Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
August 24, 2008
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Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages
By Ammon Shea
Perigee, 223 pp., $21.95
Some men set out to climb Mount Everest. Ammon Shea set out to read the Oxford English Dictionary full time, from cover to cover. Or rather covers to covers, his recent job as a furniture mover providing handy preparation for hoisting its 20 hefty volumes. And why did Shea fix his sights on this Brobdingnagian challenge - because it was there? "I have read the OED," he says, "so that you don't have to."

The pitfall to avoid in writing a book about a dictionary (or a review of a book about a dictionary) is producing one that is just a miniature dictionary itself. Shea, an avid collector of words, displays an assortment for our pleasure as he wends his way through the alphabet - ornate words, archaic words, words for things we didn't know there was a word for, like "leep," meaning "to wash with cow-dung and water," which sent him ahead to the "W's" to see if there was some sense of "wash" he was unaware of.

More revealing are his temperature-taking updates on the deterioration of his muscle tone, his eyesight, his engagement with the outside world, as he inches intrepidly toward "zyxt" ("to see"), the distant summit.

The Would-Be Commoner
By Jeffrey S. Ravel
Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp., $25
In the late 1690s all of Paris was agog over a titillating trial working its way through the courts. Marguerite Chauvelin, owner of a modest rural estate, and her alleged lover, a supposedly celibate prior, stood accused of murdering her husband, Louis de la Pivardière, an impecunious nobleman and sometime soldier.

Undeterred by the lack of a corpse, a local magistrate had extracted from Marguerite's housemaids hair-raising if highly dubious testimony of a crime. Execution was imminent for Marguerite, when who should come strolling into town but Louis - or a man claiming to be Louis, said skeptics primed by the legendary Martin Guerre imposture to distrust the evidence of their eyes. Louis's explanation for his absence? He had been living happily under an assumed name in a bigamous marriage to an innkeeper's daughter. Frenchmen of the day, subjects of the Sun King, could believe any number of incredible things but balked at this one, an aristocrat claiming he preferred to live as a commoner.

Historian Jeffrey Ravel is not to be confused with Agatha Christie. He embeds this intriguing courtroom thriller within a detailed and sober social history, not a breezy read but a rewarding one.

So Long at the Fair
By Christina Schwarz
Doubleday, 244 pp., $24.95
The iconic American story is one of mobility, of lighting out for new frontiers, though more typical, perhaps, is the experience of those who never leave home. Jon and Ginny Kepilkowski, the erstwhile Romeo and Juliet of Winnesha, Wis., have lit out only as far as nearby Madison. They were high school sweethearts, though in a sense their relationship began before they were born, in the small-town adolescent dramas of their parents' generation.

On the single summer day over which this novel sprawls, Ginny, distracted lately by her landscape design business, has forgotten Jon's wish to go to a music festival in Winnesha. Miffed, he instead takes Freddi, the lovely colleague with whom he has been carrying on an increasingly reckless affair. Ginny meanwhile also returns to Winnesha, to the derelict country club she has been hired to revive. On their separate journeys into the past, geographically present yet emotionally receding, they will finally decide if there remains anything other than guilt and inertia still holding them together.

Despite an overwrought backstory, Christina Schwarz ("Drowning Ruth") depicts her contemporary setting in perceptive detail. Familiarity can be a cocoon or a prison, and she empathically evokes the dilemma of being stuck with one foot in each.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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