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

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The Gastronomica Reader :: Wikimania 2012

The Gastronomica Reader
Book Cover

What fun to find, by chance, that the Gastronomica Reader published in 2010 and edited by Darra Goldstein, which includes my long article about Diana Kennedy and Mexican organic farming is included in a biblio encyclopedia run by an Estonian webarian!

Fun because this connects directly to last week’s Wikimania 2012 in Washington, DC where I met the wikipedian from Estonia, Raul Veede.

Synchronicity and random serendipity are the indicators I follow in order to avoid the contrived pressures of marketing, crowd control, issues management, individual greed and social aggression.  Long live the randomness of the internet and the global volunteer efforts of wiki writers everywhere who are the activist-intellectual descendants of Thomas Paine.

Resource: Gastronomica, The Journal of Culture and Food.

An American in Oz

Jennifer Monahan has written an engaging account of an extended trip around Australia.

An American in Oz

Subtitled “Discovering the Island Continent of Australia” the book offers practical advice for first time travelers in Australia.  From my own experience in Australia, I agree with Jennifer Monahan that you need more than the typical two weeks for a journey Down Under.

Yes, the flight from nearly everywhere else, except New Zealand or Indonesia, is monumental .  Distance is tyranny in Australia — everything is a long way, even when it’s just over there.

I asked the author about her favorite aspect of Australia.  She responded:

“When I talk about my two months in Australia, I’m often asked, “What did you like most about Australia?”
and my first response is always “The people.”  Aussies are the friendliest, most laid back, seriously happy people I have
ever come across. Maybe it has something to do with living on a continent filled with sunshine and surrounded by gorgeous beaches.  I also believe it has a lot to do with the nation’s philosophy to give everyone “A fair go,” which means “Treat everyone fairly and give everyone a fair chance (to do their best).”

Prepare to be entertained as you join Jennifer and her companion during this adventure through Oz.  You’ll learn practical details and how to plan a successful trip.  She started out with a cross-continental train journey and rounded back by driving to the Queensland coast to explore the Great Barrier Reef  and Magnetic Island.  Along the way, they encounter singular characters, surprises and good luck, along with the usual challenges of adventure travel.  All the experiences reported in the book are instructive for other travelers.

Not ready for the big trip to Oz?  Reading this book will take you there vicariously.  Enjoy the ride!

Long Walks in France

Long Walks in France

Adam Nicolson

Harmony Books, 1983

British traveler sets off on foot to tour various regions of France.  He’s interested in people, customs and history and tells unusual lore in a cheerful voice.  Thirty pages of the book mix history and writer’s experiences in a vivid tour of 180 kms through the Pyrenees, from St. Jean Pied du Port to Arrens.

Walking Across France

Join the discussion on books and adventure travel.

One of my favorite books about walking is Miles Morland’s A Walk Across France.   Bloomsbury Books, 1992  New York Times review

An out-of-shape British advertising executive and his French wife hoist rucksacks and walk towards the Atlantic Ocean from Gruissan-Plage near Narbonne on the Mediterranean to Capbreton, north of Bayonne, a distance of 553 km.  Their route takes them along country roads and through farm villages.  It’s hot and dusty, but they slake their thirst with lots of wine.