Book By Book
One of the selections for Booktopia 2020 (now a series of virtual author events–you can join in, too!) was Greek to Me by Mary Norris, a writer for The New Yorker. This combination of memoir, essays, and travelogue is an interesting exploration of Greek language, customs, history, and geography.
The author begins by describing how she developed a love for all things Greek and began learning the Greek language by taking classes while working for The New Yorker. She delves into the history of both the Greek and English alphabets and how one influenced the other (my college sorority experience came in handy), which I found surprisingly fascinating. Much of the book covers her many trips to the Greek isles, describing a geography and culture completely unfamiliar to me (though I love the food!). In between her travels to Greece, she continues to study both classical literature and the Greek language, so her descriptions of the places she visits include plenty of history, literature, and mythology references. These are not your typical vacations to fancy Greek resorts or tourist areas but intricate investigations into Greek culture and history. She often travels alone–apparently a rarity for women in Greece. Here, she describes why she prefers to travel solo and what benefits it brings:
“When you travel alone, you are forced to engage with people. Otherwise, you’re stuck with whatever random song was running in your head when you woke up–the theme from Mister Ed, say, or Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini. When you’re with someone from home, it is too easy to stay comfortable, in your own idiom and daily regimen and character. You never have the feeling of alienation that is so formative to an experience in a strange place. Living in Greek was a relief from my interior monologue. Because my Greek was limited, I concentrated on saying only things that were direct and essential. There was no place for small talk. Back at home, I was terrible at small talk. In the Mediterranean, no one knew that. I could make myself up as I went along.”
I struggled with this book a bit at first but ultimately enjoyed it and am glad I read it. I have always wanted to visit Greece, so I was curious about the travel aspects of the memoir. I have to admit, though, that many of her frequent references to classic literature and mythology were completely unfamiliar to me. I know many people who find mythology fascinating (including my son), but I’ve just never been very interested in it. Since I don’t share the author’s obsessions in these subjects, some passages were a bit slow or boring to me. And I was completely lost with all her New Yorker name-dropping. I can see, though, that those who are interested in classic literature, mythology, and Greek history would be fascinated by her deep dive (and the outstanding reviews for this book reflect that). Overall, though, there was plenty here that I enjoyed, particularly in the second half of the book, which focuses more on her travels. And I definitely want to visit Greece! The author will be talking and answering questions tonight at 5 pm online through Northshire Bookstore, and I look forward to hearing her speak.
222 pages, W.W. Norton & Company
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