Photo: Easter festival in Sicily

Festivals described in the new book, Seeking Sicily, include elaborate Easter celebrations. Here, children dress up as devils.

Photograph by Hans Madej, laif/Redux

By Don George

Book of the Month: Seeking Sicily, by John Keahey

At one point in John Keahey’s new book about Sicily, a Sicilian-born poet friend tries to explain the islanders’ character: “We are not south of Italy; we are north of Africa!” This simple, perspective-spinning declaration is typical of the insights Keahey presents in this impassioned and learned account.

Keahey clearly loves Sicily and Sicilians, and his book is really a quest to understand this largely misunderstood island. Keahey delves into the waves of conquering tribes that have wrested control of Sicily over 3,000 years of human habitation, from the Greeks to the Arabs to the Normans and the northern Italians. He shows us how such a quilted history has stunted the development of a uniquely Sicilian character and culture—and then goes on to show the qualities that nonetheless have emerged and that define the island’s allure for him, from its natural beauties to its fervent festivals to the emotional yearning at its core.

The dominant cultural influences in Sicily even today, Keahey argues, come from the two original colonizing cultures: Greek and Arab. Looking at the island through this filter radically illuminates its architecture, language, and mores. Equally rewarding are Keahey’s charged descriptions of the grand San Giuseppe festival in Racalmuto on March 19, the Santa Rosalia festival in Palermo on July 14, and the famed multi-day celebration of Easter in Enna. His chapter on Sicilian food had me salivating as he described rural restaurants that don’t even have a menu, where lamb simmered to tender perfection, pasta cooked perfectly al dente and vegetables “steamed to just the right crunchiness” are the only offerings for the day—and make for an unforgettable feast.

Whether he is writing about the ebb and flow of the Mafia, the twilight tradition of exquisite painted carts, the Arab folk-trickster Juha who was transformed into the Sicilian Giufa, or the “well-orchestrated disarray” of the Vucciria market in Palermo, Keahey’s love for Sicily infuses every word.

New Book Roundups

All Italy, All the Time

Time magazine’s chief art critic for over 30 years, Robert Hughes guides readers through the city that instilled him with a life-long passion in Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. British historian David Gilmour makes a case for Italy’s distinct regions being greater than its unruly whole in The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples. Lawyer Richard Paul Roe spent more than 20 years pursuing his literary quest to determine the exact locations of nearly every scene in Shakespeare’s so-called Italian Plays, an endeavor he recounts in The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels.

We Can’t Get Enough of Europe

Food and romance intertwine in White Truffles in Winter, by N.M. Kelby, a novel set in Monte Carlo that reimagines the last year of revolutionary chef Auguste Escoffier’s life. Peter Ackroyd, author of a rich tome on the British capital, now looks below the surface in London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets.

One Last Thing:

True Fictions

Great fiction helps us understand the essence of everyday realities: For example, some of my most lasting lessons about Russia, Ireland, and France have come from reading Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and Proust. So I was excited to discover the new collection Best European Fiction 2012, edited by Aleksandar Hemon. The book is a mind-expanding short-story tour through more than two dozen European countries, from Iceland to Serbia. In addition to being identified by the author’s country, the stories are also grouped by theme—including love, desire, crisis, family and home—creating a cross-cultural dialogue that makes this atlas of the European imagination especially stimulating and satisfying.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at

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