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Book Picks by Dara Colwell (DC) and Elizabeth Costello (EC)

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon
By Barbara Hodgson
Chronicle Books, $22, 160 pages

Possibly one of the 19th century's most seductive and alluring drugs, opium fueled the artistic visions of writers and poets--and the addiction of thousands. Esteemed in its day as both intoxicating muse and illicit horror, opium traversed the world, becoming (and remaining) one of its most widely trafficked drugs. Barbara Hodgson traces the history of the seemingly innocuous poppy's cultivation and its soporific qualities. Introduced to China by the Arabs during the eighth century, opium was a local vice long before the British arrived. Hodgson examines the rituals and paraphernalia involved in smoking opium, its social etiquette and the opium-hazed writings of the artists and connoisseurs who embraced its languid charms in dimly lit dens. Beautifully designed with archival photographs, engravings and movie stills, Opium looks at the drug's appeal, exploitation and affliction. And like the poet Arthur Symons, who experimented with opium, the reader might walk away from the book feeling "I am engulfed, and drown deliciously." (DC)

A Gesture Life

A Gesture Life
By Chang-rae Lee
Riverhead Books, $23.95, 356 pages

A Gesture Life tells the story of Franklin Hata, a respectable retired businessman living in the respectable community of Bedley Run, N.Y. It is the second novel by Lee, whose first book, Native Speaker, brought him international acclaim and seemingly every possible prestigious literary award. Lee's writerly mastery is in ample evidence in A Gesture Life, which uses cool, understated language to explore Hata's memories of his life in America and of his time as a medic for Japanese troops during World War II. The most gripping portion of the book centers on Hata's relationship with a "comfort woman"--one of the many Korean girls sent to the front to serve as "volunteer" prostitutes to the troops. Hata himself is of Korean origin but was adopted as a young boy by a Japanese couple. The most impressive thing about this book is not that it answers questions of identity and human longing--but that it doesn't. We haven't yet seen the best of Chang-rae Lee. (EC)

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From the October 25, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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