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Michael Shmith

Dennis Altman

In any given year we will read but a tiny handful of potential ‘best books’, so this is no more than a personal selection. Here are two novels that stand out: Stephen Eldred-Grigg’s Shanghai Boy (Vintage) and Hari Kunzru’s Tranmission (Penguin). Both speak of the confusion of identity and emotions caused by rapid displacement across the world. The first is the account of a middle-aged New Zealand teacher who falls disastrously in love while teaching in Shanghai. Transmission takes a naïve young Indian computer programmer to the United States, with remarkable consequences. From a number of political books, let me select two, both from my own publisher, Scribe, which offers, I regret, no kickbacks. One is George Megalogenis’s The Longest Decade; the other, James Carroll’s House of War. Together they provide a depressing but challenging backdrop to understanding the current impasse of the Bush–Howard administrations in Iraq.

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ABR readers may be more familiar with Louis Kahan’s illustrations for Clem Christesen’s Meanjin or with his portrait of Patrick White (which won the Archibald Prize in 1965) than with his sketches of musicians, but this stylish book from Macmillan Art Publishing reveals not just the fluidity of Kahan’s style but also his passion for music and music-makers. And what a range of artists he could draw on (mostly at rehearsals) during the second half of his life. Present-day concert-goers, inured to leaner rostrums resulting from high fees and a faded currency, will marvel at the list of luminaries who performed here during the three decades after the war. There is Claudio Arrau (1947), grave and poetic; Otto Klemperer (1950), Olympian, bespectacled; a young Lorin Maazel (1961), gaunt and driven like a Schiele self-portrait; Luciano Pavarotti (1965) before the years of glory and girth; and Marian Anderson (1971), mighty in her sensible hat.

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Biography can be difficult to achieve. There is the balance between too much detail, where one can’t see the wood for the family trees, or not enough, which can be disappointing all round. One also bears in mind possible antipathy: Sigmund Freud, who famously began burning his personal papers at twenty-nine, was dismissive of future chroniclers: ‘As for biographers, I am already looking forward to seeing them go astray.’

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