Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Gentlemen of the Road, or Swashbuckle this, Brian

"All adventure happens in that damned and magical space, wherever it may be found or chanced upon, which least resembles one's home"

Rather than write a book review, I'm simply going to track the words that I have to look up as I read Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road. It's a playful book, and Chabon's vocabulary might come across as pretentious except for that. I've skipped some words that are clearly singular items with little relevance beyond their place as a noun (though I've included some of the same).

p. 4 - bambakion - "In his quilted grey bambakion with its frayed hood" - A padded leather or cotton under-garment; Byzantine.

p. 17 - perspicacity - "Perhaps the span of breath remained to the intruder for the enjoyment of his perspicacity" - having a ready insight into and understanding of things; from Latin perspicac- seeing clearly.

p. 19 - fleam - "with their scalpels and bloodletting fleams" - a kind of lancet, as for opening veins; late Middle English fleme from the Greek phlebo meaning vein.

p. 20 - contumelious - "He was nearly as gifted at languages as the contumelious myna." - scornful and insulting; from Latin contumelia, perhaps from con- ‘with’ + tumere ‘to swell.’

p. 28 - mezair - "With a mezair and a cut to the left" - a movement in which the horse makes a series of short jumps forward while standing on its hind legs; from Italian mezzaria, middle gait.

p. 28 - caprioles - "and a cut to the left and a pair of caprioles" - a movement performed in classical riding, in which the horse leaps from the ground and kicks out with its hind legs; from Latin capreolus, diminutive of caper, capr- goat.

p. 38 - impasto - "squelching through mud that was an impasto of dirt and blood" - The process of laying on paint thickly, from the Italian for paste.

p. 42 - maunderings - "I would rather... than suffer through a month or more of listening to your maunderings." - talk in a dreamy or rambling manner, perhaps from the obsolete maunder, to beg.

p. 43 - affiant - " and affiant now to that failure and to the ruin of his gods" - a person who swears to an affidavit, from the Latin fidus, meaning trusty.

p. 57 - plangent - "and with it the plangent cry of a soldier-muezzin calling his saddle-weary brothers" - loud, reverberating, and often melancholy, from the Latin verb plangere, meaning to lament.

p. 108 - caviling - "though Joseph would hardly miss the Venetian's caviling or tendency to whistle tuneless tunes all day and night" - to raise irritating and trivial objections; find fault with unnecessarily, from L deriv. of cavilla: jesting, banter.

p. 112 - integument - "scrutinizing the elephant as if seeing through its rough integument to its giant organs" - a natural covering, as a skin, shell, or rind; from the Latin teg(ere) to cover

p. 113 - arrant - "he often finds himself in receipt of the most arrant gossip imaginable." - thorough; unmitigated; notorious; from Middle English, variant of errant.

p. 126 - gonfalon - "revealing a gonfalon of russet hair" - a banner or pennant, esp. one with streamers; from Italian gonfalone, from a Germanic compound whose second element is related to vane.

p. 126 - bartizans - "along the battlements and bartizans of the walls of Atil" - an overhanging corner turret at the top of a castle; from 17th-cent. bertisene, Scots variant of bratticing [temporary breastwork or parapet,] from brattice ; revived and reinterpreted by Sir Walter Scott.

p. 128 - caparisoned - "caparisoned in purple silk and cloth of gold" - be decked out in rich decorative coverings; from obsolete French caparasson, from Spanish caparazón ‘saddlecloth,’ from capa hood.

p. 147 - chiromancy - "a wandering eastern people skilled at chiromancy" - the prediction of a person's future from the lines on the palms of his or her hands; from Greek kheir hand.

p. 161 - dolmen - "Imposing and forlorn, a grave marker, a dolmen, the eyrie of some august raptor." - a megalithic tomb with a large flat stone laid on upright ones; from French, perhaps via Breton from Cornish tolmen hole of a stone.

p. 170 - attar - "a faint ribbon of some rank attar in the air." - a fragrant essential oil, typically made from rose petals; Persian from Arabic 'aṭir fragrant.

p. 171 - asphodel - "whose smell of bitter asphodel" - a Eurasian plant of the lily family, typically having long slender leaves and flowers borne on a spike; from Greek asphodelos.

p. 177 - tenoned - "a monstrous thing of heavy timber and tenoned wheels" - join by means of a tenon (a projecting piece of wood made for insertion into a mortise in another piece); from Latin tenere.

p. 182 - termagant - "whether the Northmen were better endowed by their greedy and termagant gods for commerce or slaughter" - a harsh-tempered or overbearing woman, also historical, an imaginary deity of violent and turbulent character; taken to be from Latin tri- ‘three’ + vagant- wandering, and to refer to the moon “wandering” between heaven, earth, and hell under the three names Selene, Artemis, and Persephone.

p. 186 - carillon - "chiming over and over like some kind of bellicose carillon" - a set of bells in a tower, played using a keyboard; from Old French quarregnon peal of four bells, based on Latin quattuor four.

p. 192 - vinous - "his breath vinous and his emotion nettlesome" - of, resembling, or associated with wine (I guessed that but wanted to be sure); from Latin vinum wine.

So there you have it. He knows his words, he does.

Chabon tells a fantastic tale, but it's nothing particularly special. I had high expectations after Kavalier & Clay, but I think maybe I initially missed the point. It's "genre fiction", as he hates to say, and it is a swashbuckling adventure told well. He relies on some stock characters that tend to populate the genre, but with sufficient differences to keep them interesting (the big dumb warrior isn't so dumb and plays a mean game of chess-ish).

As usual (and as demonstrated above), Chabon demonstrates a playful attitude towards language. If he's not making up words he's mining history books and old dictionaries. His two merry men reminded me at first of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, verbose and too clever, but thankfully their wordplay is toned down after their introduction.

This novel was fun to read, whereas Kavalier & Clay was inspiring and touching and fun and huge. Well worth it for fantasy fans, probably worth a go for all readers. I can't help but fall into the (I hope) old paradigm of genre fiction, and I hope this book inspires all readers to give fantasy fiction a go.

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