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Yearly Round-Up: Wheeler Centre Staff’s 2021 Favourites

Read Monday, 13 Dec 2021

To close the year, we’re sharing a list of some of the Wheeler Centre staff’s 2021 recommendations for books, films, television, podcasts and… condiments. Truth be told, this year was a rough ride but these are the things that nourished our spirits and provided some much-needed comfort and conversation. Our favourite things in one of our least favourite years. 

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Diem Nguyen – Programme Administrator

The K-pop group Tomorrow x Together managed to drop new music during 3 out of the 6 Melbourne lockdowns, which when you think about it isn’t a difficult feat. I found listening to their 2021 releases a great source of comfort and joy, especially ‘0x1=Love Song (I Know I Love You)’ which combined a few of my favourite things: soft pop-rock, anguished love-sick boys and wolf cuts.

Reading One Hundred Days by Alice Pung made my mind stretch. It forced me to consider my status as a daughter and reflect on the relationship I have with my own migrant mother. This is a coming of age story that explores complicated love, control and isolation and as always, Pung writes with warmth, humour and precision.

Like the rest of the world, I binge watched Squid Game. It was a change from the usual light-filled rom-com k-dramas I tend to gravitate towards. Lots has already been said about this show so all I will say is that every Gong Yoo meme is good and that Wi Hajoon’s character is copaganda.

Daniel Coghlan – Head of Digital and Marketing

For my birthday, my partner gifted me twelve Readings vouchers – one for each month. The idea was to curate a small, selective reading list of new releases throughout the year, but instead it simply intensified my book buying habit throughout lockdown. With the vouchers already redeemed, it’s difficult to narrow this reading list down to just a few favourites.

The highlight of my reading year was probably Jennifer Down’s ‘Big Sad Book’, Bodies of Light. A devastating tour de force exploring cycles of trauma, enduring griefs, and flawed social services and justice systems, Bodies of Light is an uncompromising-yet-compelling read, handled with a sensitivity and finesse (and an extraordinary commitment to verisimilitude) that further evidences why Jennifer Down is one of the most exciting writing talents in Australia. 

Image cred: Text Publishing

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s collection of powerful poems, How Decent Folk Behave, lived up to all expectations. Tackling pertinent local and global issues, Beneba Clarke’s writing is provocative, incisive and emotionally raw – I was torn between wanting to read them all as quickly as possible, and needing to put down the book to take a breath. Above all, the collection feels remarkably accessible, and I’m hoping that I can encourage some friends and family to engage more with poetry by sharing copies of How Decent Folk Behave throughout the holiday season.

I also devoured Alison Bechdel’s The Secret to Superhuman Strength, which starts as an exploration of Bechdel’s history with fitness fads, and unravels into an exploration of self-improvement, self-perception and self-actualisation. Bechdel embraces big questions, translating heavy themes through concise captions and inviting illustrations, while also managing to evoke the work of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Margaret Fuller, Adrienne Rich and Jack Kerouac, among others. It’s a quietly astonishing feat.

Melanie Lin – Head of Finance

This year, I have been re-reading Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao. Sanmao was a Chinese writer and translator and has been beloved by Chinese people of all genders for decades! This book is the biggest inspiration of my life! It is a unique work of travel literature, a collection of short stories outlining Sanmao and her husband José living in the Spanish Sahara, among the native Sahrawi people, and their lives in the desert. There are two chapters which give me absolute inspiration. One about slavery and the other about the Sahrawi independence movement. The book was published in 1976 when China just went through the cultural revolution, which ruined millions of lives. During the cultural revolution, schools and universities were closed and churches, shrines, libraries, shops and private homes ransacked or destroyed. This book was published when libraries were allowed to re-open in China. Schools and book publishing resumed after 10 years. It really gave inspiration to my parents’ generation and they told me that by reading this book, they realised there was another world out there where people actually had freedom to travel! It was translated in English in 2019, so READ IT!

Isabel Frías  Venue and Office Coordinator 

Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown is a wisdom-charged series of essays, interviews and poems that explore pleasure as a framework for social justice and activism. Throughout the book, brown references Audre Lorde’s essay The Uses of the Erotic, which made my heart and brain explode in awe.

Speaking of pleasure, C Tangana’s Tiny Desk concert is a post-dinner joy fantasy that will lift your soul on the darkest day. The gorgeous light and colour palette make some scenes look like a celebration painting at times, and the musicians gathered around the table create pure live music magic. Another Tiny Desk concert highlight is Silvana Estrada at her parents’ instrument workshop in the hills of Veracruz, Mexico. Her beautifully written lyrics, and an unexpected duet with her father, make the performance a deeply moving experience.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s The Undocumented Americans is an incredibly powerful, heartbreaking portrayal of the lives of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. that sheds light on the country’s fabric and the humanity that sustains it. A hard but needed read.

Gaga is a movement language that will take you to heaven—no prior experience necessary. Their online classes always provide some sanity and make me feel like a weight is lifted off my whole body.

Also this chilli oil.

Caro Llewellyn – CEO

In one way or another, this year’s reading has been all about work. In fact, work has been the compass for most of my adult reading. When I was directing literary festivals, my reading was all about people I could put on stages. I often lamented to friends, ‘I can’t read dead people.’ While I’m no longer a Festival director, it seems my literary binges are still directed by work. But I’ve always enjoyed reading for work because it directs me to books I might not normally pick-up.

Early in the year, I read Jessie Tu’s remarkable debut novel, A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing for an article about the Stella Prize for the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’. Then I was commissioned by ‘The Australian’ to write about my impressions of Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey (they were not altogether favorable). In preparation for on-stage conversations at Byron Writers’ Festival, I read memoirs by two extraordinary women: Turns Out I’m Fine by Judith Lucy and Mary’s Last Dance by Mary Li. I loved Jonathan Franzen’s epic Crossroads, which I read because we were hosting him in conversation at the Wheeler Centre and I was a huge fan of The Corrections.

I’ve loved reading these books for work but still, there’s nothing like reading a classic just for the sheer pleasure of it and a couple weeks ago, I pulled out my tattered copy of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. The writing is so deceptively simple. The sentences are short. Nothing much happens. An old man gets in a boat and paddles out to sea in search of a fish. There’s a boy in the story too. Nobody says much. Eventually, after many hours floating around, a fish is snared. From there, it’s adrenalin, a fight of wills, hubris, and heartbreak. The majority of the story takes place in a tiny boat in the middle of a big ocean. On the surface, Hemingway’s novella seems simple enough, but the ripples of it have stayed with me all these days since.

Gab Ryan – Head of Production and Relationships

I’ll start with two non-fiction titles: one that felt like it was written just for me, and the other that was explicitly not for me. The first was Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen. This gave me the comfort of recognition through questioning the pervasiveness of compulsory sexuality, and celebrating other kinds of love. The second, Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego, reminded me that recognition can also be deeply uncomfortable. Watego is eviscerating in articulating the colonial project – not just the fact of it, but the function of it, and how I am complicit in it every day.

The fiction I loved also had themes of place and displacement, comfort and discomfort:

Devotion by Hannah Kent is a brave and beautiful queer, gothic historical novel about being unable to imagine different lives, and how even when starting anew we are compelled to replicate what we know, no matter the damage this causes or what it erases.

Still Life by Sarah Winman is another queer historical novel that conversely seizes on the new possibilities offered by another place. A delightfully eclectic found family is created in this sensual novel that will make you want to go to Florence.

After Story by Larissa Behrendt tells the story of an Aboriginal mother and daughter on a literary tour of England, cleverly juxtaposing British colonial storytelling and institutional ways of knowing and seeing the world with Indigenous storytelling, knowledge and perception. It’s about stories and silence, and the legacy of trauma.

Scary Monsters by Michelle De Kretser uses the migrant experience to look at the failed promise of progress and the people who get trampled along the way. The two unconnected stories starting at either end of the book played with form and temporality in a really fascinating way, and the two front covers – from cherry to cherry blossom – made it feel multidimensional.

No-one writes about place and small, poignant moments of connection better than Tony Birch, and his newest short story collection, Dark as Last Night, is another example of his prowess. On the other hand, if you want to read about isolation and disconnection, look no further than SJ Norman’s spooky and unsettling collection, ​Permafrost.

Romy Ladowsky  Head of Development

These are my top 5 books for this year:

Image credit: Allen & Unwin

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters  a story of three entwined characters who transition, de-transition and break down all our preconceived notions of family. 

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro  in a beautiful dystopia that only Ishiguro can create, is a vivid but simply written story about an artificial friend, and what it means to be human.

Small Joys of Real Life by Allee Richards  a love letter to Melbourne’s inner north and a celebration of female friendship.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – a hilarious, dark and witty story of mental illness and love.

And, in a year where a lot of us were craving some predictability, I went back and reread a recent favourite. If you missed out on Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner a few years back, and need a good laugh, I re-recommend it.

Maddy Macquine  Senior Audio Producer

Maintenance Phase  Out of all the podcasts I’ve had the pleasure of listening to this year, Maintenance Phase has been the clear standout. Every fortnight, Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon take a new aspect of diet and wellness culture and debunk the junk science behind it. Every episode is a delight, filled with nuance and humour, but some of my favourites are ‘The Great Protein Fiasco‘, ‘Celery Juice‘, and ‘The Wellness to QAnon Pipeline’.

Shoes Off  Jay Ooi’s Shoes Off podcast was one of my personal favourite finds of 2020, and has continued to be a top pod for me in 2021. Jay has recently launched a fourth season, continuing to explore various aspects of Asian Australian culture and experience. To start, I’d recommend jumping into the first episode of the new season, ‘Yellow Fever’.

The Lazarus Heist  I was absolutely hooked on BBC World Service’s The Lazarus Heist as it was being released in mid-2021. A fascinating retelling of a multi-million-dollar bank heist, allegedly coordinated by North Korea, that’s completely bizarre and totally captivating from start to finish.

Keep It  One of the greatest joys in my life is going out for a beer with friends and talking about pop culture and politics. I couldn’t do that as much as I wanted to this year, but at least I had Keep It. Every week on Keep It, Ira Madison III, Louis Virtel, and Aida Osman dissect the week’s pop culture and entertainment news and the way it intersects with politics and society, and every week, I listen right away.

Veronica Sullivan  Head of Programming

Reading was hard this year (thanks, pandemic brain) but spectacular books cut through the fog. Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light lodged in my heart and my head and remains there still. Zadie Smith’s Intimations was slim but explosive, particularly her indelible essay on the epidemic of contempt, which fed both my fury and my compassion. Two debuts that moved me: Adam Thompson’s collection Born Into This is grounded, raw and immediate. Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear is full of lines and moments that shift and comfort and unsettle. Both writers happen to be inaugural Next Chapter recipients – keep an eye out for another recipient, Ennis Cehic, whose debut collection Sadvertising will be published in March 2022. Honourable mention to the audiobook of Matthew McConaughey’s memoir Greenlights – any excuse to listen to 7 hours of his drawling, often bonkers philosophising is alright alright alright with me.

Image credit: Penguin Books Australia

Two TV shows I loved: It’s a Sin is a joyful, heartbreaking portrait of a group of young friends living (and later, dying) through the arrival of AIDS in the UK. Beforeigners is a gritty Norwegian crime series, in which refugees from the past inexplicably appear in the present day. A troubled contemporary detective and a Viking-era warrior team up to solve the murder of a Stone Age woman. The show is smart enough not to take its premise too seriously, but the depiction of temporal xenophobia resonates in the current global climate.

Some perfect songs: The Flaming Lips’ cover of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Girl In Amber’, with thirteen-year-old fan Nell Smith on vocals. Jensen McRae’s velvety, confessional excoriation of sexual assault, ‘Wolves’. Paul Mescal and a small dog on the lam in the film clip for Phoebe Bridgers’ ‘Savior Complex’. Kee’ahn’s melancholy, honey-souled ‘Better Things’. Here’s to better things and better days ahead in 2022.

Bec Kavanagh  Youth Programming Manager

  1. Squid Game because like 99% of the population apparently I like my lockdown tinged with horror and end-of-days capitalism. 

  2. Tove, which was a gloriously acted and directed biopic about the life of Tove Janssen, who despite her worldwide success with Moomintrolls, still saw herself as a failure as an artist (hard relate right??).

Sophie Black  Head of Special Projects

Intimations by Zadie Smith  six bite sized essays that said everything about whatever this is that we’re living through.

The continued collective output across this year of our Next Chapter writers including but in no way limited to Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear, Adam Thompson’s Born Into This, Oliver Reeson’s essay Who Sold Me This?, Hasib Hourani’s Speaking to Nothing but Palestine, ‘Mothers Toenails’ by Tim Loveday, Khin Myint on Antivax Mythology, Hiraeth by Sharlene Allsopp, Bigoa Chuol’s work on Dichotomi and Apple Seed & Girl with Horn in by Mia Nie. Meanwhile, Ennis Ćehić’s Sadvertising looms on the 2022 horizon.  

Also, Succession Season 3 and all the hot takes written about Succession Season 3, including ‘What temperature is it on ‘Succession? and ‘On “Succession,” Jeremy Strong Doesn’t Get the Joke’.  

Lauren Taylor  Programming Producer

Recommended Reads:

In My Defense, I Have No Defence: Catastrophes in Pursuing Perfection by Sinéad Stubbins

I loved this very funny and relatable debut from pop-culture and comedy writer Sinéad Stubbins. The cover alone pretty much sums up my 2021 mood… a buffering, pixelated face. If you’re looking for a total comfort read to add to your summer reading stack, pop this one on your list!

Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen 

A powerful and fierce debut collection of works from award-winning poet Evelyn Araluen. Flashback to earlier this year and the gorgeous book launch held at MPavilion Parkade to celebrate this important release from a vibrant new First Nations voice.

The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Fran Lebowitz 

Following the success of her fab Netflix series Pretend It’s A City, this collection from undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest social commentators, originally published in 1994, has recently been reprinted. My copy is on the way and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into this one over the holidays! LOVE Fran. It was such a treat to have her join the Wheeler Centre again in 2021 for our Postcards From Abroad series. She joined us from NYC for a digital in-conversation with the always wonderful Sarah Krasnostein.

Screen time:

So, turns out I watched a lotttt of TV during lockdown. For those who know me, what’s new? Here are some faves that got me through 2021.

Couples Therapy

This Showtime docu-series streaming on SBS On Demand takes a look inside the hidden world of other people’s relationships as Dr Orna Guralnik works through real-life struggles with real-life couples. For fans of Esther Perel’s podcast, Where Should We Begin?

This Way Up

This British comedy-drama series is both funny and moving. Comedian Aisling Bae stars as the quick-witted Áine as she tries to get her life back in order after suffering a nervous breakdown. Starring another fave Sharon Horgan as Áine’s sister Shona, the characters are just so great and the writing is effortless. For fans of Fleabag and Catastrophe.

Fake or Fortune?

My friend had been banging on about this UK series for ages, but for some reason at first I resisted as it sounded potentially a little dry. However in the depths of lockdown 6.66 when I had devoured all of the content on all of the streaming services, I decided to take it on. From the first moment, I was hooked by the two fabulous hosts – journalist Fiona Bruce and art dealer Philip Mould. The dynamic duo investigate thrilling cases of art world mystery and intrigue in this endlessly fascinating BBC documentary series. The lengths the team go to uncover stories from beneath the surface of lost notable artworks using science and detective work is truly remarkable. Play along at home with Fake or Fortune? bingo/take a drink each time the word ‘provenance’ or ‘catalogue raisonné’ is mentioned. For those still yet to discover, there’s 9 SEASONS ahead of you, people! You’re welcome.

Honorable mentions to

Alone, This Country, All My Friends Are Racist, High Maintenance, Work in Progress, The Great British Bake Off, Succession, The White Lotus, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills Season 11 (1. Don’t judge me. 2 If you know, you know. 3. Before you ask, yes I watched all four reunion specials)

Essential listening:

The Culture

I’ve been loving this new podcast from Schwartz Media – The Culture is a weekly deep dive into the world of pop-culture, arts and entertainment with Osman Faruqui. It features interviews with critics, commentators, musicians, filmmakers, writers and artists and recently took home Best Arts & Culture Podcast at the Australian Podcast Awards. Essential listening!

Oliver Reeson – Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Some books I loved reading this year were Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, Vile Days by Gary Indiana, Memorial by Bryan Washington, Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, Luster by Raven Leilani and You Are Having a Good Time by Amie Barrodale. I’m also judging for the Stella Prize this year so I have other favourites but I’m being secret about them  tell you in 2022. 

While I waited for Succession to come back, I loved The White Lotus, which made me go back and watch Enlightened, which also, one lockdown evening, made me go back and watch School of Rock (to be honest, still slaps). It was a big Mike White year. I also got into the remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage with Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. I didn’t watch many new movies but I liked going back to movies like Bound and Secrets & Lies and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. I also rewatched all of the Scream movies, ready for Scream 5 next year.

I listened to this Smerz NTS show on repeat. There were TWO albums from Lana Del Rey this year (loved them both) and then because it’s my Saturn Return I spent an obligatory week rinsing Adele’s 30 when it came out, but probably won’t listen to it again. Good for a feeling though, if you’re in the market. 

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which we live and work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past and present.