Already Home :: A Topography of Spirit and Place
Barbara Gates searches her backyard for personal meaning, exploring what’s hidden behind the obvious.
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.
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.
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.
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 Stone Boudoir
Travels Through the Hidden Villages of Sicily
Perseus Publishing, 2002
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.
This similar version of this review appeared in the grass-roots book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review. Subscribe!
Wherever I Wander
Impassio Press, Seattle, Wa.
2004, 302 pages
When I picked up Judith Azrael’s collection of essays, I wondered if this would be another memoir by another lyrical questing Buddhist watching the self in stillness and motion. After all, that “I” in the title portends self-involvement.
Instead, this reader entered a world of meticulous attention to the other. Azreal constructs clear portraits of the other consciousnesses — people, animals, environments — that she encounters. The author spends her words carefully, crafting details that compose places; her writing is grounded in sensual information. Though she reveals herself ever so gradually, the real focus of the book is on the other, whether that other is an abandoned baby seal, a group of prisoners, a house or the sea.
Review by L. Peat O’Neil
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Quotes and Fragments from the book.