Italian novelist, critic, and semiotician Umberto Eco swept into the American consciousness in 1983, when a translation of his medieval murder mystery The Name of the Rose became a surprise best seller. I wonder if half the people who bought that challenging book ever finished it. Most probably jumped off the Eco bandwagon rather than attempt later novels like Foucault’s Pendulum–and only real geeks got into his nonfiction stuff like Travels in Hyperreality. But Eco’s new novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, though teeming with erudition, isn’t so intimidating. He’s ditched the Middle Ages for 20th-century Italy, where 60-ish Milanese antiquarian bookseller Giambattista “Yambo” Bodoni suffers a peculiar poststroke amnesia: he remembers nothing of his own life, not even his name, but recalls everything he’s ever read. In an attempt to reclaim his personal history, he retreats to his boyhood home, where he sifts through boxes of magazines, newspapers, children’s books, fascist propaganda, and his old notebooks and poems–some of which elicit “mysterious flames” of recognition. The narrative is compelling enough that you don’t realize you’re getting an eggheady lecture on literature and popular culture, and half the fun is trying to pick up on the myriad literary allusions (“What if I mistake her for a hat?” Yambo wonders about his wife early on). The book is illustrated with full-color period reproductions of the works Yambo examines; the comic book repros are especially cool. Free advance tickets for this copresentation of the Chicago Humanities Festival and the Printers Row Book Fair have already been snapped up, but some may become available at the door. Fri 6/10, 7 PM, Northwestern Univ. School of Law, Thorne Auditorium, 375 E. Chicago, 312-494-9509.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Guido Harrari/Contrasto/Redux.