Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush

 

cover_ladygregorystoothbrush

While a Fellow at the New York Public Library, author Colm Toibin delved into the papers of Lady Gregory held in the Berg Collection and published this thoroughly entertaining biographical sketch in 2002. It may be a short read, but it reassess the literary contributions of Augusta Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin while also having a bit of fun with the mystique of W. B. Yeats’ role in Irish nationalism and the Celtic literary revival.

Augusta, Lady Gregory’s founding of the Abbey Theatre and her encouragement of Irish playwrights is well known. Her writing, especially her contributions to plays attributed solely to W. B. Yeats, is less known. Although Yeats gave Lady Gregory some public credit for this collaboration, he “never acknowledged the extent of her work on Cathleen Ni Houlihan,” which bothered her.

Yet Lady Gregory also let Yeats take the lion’s share of credit for stage management of that production, even though he led just a single dress rehearsal when press were present. In their collaboration on the cycle of Irish legend-plays, Lady Gregory had the better ear for dialogue. She drew on a lifetime of conversations with farmers, trades workers and servants.

Cultural nationalism can’t be the product of one or two persons, no matter how well intentioned or talented. Myriad influences contribute to bonding a culture to a nation or a political stream. Irish authorities thought the plays based on Celtic myths would incite the nationalists to bolder action. Against the advice of cooler conformist advisors such as G. B. Shaw, Yeats and Lady Gregory forged ahead with the Abbey productions. As Toibin explained in an essay for the New York Review of Books (v. 48, n. 13, Aug. 9, 2001, p. 40) written while he was working on this book, the enduring legacy of the Abbey Theater was the nurturing of fresh voices and producing mythic dramas rather than staging political plays that incited hot heads to riot and ruin.

Lady Gregory sustained creative friendships with many writers during her eighty years. The narrative is spiced with anecdotes about the curious habits and behaviors of several icons of 20th century literature culled from Lady Gregory’s letters and diaries. Toibin’s irreverent scholarship sheds light on W.B. Yeats’ inflated sense of self and Lady Gregory’s efforts to edit her public image in order to maintain ties to the Irish aristocracy while supporting revolutionary nationalists.

Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, Colm Toibin

University of Wisconsin Press, 125 pages, ISBN: 029918000X

This review by L. Peat O’Neil appeared in The Bloomsbury Review.

Resources:  W. B. Yeats and the Occult

 

 

Advertisements

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

Life and Death of Eva Peron

Live and Death of Eva Peron
Uncorrected Bound proof

The official website dedicated to biographical research on Eva Peron  presents photos, articles, memoirs by her friends and Argentine citizens.

The New York Times obituary notes that Eva died on July 27, 1952.

For years, I held on to the uncorrected proofs of the book Life and Death of Eva Peron which was published in 1979.  (see photograph at left).  I don’t remember how I acquired the uncorrected proofs, probably at one of the many book sales I go to and comb through piles of oddities from reviewers, publishers and disappointed readers. Recently I donated the book to the friends of the local library, so they can use it in a forthcoming book sale.  And so the book will make the circuit of used book stores and sales, much like Eva’s corpse has traveled.

I wonder if anyone  born after 1995 knows who Evita was?  The broadway musical Evita! might help her live on, similar to the way Jesus Christ Superstar helps Jesus.

Kentucky Sweet Apples

This review appeared in the grass-roots book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review.  Subscribe!

A Taste of the Sweet Apple
Book Cover

A Taste of the Sweet Apple

By: Jo Anna Holt Watson

Sarabande Books, Louisville, Ky

2004, 232 pages

ISBN 1-932511-08-3

paperback $14.95

Jo Anna Holt Watson’s memoir of growing up during the 1940’s is a terrific book for reading clubs and book groups.  It was made into a popular  television series on Kentucky Educational Television.

The story unfolds in Kentucky vernacular through the voices of the authentic characters that populated her childhood.  The author shows a way of life gone by, a time when tobacco farming, horse husbandry, bourbon “sweetners” on the porch and neighbors who knew one another were her family’s status quo.  The story meanders along like easy meal at the picnic table under the shade trees or a bareback ride along a creek.

Holt recounts funny stories like her fulsome Aunt Tott tugging into a Platex girdle one humid Kentucky August.  We learn about her mother, Sallie Gay, who was continually dismayed that her daughter prefered riding the John Deere, learning to spit and sampling varmit stew to starched dresses and hair ribbons.  Holt is kind to the memory of her dad, ‘Doc’ Holt, a country doctor prone to crazy fits and soon dead of a coronary.

The young girl’s hero is Joe Collins, the combination farm manager and body servant who takes care of  ‘Doc’ when he goes wild. No need to reveal how this memoir closes; the going is the point.  Let’s hope Jo Anna Holt Watson writes more books about Kentucky because this tasty-tart mix of family life is a fine start.

Wandering :: Questing

This similar version of this review appeared in the grass-roots book newspaper The Bloomsbury Review.  Subscribe!

Wherever I Wander

Wherever I Wander
Book Cover

Judith Azrael

Impassio Press, Seattle, Wa.

2004, 302 pages

$17. paperback

ISBN 0-9711583-4-7

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

Resources for Book Groups and Readers:

Quotes and Fragments from the book.