Gertrude Stein was a prolific reader. After she quit Johns Hopkins medical school, she took up a seat at the British Museum and read every novel in their collection. She was learning how to write a novel that would exceed everything that had already been published—The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress.
Given the terrible daily news coming from the White House in Washington, DC, the Steiny Road Poet has buried herself in reading this summer—mostly reading fiction set in Greece. She planned an escape to a couple of the Cycladic Islands in July and, having never visited Greece, she wanted to learn as much as she could about Greek culture from inside and outside perspectives.
Here’s her eclectic list with precis:
Literary Novels or Novellas:
Apartment in Athens by Glenway Wescott published in 1945
—Set in Athens during World War II, a family of four are forced to share their two-bedroom apartment with a Nazi officer who takes over the master bedroom, bath and sitting room leaving the family with the children’s bedroom and the kitchen. Well written, it’s an intense psychological profile in the shadow of the Acropolis.
The Girl under the Olive Tree by Leah Fleming published in 2016
—High adventure, romance, history, and early feminism rolled into one satisfying novel that is good for long plane or ferry rides and certainly languorous lie-downs on the beach. Set in WWII, a young woman escapes her British mother’s wish to make her a debutante, learns nursing from the Red Cross, joins her sister and new brother-in-law in Athens and never comes home until after the war. Born of a Greek father, this blond dyes her hair with walnut oil to blend in with the resistance fighters in Crete. She nearly goes to a concentration camp when she tries to aid a Jewish couple so much like her best friends parents.
The Greeks Have a Word for It by Barry Unsworth published in 1967
— This is a slow-moving novel about an English grifter who shows up in Athens wanting a job. He makes himself available to teach English, but he is neither trained nor ethical. In his own way, he is however charming. While Unsworth follows his main character Kennedy, he weaves in the story of a Greek man who was traumatically orphaned during WWII. The story of Mitsos adds an element of intrigue and danger. His story is what kept me reading to the last page.
Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou as translated by Karen Emmerich published in 2003
—A young girl named Maria is brought back to her native Greece from South Africa and she causes trouble until a Parisian girl named Anna is enrolled in Maria’s new school. The novel is set in Athens in the ‘70s after the Greek dictatorship. It deals with Greek politics, radical protests, and the world of art as well as boyfriends and adolescent competitiveness. The writing is good, but you have to like stories told by adolescent girls to enjoy this.
Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou as translated by Karen Emmerich published in 2010
—Sixteen stories make up Something Will Happen, You’ll See. These stories, situated between Athens and the near-by port city of Piraeus, deal with working class people laid-off during the recent Greek economic crisis.
Santorini Caesars by Jeffrey Siger published in 2016
—While Jeffrey Siger is not a fine literary writer, he is one fine storyteller. He has written nine novels featuring the Greek detective Andreas Kaldis. This eighth novel in the series gives many details about the island paradise Santorini and concerns the assassination of a young demonstrator and how her death connects to the Greek military. The characters are well drawn.
An Aegean April by Jeffrey Siger published in 2018
—This the ninth novel featuring the Greek detective Andreas Kaldis. The story deals with immigration from Turkey through the Island Lesvos, birthplace of the poet Sappho. Running amok in this novel is hired assassin who has used a huge sword to split in half a wealthy shipping magnate who has been supporting a nonprofit helping immigrants. This one should be made into a film.
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell published in 1956
—The celebrated Durrell family with all their quirks and warts comes alive through the pen of the youngest member of this writerly clan—Gerald Durrell. This British family moves to the Greek Island of Corfu for a five-year stint from 1935 to 1939. The story is told through his ten-year-old eyes. It’s filled with his adventures collecting and studying the wild life on Corfu. It’s funny and poignant and above all well written.
On the Unhappiness of Being Greek by Nikos Dimou published in 2013
—On the Unhappiness of Being Greek by Nikos Dimou is philosophy by the number. Every thought is numbered but the good thing is Dimou has categories like Myths & Fears, Sex, Religion, Emigration and much more. Some of the points are exceedingly sad and some outrageously funny. What grounds this as credible commentary on the Greek character are the writers quoted. Prepare to consume slowly or do what the modern-day Greeks do —binge and then eat Tums anti-acid pills.
Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry edited by Karen Van Dyck published in 2016
— Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry is a substantial contemporary look at Greece in the 21st Century. Subjects addressed include the Greek economic crisis, world-wide immigration, and the general human condition. Not only is it bilingual but it is well documented with introduction, bios on the originating author and the translator, notes on the poems, separate indices of the poems in English and Greek and credits for poems that were original publication credits. Here’s a poem by Stamatis Polenakis as translated by A. E. Stallings that captures the heart of this anthology. [Note that Faliro is a seaside suburb of Athens near Piraeus. This town was the subject of comic love poem by Lorentzos Mavilis (1860-1912) focused on an heiress with a “new-fangled” automobile.]
POETRY DOES NOT SUFFICE
Gentlemen, don’t let anything,
anyone, deceive you:
we were not bankrupted today,
we have been bankrupt for a long time now.
Today it’s easy enough
for anyone to walk on water:
the empty bottles bob on the surface
without carrying any secret messages.
The sirens don’t sing, nor are they silent,
they merely stay motionless,
dumbstruck by the privatization
of the waves and no
poetry doesn’t suffice since the sea filled up
with trash and condoms.
Let him write as many sonnets as he wants about Faliro,
that Lorentzos Mavilis.
So, what did Steiny learn from her Greek oriented reading which includes British, American, and Greek authors? Myth is an important subject drawn from ancient roots even in contemporary culture. Greeks while community oriented can be rather nomadic. Money isn’t the end all be all, but it does severely impact the quality of life if one lacks financial resources. Superstition still plays a role in Greek life and may be rolled into one’s psychological wellbeing.
If you, Dear Reader, are also going to Greece and want Steiny’s top three choices, she recommends On the Unhappiness of Being Greek (only 45 pp), An Aegean April (one of Siger’s detective novels), and Something Will Happen, You’ll See (contemporary short stories). After that, Steiny recommends a couple more titles: Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry (these poems can be read in any order, one at time in short sessions) and The Girl under the Olive Tree (good for overall look at WWII history in Greece).
Happy Summer Reading!