Book: The Geometry of Love

The book: The Geometry of Love. Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church, by Margaret Visser

The edition: North Point Press hardback, 325 pages, with notes and bibliography

What it is about: using the Roman church of Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura, Visser goes on a journey to explain all the different layers of meaning present in a church: architecture represents spiritual life, art derives from history and reflects on myth, words in several languages create a network of cross-references, and everything can be read as through a glass, on a number of levels.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I came across a mention of this book while I was looking for books set in Italy for last year’s Italy in Books reading challenge. I wasn’t able to finish it in time, but I am so glad that I discovered it, because I would never have found out about it elsewhere. And it’s a great book! I knew many of the things it is about, religious meanings and art history things… but they are masterfully woven together with so many other things and detail. It is a labour of love, and as such it is a masterpiece: I rarely read so good a non-fiction book. But I cannot really explain what’s so good about it, so just scroll down and read some of it in the author’s own words!

What I liked: the way so many different levels are interwoven. And of course all the etymological insight.

What I didn’t like: if I had to find a fault, that would be a couple of references to the author previous work (which was about food and had nothing to share, apart from the author’s own intent of analysing things on so many different levels).

In the author’s own words: the best way to tell you about this book is to share some parts. I loved this train of connections (it’s a bit longish, but please bear with me, it’s a perfect example of all the different layers of meaning that the author weaves together in the book):

The preliminary section of many early churches was an enclosed area outside the front doors, a courtyard before the temple, often with greenery and flowers and a fountain. In Latin the name for it was atrium (as the courtyard of a Roman house was called), or porticus, because it was a pillared enclosures; or it was called a paradisus, a garden, but one with biblical connotations. “Paradise” comes from a Persian word meaning a “walled-in enclosure,” often a deer park. The word came to denote more vaguely a “pleasure garden.” For this reason “paradise” was used to translate the Hebrew word gan, or garden, in the Book of Genesis: the place where Adam and Eve lived in delightful innocence before they disobeyed God. […] The first disobedience was the end of innocence — but still it is seen as standing at the beginning of the story of the human race. And similarly, to enter a church we step out of the narthex, or “paradise.”
Now the next stage of the journey can begin. The “road,” the church’s central aisle, lies ahead, its length representing the time humanity has before it, the span each person has to live. […]
In the children’s game of hopscotch, the origins of which are very old, a pattern of squares is scratched on a bald patch of ground, or drawn in chalk on a city sidewalk. […] Some hopscotch patterns are spiral, with the goal in the middle, like a labyrinth. There the player is said to be “reborn”: the next stage of the game is to turn and hop back out. This hopscotch design can be interpreted as a figure of the “journey” of life, as well as a static picture of the soul: of the truth — God — to be found at the heart of every self. Round churches are built in part to evoke such ideas. A different hopscotch pattern resembles the ground plan of a basilical church with a transverse section, or transept. This shape expresses, as we shall see, the spiritual life in time. […] The normally rounded hopscotch end-piece is known in many languages as “paradise,” or by a word such as “crown” or “glory.”

And a shorter one:

The lamb is Agnes’ attribute or identifying symbol; she was one of the first Christian saints to have one. The lamb (agnus in Latin) is a visual pun on the girl’s name. In Greek (her name is, in fact, Greek) hagne means “full of religious awe” (hagos). In ancient Greek religion, sacred people, places, or objects — those that were considered untouchable and “fenced-off” — had, and aroused, hagos. […] It is not surprising that the myth of Agnes should have endowed her with sacred virginity, for such a quality was suggested by her name.

Book connection: the same truths about the catacombs I read recently in The Last Cato.

Read this if: if you want to know more about art history, Catholicism, religious history; if you are passionate about word etymology… if you ever plan to visit Rome!

Counts as: Reading Round Rome #1; Travel with Books (Rome)

Year’s end: short thoughts on my latest reads

I’m more or less back. (Meaning: after all the traveling of December, I’m still not back home, but will be blogging more often.) Meanwhile, it’s the end of the year and everyone else has been publishing stats and projects… I have less than 12 hours to catch up. And I need to jot down my thoughts on the last books I read this year, wrap-up challenges, set down reading goals for 2012, compile yearly stats… not to mention finish one last book, prepare the dinner for New Year’s Eve and spend time with my family (who is right now chatting away in the next room).

Let’s see how far I’ll get.

As a start, here’s some very short thoughts about my latest reads.


The book: The Last Cato, by Matilde asensi, in the Italian translation by Andrea Carlo Cappi, 483 pages.

My thoughts: a quick and quite engrossing read, this book falls exactly halfway between The Da Vinci Code and Fucault’s Pendulum, as it can boast a conspirational plot while being neither silly as the former, nor too learned as the latter.

Hidden jewel: use of the Divine Comedy as a code for conspirators through the centuries

Pet peeve: a nun who understands nothing of vocation

Counts as: I read this for the Italy in books challenge


The book: the “Short Guide to Great European Wines” is the chapter about wines from Alexandre Dumas’ Great Dictionary of Cuisine. It was published in Italian as a self-standing book, translated by Augusta Scacchi, 105 pages.

My thoughts: rarely have I read something so useless. It seems written without a general plan, as if the author was simply jotting down any thought about wine as it crossed his mind. It may have been better inside a wider work, but I sincerely doubt it.

Hidden (very hidden) jewel: a few nice anecdotes, like the story of the Est! Est! Est!

Pet peeve: machism (the book shows its age)

Counts as: One! Two! Theme! challenge – wine


The book: Erik Fosnes Hansen, Psalm at Journey’s End, in the Italian translation by Margherita Podestà Heir, 476 pages.

My thoughts: this book is a little jewel, and I am sad that I don’t have the time to tell you more about it. It brings together the stories of very different men from different countries and different backgrounds, only put together by the fateful destiny of being aboard the Titanic in its first and last voyage. It’s like a majestic fresco, colorful and full of life and facets. It’s one of those books that make reading worthwile.

Hidden jewel: music!

Pet peeve: the Titanic is only a pretext to bring the characters together, and quite useless in the general economy of the book, as these are not the real musicians who were onboard, but other, completely invented characters.

Book connections: it mentions the Rubaiyat and features a pianist without a name


The book: The Other Foot of the Mermaid, by Mia Couto, Portuguese original version, 482 pages

My thoughts: this book is very African. Or at least I think it is, because it’s so far removed from my own feeling that I could only scrape its surface in terms of understanding. It’s strange and different, and while beautiful it remains full of things that are not part of any culture I know.

Hidden jewel: the book tells a major story, interwoven with a second one which comes from manuscripts read by the characters. The publisher used a different paper with a different color and texture and a different typeface for these parts.

Pet peeve: footnotes that explained almost nothing

Counts as: I want more challenge

Book: The Earth


The book: The Earth. An Intimate History, by Richard Fortey

The edition: Harper Perennial paperback, 501 pages, plus preface, a P.S. with interviews and ideas, and two color inserts

About the book: part travelogue (but a travelogue written by a geologist on the road to visit places important to geology, and looking for geological tales), part history of geology, part popularization of the current understanding of how our Earth works.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: to understand my take on this book, you have to understand that I love geology as far as it explains systems, and how mountains are created, and how plates move… but I cannot for the life of me remember the different rocks and minerals, nor care about them (come on, they’re rocks after all! OK, so maybe that’s a reason why I don’t agree with the general view that “diamonds are a girl’s best friends” and never wanted one!). Here for the first time I could see how much the two aspects are interconnected, so the book gave me a completely new perspective on geology as a whole. On the other hand, given my take on rocks, it was a bit too much, too many details about too many minerals — which is the only thing that slowed me down irremediably. If you have an interest on the subject, it’s still as good as it can get: thoroughly explained, at times funny and touching, easy to understand, and beautifully showing how geology shapes our lives even if we never think about it.

What I liked: the way the author blends perfectly a travelogue-style visit to, say, Mt. Vesuvius or Hawaii, with notes about culture and people living there, and a deeper understanding of how the system Earth works as a whole. It’s a very good balance of the detail with the general, always shifting back and forth between the two.

What I didn’t like: rocks. 🙂

In the author’s own words: if you don’t like geology, here’s why you should care about it anyway (part of a description of the Grand Canyon’s strata):

We shall never know what happened in the Grand Canyon during this great period. Without a rock record, there is no way to read the book of time. It is lost to us more definitively than the secrets of the Aztecs, or the rituals of the Easter Islanders.

And here’s one of the funny lines:

A rapakivi granite forms the counter of a bar at Paddington Station in London. I come through this station most days. Although Paddington is one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s finest engineering achievements, the bar is a recent addition. If you have just missed your train, you can at least lean on a bar that is 1500 million years old and reflect that perhaps half an hour is not that serious a delay.

Random thought: who designed that white quarter-circle on the bottom right of the cover? Each time I look at this book I fear that it has been ruined, and then see it’s made like that on purpose…

Read this if: if you have an interest in geology it’s a good starting point. If you are interested in rocks, it will definitely help!

Counts as: One Two Theme Challenge – geology

Book: The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Austrians

The book: The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Austrians, by Louis James

The edition: revised (2002) edition, as published by Oval Books, 64 pages

About the book: a tongue-in-cheek description of Austrian life and customs

My experience with the book & my thoughts: after living in Austria for some time, I then read this book while I was there on vacation, and it was fun to discover all the Austrian little quirks in the book. On the other hand, my view of the Austrians differs strongly from the author’s. To him, Austrian seem careless and approximative in everything they do; to me, they have their own turn of German-like precision…

What I liked: seeing in true life scenes I had just read in the book

What I didn’t like: that someone who had no first hand experience of Austria could read this as true criticism rather than tongue-in-cheek humor

In the author’s own words: this is a scene that I saw in a café, where a group of businessmen were meeting…

Austrians are sticklers for formal manners. Hand-shaking is a national pasttime and latecomers to committee meetings hold up proceedings until all available flesh has been pressed; and woe betide anyone who fails to greet, whether entering a shop or buying a postage stamp.

Read this if: if you have been in Austria, not if you still have to go.

Counts as: Travel with Books – Vienna

Book: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

The book: What to Expect When You’re Expecting, by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel

The edition: new and revised (4th) edition, Italian version by Sonia Sferzi, 575 pages

About the book: a step-by-step (or week-by-week) guide to pregnancy

My experience with the book & my thoughts: to start with, I need to say that I am not pregnant, so my evaluation of this book may be a little biased. I wanted to know more about pregnancy, and after a long search this was the only book I found that explained things throughly, didn’t make fun of them, and most of all didn’t treat the reader like a woman with attention-deficits who needs lots of pictures and bullet-lists and asides to go through a book.
I found it to be informative and encouraging, if nor exhaustive. I’d have appreciated more information on pre-natal exams, but I’ve seen that other people would have appreciated less information on some aspects, and I do see that, to a pregnant woman, some parts can be unnecessarily scary. I appreciated less the “All About” section at the end of each month-related chapter, because some of that information was not necessarily related to the month it was put in.

What I liked: detailed information.

What I didn’t like: I know it is a guide and that in all guidebooks there may be repetitions, because some readers may only go through a few sections; still those repetitions had me roll my eyes every time (OK, I know that smoke and alcohol are bad for the baby! Again? I know already!).

Language & translation: the major problem I had with this book, was never knowing how much had only been translated (i.e. still described the situation in the USA) and how much had been localized (and described what I may encounter in Italy).

In the author’s own words: nothing to report, really.

Links to better understand this book: oww, I don’t think you need them, it’s a guide! 🙂

Random thought: wow, there’s a whole series of WTE books!

Read this if: it is a good guide, but I am glad I read it before ever getting pregnant, because I don’t think I would have made it through during pregnancy, it’s quite the tome!

Counts as: One Two Theme Challenge – Pregnancy book #4