Sicilian Odyssey (Directions) Hardcover – 28 Nov 2003
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At her best, Francine Prose conveys the distilled, sympathetic wisdom of the unfaltering observer. That characteristic pervades her evocative travel memoir Sicilian Odyssey--part of the National Geographic Directions series. A few months after the trauma of September 11, Prose embarked with her husband on a trip to Sicily, "partly to discover what this island has learned and can teach us about the triumph of beauty over violence, of life over death". She colourfully invokes the profuse legends and myths linked with Sicily (Homer's "Island of the Sun", where Odysseus washed ashore) as a classical backdrop to her own odyssey, which at times assumes the character of a trip back to a timeless, pre-modern way of life.Prose is especially effective at threading into her narrative fascinating items of reference--artistic, historical and sociopolitical--without appearing didactic. She packs an extraordinary amount of information into her account: observations about art history (including a trenchant interpretation of Caravaggio's disturbing "The Burial of St. Lucy"), the spectacle of religious ecstatics, accounts of culinary traditions, political intrigue and memorable character sketches of people engaged in everyday habits, with the novelist's touch for the telling detail. Throughout, Prose is keen to capture the varying moods--cheerful colours as well as melancholy strain--of a place that "has seen countless cycles of violence and peace, of poverty and prosperity, of horror and beauty" and yet embodies humanity's will to survive. As the ultimate travel guide, her prose conveys sights, sounds, smells and sense of the place with vicarious finesse. --Thomas May, Amazon.com
About the Author
Francine Prose is the author of ten novels, including "Bigfoot Dreams, Primitive People, "and "Blue Angels, "and two collections of her short fiction. Prose's essays have appeared in "The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, Elle, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, "and "The New Yorker. "She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, and a PEN translation prize. She lives in New York City with her husband.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
_Sicilian Odyssey_ lacks the familiarity based on long-time residence underlying Peter Robb's involuted and near-desparing _Midnight in Sicily_ , Daphne Phelps's The Most Beautiful House in Sicily, or Mary Taylor Simeti's _On Persephone's Island_. Prose's travel book is, however, much better informed than Lawrence Durrell's entertaining _Sicilian Carousel_, but there are not any characters as vivid in Prose's book as some of those in the other books I've mentioned.
I think that Prose's book is a useful introduction to Sicily that also contains much of interest to those with previous experience of Sicily and the writings about it in English.
She writes acutely about food (rightly summing up that "if freshness [of ingredients] is the hallmark of Sicilian cuisine, subtlety is not").and art and architecture, with insightful bits of appreciation of Sicilian writers and photographers and of what Caravaggio did while on Sicily. Also, her photographs (reproduced in black-and-white) are sharp and well illustrate some of the points in her text.
As to the strong dislike of the book mentioned by Bill Marsano in a previous review, I'm not sure I agree with his complaints. Some of them feel like professional jealousy for the soft assignment Francine Prose received from National Geographic to write this book. He criticizes her prose, and while it can be unnecessarily ornate at times, it isn't as extravagant as he proclaims. Francine Prose seems to be having fun trying to capture her thoughts and emotions, while Marsano seems to prefer some objective, semi-historian approach to travel writing. He also criticizes her for not having spent much time in Sicily, but I don't have a problem with that. I think it's as useful to read a limited perspective of a place as it is to read an expert's description. There's something to be said for the honesty of a first impression.
I'd give it 3.5 stars (and 4 if you're planning a trip or in love with Sicily).
But things started to sour when she drew a parallel between Sicilians’ embrace of beauty in the face of tragedy and her New Yorker’s need to visit the island as a form of therapy post- 9/11. This and other personal anxieties weigh down what could have otherwise been an interesting cultural tour of the island. But after a while the cataloguing of the artistic merits of what seems like every church on the island starts to sound more obsessive than enlightening. The art commentary has a snobbish tone to it, which may explain why Taormina, the most popular tourist town, is completely excluded from her itinerary. And after the promising start with Daedalus, she never misses a chance to see a paradox wrapped in enigma, whether in artwork or a plate of pasta.
If you have room for only one book for your trip to Sicily, skip this one and go with a standard travel guide. It is a place to inspire your own poetic impressions, and leave neurosis behind.