A mixed bag full of surprises—often erudite, sometimes entertaining.



Idiosyncratic exploration of the history—political and archaeological—as well as the theology, iconography, and folkways to be revealed by close scrutiny of a single church in Rome.

An “anthropologist of everyday life,” Canadian writer Visser (The Way We Are, 1996, etc.) turns her gaze upon the church of St. Agnes, built on the Piazza Navona above the grave of a 12-year-old girl who was martyred in a.d. 305. The church’s own structure provides the organizing principle for the author’s discussion, which opens with a description of the entrance. Entering a church, according to Visser, brings to mind mystical experiences, and her first chapter contains an essay on personal epiphanies, as well as comments on collective memory and the initiation of church visitors. As she moves through the church’s hallways and chambers, describing just what the visitor will see, she explains the symbolism of the ground plan and discourses on the nature of sacred spaces, including the ancient Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The nave leads her to a discussion of Roman catacombs, Constantine’s building of basilicas, the significance of labyrinths, and the function of columns; consideration of the altar brings up Communion and the origin of canopies; a capsule history of mosaics follows from examination of the apse. Thus Visser progresses through the church, describing what is visible on the ceiling, walls, and floor, decoding the symbolism of the art and architecture, and providing brief essays on such topics as bells and bell towers, baptism and other rituals, various popes and saints, controversial beliefs surrounding relics, and folklore concerning the importance of virginity in female martyrs. For Catholics, many of her little lectures will be superfluous, but to outsiders, they can be enlightening.

A mixed bag full of surprises—often erudite, sometimes entertaining.

Pub Date: April 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-86547-618-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2001

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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