Wondrous Words Wednesday: gestures

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) and interesting (to us, again) words we encountered in our readings. See this week round-up at BermudaOnion’s blog!


My idea for this post stemmed originally from reading a passage in A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin:

She cried her wares in the trade tongue, the language of the wharves and docks and sailors’ taverns, a coarse jumble of words and phrases from a dozen languages, accompanied by hand signs and gestures, most of them insulting. Those were the ones that Cat liked best. Any man who bothered her was apt to see the fig.

It was clear from the context that the “fig” [1] is an obscene gesture, and while I had no idea what this gesture was like, I also had no interest in discovering it.

Then, more recently, I read another book (in German, so not suitable for this post) with a strong focus on Italian gestures of all kinds, and while the “fig” did not make an appearance, the book made me decide to go online and do some research, and I did find a (hodgepodge) list of gestures that includes the following:

Fig sign is a gesture made with the hand and fingers curled and the thumb thrust between the middle and index fingers, or, rarely, the middle and ring fingers, forming the fist so that the thumb partly pokes out.

The fig sign (from Wikipedia)

In some areas of the world, the gesture is considered a good luck charm; in others (including France, Greece, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Serbia and Turkey among others), it is considered an obscene gesture. The precise origin of the gesture is unknown, but many historians speculate that it refers to female genitalia. In ancient Greece, this gesture was a fertility and good luck charm designed to ward off evil. This usage has survived in Portugal [2] and Brazil, where carved images of hands in this gesture are used in good luck talismans, and in Friuli.

Now, this is probably not very interesting for most of you, but do you see that last word, Friuli? That’s my home region in Italy. And I don’t think I ever saw this gesture there, either as good charm or as obscene. What I did see is a taunting/game people do with little children, whereby you pinch their nose, then show them your hand in this gesture (taking care that the nail is not showing) and tell them you’ve plucked their nose out.[3] Daft, I know, but I wonder: can that be a trace of an older use of the gesture as a good-luck charm?


Notes and questions:

[1] I do hope no one is offended by the fact that this post is about a possibly obscene gesture.

[2] I haven’t seen it in Portugal either, but to my Portuguese readers: have you ever seen it used here?

[3] To my sister: if you get a chance, could you ask Granny if she’s ever seen/used this gesture, except in the taunting context?

Books: little to say about these

Alternate title: it’s mini-review time!

The book: Lisbon – What the Tourist Should See by Fernando Pessoa

The edition: Italian translation by Luca Merlini, 65 pages, as published by Einaudi with an essay on modern-day Lisbon by Maria Teresa Bonafede and pictures by Gianmario Marras, total page count 115

My thoughts:  while it opened my eyes to a couple of things in Lisbon that I had never noticed before, this is nothing more than a dated guidebook. From such an author as Pessoa was, I expected something more, some poetic commentary or some inside knowledge or some social satire. Nothing of the kind.


The book: Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa

The edition: Italian (original) edition as published by Einaudi, paperback, 144 pages, with a note by the author

My thoughts: you may have heard me praise Scarpa’s love song to Venice in Venice is a Fish, but that was the one and only book I had ever read by him up to now; this one, also a winner of a prestigious Italian award, was supposed to be at least as good. But I’m afraid I cannot say so. It is supposed to be a homage to the musical tradition of Venice, and especially to Vivaldi, but all I could see was the pointless and sometimes horrific meanderings of a man’s mind trying to come to terms with the female body. I mean, this is supposed to be the story of a girl on the brink of womanhood, but all the details of her dealing with this change and her body either made me laugh for how improbable they were (think: a girl having a nightmare about water and waking up to find her legs covered in blood from her first period — I have lost count of the male authors believing this is how it happens!) or made me sick with disgust (think: comparing the belly of a woman giving birth and the bubbles exploding in boiling water — and this is just the least example).


The book: The Sacred Night, by Tahar Ben Jelloun

The edition: French (original) edition, as published by Seuil, Points paperback, 189 pages

My thoughts: I read this for the Africa challenge, and because I hope to visit Morocco, and Ben Jelloun is said to be the author to start from. I’m afraid I have to say this one went right over my head, and I understood nothing of it. I guess it is intended to raise the subject of gender, and of identity, but it does so in a way that is completely different from anything I had read before. It’s a kind of magical realism, but full of symbols, and dreamlike details and events that may or may not be symbols, and I can’t say I know what most of them stand for. If you have read this and can help me understand, I’d really like to hear from you!


The book: Fables 11 – War and Pieces, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Niko Henrichon and Andrew Pepoy

The edition: Vertigo edition, 191 pages

My thoughts: this is the closing book for a cycle of the series, with most threads coming to an end. I already mentioned that I did not like the way this particular story (i.e. the Adversary) was being developed, and this may be the one book I liked the least. It read like some war movie, and that’s not a compliment. The series is still great, and I love it to pieces, but I’d have chosen another angle and another story altogether. Now that that is closed, I’m curious to read where the authors will bring us next!

Book: Rome Burning

The book: Rome Burning, by Sophia McDougall

The edition: Orion paperback, 584 pages, with maps, character list and a complete history of the alternate Roman empire

The story: in an alternate world where the Roman Empire is still controlling the world nowadays, three years after the events of Romanitas, the Emperor falls ill and his nephew Marcus, at 19, needs to take his place as Caesar and regent. But the times are hard, unstable: strange fires burn out of control, the issue of slavery is still the focus of hard feelings and tensions, and the Empire is on the brink of war with Nionia (Japan). Marcus’ own close relationship with two ex-slaves can put everything at risk.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: after quite liking Romanitas, this second book of the series virtually fell in my hands on its own; and yet I was afraid it would fall in all the “second novel in a trilogy” pitfalls. I am happy to report that is not the case. Romanitas was complete in itself, and only just left a small window open for the story to continue. Rome Burning starts from that point, but it builds a lot upon it. Actually, I have to say that in most aspects this book was even better than the first one.

What I liked: mostly, I guess that McDougall was less preoccupied with building the alternate world, and focused more on building a complex story/plot and on the character themselves. Also, maybe because they’re somewhat older, the characters seem to have grown into themselves and I found it easier to connect with them. At the same time, this book gives more space to themes other than the story itself, especially the slavery issue, which was dealt in an interesting way.

What I didn’t like: the only big problem with this book is a typical second book thing: leaving too many things open. Which is especially a pity since the author took so much pain to explain all the previous story again, and to make this book independent enough from the first one. I’ll just have to read the third book (as if I needed an excuse!)

Language & writing: I still loved the Latin-based new words made up by the author (although I don’t know why helicopters were called volucers in the first book and spiralwings here). Also, some chapter titles were in Latin, love it!

Read this if: again, if you find the premise intriguing. If you started the series, I do recommend to keep reading.

Counts as: Travel with books – Rome; Chunkster Challenge

Book: Crime Novel

The book: Romanzo Criminale (Crime Novel), by Giancarlo De Cataldo

The edition: Italian (original) edition, as published by Einaudi (softcover), 632 pages

The story: a fictionalized version of the true story of the Banda della Magliana, a criminal gang operating in Rome from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: another book that came recommended by husband, which is mostly a good starting point. Otherwise I would never have picked it up, and I’m glad I did.

What I liked: the novel is compelling and easy to read, tells a violent story without being grisly, and most of all makes Italian history and Italian society really come to life.

What I didn’t like: some character dynamics. Let me explain: the characters here are mostly gangsters, but still you want to side with them, because well, it’s their story and you kind of see their motives; but at the same time it’s like the author never really wanted to let you take their side, because well, they’re gangsters and he’s a judge. It felt… undecided.

Language & writing: I loved — absolutely loved — how well the author was able to capture the Roman voice in dialog. (If you read Italian, see my post on this subject here.)

Links to better understand this book:

Counts as: Reading Round Rome #2

Book: The Thief Lord

The book: The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke

The edition: German (original) version, Dressler hardback edition, 396 pages,with the author’s drawings

The story: after their mother’s death, Prosper and Bo run away from their aunt Esther (who wants to adopt Bo and send Prosper to an institute) and reach Venice, the “City of the Moon”, about the magic of which their mother had told them again and again. Here they find shelter with a gang of street children and their leader, the Thief Lord. Adventures follow as they try to elude the detective Esther has hired, organize a robbery on behalf of a mysterious count, and discover the real identity of their gang’s chief.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: first things first, I’m glad I read this in German, because I don’t have a lot of patience with children lit in general, but with German I had to slow down a bit and could savor it. I was dubious about this book because I had read Inkheart and found it shallow and boring, but then again I had read that in Italian. (If you usually like children/YA novels, though, go with your own language.)
Because yes, it’s a good book. The story has enough depth and layers that it could grow confusing or unbelievable, but it seems to me pretty well executed and balanced. The characters are lovely, even in their most absurd behaviors they remain believable. And most of all, what made it click for me was Funke’s descriptions, full of the magic of real life.

The part with spoilers: it disturbed me that the merry-go-round really was supernatural. The rest of the story was so good as it was, without magical elements, that I hoped to the very end that the merry-go-round story too was only a legend. This is the thing that disappointed me most in the whole book. If you want to write a fantasy book, write a fantasy from the start; you may go the way of magical realism, if you want a middle way, but even in that you have to be consistent. A magic touch 3/4 into the book sounds too much like an opt-out.

Venice: I have to admit that I don’t usually understand the reason why people are so fascinated with Venice. This book, on the other hand, describes the city in just such a way as to create its magic. It is said that the boys’ mother “told them stories about winged lions, a golden cathedral, and about angels and dragons perched on top of the buildings. She told them that water nymphs came ashore for walks at night up the little stepson the edges of the canals. My sister could talk about these things in a way that she almost made me believe her.”(*) Now, I may not be able to see the magic in Venice, I may be a little like Esther in that sense, but Cornelia Funke can talk about Venice in a way that she almost made me believe her.
(* The quote is taken from Oliver Latsch’s translation, as found on Google Books)

Read this if: if you are into children lit, this is a good choice. Also, if you buy into the usual image of Venice as a magical city.

Counts as: Venice in February Challenge book #2