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Review-a-Day

Friday, February 18th


 

The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas de Quincey by Robert Morrison

Drugs and Words

A review by Laura Marsh

In a gesture of admiration, Charles Baudelaire devoted half of his Artificial Paradises to a translation of Thomas De Quincey's memoirs. "The work on opium has been written," he explained, "and in a manner so dazzling, medical and poetic all at once, that I would not dare add anything to it." Would-be biographers have perhaps shared these reservations: of all the Romantics, De Quincey has received the least attention from the "life-writing" industry. He wrote so voluminously of his own experience, of the traumas of his past as well as the "shadowy world" of his opium dreams, that there is little room to speculate on his inner life. The biographer is largely consigned to rehashing De Quincey's version of events in a saner, scientific manner, or to parodying him.

Robert Morrison's biography somewhat daringly, then, takes its title from De Quincey's most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. While he draws on De Quincey's reminiscences and self-analysis, Morrison also...



The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family by William J Bennett

A review by Caitlin Flanagan

The acknowledgments of William Bennett's new book include a nod to the weighty matters that occupy the author's workaday life: someone named Nora Burns is thanked for having "kept the office running while I was buried in fourteenth-century histories." This may well have been a demanding task, but it can hardly have been a long-lived one; the fourteenth century is mentioned in exactly one sentence of The Broken Hearth. On the other hand, poor Ms. Burns must have been run off her feet on those occasions when her employer was "buried" in accounts of the sex lives of contemporary celebrities and...



The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez

A Rebel in Search of Her Cause

A review by Yvonne Zipp

The college roommate questionnaire is one of the more loaded pieces of paper that land in incoming freshmen's mailboxes. Not as nausea-inducing as the financial-aid package, but sobering, nonetheless. Mine asked, among other things, whether I was looking for a new best friend, or hoped to "peacefully coexist" with my roomies. Well, who wouldn't want a best friend? Can't have too many, right?

Sadly, peaceful coexistence sounded pretty good by mid-October, when my roommates (who had grabbed the room's two closets) suggested that I try hanging my things from the ceiling to ease the crowded...



Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History by James A Morone

Sanctimonies

A review by Jackson Lears

I.
Occasionally adolescent high jinks affect the history of thought. Consider the episode recounted by Augustine in his Confessions. "There was a pear tree near our vineyard, loaded with a fruit that was attractive neither to look at nor to taste. Late one night a band of ruffians, myself included, went off to shake down the fruit and carry it away.... We took away an enormous quantity of pears, not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs." Augustine agonized at length about the sheer perversity of his motives. "Could I enjoy doing wrong for no other reason than that ...



Guston in Time: Remembering Philip Guston by Ross Feld

The Poet and the Painter

A review by Anna Godbersen

Mid-career, and at the height of his reputation, the painter Philip Guston exhibited a series of new works that departed radically from the abstract expressionist style for which he was known. These new paintings — cartoon-like, macabre, and littered with everyday objects — caused an art-world scandal, alienating and confusing many of his supporters. But when the young poet Ross Feld went to see them, he found the new paintings remarkable. He wrote an essay celebrating them for an art magazine, and it sparked a personal and intellectual connection between the two men that lasted...



The Microscripts by Robert Walser

A Gentle and Angry Instrument: Robert Walser’s Short Fiction

A review by Jacob Silverman

Born in Biel, Switzerland, in 1878, the writer Robert Walser lived until the age of seventy-eight, and through his work, letters, and personal associations came into contact with some of the major literary figures of his age, but the story of his life remains fragmentary, peppered with lacunae. Living in near-poverty and dressed in natty but threadbare suits, he cultivated few personal attachments and owned almost nothing. He courted several women and corresponded with others but never married. Like the rest of his siblings, he produced no children. In the last three decades of his life...



Brothers by Yu Hua

Pleasure, Pain, and the Cultural Revolution

A review by Lucas Klein

In Ulysses James Joyce brought Leopold Bloom to the toilet; in Gravity's Rainbow Thomas Pychon pushed Tyrone Slothrop through it. In Brothers, the new novel by celebrated Chinese author Yu Hua, we find Baldy Li head down in the latrine, gazing up at the peeing posteriors of the women on the other side of the wall. But while such a description suggests that Brothers fulfills the promise of Euro-American modernist and postmodernist fiction, Yu Hua's real ancestry is the long tale of pre-modern China. And just as Baldy Li walks away from the spot where his father drowned engaging in the same...



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