Stories from the City of God

Stories from the City of God: 

Sketches and Chronicles of Rome, 1950-1966storiesfromcityofgodcover

Pier Paolo Pasolini
Ed. by Walter Siti, Translation by Marina Harss.
Handsel Books, an imprint of Other Press, NY. 2003, ISBN 1-59051-048-8

In the years after World War II, Rome supported a scrappy demi-monde ravaged by the invasion and aftermath. Pier Paolo Pasolini lived that tooth and claws existence, scraping together food and work when he could, begging when he couldn’t. Later he would use those experiences to drive his creative products – films, novels, stories and articles.

This mix of short fiction and non-fiction sketches explore Roman people of that time.  What’s ugly and squalid shows its beauty to Pasolini.  He cuts through the outwardly pleasing cowards and hypocrites that repel him and celebrates successful thieves and  crafty con artists. The stories mark incremental successes in modest lives where the big picture is only to stay alive for another day.

The short pieces succeed as portraits of people and place during a certain time.  It’s full of timeless portraits of the fleet stealthy underclass that every big city hides.  The stories feature Roman boys — canny youths wise beyond their birthdays.  The author opens up a window on hidden Rome, a part of the city that continues to exist in certain dodgy corners and presumably always will. 

He also notices the timeless landscape of Rome. “Delirious Rome” (p. 25, uncorrected page proofs) opens with two trolley antennae sparking at a track crossing.  The image propels the author to a meditation that compresses time as he thinks about workers commuting all week, and then relaxing along the Tiber. The Roman landscape takes on mythic proportions in Pasolini’s reflection as he skips through history during the trolley ride. The story starts with a spark, a moment in 1950, yet the details of Roman life as illuminated by Pasolini remain. Decades later, the sparks still explode when trolleys cross track lines, sending a rider’s thoughts cart-wheeling beyond the immediate.  Pasolini captures ten seconds of mental musing in pages of robust description.

Pasolini captures smiles and smells, the empty places where the downtrodden hole up to sleep or sell their pilfered wares. By using dialect of the under class, Pasolini thumbs his nose to aristocrats and the fascist enforcers they so recently embraced and supported.  Still, he was no hero to the left, who saw his attention to the less savory aspects of poverty as a perversity.

-This book review originally appeared in The Bloomsbury Review.

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The Art of Grace

Art of Grace_coverIn The Art of Grace, Pulitzer Prize winning dance critic Sarah Kaufman explores the meaning of moving gracefully.  While thought and reason are celebrated, it turns out our brains exist so that our bodies will move better. Those who cannot flee fast, fall to the predator.

Continue reading “The Art of Grace”

Already Home: Topography of Spirit and Place

Already Home  ::  A Topography of Spirit and Place  

Barbara Gates searches her backyard for personal meaning, exploring what’s hidden behind the obvious.

Lotus blossom symbol.
Lotus blossom symbol.

A neighbor on her Berkeley, California street has started sleeping in Gates’ car to avoid household turmoil.  Gates tolerates the backseat sleepovers, though other middle-class neighbors object that she’s encouraging bad elements .  Reminds me of the hilarious (and bittersweet) Alan Bennett novella The Lady in the Van.

The woman seeking refuge in the backseat of a car and other events propel Barbara Gates to investigate the street where she lives and the extended neighborhood.

What starts out as a tentative exploration of self and the meaning of home broadens as the author gains confidence in the mission.  She notices drug dealing on the street, the poverty of certain neighbors contrasted with the prosperity of others.  She explores abandoned industrial facilities  a few blocks from her door.

The narrative includes high and low crises in her life (a rat in the kitchen, raising a daughter, cancer) and chronicles her aperture to the broader world.  She learns about herself by exploring the neighborhood; and that’s when the story becomes more engaging.

The glamour of meditation. Image: http://matsmatsmats.com
Glamour of meditation?
matsmatsmats.com

It threatens at first to be another slightly irritating Oh-poor-me-and-my-inner-life narrative (the Eat, Pray, Love genre) from a privileged person.  What a change when they jump off the meditation cushion and notice the world, or even where their feet fall.   In contrast with her neighbors, the author can read, has a stable home life, an income and time to meditate.  What’s her problem, a reader wonders, at the mention of a rat in the kitchen?  The rat turns out to be a linking device jolting the ecology of  the neighborhood, like street crime and encroaching development.  The book turns interesting once the inner-gazing and self-glazing ends and Gates notices the windows, street, people and neighborhood.

The author is cofounder and coeditor of the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind.  She is brave enough to show the process of how she opens to the world.  She explains and exhumes the history of her house and surroundings, then realizes the lesson is simply to let go of the past and embrace her present life there.

Resources:

Daily Om

Yoga Journal

Interview with Barbara Gates

Book information:  Shambala, Boston & London,  2003,  229 pages,  $21.95 hardcover,  ISBN: 1570624909

This review appeared in a slightly different format in The Bloomsbury Review.

Climbing Chamundi Hill

Climbing Chamundi Hill
Climbing Chamundi Hill
Chamundi Hills, Mysore, India photo: www.wikipedia.com
Chamundi Hills, Mysore, India 

Climbing Chamundi Hill ~1001 Steps with a Storyteller and a Reluctant Pilgrim

Ariel Glucklich‘s stories lead one into the next, step by step.  Like climbing a hill, the dance of life and human thoughts, there’s a path to the light through the dark, on and on around the great metaphorical wheel.  In this particular story, P. L. Shivaram, retired librarian for the Karnataka Power Thermal Corporation Ltd., leads the reluctant pilgrim, a biologist recovering from a long illness, up Chamundi Hill. The librarian nudges, explains and entertains during the long climb. The American pilgrim listens and comes to terms with various types of pain in his life.  The hill  serves as symbol and fact:  representative of life’s path and a  real homage site that people climb barefoot to honor the deities.  Each twist of the route upwards offers the storyteller another opening to tell a Hindu parable. The pilgrim spills his share of stories too, balancing the librarian’s narrative of mythology with obtainable lessons gleaned from the shocks of an examined life.  This charmed book could be Aesop’s fables – Indian style — with a week of dandy bedtime stories for grownups.

HarperCollins, 2003, ISBN 0-06-050894-9, Cloth bound, 246 pages

A slightly different version of this review appeared in The Bloomsbury Review, Celebrating and Serving Literature since 1980.

The Atlantic Rim

While the Pacific Rim captures attention  ::

Consider the Atlantic Rim, an older trade route.

Map of N. Atlantic Ocean floor and N. Atlantic Rim coastal areas.

The July 3, 2008 issue of London Review of Books discusses two recent books:

North Atlantic Map. http://en.wikipedia.com
North Atlantic Map.
http://en.wikipedia.com

My interest in the history and geography of the Atlantic Rim took me to Kenneth White’s book On the Atlantic Edge. White’s ideas about geopoetics are provocative. He’s a Scotsman who lives in France and writes in English and French — a forward-thinking author with poetic nuance.

41fcYXrwJ2L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_
On the Atlantic Edge
by Kenneth White

Resources:

The Atlantic World Research Network – University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Atlantic World Foodways Conference – January 31 – February 2, 2014.

Transatlantic Exchanges Forum – Plymouth University – Atlantic Studies Initiative.

Stones of Sicily

The Stone Boudoir
Book Cover

The Stone Boudoir

Travels Through the Hidden Villages of Sicily

Theresa Maggio

Perseus Publishing, 2002

ISBN  0-7382-0342-4

246 pages  $25.00

Reviewed by  Peat O’Neil

Theresa Maggio is a story teller.  New Jersey born, the author is of Sicilian heritage and has lived in Sicily off and on for a considerable time, researching Mattanza, her book about tuna fishing.  In this book, she returned to explore Sicily’s mountain villages.

Maggio steps behind the shuttered facades of crumbling Sicilian hill towns.  Behind the gates and stone walls there’s vibrant culture and the ebb and flow of family life.  Some women she meets are drowning in it, other women are thriving on the challenges of building professional careers as pharmacists or architects in a quixotic culture rooted in fidelity to feudal hierarchies and long dead saints..

The chapters describing her several visits to Santa Margherita form an image of stone  everywhere – the houses, cool cellars, stone barns, caves where wine and food are stored.  Also the embedded-in-granite way the women can be entombed alive, apparently willingly, in service to the family.  Nella in the village never married, certain that “men just want a slave.”   But she cares for her aunt full time and is a housewife in every way, though in a female household.

The writing is clear and straightforward. Maggio was previously a science writer and does not waste a reader’s time in self-indulgent digression. But if the narrative is lean, the telling is rooted in poetry and human emotion.  By chapter three, you’re a member of the family peering over her shoulder at a plate of pasta while an older relative urges you to eat more.  We’re back  in the old country, in the remote hill towns where families gather for meals, unmarried adult children live with their parents and a biggest party is a saint’s feast day.

Maggio befriends many Sicilians during the course of her several visits — architects, pharmacists, artisans, café owners and farmers.  The writing shines when she’s describing the landscape and the people.  “We ascended past olive groves, hazelnut trees, and almond and pear orchards in bloom.  We saw the deep-wrinkled necks of older farmers in straw hats who hacked at the soil between trees. March is the season for cultivation in the mountains of Sicily, before the sun gets too hot in April.  I stuck my heard out the window and sniffed the air.  Up here it was chilled champagne.”

If you look hard enough there are cooking recipes in the narrative  “She added chopped walnuts and parsley to the veal and wrapped the mixture in triangular patches of pounded turkey cutlets.  She poked holes in these and inserted tiny cubes of ham, then tied each packet up with string, ready for the frying pan.”

And instructions for making the polished stone mosaics “A pile of semiprecious stones ground flat and thin as crackers lay in the sunlight on the work table, their frosted colors full of promise: matte turquoise, lapis lazuli, … The stones interlocked like a jigsaw puzzle in a marble slab chiseled to hold them.  Later he would polish the stone painting.”

The festival to St. Agatha in Catania in the shadow of Mt. Etna might be the high point in the narrative.  “Every year on February 4 and 5, the men of Catania pull her relics, housed in bejeweled life-sized effigy, through the city’s streets for two days and two nights, the duration of her martyrdom.  It is said to be the second largest religious procession in the world..  Half of the women here are named after her, but it is really a feast for the men, who have claimed the girl saint for their own.”

I hated to finish this superb book with characters fully sketched in their setting and scenes so real that even a reader who has never been to Sicily can absorb the way of life.  I have traveled in Sicily by car, thumb, bus and train.  It’s a wonderful place for the voyager with a knack for connecting with people and enjoying life.

Book review by L. Peat O’Neil, author of Pyrenees Pilgrimage and teaches writing for The Writer’s Center and UCLA.

Travel in Sicily Resources

Zen in the Art of Writing

Ray Bradbury
TheImaginativeConservative.org

Ray Bradbury lived a long and creative life.  He died last week which sent me to my copy of Zen in the Art of Writing, Essays on Creativity, his 1990 book on the writing process.  Bradbury celebrates life and the mystery of imagination in these essays, as he did in public — at readings, lectures and impromptu autographing events.

His essays remind writers to relax and follow the fantastic notions that stalk our logic and reason.  In the urgent elaborations and emotional intensity that awaken our minds, we do our best writing.  Or maybe it’s sheer surprise at creativity  from the unknown dimension that captures our energy.  Sometimes it is pure luck and having enough time to get the words down before a writer’s attention wanes.  Bradbury’s Zen message to writers:  Just write and the rest will unfold.  Thank you, Ray Bradbury, for opening your prescient imagination to us.

I opened the collection  randomly, trusting serendipity and found this passage in the essay about Dandelion Wine:

Here is my celebration, then of death as well as life, dark as well as light, old as well as young, smart and dumb combined, sheer joy as well as complete terror written by a boy who once hung upside down in trees, dressed in his bat costume with candy fangs in his mouth, who finally fell out of the trees when he was twelve and went and found a toy-dial typewriter and wrote his first “novel.”    (page 86)