Sicilian Odyssey

Sicilian Odyssey

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by Francine Prose

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A blending of art and cultural criticism, travel writing, and personal narrative, Sicilian Odyssey is Francine Prose's imaginative consideration of the diverse cultural legacies found juxtaposed and entangled on the Mediterranean island of Sicily. She writes of the intensity of Sicily, the "commitment to the extreme," where the history is more


A blending of art and cultural criticism, travel writing, and personal narrative, Sicilian Odyssey is Francine Prose's imaginative consideration of the diverse cultural legacies found juxtaposed and entangled on the Mediterranean island of Sicily. She writes of the intensity of Sicily, the "commitment to the extreme," where the history is more colorful, the sun hotter, the cooking earthier, the violence more horrific, the carnival more raucous, the politics more Byzantine than other places on Earth, and how much the island can teach us about the triumph of beauty over violence and life over death.

Prose examines architectural sites and objects and looks at the ways in which myth and actuality converge. Exploring the intact and beautiful Greek amphitheaters at Siracusa and Taormina, the cathedral at Monreale, the Roman mosaics at Piazza Armerina, and some of the masterpieces of the Baroque scattered throughout the island, Prose focuses her keen insight to imagine them in their own time, to examine the evolution and decline of the cultures that produced them, and to deconstruct powerful responses each evokes in her.

Illuminated by the author's own photographs, Sicilian Odyssey brings exotic and enigmatic Sicily to life through the prism of its past.

Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
Novelist and essayist Prose has long taken a keen interest in art, architecture, photography and cultural history. Not surprisingly, she proves to be a particularly knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide to Sicily. — Merle Rubin
Publishers Weekly
If asked to pick the "one quality that seems dependable, immutable, endlessly available" in Sicily, novelist and essayist Prose would choose intensity. It is difficult, she admits, to resist the superlative when describing such a place-an inclination that often gets the better of her as she recounts her month-long sojourn on the island. Thankfully, her descriptive excesses are eclipsed by the overall strength of this absorbing travelogue, which melds observation, anecdote, history and myth-the last a subject that formed the framework of Prose's previous work, The Lives of the Muses. The author and her companion traveled to Sicily in February 2002, partly to experience its pleasures but also, as a New Yorker in the wake of the September 11 attacks, "to discover what this island has learned and can teach us about the triumph of beauty over violence, of life over death." Prose's fatalism is well suited to an island that has lived with death-at the hands of foreign invasions and internal brutality-for centuries without forgetting how to celebrate life. Driving through Sicily, Prose explores both its beauty and ugliness; facing the grief that so often underlies Sicilian gaiety allows her to come to terms with her newly fragile world. This process enriches Prose's varied, engaging musings on subjects ranging from the simple wonders of Sicilian cooking to the craziness of Carnivale in a culture that can party with the best of them. Her slim but dense volume is a perfect traveling companion for those planning to visit Sicily and an excellent surrogate for those staying at home. B&w photos by author. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
If the gods couldn't get enough of Sicily, figures novelist Prose (Blue Angel, 2000, etc.), the island must have plenty going for it-and she's right. This latest in National Geographic's sophisticated, fleet, intelligent series of travel writing finds Prose seeking "that Sicilian gift for extracting beauty from the harshest and most painful truths, for compelling death to admit its debt and allegiance to life, for creating an enduring-a vital and living-masterpiece." She does a good job of it all. She writes with a cautious lyricism about a land where natural and manmade splendors coexist with sustained and terrible bloodshed (also caused both by nature and by man), calling up a colorful, brutal history seen in a remarkably preserved Greek Temple or Roman mosaic; a giddily baroque Palermo and the stinking, fuming Gela; the sweep of ocean and hills below Erice, that severe, frosty town that suggests how "it must feel to be inside a diamond; its perfection is almost physically painful." Prose has the descriptive touch, whether summoning a ghostly Phoenician outpost, the pink and ochre palaces of Ortygia, or a raw and primal fish market. She makes vivid the distinctiveness of the island's cooking despite its use of only a few, common ingredients, and doesn't avoid the disorientation that comes when organized crime becomes the law. She is very good with history, and Sicily has a furious one, which Prose treats with a light hand for all its action and misery, with Romans being chased out by Vandals, those in turn conquered by Ostrogoths before the island was annexed by Byzantium, only to fall to the Saracens, who built Palermo's 300 mosques and turned it into the capital of Islamiccivilization, which would soon be overwhelmed by Normans, "the Hell's Angels of the medieval world." The author's Sicilian Odyssey was brief but intense, spent peering indefatigably behind or underneath the deceptively obvious. (Photographs)

Product Details

National Geographic Society
Publication date:
National Geographic Directions Series
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Product dimensions:
5.68(w) x 8.33(h) x 0.87(d)

Meet 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. 

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
April 1, 1947
Place of Birth:
Brooklyn, New York
B.A., Radcliffe College, 1968

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Sicilian Odyssey 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
By Bill Marsano. This small book is a large achievement. In less than 40,000 words (about one-third the length of the average novel) Francine Prose commits almost every sin in, as the say, the book. It can't have been easy. Prose is a novelist of some reputation, chosen probably because the editor thinks novelists are Real Writers who will lend credibility to travel writing, which is, after all, journalism's sandbox. (Also because they know travel books by novelists are routinely over-praised.) Prose's passion for Sicily is dubious. Although she claims often and unconvincingly that she wishes to be re-born a Sicilian, she has visited but once before--10 years ago. Such devotion is a little on the cool side, is it not? Does she have some insights to ipart? Indeed, she tells us traffic in Palmermo is 'homicidal'; that Catanians love sweets immoderately; that Sicilian life 'burns at a high heat'; that the Ancient Greeks wouldn't recognize Sicily today; the Sicilian food is not subtle; that Sicilians have a gift for overcoming tragedy that is specifically their own. Her silly comments on the Sicilian aristocracy are at least mildly amusing. And her writing is both awful and lazy. She writes in the present tense--the lazy way of getting to the bottom of the page, of getting it over with, with a minimum of effort. ('Name' writers love book assignments like this because they pay well, but their work ethic often deserts them. They think they're on vacation.) Like so many other bad travel writers, Prose is short of imagination: She can't get past the first graf without reaching for 'magical,' the travel hack's favorite word. She piles up words instead of really writing. For example, when she wants to tell us that 'many pilgrims in a religious procession carry candles' (that's eight words) she says instead that they 'carry long yellow candles they will light in the course of their peregrination around the holy sites associated with the saint scattered through the old quarter' (that's twenty-six). What we want from a writer is some electricity in the words, some vigor, some sign of delight in mastery of language. Prose gives us prose, not poetry--drab, bloated, prosaic prose, comma-crippled and tedious. She uses crutches so often I began counting them. Eternally indecisive, she says 'seems' more than 60 times, occasionally switching to 'perhaps,' 'almost,' 'maybe' and 'a little like.' She finds things 'disturbing' nine times and also leans on 'perilous,' 'upsetting,' 'alarming' and 'spooky.' Well of course: The Real Writer does NOT enjoy herself, especially because she is in Sicily 'to discover what this island has learned and can teach us about the triumph of beauty over violence of life over death.' (Really?) Prose often mentions 9/11 as if she were the only one affected by it. She experiences 'panic' at an old castle and again while planning to visit Mozia, a tiny island a few yards off the coast: '. . . what if the fisherman who ferries us out there gets distracted and forgets about us, and we're stuck out there all night? What if we're stranded, exposed to the elements, alone with the spirits of the Phoenician traders who first came to Mozia in the eighth century B.C. and who lived in harmony with their Greek neighbors until the Carthaginian wars, when Dionysius the Elder of Syracuse, using catapults, missiles and battering rams--state-of-the-art tools of fourth-century warfare--destroyed the settlement and much of its population?' What if, indeed. This is drama-queen panic--she's still in her hotel. If stranded, she can just return to the island's museum and tell the attendant. And why on earth would she write or commit such a gross and clumsy sentence to begin with? Apart from the awful writing, Prose misquotes Goethe and commits numerous grammatical and spelling errors. Everyone connected with this shabby performance should be embarrassed, copy editor included.--Bill Marsano is a professional magazine