Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Book Review & Vocabulary Lesson

I just finished reading Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Synopsis from Amazon: A sixty-ish Milanese antiquarian bookseller nicknamed Yambo suffers a stroke and loses his memory of everything but the words he has read: poems, scenes from novels, miscellaneous quotations. His wife Paola fills in the bare essentials of his family history, but in order to trigger original memories, Yambo retreats alone to his ancestral home at Solara, a large country house with an improbably intact collection of family papers, books, gramophone records, and photographs. Yambo submerges himself in these artifacts, rereading almost everything he read as a school boy, blazing a meandering, sometimes misguided, often enchanting trail of words. Flares of recognition do come, like "mysterious flames," but these only signal that Yambo remembers something; they do not return that memory to him. It is like being handed a wrapped package, the contents of which he can only guess. Illustrated with the cartoons, sheet music covers, and book jackets that Yambo uncovers in his search, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana can be read as a love letter to literature, a layered excavation of an Italian boyhood of the 1940s, and a sly meditation on human consciousness.

As I mentioned when I started this book, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I didn’t know of the author, although I had heard of “The Name of the Rose”, at least the movie based on the book.

There are a few prominent plot points that are a bit contrived, not the least of which is the fact that the main character is an antique bookseller, and all he can remember is what he’s read. This is a book where very little happens in real time, it’s all back story. After spending a lot of time rummaging through his history and putting together a few important pieces, fate deals him another blow and he isn’t able to do anything with the knowledge that he gains. In this respect the ending of the book is bittersweet, but none of these minor criticisms took away from my enjoyment of this book. I could have done without a rather lengthy discourse on religion and politics in the middle, but I was particularly delighted with the full-color plates of many of the books Yambo discovers that were included, even in the paperback version.

On the first page of the first chapter, as he awakens from a coma, all he can remember are quotes, in particular, quotes about fog, which he has been collecting his entire life. “Where fog hovers between the towers like incense dreaming? A gray city, sad as a tombstone with chrysanthemums, where mist hangs over the facades like tapestries… My soul was wiping the streetcar windows so it could drown in the moving fog of the headlamps. Fog, my uncontaminated sister..."

I was hooked.

I read on the book jacket that Mr. Eco is a university professor of semiotics. If I had known what that meant I would have been better prepared for his writing style. This was the first of many, many words I encountered in this book that were unfamiliar to me. I don’t think I have ever read a book that contained more words I didn’t know, and I consider myself to have a half-decent vocabulary. Not just words that I didn’t know the meaning of, words I had never SEEN before. I kept wishing I had a dictionary on my nightstand, after the first few sessions I should have put one there. After an extremely cursory flip through the book I put together the following list of new words, in no particular order. How many did you know?

Semiotics: a general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals especially with their function in both artificially constructed and natural languages and comprises syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Um, yeah, that explains things, doesn’t it?

Callipygian: having well-shaped buttocks. "Her gown clung damply to her body, clearly revealing her callipygian curves, and the entire shapely length of her legs." This one is worth remembering for the next time you see Matthew McConaughey.

Plantigrade: of a mammal walking on the soles of the feet like a human or a bear. "By this point, for both Ada and myself, our beloved plantigrade was a painful sight" In reference to a stuffed bear.

Deuteragonist: the person second in importance to the protagonist in a drama. "A deuteragonist in that little drama, I had a moment of doubt."

Proglottidean: from proglottid, each segment in the strobila of a tapeworm containing a complete, sexually mature reproductive system. "My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey." Isn't it redundant to say your memory is like something, and then use that same something as a synonym? I'm just askin'.

Asphodel: any of several chiefly Mediterranean plants of the genera Asphodeline and Asphodelus in the lily family, having linear leaves and elongate clusters of white, pink, or yellow flowers; in Greek poetry and mythology, the flowers of Hades and the dead, sacred to Persephone. “…Ophelia floating upon a blanket of jonquils, water lilies, and asphodels.” From the context I knew it was a flower, just one I had never heard of, and of course, he's got to get that symbolism in there.

Syncretism: the combination of different forms of belief or practice. “…characters ranging from the maned Lion Men to the Hawk Men and Blue Magic Men of Queen Azura, all of them dressed with an easy syncretism…” In reference to characters in comic books.

Brachycephalic: short-headed or broad-headed with a cephalic index of over 80. “.. a survey of hooked noses and unkempt beards, of piggy, sensual mouths with buckteeth, of brachycephalic skulls and scarred cheekbones…” In reference to images of Jews during wartime.

Baobab: a broad-trunked tropical tree (Adansonia digitata) of the silk-cotton family that is native to Africa and has an edible acidic fruit resembling a gourd and bark used in making paper, cloth, and rope. “…I glimpsed, among the scant vines and the trees that rose at the hill’s edge, a baobab…”

Babirusa: a large wild swine (Babyrousa babyrussa) of Indonesia. “I kept expecting to see a nice babirusa pop out from between the rows of vines, perfect for roasting over a spit…” Again, by the context I knew it was an animal, but one I wasn’t familiar with.

Pulverulent: consisting of or reducible to fine powder; being or looking dusty. “…an attic promises a rather threadbare paradise, where the dead bodies appear in a pulverulent glow…”

Hyperborean: one of a people known to the ancient Greeks, living in a perpetually warm and sunny land north of the source of the north wind; of or relating to the far north; very cold; frigid. “Most of the action takes place on icy seas covered by hyperborean mist.” Once again he throws in that symbolism, for those of you paying attention.

Avolate: to fly away; to escape; to exhale. He doesn’t actually use this in a sentence, its one of a very long list of words he learns from a childhood book, including baccivorous, cacodoxy, cerastes, grangerism, lordkin, pasigraphy and vespillo. Look them all up if you have the time.

And read this book.


  1. Another word:

    BEAUTIFUL: Donna's blog

  2. Thanks for the review. I'd been meaning to read this book -- I'll have to keep your blog open as a cheat sheet when the unfamiliar words come up.

  3. LOL! I didn't know ANY of those words! Although, I now realize, that I have a Callipygion ass!

  4. going to add this one to my to-read list!


    P.S. I just noticed the bird graphic in the upper right-hand corner of each post. Very cool.

  5. Ooh, some vocabulary lesson. Perhaps I'll when I'm a little less addled with house-buying stuff that needs to be done BEFORE the long weekend.

  6. This book sounds absolutely fascinating. Will definitely read it. Thank you for your nice comments on my blog. Now that I've found yours, I'll be back to read more. Terrific blog design!

  7. Ah, I knew three words! :) I think I have to be somewhat proud of myself, since English isn't even my native language...

    But then again, I have the advantage of being, in a sense, a hyperborean. ;)

    I'll have to look this book up when it's translated, it'll be slightly easier to read then, I'd imagine.

    And yes, a very cool look for the blog!