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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 bad enough. It turns out that the term does not begin to describe the potential breadth of the plague. This isn't only about people eating diseased beef. Rather, Rhodes chronicles the spread of a disease group known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). The multisyllabic words are actuaUy not so difficult for a layperson to decipher. "Transmissible" means contagious, a pre-condition for a plague; in this case, the disease is transmissible across species. "Spongiform" refers to ceUs turning spongy—a sign on the road to a horrible death. Those cells are in the brain—hence "encephalopathies," a medical term for brain inflammation. Rhodes' true tale of terror is populated by hundreds of characters, most of whom are dying patients and medical researchers. The designated protagonist of this large cast is research scientist Carleton Gajdusek , who studied the first human TSE epidemic in 1957 by taking a dangerous trip to the Papua New Guinea highlands. Gajdusek's research has continued into the 1990s. Because so many of Rhodes' characters are courageous, the book offers hope on one level. However, all the noble patients and researchers have been unable to conquer the spreading plague. About the only sure way to avoid it is to drastically alter lifestyles. On the book's final page, Rhodes suggests how extensive the changes would have to be by recounting a recent conversation with Gajdusek: "You know the bone meal that people use on their roses?" Gajdusek asks Rhodes. "It's made from downer cattle [those unable to stand because of disease]. Ground extremely fine. The instructions on the bag warn you not to open it in a closed room. Gets up your nose— Do you use bone meal on your roses?" When Rhodes says "yes," the Nobel Prize-winning virologist, who has studied TSEs for forty years, replies, "I wouldn't if I were you." (SW) The Missouri Review · 225 ...


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