The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
By Umberto Eco
Translated, from the Italian, by Geoffrey Brock
Harcourt, 480 pp., illustrated, $27
One of the unlikeliest bestsellers of recent years was ''The Name of the Rose," by the Italian semiotics scholar Umberto Eco. Status-conscious readers snapped up the medieval mystery, only to find it . . . obscure. Eco's new ''illustrated novel" is obscure in its own way, for different reasons.
The hero, a rare-book dealer, wakes in a Milan hospital with no recollection of who he is but only of what he has read, a neat metaphor for the literary life (or perhaps the theorists, having proclaimed the death of the author, are now coming for the reader). To reconstruct his past, he returns to the family villa where as a child he spent the war years. There he wades into a fantastic sea of memorabilia: picture books, magazines, Sherlock Holmes, Flash Gordon, Mickey Mouse, all the snips and snails of a life informed, as all lives are informed, by the popular culture of his time and place.
But his time and place --Italy under the fat storm cloud of Il Duce -- is not ours. Despite the Hollywood allusions and enough Pop Art-work to stock a Roy Lichtenstein retrospective, much that is primal and essential in this Jungian odyssey gets lost in translation.
Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution
By Madison Smartt Bell
Norton, 229 pp., $22.95
Although Antoine Lavoisier is known as the man who discovered oxygen, Madison Smartt Bell makes a more modest claim: ''In the final analysis, what Lavoisier had discovered was a word."
The chemical experiments that first intrigued the young Lavoisier in the mid-1700s had advanced little from alchemy, with its vague theories of ''phlogiston" and ''the matter of fire." What the hyperrational Lavoisier set out to do was to impose a scientific method and nomenclature on a disreputable pseudo-science, eventually bringing about a revolution in the discipline of chemistry.
By then there was another revolution underway in France, one with no use for stately Newtonian progress. An ancien regime bureaucrat as well as an eminent scientist, Lavoisier, the cautious reformist, was anathema to the firebrands of the Terror. Torn between co-opting him and guillotining him, in the end they did both. Bell diligently depicts the development of modern chemistry, Lavoisier's brainchild, but what inspires the novelist in him is the tragedy of an indelibly sane man in a society gone mad.
Meet the Beatles
By Steven D. Stark
HarperCollins, 344 pp., illustrated, $26.95
Once upon a time there were four lads from Liverpool on whom the gods of the Zeitgeist decided to smile. They were witty and clever and cute as buttons, but their first single released in the United States in the summer of 1963 went nowhere. (''We don't think the Beatles will do anything in this market," declared a less than prescient recording executive.) Six months later they were kings of the universe, and if you don't know what happened in between to make young Americans desperate for diversion, for someone to love, you need a more basic primer on the '60s than this ''Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World."
In their rise to international superstardom, notes Steven Stark, the Beatles rode the perfect wave of a confluence of trends, from postwar Anglophilia to the new taste-making power of teenagers, especially girls. His book is not just another Beatles bio, he assures us, because we've been there and done that. He's more interested in the sociohistorical causes and effects surrounding the group's rise. But, really, we've been there and done that, too, though the hard-working author all but does handsprings to persuade us that he's on to something new.
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.