I read David Farley’s interesting new book while traveling this summer – An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town. Since Farley has contributed several stories to Perceptive Travel (one of which is among the three we got into the Best Travel Writing 2009 anthology), it would make sense for me to review the book on the webzine. Only one problem. This month’s book reviewer is…David Farley. See his Perceptive Travel book reviews September 2009.

So, I’ll follow up raves in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Outside with my own enthusiastic recommendation.

This is a quest book, a stranger in a strange land book, a study of a small city in Italy, a religious history lesson, and a “cast of characters” book all wrapped up in one. And there’s a mystery of course: a search for the lost foreskin of Jesus Christ, which used to be displayed in this little town’s church.

David spent long enough living in the strange little city of Calcata to eventually be able to interview people in Italian and go researching in the Vatican library. His search for what happened to the lost relic leads him on side trips—mostly dead ends—to mystical spots in Italy, to France, and to the doorsteps of people with knowledge who don’t really want to discuss the matter. After all, the ever-morphing Catholic Church is not so gung-ho about displaying shriveled body parts any more and they’ve threatened excommunication to those who openly talk up this one.

So bits and pieces of the mystery’s answer float in here and there, but this book is more about the journey than any resolved discovery. Calcata itself is the story’s star—a quirky walled and isolated medieval hill town “energy locus” that has drawn hippies and eccentrics from the 60s on. Naturally a place like this has no shortage of strange people living in it, so Farley has a rich source of antics and dialogue to mine in order to lighten up the mood.

The author has become an expert on the history of the Catholic church, the whole history of relics, and Italy itself. Thankfully we get just enough of that knowledge to have the background we need, while reading through a fun, engaging story on eccentric people in “Italy’s oddest town.” Does he find the Holy Foreskin? Well, it doesn’t really matter. This story is entertaining and engrossing enough to make the actual discoveries just a sideshow.

See an excerpt here – Special Education: the Retard’s Guide to Learning Italian

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Tim Leffel is author of five travel books, including Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price, on living abroad. He is editor of Perceptive Travel webzine and this blog. He splits his time between Guanajuato, Mexico and Tampa Bay. See his writing portfolio, awards, and links to his books at TimLeffel.com.