Best Books 2015: Wheeler Centre Staff
As is the tradition, we finish the year with a list of books that nourished Wheeler Centre staff with valuable reading company.
Michael Williams, director
It’s been a great year for reading, and one that began with Kazuo Ishiguro’s meditation on memory and forgetting, The Buried Giant. I didn’t love it (even though I really wanted to) but now, almost twelve months later, I still think about it. It’s characters and ideas have stayed with me and bother me at unexpected times. So, at a point when I’m sure I’ve forgotten two thirds of the fabulous books I’ve read, here are ten from across the year that have made it into my bloodstream, my imaginative and inner life, and my book buying list for others this Christmas. Here – in no particular order – are ten books from 2015 that I can’t and won’t forget in a hurry.
· The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
· The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
· A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara
· Hot Little Hands by Abigail Ulman
· The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum
· Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
· The First Bad Man by Miranda July
· Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill
· Purity by Jonathan Franzen
· Ghost River by Tony Birch
Helen Withycombe, programming manager
The Children Act by Ian McEwan
When McEwan is on form, he’s one of the best in the business, and this is McEwan at his best. A tightly-written plot that is clever, challenging and awkward, the classic McEwan twist unfurls a series of almost unwatchable events that you can’t tear your eyes from. Excellent for book clubs, it leaves you asking ‘what would you do?’
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The book that seems to be in everyone’s hands this year, A Little Life is as expansive, as heart-wrenching and as endearing as they say. Yanagihara’s depiction of four friends is literally timeless – they and their relationships grow and change without any reference to time passing, leaving you feeling that you are living their experience, and this feat alone is worth a read. Buy tissues.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
A belated discovery, this was close to a perfect book, with the most finely drawn story of adult friendship that I’ve ever come across. Set in America around the Great Depression, it’s a quiet, nostalgic story of two couples and the relationship that unfolds between them. It’s rare that the phrase ‘nothing happens’ can be complimentary but in this case it’s true. Read it curled up in a hammock and let this gentle story ease you through a summer afternoon.
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
Probably my pick of 2015, this book has it all: gorgeous writing and charming characters, heartbreak and dysfunctional families, a sprinkling of queer romance and the glitz of Hollywood in the 1940s. I’m so jealous of anyone who hasn’t read this book yet.
Gabrielle Ryan, events coordinator
Skin by Ilka Tampke
Set in Iron Age Britain, Skin is the story of Ailia – orphaned at birth and therefore without ‘skin’. This novel has been reviewed as historical fantasy, but many of the fantastic elements are based on Tampke’s thorough research, creating an interesting balance between research and imagination, pitting what we know against what we yearn for.
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar
The primary action of Salt Creek is set in the Coorong in South Australia in the 1850s, and is a profound and beautiful reflection on ‘progress’ that doesn’t look like progress at all: in pursuit of progress, the well-meaning Finch family manage to cause damage and destruction not only to the land and the people indigenous to it, but to themselves and their own family.
The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth
This is a retelling of The Singing, Springing Lark, a German version of Beauty and the Beast. It is set in Nazi Germany and follows the experiences of Ava and her Nazi husband through the war. Knowing something about the original fairy tale definitely makes the symbolism shine brighter, but it’s an intriguing story in its own right.
The Map of Chaos by Felix J. Palma
This is the third in a series by Spanish novelist Palma, following The Map of Time and The Map of the Sky. They are sprawling, ambitious, genre-bending novels, featuring a kaleidoscope of characters from history, literature, and from Palma’s imagination. It’s chaotic, it’s far-fetched, it’s superbly researched, and it’s a lot of fun.
With honourable mentions to The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader and The Golden Age by Joan London.
Shannon Hick, marketing manager
Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling is freakin’ hilarious. I think so, anyway, and that’s all that matters when picking my Best Books of 2015. In Why Not Me? she ‘shares her ongoing journey to find contentment and excitement in her adult life’; while trying to be a successful adult myself, there’s nothing better than reading about someone who seemingly has their shit together reveal that the struggle is real.
The section ‘Love, Dating and Boys Who Ru(i)n the World’ was my top guilty indulgence, it left the same impression on me as the way you’d feel if you got to be an audience member for Oprah’s Favorite Things circa 2005. The chapters ‘One of the President’s Men’ and ‘A Perfect Courtship in My Alternate Life’ are perfect anecdotes to the supposed doom and gloom the dating world of today. ‘Soup Snakes’ is about soul mates and B.J. Novak. I’m tempted to write ‘all the feels’ here, but that isn’t an adequate description at all. I cannot wait for their co-authored book to come out.
Justin Bieber by Martha Stewart (Interview magazine)
Hear me out, you guys. That pairing! Genius. How would you not read this article based on that alone! Full disclosure: I am not a belieber in any shape or form, but for some reason 2016 was the year my affection towards this crazy little muppet turned. Maybe it was his second instalment of Car Pool Karaoke; maybe it was ‘What Do You Mean’ blasting at me at the gym constantly … whatever it was, it was subliminal and clever, and I am brainwashed – or is that Bieberwashed?
While the interview isn’t groundbreaking, insightful and a must-read, I do think – taking a step back from it – it’s an interesting product of the times. Convicted felon and America’s doyenne of cooking interviews baby-faced mega pop star. Worlds apart? Or are they?
They name drop, talk about when they first met, even flirt a little (I know, right) and Justin reveals that he graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. Martha – like the kindly great aunt we all have – is nothing but positive and encouraging in her line of questioning, leaving Bieber to sound both completely inane and fascinating at the same time. The bit about private jets just kills me. Reading it makes me believe I am but one hidden talent away from being Instagram-famous, throwing parties on a yacht.
The White Album by Joan Didion
I had avoided reading any Didion up until this year, when I contemplated selecting her collection of essays for my book club when my month came around. Instead, I went ahead and chose Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Didion went on the backburner until I started listening to the podcast You Must Remember This – Charles Manson’s Hollywood. It was time I picked up The White Album and read the titular essay.
By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.
Reading Joan Didion makes me want to be able to observe and write like Didion. It’s personal, insightful, clever and fascinating. Just read it.
Sophie Quick, digital writer/editor
Another Great Day at Sea by Geoff Dyer
It turns out that Geoff Dyer, normally described as a ‘slacker’ writer, is kind of a military nerd. For this book, he spent a couple of weeks as writer-in-residence on an American aircraft carrier and went around talking to everyone in every department on the ship – the chef, the captain, the pilots, the gym instructor, the drug counsellor etc. It’s hilarious, with loads of sharp and surprising, Dyer-ish observations.
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
There’s been a bit of hype around this unusual memoir about a woman in England who starts training a wild goshawk while struggling to deal with the death of her father. Normally, I don’t have much patience for nature/wildlife descriptions but her prose is stunning and her descriptions of grief are particularly vivid. I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s making me rethink my bad attitude to nature writing and wonder if maybe I’m missing out generally by … not concentrating enough on birds. Next year you’ll see me out on the State Library lawn every lunch hour, interacting with seagulls.
Flesh Wounds by Richard Glover
This is a really funny memoir about Glover’s nutty, neglectful parents. His mother changed her name three times, claimed she never once had sex with Glover’s father and invented a grand, aristocratic history for herself. Glover has such a light comical touch but there are some heartbreaking moments too.
Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews
I hardly read any fiction this year but I re-read Flowers in the Attic and, wow, it’s still really great/awful. I think it was February when I read it and on some level I must have felt it wasn’t worth reading much other fiction after that. I think I can do better in 2016.
Connor O’Brien, digital content producer
The best book I read this year was The Collected Book Lists of 2014, a 34-volume hardbound anthology of every end-of-year literary roundup published last December. A slog, but worth it if you worry that any wrap-up post may have slipped you by the first time ‘round. Keep an eye out for the limited print-run addendum: five volumes of the best best-of-year lists uploaded by apologetic and disorganised bloggers several months into the new year.
I’ve also been binging on essay series in 2015. We’re living in the golden age of everything, of course, but the renaissance of the ‘short book’ is throwing up some treasures – just don’t call them ‘#longreads’. Anwen Crawford’s take on Hole’s Live Through This for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, for example, served as a perfect example of the work that can be done when a very, very good rock critic gets adequate breathing room. For the Quarterly Essay series, meanwhile, David Kilcullen’s Blood Year offered a considered exploration of the complexities of Australia’s engagement in the Middle East, while Faction Man revealed David Marr unparalleled ability to make anybody, including Bill Shorten, appear interesting.
I’m also going to add Miranda July’s The First Bad Man to my list, even though this choice is highly unoriginal. If you already love Miranda July, you will have devoured this already; if you don’t, I have no time for you, and your taste is just no good. Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State was also a powerful work of literature that of course you loved, and Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was a powerful work of weirdness that benefits from being listened to as an audiobook, so you can really soak in the author’s nasally Welsh. Gooooooo 2015!
Gemma Rayner, series producer
Stoner by John Williams
For me, the best read of 2015 was a book published 50 years ago. Inspired by a post on our own website, and Ian McEwan’s effusive praise (yep: effusive and McEwan!) I picked up a copy of Stoner by John Williams…and couldn’t put it down. Intense, unkind and inexorably sad, this tale of ordinariness is utterly compelling.
Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke
I’m sure I’m one of the last to have read this incredible collection of short stories – each a perfect prism of a world, a time, a heartbreak. It leapt into the spotlight as winner of the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2013, and should stay there forever it’s so good. I can’t wait to read the forthcoming memoir from this very talented lady!
Ahem, I’m rather embarrassed to admit that until this year, I had no idea David Walliams had reinvented himself as a bestselling children’s author. Together with my seven- and nine-year-olds we’ve discovered the Walliams collection, from Demon Dentist to Ratburger and everything in between – all ghastly and hilarious in equal measure.
Ickypedia by The Listies
And speaking of ghastly and hilarious, a final shout-out to The Listies whose dictionary of disgusting words Ickypedia has just been released. It’s super funny. As are they. If Father Christmas hasn’t got copies of this one in spades, take it from me: he should!
Emily Harms, head of marketing and communications
M Train by Patti Smith
Patti Smith’s M Train feels as though you’ve been let in on the obscure inner stream-of-consciousness ramblings of the world’s coolest living woman. While it pales a little in comparison to the brilliant memoir that documents her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, it is equally enjoyable for pure escapism.
The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop
I’ve been raving about this book all year, and there is good reason for it. It’s definitely my pick of 2015, and has made it into my top 10 books of all time. Winner of this year’s Readings Prize and shortlisted for the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, Bishop’s novel is a masterpiece. Set in the 1960s, The Other Side of the World hones in on the fractured relationship between British-born Charlotte and Indian-born, British-raised Henry as they move to sunny Australia from the cold English winters for a better life. Bishop’s writing immediately transports you to another world.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
I am convinced that Miranda July can do no wrong. Not only is she a highly-acclaimed filmmaker and artist, but she is also a fabulous writer of fiction. The First Bad Man centres around 40-something narrator Cheryl Glickman, who pines for Phillip, a man 20 years her senior who’s on the board of the self-defence exercise video company she works for. She believes that she and Phillip have been together forever. She confesses this to him one day, and the rest is for you to find out when you read it, which you should – before Miranda visits the Wheeler Centre in March.
Fever of Animals by Miles Allinson
Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript award in 2014, and now on the shortlist for the 2016 Awards as a published work of fiction, Miles Allinson’s Fever of Animals follows him on the trail of the Romanian surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu, who disappeared into a forest in 1967. In trying to unravel the mystery of Bafdescu’s secret life, Miles has to come to terms with his own life questions. Fever of Animals is a superbly intense meditation on art and grief.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates
Everyone should read this book. Winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Non-fiction, Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ attempt to answer the still unresolved questions: ‘What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it?’ and ‘How can America reckon with its fraught racial history?’ – presented in the form of a letter to his adolescent son.
I cried a lot while reading this, and for good reason. Ta-Nehisi Coates has been likened by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison as the James Baldwin of our times, in the way that he brings a new understanding of America’s history and current crisis, and offers a new way forward.
Oren Gerassi, technical coordinator
On down times between reading emails and solving chemical equations I’ve managed to read a handful of great books this year; the top three (in no particular order) are:
Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks
This was recommended to me by my chemistry lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Much to my surprise, this book is not the Oliver Sacks I know from reading Musicophilia and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. It’s a personal and revealing account about how Oliver Sacks fell in love with science through the wonderful world of chemistry. His uncle Dave had one of the first Tungsten light factories in England after the First World War, when electric lights started to become popular, inspiring young Oliver to devise his own chemical experiments and set up a lab in his parents house.
Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free by Cory Doctorow
A short and accessible book about copyright laws in the digital age. Essential reading for anyone who uses the Internet, or who’s ever wondered why they can’t skip the copyright warning at the start of their DVD.
The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret
The first book by my favourite author to be published in English before it was published in Hebrew. Etgar’s first memoir on daily life in Israel with his family made me cry and laugh out loud. It made me angry about how people are treated in the Middle East – while at the same time feeling the comforting family love I miss so much, coming out from the pages of the book and filling me with hope and joy.
Kate Blackwood, publicist
Fever of Animals by Miles Allinson
This book won the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and is now nominated for Pretty Much All The Other Awards, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an unconventional, intimate telling of a man slowly coming to terms with an unbearable loss, drenched in dark humour. I don’t usually identify strongly with male narrators, but I found this one to be unfailingly relatable.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Okay, so this one is not exactly a new release. It’s been on my to-read list since pretty much always, while I searched for a copy with the perfect cover (which I finally found in a country church). Dark, thrilling and guaranteed to fill you with ‘they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore’ feels, this book is a masterful study of jealousy. I was ruined for other books for a few weeks afterwards.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
There’s probably nothing I can write about this book that you haven’t read before. I’ll just say that it was the most surprising and satisfying ending to a series that I have ever read. I put the book down and burst in to tears – not because of any particularly upsetting plot point, but because the truth of Lenù and Lila’s relationship hit home in the strongest way. I’ll miss you, Greco.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
This one was such a surprise for me. I worked on the publicity for this book while I worked at Scribe and found it completely gripping. The sense of doom that Larson creates as this unimaginably pointless tragedy approaches is superb. I talked pretty much nonstop about the RMS Lusitania for around a week, which was a) pretty out-of-character for somebody who cannot retain any historical information whatsoever, and b) pretty annoying for everybody in my life.
Carol by Patricia Highsmith
I’m reading this one at the moment, and it’s the most refreshing tonic after a few so-so reads in a row. It’s sparely written, yet sumptuous. The only problem is that, while reading it, I’ve been trying to imagine I’m in a wintry New York cocktail bar, when I’m actually squashed in to a sun-drenched tram full of chattering idiots. It’s not been ideal.
Jon Tjhia, digital manager
A bunch of the things I read and enjoyed most this year have happened to deal with questions of how, whether and why you might hope to be a ‘good person’ (or otherwise) – and how writing can represent and process the distance between who we are and who we hope to be. Maybe that’s not so much of a theme, though; I struggle to think of many books that escape that description.
Others here have described the beguiling sweep of Miranda July’s The First Bad Man. After I finished it, I was hungry for more, so I turned to It Chooses You – a very different kind of book, again carried by July’s typically strong observational smarts and generosity towards even its most suspect characters.
I enjoyed the different ways in which The Night of the Gun by David Carr, This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz and I Love Dick by Chris Kraus each took on myths of the self, of self-revelation and, to a greater or lesser extent, the complexity of gender.
For shorter windows of reading, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison and Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke were excellent company – as were what feel like countless articles online and in print from local journals like The Lifted Brow, Seizure, Stilts, Peril, Sydney Review of Books, Spook, Kill Your Darlings and allllll the dedicated stalwarts, crooked upstarts and others. Bless y’all.
I’d be dishonest if I didn’t also mention all the stories I read (some, many times over) as our team published them as Notes or on Medium. If you have holidays, maybe you’d like to read them, too? (Yes, yes, I know … ¯_(ツ)_/¯ )
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