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.

From Agincourt to Zanzibar

From Agincourt to Zanzibar, A Where-in-the-World Guide

Agincourt to Zanzibar
Agincourt to Zanzibar

From Agincourt to Zanzibar is just the ticket for traveling through history.

Curious about Capri? Wondering about Waterloo?

Then drill through this book for insight and background data.

Authors Don Hausrath and Paul Wasserman have created a fact-filled gazette of mythical and real place names. The book is a fantastic resource for thoughtful travelers, teachers and trivia fans.

Especially useful is the index of place names by category — defunct empires, crucial battles, biblical sites and other locations celebrated in fiction and film.

Who knew Hoboken had such an interesting past?

Edge of a Changing World

A Gathering of Stones – Journeys to the Edges of a Changing World

A Gathering of Stones
Book Cover

Carol Ann Bassett

Oregon State University Press

Corvallis, Or. 2002

ISBN 0-87071-545-3

120 pages, no index.

$12.95 paperback

Carol Ann Bassett, the author of A Gathering of Stones and a professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication,  sure does get around.  The book covers journeys to Ecuador, the Northwest Territories of Canada, the Mojave, the Kalahari Desert in Africa, and other outposts around the globe.

Bassett’s writing and subject matter appeals to the thoughtful traveler. In the first chapter, Calling Down the Moon, she offers a lucid explanation of the geologic evolution of the Sonora Desert, the birthing of the west, its plants, volcanoes and stones.  Her writing is engaging, not always an easy task when explaining geology and botany.

A few of the journeys occurred a number of years ago and could have profited from factual updates.  For example, in the compelling account of a 10-day shepherding trek across Arizona with immigrant Basque herders in 1986, Bassett skillfully captures the men’s wistful lonely life and their crusty exteriors.  She reports that the men come from their Spanish Basque homelands to work a few years (or longer) on contract with the Western Ranger Association. It’s not revealed whether any of herders are working there now or whether other men are still arriving from Basque lands to herd in the American west.

Geoglyphs, which are rock alignments and giant figures created by indigenous peoples, are best seen from the air.  Bassett describes some of these monuments in the Mojave located inside U.S. Army training compounds.  Quite possibly the rock figures have been defaced by routine weapons firing.  The rocks were sacred relics for first peoples of the lower Colorado River region, yet we don’t know the current condition of the rock alignments or whether scientists who want to study them are still forbidden entry to the military area. Such mindless institutional desecration is difficult to read about.  Perhaps that is Bassett’s intent: to send the curious reader to the Internet to research the status of these cultural relics.

Bassett tackles the downside of nature tourism, which can deposit hundreds of visitors a day in fragile habitats such as the Galapagos Islands.  She discusses the inveterate laxity of enforcement even though protective laws may be in place.

Though all of the chapters offer sleek writing about important subjects, the facts are sometimes left open ended.  Perhaps this serves brevity, but the absence of fact grounding and updates reveals the previous incarnation of many of the chapters — as newspaper and magazine feature content for travel consumers hunting down fresh exotica. Collected in book format, the older journeys would be more meaningful for a contemporary reader if current conditions in these threatened regions had also been examined, at least as brief epilogues.

In the chapter Where Butterflies are Souls, Bassett paints a detailed portrait of the Tarahumara people and handily compares the Aztec Day of the Dead celebrations with a gloomy Catholic mass.  This second largest (Navaho nation is larger) indigenous American population north of Mexico City experiences socio-cultural stress from clear-cutting of forests for lumber and abandonment of their traditional practices in favor of work in the lumber mills. Attentive readers will also get the message that the indigenous people are also affected by the intrusion of ethno-tourists who pack into eco-lodges to observe the Tarahumara ways.

In other chapters, Bassett bravely discusses the issue. Ethno tourism may provide survival revenue for tribal peoples near extinction, but at what cost? It is demeaning to the natives and tourists alike as the visiting westerners peer at household rituals of fire making, eating and washing.  Are we to stop traveling, stop the momentum of progress?

Curious readers will want to do further research to investigate the outcomes of these threatened locations and peoples.  The collection is a solemn drumbeat, a wake for vanishing people, regions and cultures.

Book review by L. Peat O’Neil was published in excellent book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review.

Peat O’Neil is a writing instructor and author of Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story published by Writer’s Digest Books.