Critical Mass

What Are You Reading in Lefkes, Greece?


I was given a 3 month residency at The House of Literature in Lefkes, a small mountain town on the island of Paros in Greece. It's winter, and except for a bakery and a mini-mart, the town is shut down—no tavernas, no museums, no other foreigners, as far as I can tell, but me. I am in fact the only resident of The House of Literature! This is both boring and blissful. I am presently revising a collection of short stories, and I work every day until I am cross-eyed, then bolt down the marble stairs. Sometimes I wander through the narrow cobblestoned streets of the blue and white village but mostly I hike up to the hills. Yesterday I found a narrow path lined with Byzantine paving stones that threaded through low stone walls overlooking a valley below where farmers were building bonfires of last winter's dead boughs. Fruit trees are beginning to flower here and the hills are green with oxalis and studded with narcissus, wild thyme, and purple anemones. There is a pie slice of Aegean off in the distance and ancient churches and stone shepherd's huts at every turn.

Of course I wish I'd brought Lawrence Durrell and John Fowles with me but I was reluctant to overpack, so aside from a Greek phrasebook, a Lonely Planet and a Let’s Go, I only brought three books, LITTLE CHILDREN by Tom PerrottaCORPUS CHRISTI by Bret Anthony Johnston, andRobert Fagles' new translation of THE ODYSSEY.

LITTLE CHILDREN is being billed as a comic novel but it's neither funny nor truly sad, just a story about two limited people who fall and fail in love. I left it in the hotel room in Athens, but I liked Perrotta's clean style and generous heart. CORPUS CHRISTI is a favorite among my MFA writing students at the U. of Arkansas and, for all the wrong reasons, I can see why: it's graceful and sensitive and dreary and hopeless and made me so grateful for this sabbatical from teaching that I almost kissed it as I left it behind on the ferry to Paros. THE ODYSSEY, of course, is gorgeous, and I read a little every night. This is a book that has entered my dreams. I will bring it home with me.

The library at The House of Literature contains few English books (this is a residency primarily for European translators; I suspect they let me in by accident because my first collection is titledROUGH TRANSLATIONS) (I never look a Trojan horse in the mouth), but one of the books here is a treasure. This is WORDS OF MERCURY, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, a collection of some of the most spirited and charming travel writing I have ever read. I'm in love with the dashing Patrick Leigh, and will look for more of his books back in the States. I also found AN ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN GREEK POETRY, edited by two professors I knew from San Francisco State, Nanos Valaoritis and Thanasis Maskaleris, and this book has also been a treasure. Both Kavafis and Seferis are new to me, and they are amazing.

To find other books in English, I have to take the bus to the town of Parikia, and there I bought Nick Hornby's HOW TO BE GOOD, another non-comedy billed as a comedy, sort of a British version of LITTLE CHILDREN. The book sparkles when Hornby does lists and when he does dialogue and I was touched by some of its insights into marriage (you don't want to know), but essentially it's plotless and seems written as a vehicle for Emma Thompson.

I am grateful for all these books; they have been good companions and each in its way has taught me something I needed to know. But now…back to THE ODYSSEY! Athena racing around doing all the work (talk about a role for Emma Thompson) and
the bright busy tacking of the story line as it sails from cove to cove and that admirable hunk Ulysses; I'm hooked.–Molly Giles, former NBCC Balakian Award Winner