2017 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.
Michael Williams, director
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
This debut book of short stories is electrifying. Angry, smart, weird, hot and powerful. Hard to get hold of but order it at your local independent bookseller. It’s sensational.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
A modern retelling of Antigone centred around two British Muslim families, this manages to be both a serious look at ideas of identity, duty, radicalism and family and a thrilling page-turner with characters that will move you and a plot that will keep you awake. Excellent.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
A Visit from the Goon Squad was always going to be a hard act to follow, but by going in a completely different direction, Jennifer Egan doesn’t disappoint. I don’t normally love this kind of historical fiction, but was completely on board for this beautiful book. The relationship between the protagonist and her father was just stunning.
And because there were so many other great books this year, and the tyranny of the Top 10 list is inescapable, here’s seven more brilliant reads from 2017:
Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Australia Day by Melanie Cheng
The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
Common People by Tony Birch
On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong
Moral Panic 101 by Benjamin Law
Gab Ryan, events manager
From the Wreck by Jane Rawson
This is like nothing I’ve ever read before, and I loved it! Rawson is such a great writer that I trusted her every step of the way, and I absolutely believed her story, even the things that were far-fetched and otherworldly. Her exquisite blend of rigorous historical research and vivid imagination hit the spot beautifully. The novel manages to tell us about South Australia in 1859, the wreck of the steamship Admella, and the world in which Rawson’s great-great-grandfather would have lived, while at the same time issuing a warning about how we live now.
Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman
This is another speculative fiction novel that is informed by the past – yet at the same time holds a mirror to the present, and looks to the future. It is impossible to say much about this novel without revealing the twist, but I can say that Coleman’s attempt to subvert the perspective of white Australians is incredibly effective – it’s a story of the invasion of Australia told in both a very familiar and an utterly new way. This is science fiction that gets us to reflect on ourselves, our world, our history, and the truths we think we know.
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
Donoghue is perhaps best known for her novel Room, but it was her 2016 historical novel The Wonder that had me diving back into her oeuvre. Her backlist is a treasure trove of feminist historical novels, many of which aim to discover a lost, forgotten or seldom-talked-about lesbian past. The Sealed Letter is based on a real divorce case that ended up in the London courts in 1864; and it’s a romping, well-paced story of betrayal and loyalty, sex and subterfuge, secrets and scandal. I read it all on one sunny Sunday in my beanbag on the deck. What a delightful way to spend a day.
Shannon Hick, marketing manager
‘Long-Game Bitches: On Princess Di, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and the Fine Art of Crazy Exing’, an essay in Alana Massey’s All the Lives I Want: Essays about my best friends who happen to be famous strangers
Since Lemonade dropped back in 2016, I’ve spend an inordinate amount of time wondering what the world would be like if Aaliyah was still alive, and possibly collaborating – and ruling the world – with Beyoncé. It’s kind of a dream come true, then, that Alana Massey has also taken to similar thoughts, revealed in her 2017 essay collection.
In ‘Long-Game Bitches’, published prior to the Weinstein revelations and #MeToo maelstrom, Massey proves to be somewhat of a soothsayer when it comes to women reclaiming power from phrases like ‘bitches be crazy’, citing numerous examples from Princess Diana to Aaliyah, Lorena Bobbitt and Taylor Swift.
So, to all the crazy exes out there, here’s to not being a one-dimensional character one bathtub fire at a time.
Hey you! Want to join the army? Can you boost morale, help carry ammunition and perform guard duties? Don’t let being a Syrian brown bear deter you. In the podcast series Stories from the Eastern West, hidden history factoids from Central and Eastern Europe litter each episode. If you’re a history nerd or fun fact gatherer, this is a podcast for you.
In ‘Bear’, we hear all about General Anders’ army and their unlikely recruit, Wojtek the bear. No more spoilers from me, but do keep an ear out for endearing Eurovision-esque lost in translation jokes and banter between the hosts.
Johnboy Davidson, production manager
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
Two very different but complementary descriptions of the rise of Putin that quite honestly are hard to believe. Not that that I doubt any of it happened as described, but there is a level of surreal dark absurdity at the heart of modern Russia that is truly chilling. You have to laugh, or you’ll gibber madly.
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. by Alice Birch at the Malthouse Theatre
Language deconstruction and destruction as though Beckett and Stoppard had a millennial child. Made me actually care about theatre again.
Emily Sexton, head of programming
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Devoured then thrust into the hands of colleagues, friends and fellow commuters: this debut novel from rising Irish star Sally Rooney is hot flushed mistakes, ambitious ego and the obsessive, foundational friendships of your twenties. It’s funny, charming and occasionally maddening. She’ll soon be taking over the editorship of key Dublin literary mag The Stinging Fly, and with a recent notch on the belt in the form of a snappy New Yorker piece, watch this space.
A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk
This profound, neurotic, excoriating book was published way back in 2001 and I’m not sure if enough credit is given to Cusk for the influence she wields over so much of the writing we see on early motherhood (and the ubiquitous personal essay) today. It’s relentlessly insightful and I believe, worthy of canonical status if you’re on the hunt for a strong feminist text to guide you through the shift from woman to mother. Only for the most brave of pregnant ladies, I think it’s more easily read a few years later – and even then, taken in doses! The New York Times called it ‘career suicide’, so what are you waiting for?
Hi Phi Nation Episode 8: ‘Be a Man’
This episode of Barry Lam’s philosophy podcast stayed with me for months. It draws a very intelligent line between the artifice of national borders, the difficult task that is asking people to fight on the behalf of an idea, the gender dynamics of the military and the ways in which this whole machine must operate to devalue men’s bodies to be expendable while elevating women’s for just one task. The patriarchy f**ks us all. Depressing and invigorating in equal measure.
Honourable Mentions / I Was Only Allowed Three Even Though This is My Last Time
Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi’s Instagram (and every other thing she does)
The Book of Dust by Phillip Pullman
The Answers by Catherine Lacey
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Scott Limbrick, digital coordinator
The Long Goodbye by Anna Krien
Attempts to unpack Australia’s climate change policy usually lead to a confusing tangle of obscure personalities and mining mythology. Thankfully, Anna Krien has cast an analytical eye over our current situation, covering everything from scientists on the Great Barrier Reef and the economics of Adani to Indigenous land rights and the legal gymnastics deployed to bypass them. If you weren’t already fuelled by rage, this personal and brutal breakdown of Australia’s climate inertia will get you there page by page.
Rubik by Elizabeth Tan
Rubik generated a lot of discussion about its structure – a series of interconnected short stories – but it’s also relentlessly paced and filled with sharp satire. I enjoyed the looming tech presence and array of characters, with speculative fiction giving way to fantasy and adventure at will.
Richard Cooke has turned the deconstruction of Australian conservatism into an art form, homing in on the tensions that threaten to split the ‘broad church’. In these essays, he pokes at the incoherence of libertarians championing Trump, false nostalgia for Western civilisation, and the shift of much of the right into something more like an anti-left. When you’re done, find his other essays to see the same forensic approach applied to their opponents.
Plus a special shoutout to Taika Waititi’s Twitter.
Sam Ryan, accounts
‘Boys Will Be Boys’ by Stella Donnelly
I still don’t know how one person and one guitar can create something so gut wrenchingly sad, but Stella Donnelly somehow manages to do it. The topic of sexual assault isn’t something you’d normally associate with one of the standout local songs of 2017, yet Donnelly removes all cliches and cuts through the crap with furious, blunt lyrics and a powerful, pleading voice. I’m yet to make it through the high note – either live or recorded – without howling for a solid hour afterwards.
‘London Bridge is Down’ by Sam Knight in the Guardian
‘London Bridge Is Down’ is the kind of writing that sticks in your head long after you’ve read the final line, regardless of your interest in the subject itself. What at first seems to be a clinical explanation of the events which will take place immediately after the passing of Queen Elizabeth slowly evokes the emotion of both a private funeral and a historical event rarely witnessed in our time.
Thor: Ragnarok directed by Taika Waititi
I genuinely can’t remember sitting in a cinema and hooting as loudly as I did for this gem of a movie. At one point (‘piss off ghost!’) I laughed so hard and for so long that I had to put a napkin over my face just to try to calm down. Waititi has done the unthinkable here. He made superhero movies – and superheroes in general – fun again. He made them fallible rather than unbearable, cheerfully amusing rather than humourless dingbats. Please Hollywood, we love him, don’t break him.
Helen Withycombe, programming manager
I was a real latecomer to this brilliant, gross, funny and tear-inducing series from the clever Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Based on her stage monologue, it is squalid and honest look at sex and relationships and failure and grief, and how we might all be on the brink of breakdown but it’s all okay as long as our lipstick looks great. Nothing I say will really communicate how good this is, so just watch it (and don’t give up after the awkward sex bits … it’s worth it!).
I feel guilty including this in my best-of list, but it was honestly as life-changing and euphoric and restorative as all those annoying people who managed to get tickets said. Allegedly he is doing it again in LA next year, and if you can somehow fernangle a trip/ticket you won’t be sorry.
‘Who let Brad Pitt’s fashotainment shoot happen?’ by Marina Hyde in the Guardian
This is an oldie but a goodie. A friend of mine read this article to me over dinner between tears of laughter and snorting wine out of her nose, so maybe that added to my enjoyment, but this article (a companion piece to this accidentally hilarious disaster of a celebrity profile) was definitely on my best-read-moments of the year.
I’ve read so many great books this year, but the one I continue to think about a lot is Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’m a sucker for thoughtful, unsettling literary thrillers, and this one ticks every box: beautiful language, finely drawn characters, a chilling landscape and a great twist. Read it over the holiday season to really mess with your Christmas spirit.
Emily Harms, head of marketing and communications
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers, is not only one of my literary highlights for the year but also one of my event and book cover highlights.
Brit Bennett was 25 when she wrote this book. Her searing insights and sophisticated writing on relationships, abortion, religion, sexual abuse, race and the emotional vulnerabilities of the female protagonists are mind-blowing.
Bennett shot to people’s attention with her 2014 personal essay on the earnest nature of the self-conscious white anti-fascist, ‘I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People’. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
I read Mohsin Hamid’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted book, Exit West, on the recommendation of Bennett’s list of ‘must reads’. Mohsin Hamid is best known for his books A Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, but his latest book is remarkably different in its approach.
Initially I thought this book was set to be a straightforward opposite-attracts-type love story, but what evolves is a genre-blurring novel that shifts between psychological and political space and time. Set in an unnamed city filling with refugees, Saeed and Nadia embark on a journey that takes them to Mykonos, London and San Francisco.
While logic tells us that what will unfold is a dark reflection on the refugee crises around the world, somehow Mohsin Hamid paints a hopeful future where humans connect through a shared sorrow and heartache.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Manhattan Beach is a major shift in form for Jennifer Egan, author of four novels including the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad.
In this book, Egan constructs a fictional universe within Brooklyn during World War II based on a combination of research and imagination. In Manhattan Beach, the sea brings joy, purification, renewal and death.
Jacqueline Williams, head of development
Being a brown girl, I am dedicated to reading loads of writing by authors of colour every year – you know, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Junot Díaz, Marquez, Ishiguro. Three of note for 2017 are Melanie Cheng, Tony Birch and Arundhati Roy.
Melanie Cheng’s Australia Day brought this prodigal reader of short fiction back into the fold. And what better return than through Cheng’s creation of illuminated characters of colour – young, old, rich, poor, married, widowed, Muslim, Chinese and, what’s more, read in the 50th anniversary year of my family’s migration to Australia.
Being a child of migrant parents, a migrant herself and now the adopted mother of a migrant, I am deeply invested in understanding the nature of belonging. Cheng’s Australia Day explores the density and difficulty inherent in being culturally and physically different and serves to remind me that when our six families of adopted children from China gather in Queenscliffe on Australia Day each year, raising two flags on the pole instead of one that we, like all of Cheng’s characters, are restoring belonging from our individual and collective loss.
Having returned to the genre, Tony Birch’s Common People confirmed my love affair through his unforgettable new collection: remarkable, surprising stories of people like you and me getting on with the business of living – single mums, regional battlers, women wrestling with sobriety. Through 15 stories of compassion and hope, through straight-to-the-bone grittiness and the writer’s evident fondness for his characters, the miracles of survival and love stayed with me long after the covers closed.
I started Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness the week I took on the role of Head of Development for the Wheeler Centre. I did wonder at the time whether there would be space enough for meeting two extraordinary casts of characters!
This is a riotous book with shambling wrecks of humans on the border of gender and caste; people driven out by the massive engine of society that decides who is acceptable, who is worthy of love. I wholeheartedly adopted Roy’s community of estranged and damaged characters grappling to redefine and save themselves from the margins,nd celebrated just as ardently that while traditional families are challenged and destroyed, there is space created for new communities made up of the confused and hurt. Thank you Ms Roy for knowing better than me how much I needed this story this year. For bringing me your consuming epic about fragmented hearts, and mending them.
Fury, venue coordinator
This is what happens when someone with a philosophy PhD loves ethical philosophy so much that they write a (very watchable) television show that is basically an extended thought experiment.
My god. This show. Set in a nail salon, five manicurists are trying to get by. For the owner, Desna, ‘getting by’ means laundering money for the Dixie mafia. The show is spectacular in its depth, compassion and intrigue.
Controversial opinion: The Young Pope is like if David Lynch was good. It dances in and out of dream sequences, making the ‘real’ seem just as unreal as a dream. This is further compounded by the elaborate costumes, the set, the script and the cinematography. It explores the concepts of miracles, justice, religion, money, and ‘right’ness with a very tender eye. It’s hard to watch because it’s still about the Catholic church, but it is worth it.
Sophie Black, content strategy
No points for originality here, but S-Town lit up my brain for the breadth of its possibility, and its beauty. It made me jump up and down in marvel in my lounge room.
Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose
Prose that made me pause on nearly every page and copy it into my notebook. Which meant transcribing the entire book, really. Led to a terrible hand cramp but a very nourished brain.
Articles and essays
Anything that Masha Gessen or Maggie Haberman wrote on Trump this year, this incredibly creepy Medium article about YouTube’s algorithms and kids content, and Anna Krien’s Quarterly Essay The Long Goodbye.
Claire Flynn, ticketing and CRM coordinator
I’m very grateful for Lane Sainty’s coverage of the happenings of same sex marriage in Australia. Her Twitter feed was my daily go to as she was all over it. A vital read, especially for those times I couldn’t stomach listening to the debate. I hope someone archives her thread.
What a year for women in sport. How grand it was to attend the first AFLW match and to read all about it in the following days, weeks and months. So many great accounts of the wonderful achievements of women and the efforts to level the playing field. Cracking open stories about participation, inclusion, and changing the game.
Here is a snapshot of what I enjoyed reading and some of the people I will be following in 2018: ‘Wen you laugh togetha‘ by Elizabeth Humphrys and Jackie Lynch in Overland, Breaking the Mould by Angela Pippos, Kate O’Halloran in the Guardian, The Outer Sanctum Podcast, The Women’s Footy Almanac 2017, From the Outer: Footy like you’ve never heard it edited by Nicole Hayes and Alicia Sometimes, Danielle Warby, Girls Play Footy, Ann Odong on Twitter, and This AFL Life are just some. In addition to being a stellar performer for Carlton FC, I could listen to Lauren Arnell commentate football all day long.
Finally, I have a ‘I would never have read this book if I didn’t work at the Wheeler Centre pick’. After hearing how delightful he was in person and listening back to the event, I picked up Hisham Matar’s The Return and loved it. I’m not one for war narratives but the insight and humanity of this booked really made me have all the feelings. This was definitely a win for doing something that is outside your comfort/interest zone and gave me some perspective on the violent absurdity that defines the lives of so many.
Jon Tjhia, senior digital editor
It’s been another excellent year for creative audio, with exciting new arrivals like Ear Hustle, Sum of All Parts, S-Town, The Butterfly Effect, Constellations and Scene On Radio’s ‘Seeing White’ joining stalwart champions such as Short Cuts, The Organist, Awaye! and HowSound, as well as weird standalones like Illicit Objects. But in January, we farewelled a real gem: Soundproof, the last vestige of ABC RN’s Creative Audio Unit, ended its run of expansive, patient and deeply textured listening at the start of the year. I’m still scouting for a replacement.
Musically, I sank a lot of ear time into gorgeously built new albums by Alvvays (Antisocialites) and Laurel Halo (Dust). If you’re able to walk into a record with fully open ears and a willingness to see language differently – neither really sung nor spoken – Dust is an incredibly rewarding experimental pop experience. But Chastity Belt’s newest, I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone, is my 2017 belter – an impeccable blunt shove of emotional intelligence set in minor key post-grunge.
Like Sophie Black above, I was both enthralled and horrified by ‘Something is wrong on the internet’ by James Bridle. But if you like text that delves into the weird heart of humanity – but affords it more tenderness than a YouTube algorithm ever could – George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo is as unique and brilliant as people have said. (Special mention for Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette – eviscerating and incredible.)
Sophie Quick, digital writer/editor
‘Drakeworld’ by Anwen Crawford in the Monthly was incredibly clever and funny.
The Return by Hisham Matar. The author’s father was a dissident in Libya, who was ‘disappeared’ during the Gaddafi years. The book is about the son’s campaign – in London and during a return trip to Libya after the 2011 revolution – to find out what happened to his father. I found it really haunting, confronting and surreal.
Armando Iannucci at the Wheeler Centre. He was hilarious.