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fact that she could not read or write, her forceful words—whether spoken or recalled in print by others— were important in furthering the debate on slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. Her ghostwritten autobiography, published in 1850, has always been regarded as a key salvo in the abolitionist's literary arsenal; and the famous account of her "Arn't I a Woman" speech delivered at the Women's Rights Convention of 1851—a scathing attack on male attitudes towards women— still reverberates in the contemporary world. Exhaustive and masterfully researched, scholarly yet accessible, Painter's book is an important and much-needed addition to our understanding of black women's history. (BR) Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon Henry Holt, 1997, 773 pp., $27.50 Thomas Pynchon's novel, long rumored to be in the works, is about the two English surveyors who surveyed the line between Maryland and Pennsylvania that would later divide the North and South. Early sections of the book concern their astronomical observations, from Capetown and St. Helena, of the transit of Venus. Mason & Dixon is similar in heft (almost 800 pp.) and method to the author's third novel, Gravity's Rainbow, which made one of the greatest literary splashes of the last thirty years. A magician with words, Pynchon reminds me of another current highpowered literary Lamborghini among American novelists, Annie Proulx. Like Proulx, he is a gifted and tireless researcher, with a genuine taste for the wonders of history and language; unlike Annie Proulx, he is able to conjure a great variety of moods and he has a sense of humor. Mason & Dixon moves from one fanciful episode to another, with magic likely to break out at any minute: dogs singing songs, clocks talking to each other. The book's serious theme is slavery; however, it gets somewhat lost in the literary vaudeville and linguistic play, the antiquarian asides, comic contretemps and situations. The novel includes a little of the patented Pynchon paranoia (this time it's the East India Company taking over the world), but it isn't as strongly felt or apt as the unifying dread of Gravity's Rainbow, his epic of the age of plastics , which leads up to the evil of World War II. Pynchon is a genuine postmodernist because he is no imitator, no follower of trends; his first and second novels were out before Roland Barthes hit the literary scene, and he writes in much the same way now as he did then—and possibly with even more skill. Mason and Dixon, however, does remind one of the Barthean concept of language as pure play, of "texts" as a harmless set of lingustic structures written primarily out of a delight in words. This partly results from the book's excess—its seemingly unquenchable taste for yet another funny little episode, which eventually buries the serious themes and even the characters. It helps to remember that Pynchon writes in the tradition of Menippean Satire, practiced by writers like Seneca and Petronius in 224 · The Missouri Review Latin and Laurence Sterne in English - This book is very Tristram Shandy-like, in fact, with all of its interruptions and dashes, non sequiturs , humorous confusion, and whimsy. There is no question about Mason & Dixon being a major achievement; it is a sure candidate for every literary award of 1997. Before the judges give it the thumbs up, though, they should ask themselves one question: did they finish the book? (SM) Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague by Richard Rhodes Simon and Schuster, 1997, 259 pp., $24 True-life medical thrillers have been the rage for many years, with the genre attaining special popularity in the 1990s after the publication of The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. When a literary journaUst as wellknown and accomplished as Richard Rhodes takes his turn, it is almost a given that the genre will be in the limelight again. Rhodes does not disappoint with this book. The "new plague" referred to in the subtitle has been labeled by the mass media as "mad cow disease ." If that term were accurate, suggesting as it does that meat can kiU, it would be...


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