdles, and parenthood.

A few other highlights for me this year, although oldies I’m afraid, include Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming. Yep, there’s a theme. Oh and a final shout-out to Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, which is enthralling, affecting – and executed with such finesse. It’s definitely one to seek out if you missed it on release.

Simon Abrahams, Head of Programming

My top pick for commercial fiction this year has been Christos Tsiolkas’s brutal new novel Barracuda. You’ve all probably read it by now — the story of a private school misfit, a liminal character who is both insider and outsider as he moves between communities that aren’t supposed to meet. There’s something about the thumping raw honesty in Tsiolkas’s writing that gets me every time, but for some reason Barracuda has really stuck with me. Maybe it’s a little too close to home — spending too much time in a place that preaches perfectionism but rewards same-same thinking and behaviour riddled with homophobia, arrogance and entitlement. Maybe it’s the perfect antidote to my rose-coloured glasses memories of the late 1990s. Maybe it’s the (lack of) self-awareness, masculine brutality, the bleak portrait of the land of opportunity. I don’t know, but I really loved it. And I love when a good book sells well. It means Australia got it right for once. Well done Australia.

Now for a book you’ve probably never heard of — winner of the 2013 Viva La Novella prize, Jane Jervis-Read’s unpredictable debut Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall. I sat down to read this 120-page novella and by the time I moved out of my chair, I’d finished it. It was literally my ‘can’t put it down’ book for the year. The story of a complex relationship between a care worker and a damaged young woman, Jervis-Read moves at a cracking pace to explore the complexities of mental illness, domesticity, love and desire and her real skill is in leaving some of the big things unsaid. It’s unsettling but it’s memorable and like my real love — a three-minute pop song — it leaves you wanting more.

My secret-shame-nerd-non-fiction-book is Glen Berger’s Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History. It’s a theatre producer’s geek chorus in and of itself. It outlines everything that went wrong, financially, artistically and legally in the making of the most expensive show in Broadway’s history. It’s written by the writer of the musical itself and outlines his deteriorating relationship with ego-maniac Julie Taymor, why those risk management plans exist and what goes wrong when you don’t listen to your gut. In the most fantastic meta-narrative piece of desperation in Broadway marketing history, the show is so desperate for ticket sales, it is now flogging videos of former cast members reading aloud from the book, which outlines why the piece fails artistically and commercially. It also draws attention to the too-quickly-forgotten Australian pop group of the late nineties Jackson Mendoza, half of which went on to star in Spiderman for about a week until she was concussed … I could keep geeking on but I won’t. Get your theatre nerd on.

Speaking of theatre — the stand-out performance text for me was Angela Betzien’s Tall Man, which had a pretty extraordinary season at La Mama directed with her usual force by Leticia Cecares. Nicola Gunn’s In Spite of Myself was a slice of self-referential performance art genius, Ian Pidd/Men of Steel’s Hard Rubbish was good old-fashioned fun, Lucy Guerin’s Conversation Piece was brilliant in being simultaneously virtuosic and pedestrian, Tamara Saulwick’s Public (played out at the Highpoint Food Court) also took everyday conversation, but made it into extraordinary public art, and Back to Back Theatre’s Super Discount was brutal, funny and searing as usual. There were loads of highlights — City of Shadows at Malthouse, Cherry Orchard, Book of Everything and pretty much everything in NEON at MTC, the creative vision emanating from Theatreworks and (so I’m told) the 6am brilliance of Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humprey’s Five Short Blasts playing in the Docklands this week. A creative development of a new work, Soundtracks, by the young ensemble at St Martins also had me pretty excited to see what 2014 and beyond is going to bring …