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Short Takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2009

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THE LEXICOGRAPHER'S DILEMMA: The Evolution of
"Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park

By Jack Lynch
Walker, 336 pp., $26

The English language changes. People complain about the changes, but the complaints have very little effect. As Lynch tells the story, beginning in the early 18th century, self-appointed experts first tried to bring order and regularity to our language. Poet John Dryden tried to tame grammar. Jonathan Swift favored an academy to make rulings about language. Samuel Johnson invented the modern dictionary. Noah Webster standardized American spelling. Peter Mark Roget created his treasure house or words. But in spite of all organizing efforts, language goes its own messy way.

Lynch tells many amusing anecdotes - how Noah Webster tried but failed to drop the final e on determine and examine, how OK began as an in-joke among newspapermen, how George Carlin’s list of filthy words, a comic routine, became the standard for what was admissible on the public airwaves.

Lynch recognizes that grace, clarity, and precision of expression are paramount. His many well-chosen and entertaining examples support his conclusion that prescriptions and pedantry will always give way to change, and that we should stop fretting, relax, and embrace it.

THE AMERICAN LEONARDO: A Tale
of Obsession, Art and Money

By John Brewer
Oxford University, 336 pp., $24.95

Through the story of one painting, “La Belle Ferronniere,’’ purportedly by Leonardo da Vinci, Brewer traces the fascinating history of art collecting in America, and the complex and often conflicting values and forces behind the various practices for appraising, attributing, appreciating, and selling art.

In 1919 Harry Hahn and his French bride returned from Europe to his Midwestern home with a wedding gift - a portrait by da Vinci. The famed English art dealer and connoisseur Joseph Duveen, without ever having examined the painting, declared it a fake. In 1929, the Hahns sued him for “slander of title,’’ and, in the trial that followed, solid Midwestern values defeated European snobbery and expertise. Elegant, erudite, Duveen was forced to settle out of court for a large sum of money. But this was hardly the end of the story. Over the years, the painting has attracted supporters and detractors, intentionally and inadvertently exposing the cozy, corrupt world of art dealers, and the sharp practices of art experts. Through the rest of the century up to today, the painting has been considered a genuine da Vinci, a copy, a fake, the work of a real minor old master. It remains out of sight, its ownership as well as its value still in dispute.

LIVER: A Fictional Organ with a
Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes

By Will Self
Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $26.

The liver - diseased, destroyed, attacked, or harvested - provides some connection among these four stories. More immediate connection comes from the dirt, depravity, and despair that suffuse these tales.

The first story, “Foie Humain,’’ describes in loathsome detail the Plantation, a club where gay alcoholics spend their endless drunken hours. “Prometheus’’ relates the painful progress of an ad man, while “Birdy Num Num’’ considers the sorry life of a movie exec. In “Leberknodel,’’ the longest and by far the best story, a woman dying of liver cancer travels with her daughter to Switzerland to take advantage of that country’s policy of assisted suicide. After she declines to drink her poison, her cancer goes into remission. The Catholic church is eager to call her recovery a miracle, to consider her for sainthood. She is reluctant to accept that she has been resurrected but she recognizes that her liver “has risen from the dead.’’

All the stories have a disappointing shaggy-dog quality. Even the surprising “Leberknodel,’’ which seems to be going somewhere, disappointingly ends nowhere.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

THE LEXICOGRAPHER’S DILEMMA: The Evolution of “Proper’’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park By Jack Lynch

Walker, 336 pp., $26

THE AMERICAN LEONARDO: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money By John Brewer

Oxford University, 336 pp., $24.95

LIVER: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes By Will Self

Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $26.

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