"SICILIAN SPLENDORS: Discovering the Secret Places That Speak to the Heart," by John Keahey, Thomas Dunne Books, 294 pages (nf)
John Keahey loves pistachio-flavored desserts — crushed at the ends of a hand-dipped cannoli or whipped into rich, creamy-colored gelati (never green, as that’s an indication of artifice). After decades of dedicated travel to Italy and Sicily and countless pistachio confections, Utah-based travel writer Keahey has earned his label of connoisseur, but it’s the detailed, luminous way he records his out-of-town encounters with a meal, a regular in a town square, a shopkeeper or an unexpected detour that make his work as delightful as taking an actual visit.
With his latest travelogue, "Sicilian Splendors," Keahey uses a 2016 visit to focus on the generous and communal spirit of the Sicilian people. Keahey explains that his “relationship with the people” — not monuments or cuisine or vistas — has kept him returning to this part of the world for so many years. Perhaps the gift to travel so dedicatedly yields one such insight, but the way Keahey approaches his time in the region makes it apparent he has always exercised the respect and patience that affords these valuable relationships and the unique experiences they create.
Part of what makes Keahey’s work such a pleasant read is that he never preaches expertise. Although well-practiced, he remains a traveler, not a native, and he lets that difference create a space for curiosity and joy that readers experience as well.
He writes more than once about street parking and traffic in Sicily, both risky ventures, yet he’s regularly assisted through sketchy situations by locals who truly mean him no harm — one even climbs behind the wheel of Keahey’s rental car and deftly maneuvers the vehicle out of an impossibly tight turn-around before climbing back onto his scooter and disappearing on his way. It’s only later that Keahey learns his adventure occurred in a questionable part of town.
Although Keahey travels with “goals for (his) visits,” he finds that it’s the unexpected occurrences that provide him some of his loveliest Sicilian moments. A worker welcomes him into a building during a rainstorm and when Keahey offers him a Toscanello cigar, the delighted worker shares the history of the building in return.
More than once, Keahey’s visit to a random bar results in a local’s excellent restaurant recommendation. And as the book’s afterword, Keahey tells of experiencing a terrible nosebleed at a café where he is changing his broken shoelace. A handful of patrons at other tables notice his plight and rush to offer assistance. When he encounters one of the women the next day, she immediately inquires about his health. Keahey, valuing this interaction as what keeps him returning to Sicily, knows just what to say to allow the woman’s response to be as light-hearted and generous as she intends it. Their exchange is delightful.
Keahey’s book includes some Sicilian history — its Greek and African heritage, its people identifying more as Sicilians than as Italians, its painful relationship with the Mafia — but Keahey offers only what he needs to illuminate the Sicilian people and culture of today. Truly all his vignettes are focused on interactions with people and the kindness and color (and very often good food) that come from their time together.Comment on this story
After thanking the many people who helped him during his nosebleed incident, one woman reminds Keahey: “Sir, this is Sicily. We help. Tell people that Sicily is not the Mafia.” She is followed later by the barkeeper who greets Keahey’s mess with a smile and a complimentary gelato cone. Keahey leaves this experience as readers will leave his book — satisfied, grateful and happily anticipating the next adventure.
Content advisory: "Sicilian Splendors" does not contain strong language, sexual or violent content.
If you go …
What: John Keahey reads from "Sicilian Splendor"
When: Saturday, Nov. 24, 7 p.m.
Where: Weller Book Works, 607 S. Trolley Square
How much: Free