MUSIC . . . BLUE ROSES FROM THE MOONS: In her new CD, Nanci Griffith aims for direct emotion and musical simplicity. The bass-heavy Wall of Sound from her 1994 'Flyer' has crumbled; this is a live-in-the-studio set with a country feel and, among the sidemen, songwriter Sonny Curtis and the three survivors from Buddy Holly’s Crickets. "The team is relaxed and enthusiastic; it’s the aural equivalent of a good mood," notes TIME's Richard Corliss. "It’s not that people aren’t sad, don’t get kicked around, never die. It’s that music can evaporate blue moods even as it atomizes them." The nostalgic poignancy of Griffith’s 'Two for the Road' hints at chances missed but also the pleasure of a longtime lover’s company. 'Saint Teresa of Avila,' a requiem for a childhood friend who killed herself, is addressed less to the dead woman or to those who miss her than to the saint who is expected to welcome her to heaven. "Country music, even in the depths, is essentially Christian: it sees a happy ending, if not in this life, then in eternity," says Corliss. "Listening in the Great Beyond to Griffith’s salving ballads, God might tap His foot. Even Kurt Cobain might crack an enlightened smile."
BOOKS. . . MASON & DIXON: Although there are similarities of length and his trademark narrative rhythm, Thomas Pynchon’s new novel (Henry Holt; 773 pages; $27.50) is in some ways even more difficult than its famously challenging predecessor, 'Gravity's Rainbow.' This time out, the author renounces contemporary English speech altogether and casts the entire narrative in the 18th century diction allegedly spoken by a clergyman named Wicks Cherrycoke; he is the one who tells aloud the tale of his one-time acquaintances Charles Mason (1728-86) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-79) over what must have been an incredibly long night in Philadelphia during the Christmas season of 1786. For all its whimsical inventiveness, 'Mason & Dixon' is basically a historical re-creation of the known deeds of the astronomer Mason and the surveyor Dixon. The line did not constitute their first collaboration, and Pynchon devotes more than 250 pages to the work they did together before arriving in the New World to take up the job commissioned by the British Royal Society. It slowly becomes clear that this story is not about a triumph of 18th century scientific methods, which Pynchon explains in elaborate detail, but rather about a tragic desecration, a deadly abstraction imposed upon land once natural and truly free. Mason and Dixon cannot foresee the bloodshed that will rage across their line a century later, during the U.S. Civil War, but both men, in Pynchon’s telling, come to believe that they did something wrong to the wilderness. "Pynchon’s distinctive genius, as revealed again in this novel, is his ability to keep diametrically opposing opinions in a fascinating, jittery suspension," says TIME's Paul Gray. "He loves the intellectual purities of science and understands them better than any American novelist ever. He also loathes the power that science bestows, since it always ends up in the wrong hands, i.e., those with a hunger for such power. At its most eloquent, Mason & Dixon becomes an epic of loss."