My Favorite Books about Greece, and Some That Aren’t
The books on this list, the ones that I like, seem to be very much of a flavor, probably because I read (and reread) a lot, mainly for pleasure, and when I read about Greece what I enjoy most is a strong sense of place, of that world come alive. Of course I also read out of curiosity, to explore writers or subjects I’m drawn to, which clearly would include (almost) all things Greek.
This short list is just that—a short list. It’s nowhere close to all the Greece-related books I’ve read, or all of the good Greece-related books written over the last few thousand years that I haven’t quite gotten to. Some things aren’t included simply because I read them so long ago that I don’t remember enough about the particulars to say anything relevant. This definitely includes the Greek classic philosophy and literature that I dutifully read, some of which I liked. At some point I hope to look at those again, jog my memory, and mention them here. On the other hand, some of the books you see listed are here simply because I’ve read them recently enough to retain an impression, or disliked them enough to retain a strong one. So these are the books that I love, along with some of the others, liked or not, that have come my way and gone—and of course these are just my impressions, my opinions, divided into fiction and nonfiction.
The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
One summer afternoon, on my first trip to Greece in 1968, I sat in a field of high grass behind a taverna, watching a donkey wag his tail, hearing the crickets chirp and the ocean swelling gently in the background and reading Tropic of Cancer, which had just been published in the United States after years of being banned. I don't think I’d ever read anything quite so exuberantly full of life before, and sitting there, in that pristine moment of summer, smiling at the immense energy of it all, was the beginning of a lifetime of respect and love for Miller’s writing. A few years later, I read The Colossus of Maroussi, wherein, simply put, Miller meets Greece. It’s a magnificent book, the book Miller considered his favorite work, chronicling his visit to Greece in 1939. There he hangs out with Lawrence Durrell on Corfu, meets the Greek poet Katsimbalis in the Athens suburb of Maroussi, looks around with his eyes wide open and pretty much loves every minute of it, something he conveys so effectively that most people love it too. A classic for a good reason.
My Family and Other Animals / Birds, Beasts, and Relatives / The Garden of the Gods by Gerald Durrell
I have a lot of fondness for these books, and I’m not alone. Gerald Durell was the younger brother of the better-known writer, Lawrence Durrell, and the whole family lived on Corfu together for four years, from 1935 until 1939, when Henry Miller visited them. Gerald Durrell, who became a distinguished naturalist and zoo keeper, began his explorations of wildlife as a child in Corfu, and he writes about his nature studies and his bohemian family there in a friendly, funny, clever, extremely literate way, all the while knowing and letting us know how golden that time was. Pleasant, intelligent, and full of heart.
Mani/Roumeli by Patrick Leigh Fermor
It took me decades of reading everything I could about Greece before hearing of Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011), described by wiki as a British author, scholar, and soldier, but so clearly extraordinary in each of those fields as to be almost mythical. Ian Fleming supposedly based James Bond partially on him, a movie was made of his WWII exploits, and almost every story told about him informs us that he was in no way an ordinary person, so I really didn’t know what to expect when I finally got around to reading him a couple years after I’d first heard him mentioned.
Mani, his tale of 1950s travel in the Mani area of the Peloponnese, is an amazing book, and although I found it extremely rewarding, you have to be willing to work a bit, and unless you are an extremely well-rounded classical scholar (I’m not even a scholar), be in waters over your head for parts of it as well. It’s worth it because Patrick Leigh Fermor had a heart and the charisma to match his other talents, and clearly he wrote this book out of love for all of Greece, past and present. In Mani, Fermor, so fluent in Greek (and the Cretan dialect) that he could pass as a Cretan peasant in the resistance movement of WWII, explores, accompanied by his wife, this small, at the time still isolated, mountainous tip of the Peloponnese on foot, donkey, and by boat, moving slowly from place to place, meeting people along the way, garnering personal and town histories, and connecting the dots between many different pasts and this present. As they seek out dirge singers, look at icons, trace migratory patterns of birds and beasts, explain ancient and modern feuds, and delight in finding the locations of legends and myths, they stay endearingly human, enjoying the local people, and on the rare occasions when they stay in an actual hotel, happily reading the contemporary novels they’ve brought along, just like anyone on holiday.
I read Roumeli, published in 1962, immediately after Mani, expecting it to be somehow less brilliant, but it was not so. Roumeli, like Mani, is a region of Greece, this time a not-quite-northern strip reaching from west to east. The first chapter on the Saraskatsans—a wild and nomadic sheep and goat herding bunch of tribes that seem to go back forever—was hard for me, probably because their world is so male, and the information so densely packed. Fermor is an amazing scholar, and any subject he sets on is rigorously explored and detailed. But there were just as many parts of this book that thrilled me, moved me to tears, and educated me in the best way, by exciting my curiosity and enthusiasm to know more.
I don’t love everything about Fermor’s writing, but why bother to criticize? These are serious, loving books, and now, sixty years later, that world that Fermor chronicled probably doesn’t really exist anymore, just as the world he wrote them for doesn’t really exist anymore. In that light it’s even more precious what he’s done in these pages as a scholar, so I’m just grateful for it, glad to read through the occasionally way-too-flowery prose or parts that I can’t understand without hitting wiki for every reference. For some of it I did just that, and that had its value too. This is a book of two hundred pages, compact yet big in every way. It’s also a book that is bigger than the sum of its parts. It takes us to the places he’s visiting and makes them alive and real, and then it steps someplace beyond, someplace timeless and shining. This is what Greece does when you let it, and Patrick Leigh Fermor clearly let it, in a big way.
It’s All Greek to Me! A Tale of a Mad Dog and an Englishman, Ruins, Retsina—and Real Greeks by John Mole
Published in 2006, this was my favorite of these contemporary books. A British couple, with a young family, who live and work in Athens, buy and restore a house on an island. Despite the fact that it seems a worn-out framework for a nonfiction book (My year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun, etc.), some of the stories told here are really kind of wonderful. Told well, without any pretense, simply as the good stories that they are, this was a book I was glad someone had written, and a nice read about Greece.
Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece by Patricia Storace
This was a well-reviewed book when it was published in 1997, but I don’t much care for it, nor did anyone else I spoke with about it. It’s tone is cool and slightly academic, giving off the feeling that although the author’s project was to write about her year in Greece, she doesn’t seem to particularly like or admire the place much at all. Cleanly written and yes, she’s smart enough, but ho hum.
The Summer of My Greek Taverna by Tom Stone
Published in 2002, this is a much better read, but still not worth going out and getting unless you too are curious about all writings on Greece. Tom Stone, an American who lived in Greece for years, at one point lived out his dream of running a taverna, which predictably enough wasn’t how he’d imagined it. There are some really nice descriptive moments in the book, and it’s clear that his experience of Greece is beyond the superficial, but the story itself doesn’t really give us enough depth of plot or character to carry us along.
Eurydice Street by Sofka Zinovieff
A British anthropologist/journalist, married to a Greek who has lived outside the country for years, moves their young family to Athens, and things are confusing. This, once again, is really only interesting if you want to read everything out there. If you do, this is a kind of collection of experiences, along with some interesting stories of family, old and new politics, bits of history and cultural idiosyncrasies. I personally found it a dull read, and I’m probably more interested in this stuff than most people.
Eleni by Nicholas Gage
This was a very well-received and -reviewed book, when it was published in the 80s, and was even made into a movie. Clearly some people, quite a few, think highly of it. But it is an extremely dark book, and not one I would pick up lightly. Nicholas Gage, a New York Times reporter, investigated and published the story of his mother’s 1948 torture and execution by a band of communist insurgents who had taken over their small village during the Greek civil war. I read it back when it came out and was overwhelmed by the horror of the story, although what seemed even more overwhelming to me was Gage’s sense of barely contained rage and the intensity of his cold hard factuality. I don’t plan to ever re-read this, and I feel a little guilty saying this now, but in my memory the book was both so metallically fact packed and so full of rage that I was deadened to the point where I couldn’t read and feel any sympathy for or with any of the characters, even the mother who sacrificed herself so that her children could escape. I think “inspiring” was one of the words used to publicize this book, which won prizes and rave reviews, but I don’t think that’s a correct word at all. I mean was Auschwitz inspiring? Maybe some of the individual acts of heroism there were, but that hardly makes the details of it palatable. This is an awful story, in a way a dish of revenge served cold, so I can only recommend it if you have both the stomach for it and an interest in the history of that place and time.
Lord Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy
I have to admit this is hardly about Greece, and yet, much more than The Magus, some of it is. This exhaustive biography of Lord Byron details both his first trip to Greece, where as a young man he seems essentially out to explore his sexuality as fully as possible, and then his return and death there fifteen years later, dedicating himself to the Greek struggle for independence from the Turks.
Road to Rembetika by Gail Holst
As one of the two books about rebetika in English, this short book, written by an Australian woman in 1975, has stayed in print for quite a while and is a good overview of the rebetika culture. Subtitled Music of a Greek Sub-Culture/Songs of Love, Sorrow, and Hashish, it has parts that are interesting, others dry, and some that will only be accessable to people able to understand musical modes and rhythmic structures. Still, it’s definitely worth looking at if you’re interested in the story of the music, if only for the sensitive, fine profiles of her rebetika friends from the olden days.
Songs of the Greek Underworld: The Rebetika Tradition by Elias Petropoulos. Translation and additional text by Ed Emery
I read this strange little book/pamphlet, one of two books in English about rebetika, in a couple hours, since it crossed my path during the construction of this website. It’s an unusually mixed bag of a read, and I’d probably only recommend reading it if it fell into your hands, or you wanted a quick rebetika 101 summary. It begins with Emery’s introduction of Petropoulos himself, a rebellious, provocative gadfly of a scholar, twice imprisoned in Greece for his writing, who has documented, among other subjects, the world of rebetika. Then comes the Petropoulos text itself, which meanders all over the place, dropping nuggets of information, presenting the “rebetis” as a social rebel, and giving descriptions of appearance, clothing, weapons, slang, the hierarchy of prison life, and hashhish, along with metre of rebetiko poetry, roots, and more. Then there is the historical introduction of rebetika and the appendices by Ed Emery, which are informative, and the lyrics (in Greek and English) and music to some songs. It’s all a bit disjointed, with some of it being quite interesting, some of it quite forgetable, and some of it touching. Ed Emery has an online webpage, which includes a brief history of rebetika, and I’ve listed it in the Links section.
Zorba the Greek / The Greek Passion by Nikos Kazantzakis
I started reading Kazantzakis as a teenager, before I had any idea of Greece as a real place that could be important to me, and pretty much read through everything that I could get a hold of. If you have the same response to his writing, that’s a completely worthwhile thing to do, but for starters, these are the two I’d recommend. Zorba, published in 1946, a novel written in the first person, tells the story of a young Greek intellectual’s friendship with a larger-than-life, twice his age, working, adventuring man, Alexis Zorba. As they travel and work together to reopen an old lignite mine in Crete, a deep friendship is formed. It seems wrong to try to summarize this book, which is so universally well loved it was made into a movie and then a musical, but it is definitely a must-read kind of book for anyone interested in Greece. The Greek Passion, with a darker plot line, tells the story of a mountain village under the control of the Turks in the final years of the Ottoman empire. The actors are chosen for the village’s Easter passion play, the reenactment of Christ’s trial, suffering, and death, and some of the actors take their roles seriously. Bad things happen in the village that parallel their trials in the play.
My opinion of Kazantzakis as a writer and storyteller is very high. His descriptions of village life are vivid and immediate, his characters both intensely human and almost mythical, and their dilemmas are clear and sympathetic. Greece pours through his writing, and I can’t think of anything better to say than that.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
This serious, sad, and beautifully written novel, published in 1996, tells the story of Jacob, a 13-year-old Polish Jewish boy, rescued from the holocaust by a Greek geologist and kept hidden in Greece during the war, after his family is killed by the Nazis. Later in the book, someone who has been touched by Jacob’s poetry becomes the narrator. There’s a lovely sense of Greece conveyed in the writing, of the unspoken, generous humanity found there, that makes it possible to read this very sad narrative without closing down emotionally. Nonetheless, I read it in small increments. Certainly not the book you take along on vacation, but very, very fine.
Captain Correlli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
Made into a movie with some gorgeous shots of the island of Cephalonia (and of a young Christian Bale looking memorably gorgeous without his shirt), this 1994 novel brings to life the Italian and then German occupation of a Greek island in WW2, the buildup, the followup, and the aftermath, as it folds in and out of a love story between a young Greek woman and an Italian soldier. It’s very nicely written, densely packed, and more than a little male in flavor, which is pretty unavoidable I guess, given the subject matter. It’s not what I’d call one of my favorite books, but it took me to Greece and was an intelligent, satisfying, and thorough read, enough so that thinking about it now makes me want to go back and read it again, so there you go.
To the Island by Meaghan Delahunt
An Australian women, a dancer who has never met her Greek father, makes the trip to find him on his island after the death of her stepfather and some other difficult life changes. Her father, a complete unknown to her, has his own ghosts, a result of torture at the hands of the military junta that took control of Greece for seven years, beginning in 1967. This isn’t a pretty thing to read about, and the fact that it was difficult for me to warm up at all to the daughter, the book’s main figure, made it tough going at first, but I was won over by the honesty of the writing, the depictions of rural island life, and the story of her father, an academic who had returned to the island to live alone and farm his grandparents’ land. As the most recently written of these novels about Greece—it was published in 2009 in Great Britain—it presents the past in the context of the present, and as the villagers hear the Athens and world news on the television in the local bars, or read the headlines of a newspaper, we know this is a fairly recent now. There is some very nice writing in this book, and I’m glad to have read it.
The Magus by John Fowles
Published in 1965, this isn’t really a book about Greece at all, but it opens in Greece and the descriptive writing is very good. It’s also a book where what you think is happening is continuously snatched away from you, and I found that highly annoying, to say the least. It’s considered a classic and is sold in most of the tourist shops of Greece, next to the suntan lotion and copies of Zorba. A lot of people think very highly of this book, but I don’t find it a satisfying story and I can’t get past the author playing tricks on us.