This is a transcription of Episode 32 — Greece.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Season Three, episode 32 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we get curious about Greece. [Greek music]
Melissa: I’ve had a crush on Greece for a really long time, and I can’t believe we haven’t been there yet.
David: Yeah, I remember you talking about wanting to visit Greece 25 years ago, maybe longer.
Melissa: I went to school in Syracuse, New York. And there’s a fairly large Greek population there, and every year they had a Greek festival.
Melissa: Yeah, I guess it’s evident from the name.
David: I mean, not, not necessarily, but it goes along —
Melissa: And they have this huge Greek festival every year with retsina, this wine, and they would — so the festival is outside, there’s food stalls and there’s music playing and there’s dancing. And then inside they would show educational movies and film strips really about Greece.
David: So propaganda films.
Melissa: To encourage people to go visit.
David: Yeah. [voiceover from eduation film: Parthenon on the Acropolis. Obviously, it must be visited on a trip to Athens, as should any number of other famous monuments, museums and ruins.]
Melissa: But I just love that you went into this sort of, you know, educational room in the church and watched a film strip about Greece. You know, it was pre internet.
David: Yeah, Greek festivals are so lovely, though. You get a little taste of it, right? You get the food, you get the music. A little bit of dancing, maybe.
Melissa: Yeah. And everyone is encouraged to dance. Even awkward college girls.
David: Did you dance at the Greek festival?
Melissa: Oh, I’m sure I must have. Also, the food is always really good because this one was sponsored by a church, so it’s all the grandmas at the church would make the food. I mean, they knew what they were doing.
David: Oh, that’s nice. Do you want to get started with the 101?
Melissa: Yes, let’s do it. Ok. I’m assuming most people know where Greece is, but just to be a completist. It’s located on the southern tip of the Balkan Peninsula, which stretches into the Mediterranean Sea.
David: It’s surprisingly Far East.
Melissa: It is. It’s bordered by Turkey and Bulgaria and also North Macedonia and Albania. I find it very romantic, even though it’s in the Mediterranean, it is bordered by the Ionian and Aegean Seas. Both of those just sounds so magical somehow.
David: They do.
Melissa: It’s made up of more than 2000 islands, but only about 170 of them are inhabited.
David: You say that like, that’s a bad thing.
Melissa: That’s a lot of islands. It’s a lot of surprise to find it was that many,
David: And it’s awesome that there are 9800 uninhabited islands.
Melissa: Yeah, just a little rock in the middle of turquoise blue water with a goddess sitting on it or something. The vast majority of the 10.7 million people there speak Greek, which is, of course, the official language.
Melissa: Fun fact: Greek is the oldest written language and has been spoken continuously for more than 5000 years.
David: Wow, that’s awesome.
Melissa: Here’s another little tidbit that gets people really excited about Greece. It was basically the cradle of Western civilization. Athens is the capital now, of course, but way back in 550 BCE, it was also the center of democracy. [organ music]
Melissa: Yeah, and that whole ‘citizens have a right and duty to vote’ thing opened up the door to all kinds of big thinking about things like architecture, literature, theater and, of course, philosophy. Shout out to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The Greeks worshipped a pantheon of 12 gods and goddesses. I’ll be talking about that more when we get into our books. And they built temples and shrines to worship them like Zeus and Apollo Athena Aphrodite and the rest of the crew. So when you visit Athens today, you can walk right up to these amazing ruins from like 2000 years ago. There’s the Acropolis, there’s the Parthenon, which was dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. There’s also the Theater of Dionysus, which honored the God of wine and drama. Back in the day, around the fourth century BCE, the theater could seat about 17,000 people. And I like to think of all of them sitting there with like wine sloshing in big goblets, and they’re like talking back to the Greek chorus, like it’s an episode of The Real Housewives. I mean, at its peak, the Greek civilization reached from Egypt to the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. That is a broad swath.
David: It is.
Melissa: I’m just going to fast forward through thousands of years of history now. So everybody hold on to your chairs. The Greeks were conquered by the Romans. The Roman Empire split and Greece became part of Byzantium. Then there was a period when there were French and Italian states.
Melissa: Yes. And then the Ottoman Empire. Which brings us to the Greek revolution of 1821 and the establishment of modern Greece. And then in 1981, Greece joined the EU. Ok, and now you know everything you need to know about Greek history.
David: And now you can be the ambassador to Greece.
Melissa: I didn’t want to get too bogged down in history because I want to talk about reasons to visit Greece besides the ancient sites, because there are many.
Melissa: So, Dave, tell me, when you daydream about Greece, what do you picture
David: Clear blue water? Maybe sailing boats coming and going? Delicious food. The music, maybe some dancing, ouzo, friendly Greek people. Somehow I feel when I visit the Greek islands, I magically become able to sail sail a sailboat, even though I’ve never done that or shown any interest in doing that before.
Melissa: That makes sense.
David: Yeah. And then we get in the boat and we sail from one island to another.
Melissa: Yeah, of course we do with our dog.
David: Oh yeah.
Melissa: I feel like you hit on all of the key points. Let’s start with the beaches. There’s some soft sand beaches. There’s some black sand beaches. There’s some smooth pebble beaches, all surrounded by translucent turquoise water, whitewashed buildings clinging to the hillsides that drop right down into the sea. There is no part of Greece that is more than 85 miles or 137 kilometers away from the ocean.
David: Nice, yes.
Melissa: And it gets 250 sunny days per year.
David: Yeah, right now in the middle of sort of a gloomy december in Prague, that sounds really, really nice.
Melissa: Let me lay this on you. Eighty percent of Greece is mountainous. I feel like you think of the Greek islands and the shore. Yeah, lots of beautiful mountainous areas.
David: So what’s not in the water is mountain.
Melissa: There are dozens of national parks for hiking, camping, mountain biking, rafting and intriguingly, jeep safaris. A lot of the mountains have churches and monasteries just perched on the top.
Melissa: nd there are caves to explore down below. And of course, you can visit the real Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain in Greece, which was home to the gods
David: Have tea with Zeus.
Melissa: I’m pretty sure you can book to you with Zeus and Athena. It’s like breakfast with the Disney characters at Disney World.
David: I’d be way more interested in having tea with Athena.
David: Oh, OK.
Melissa: You’ll see why soon.
David: It just got real.
Melissa: Just as an aside about the mountains, I read a book called The Whispers of Nemesis Anne Zouroudi, and I’m not going to have time to talk about it in the episode today, but it’s a murder mystery set in the village of Vrisi, which is a real village in the mountains of Greece. And this book has a very strong sense of traditional Greek culture and what life is like in the mountains, if anyone is curious about that.
Melissa: In my imaginary Greek vacation, we make friends with the locals in a village, maybe on Santorini. We play backgammon. We get invited to someone’s house for a homemade dinner.
David: Oh, that’d be nice.
Melissa: And then we go down to the taverna and maybe drink a little too much ouzo and dance. I’m very interested in Greek music because it shares tonal similarities with Middle Eastern music, which is in my blood, even though you wouldn’t know it to look at me and every region of Greece has its own distinct folk music, but they all use similar instruments. So there’s the bouzouki, which is kind of like a lute. It’s got the big round belly. Bagpipes. An instrument called the shawm, which is from the Middle Ages. And it’s kind of like an oboe. It’s a double reed instrument, drums, tambourine, and violin. The faster songs are called pidikhtos. [greek music] And those are the ones that get people dancing. And in Greek dance, the dancers always stay connected to each other. Usually by holding hands, and the second person in the line has the job of swinging a white scarf over their head and yelling, Opa! to get everybody excited.
Melissa: So if we were going to join in that, given who we are, we might need a little bit of liquid courage.
Melissa: So we could have ouzo, which we’ve both mentioned already because it’s so delicious. It’s anise-flavored liqueur. It’s often served with a splash of water, which makes it cloudy, or there’s a Greek wine called retsina, which I often drank at the Greek festivals in Syracuse. And that’s a white wine that’s flavored with resin from the Aleppo pine tree during fermentation.
Melissa: Let’s talk about food. Greece is the third largest producer of olives in the world.
David: What are the other two?
Melissa: Spain and Italy?
David: That makes sense. Yeah.
Melissa: All the great places for food and sun. Yeah. I mean, why aren’t we there right now? Where do we even doing with our lives?
David: It’s a good question.
Melissa: Ok? There are more than 120 million olive trees in Greece, and some of them were planted in the 13th century and are still bearing fruit. I love that.
David: Go a little olive trees.
Greek cuisine also uses a fair amount of filo pastry, which is like buttered angel’s wings. It can be used in savory dishes like a spinach and cheese pie called spanakopita, or my personal favorite baklava. Which is pastry layered with honey and pistachios.
David: Yeah, you normally don’t go in for the sweets, but baklava —
Melissa: And baklava like makes your teeth hurt. It’s so sweet and it’s so good.
David: Baklava is one of those things where good baklava is outstanding. Bad baklava. Hard pass, hard pass, but good baklava.
Melissa: It has to be made with love and care. Every layer has to be buttered. On the other side of the taste spectrum is the salty, pungent feta cheese, which I also love to distraction. And there’s gyros, if you’re going to say it like, not like an American.
David: Yeah, it feels like there’s about six ways to pronounce that word, depending on where you’re from.
Melissa: But they’re all delicious. There’s kabobs and stuffed grape leaves, dolmada. Pillowy pita bread,
David: Pillowy pita bread, and you dunk it in a little bit of the olive oil. Just stick it right in your face. Nothing wrong with that.
Melissa: Little sip of retsina. What could be better than that? I’ll tell you what might be better than that. Flaming cheese the flaming cheese known as saganaki. You take a chunk of halloumi and you put some ouzo on it and you set it on fire and it gets crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside.
David: It’s a crowd pleaser, and it’s delicious.
Melissa: And it’s very dramatic, so it’s entertaining too. Right. Well, I think that makes our imaginary trip to Greece complete.
David: Awesome. You want to get into Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I’m ready.
David: As always, I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is a lie. Mel does not know which one is the lie. Here are three statements about Greece. One: There’s a peninsula in Greece where women are banned. Two: There are two churches in Greece that fire rockets at each other during service. And three: Santa Claus is Greek.
Melissa: What? I’m sure the Scandinavians have something to say about that.
David: So let’s let’s take those in order. First, there’s a peninsula in Greece where women are banned.
Melissa: Oh, I’m going to say it’s true.
David: It is true. There’s a place in Greece called Mount Athos. It’s a rocky peninsula that juts 31 miles out into the Aegean Sea. It’s not small. It’s 130 square miles or 335 square kilometers. It is home to 20 of the world’s most ancient and remote monasteries. There are over 2000 monks there living in ascetic life, isolated from the rest of the world. They’re part of a thousand years of men doing that, sitting on the rock, praying and living quiet lives. To give you a sense of how isolated they are, they haven’t adopted the Gregorian calendar there. They still use the Julian calendar. America and the United Kingdom adopted the Julian calendar in 1752. Also, they didn’t update their flag after the Byzantine Empire fell 500 years ago. As a result, Mt. Athos is the last place on Earth where anyone lives under the flag of the Roman Empire.
Melissa: That’s amazing.
David: So women are not allowed on Mount Athos. They were banned in the 11th century. Only a small number of women have set foot on Mount Athos in over a thousand years. Officially, that number is twelve. I’m skeptical. Most of the official 12 got there during some kind of crisis, like pirates and plagues and such. The claim is that not having women there ensures celibacy. I feel like that drastically underestimates people’s lust and creativity.
David: But that’s what they’re doing.
Melissa: I kind of need a novel about a woman who ended up on Athos because of pirates or plague or both.
David: I got novel ideas coming up right now.
David: There have been any number of scandals on Mount Athos. Here are three things that happened just in the last 10 years. In 2014, police found an embezzler who had been sentenced to three life terms posing as a monk there.
Melissa: No, it’s the heist movie of my dreams.
David: Yeah, yeah. In 2017, there was an ongoing dispute about which brotherhood had the rights to one of the monasteries. It went through court. One side won. A bailiff came to boot all the old monks out. One of the monks decided the way to advance his cause was to throw a Molotov cocktail at the bailiff.
Melissa: No way.
David: He got 20 years. And then and again, that was four years ago.
Melissa: I was, you know, you were describing it and I was imagining peaceful meditation looking out at the sea and lighting candles at night.
David: Yeah, I think that’s what it is most of the time. And then in 2019, the bones of a woman were found under the floor of a Byzantine chapel. According to the scholars who found them, they’d clearly been moved and buried there with quote the utmost of care. No one knows whose bones they are or how they got there.
David: So the rocket wars, the statement was: There are two churches in Greece that fire rockets at each other during service.
Melissa: And that is true. Lay it on me.
David: Every Easter Sunday on a small island named Chios, two rival churches shoot tens of thousands of homemade rockets at each other during service. The objective is to hit the other church’s bell tower. Both of the churches are on the tops of hillsides about a quarter of a mile or 400 meters away from each other. The direct hits are supposed to be counted to determine the winner, but each of the churches inevitably claims victory and then they agree to settle the score. The next year, and it goes on.
Melissa: So it’s friendly fire. It’s not a Molotov cocktail.
David: It is not a Molotov cocktail. We don’t know how long this has been going on, but we do know that they used to use real cannons and that the Ottoman Empire prohibited that back in 1889. So they’ve been using homemade rockets for the 132 years. We’ve got video.
Melissa: Awesome. I look forward to seeing that.
David: See it in our show notes. The bombardment is supposed to go on for hours. It’s amazing to see it. All right. Third statement Santa Claus is a Greek.
Melissa: Come on.
David: All right. So that’s only kind of a lie. Santa is created from a bunch of different traditions. The English brought us Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklass. There’s even a bit of Odin in Santa. The Norse all father was said to ride the midwinter sky on his eight footed horse.
Melissa: Eight footed horse!
David: Yeah, and he visited people with gifts. But Santa is also based on Saint Nicholas, and Saint Nicholas was a real person. He was a bishop who lived in the 4th century, and he was Greek. He was famous for being generous and giving to the poor. It said that when his wealthy parents died, he distributed their riches to the needy.
Melissa: Well, that’s very nice.
David: One of the stories about him is that he saved three women from a life of prostitution by dropping sacks of gold through their window. He’s also credited with resurrecting three children who’d been murdered and then pickled in brine by a butcher who was planning to sell them as pork during a famine.
Melissa: Ew. Every part of that sentence was making me wrinkle my nose up.
David: It just gets worse and worse as you go along. He’s also said to have chopped down a tree that was possessed by a demon. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that we can’t historically verify those stories.
Melissa: Hmm, that’s weird.
David: We don’t know much about the historical at all, really. The earliest accounts of his life were written centuries after his death and clouded with lots of little stories. But I like to think that there was a man a long time ago who liked to give gifts and like to help the poor, and that we still celebrate him today.
Melissa: That’s really nice.
David: That’s Two Truths and a Lie.
Melissa: Once again. Very good job, Dave.
David: Thank you. Let’s talk about books.
Melissa: My first pick is The House on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff. She’s a British woman with a Russian name who has devoted her life to writing about Greece. This is a multigenerational family story that addresses a period of 20th-century Greek history that I really didn’t know anything about, so I loved that. When the story opens, it’s 2008. A Greek writer is killed in a car crash in Athens, and he is a larger than life character. He drinks with his buddies down at the taverna. He’s an unrepentant flirt and he’s a journalist, so he’s out and about at all hours of the night. He has an office that’s separate from his home. He is his own man.
Melissa: And even though he’s dead for the majority of the novel, his influence looms over the whole thing. And despite his reputation as a player for real, he loves his wife. She’s an English woman named Maud, and for the most part, they have a marriage that works for them. Or at least that’s what she thinks. Until after he dies and she starts poking around in his office, and she discovers that he’s been keeping some things from her. He was working on a secret project that seems to have something to do with his long estranged mother. His mother’s name is Antigone. She’s a communist true believer. And back in the days of World War Two, she left her three year old son in the care of her sister in Athens, and she went to Russia, and she has not spoken to anyone in the family since.
Melissa: So Maud starts poking around in what her husband was doing with his time. She finds cryptic notes in his handwriting that seemed to have something to do with his mother’s past, but she doesn’t really know what they mean. What was he doing on the road outside of Athens when he crashed his car? Was he having an affair? She has all of these questions about what was going on with him. And in an attempt to learn a little bit more about him in his death, then she now realises she knew about him in his life. She tracks down his mother and Antigone.
Melissa: And then Antigone comes back to Athens for the funeral, and that is when everything this family thought they understood about themselves begins to unravel. Family feuds are explored, enormous secrets that have been kept since World War Two are reveale. There are surprise Nazis and extramarital affairs and people saying things or not saying things that they really needed to or shouldn’t have. On a personal level, everything is blowing up. You know I love to live vicariously through messy characters. So that’s all amazing.
David: Yeah, that all sounds great.
Melissa: And it’s all set against the backdrop of real Greek history. So we’re seeing how these huge things that happen in history are influencing these people on a personal level.
David: So it’s kind of a combination of a multigenerational family saga and a like a detective novel, it sounds like.
Melissa: Yeah, a little bit. So in real life, during World War Two, Greece was occupied by the Nazis, and there was a very active resistance. But there were also a fair number of Nazi sympathizers, and there are a bunch of people who were devoted to the ideals of communism. All those things led to conflicts within the country, but they also drove families apart. Siblings were on different sides of those belief systems. And then after World War Two, it all exploded into a full blown civil war. And then in the late ’60s and ’70s, there was a junta that overthrew the government. We see all of that happening and how that influences the characters, and it made me understand history through osmosis because as these people were experiencing it instead of reading the dates on a page
David: I mean, that’s a lovely way to learn the history, too. Yes, you can emotionally attached to it.
Melissa: Exactly. In so many of the places that we’ve covered, there are civil wars that are not just side A versus side B. It’s more like a knot of people fighting for what they believe in. By seeing each of those factions attached to real people in real families, it’s much easier to understand what was going on in these conflicts.
David: Yeah, I mean, it’s always more complicated the closer you get to it right.
Melissa: By now, it should be clear that this is not a white and gold and blue Greece of beach vacations and yachting. This is not your yummy vacation read. But the author has a real gift for describing scenes that put me right into them when I was reading, and she does include a lot of lush details about the food, the weather, and the scenery. So I did feel very much like I was in Greece when I was reading this book. But it’s the Greece of people who live there, not a vacationer’s experience.
Melissa: The family’s house in Athens has an outdoor staircase with a lemon tree that is very significant to Maud. And this is how it’s described:
The lemon tree dominates our yard. It was planted by Aunt Alexandra’s father in the 1920s, when he built the house, and it now reaches to our first floor windows, the fruit ripening almost all year round. In the spring, the building is flooded with the blossom’s intoxicating scent. The fire escape descends to the courtyard at the back of the house, alongside – almost inside – the tree, so you can reach out to pick a lemon or take a leaf to crush and sniff the citrus tang.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: This story also gave me a really interesting peek inside how Greek families work. Even in the modern era, intergenerational families live together in the family home, so the past is still very much alive, right alongside the present. I have to admit this book almost lost me in the middle.
Melissa: It dragged just a little bit. And the darker details about World War Two and the Civil War, we’re kind of bringing me down a little bit. But I held on and I’m really glad that I did because the author really stuck the landing. It answers all of the questions that you have about what was going on with the different characters and despite the darker things that they touch on because again, World War Two story — there’s a real sense of peace and optimism at the end that I really liked. It felt realistic, but also had a little buoyancy to it. That is the house on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff.
David: My first book is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. This is a book about a character Calliope Stephanides, who discovers at the age of 14 that she is a them. She is intersex. She does not fit typical binary notions of gender. From 14 onwards, she primarily identifies as a he, so I’m going to use that pronoun. The exploration of how this occurred starts two generations prior in a little Greek village around 1920. Her grandparents were also brother and sister. Their relationship starts a genetic chain that ultimately gives Cal elements of both sexes. The book goes on to describe the grandparents leaving Greece during an invasion and moving to the United States and finding their cousin and starting a family. They land in Detroit, ultimately through two other generations, we’re brought into about the mid-70s, so this book stretches from about 50 years of family history. We see a chunk of history from the Turks invading Greece through the Detroit race riots up to Watergate.
David: And we also see how the members of this family sort of smack up against one another, like you do in most family sagas. The book for me has this fascinating narrative technique. It’s all told from Cal’s perspective. Cal has something like omniscience about her family.
David: Although it’s also his imagination. It’s pitched as I don’t know what happened for sure, but this is what I imagine. And then the detail is so exact. It’s so precise, and he presents details that he couldn’t possibly know as fact. And yet, the detail is so perfect that it feels like, yeah, that’s what must have happened, right?
Melissa: As you’re saying that it’s reminding me a little bit of that novel Carmelo that I read for our Mexico episode. It kind of had that same sense of a first person narrator who also knows all of the inner stories of her family members. I love that.
David: Yeah, yeah. And it gives the feeling that that person has just been thinking about that so much that they’ve sort of filled in all of the gaps in their history. And it also kind of raises the whole narrative of self problem, right? If it’s your story and you believe it. How much does it matter if it’s made up? Cal is a very agreeable narrator. He is funny and bright and insightful, and I really enjoyed the book, in part because of the time we spent together. And it felt like that, right? It feels like I have spent time with this person, and it was lovely. The book is many things. It’s a multigenerational family saga. It’s a coming of age story. It’s funny and tragic. It’s a romance and a social novel. It talks about the issues. The author is exploring what it’s like to be in the complicated middle between male and female, Greek and American, past and present - what it means to be fluid between those things, particularly as as Cal is growing up. His awkward adolescence is just heartbreaking, and he recovers from it, which makes it a nice full arc. And it all ends up feeling like a very deep answer to the question: What makes you so different? You know, it’s like he’s posed that question and he’s like, Well, we need to start 1920. As a reader, you can sort of take on that exercise as extra credit, right? Why would let Cal have all the fun of making up what your family members thought and did? Middlesex also has a quote, which I love and found illuminating at the time.
David: I first read this book, I think, in 2005 or 2006, and this quote I don’t know. Every once in a while you read something and it just lands in your head and it just stays there. And this this had that effect for me. I’ll read it to you. This will also give you an idea of Carl’s voice:
_Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’ I’d like to show how ‘intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members’ connects with ‘the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.’ I’d like to have a word for ‘the sadness inspired by failing restaurants’ as well as for ‘the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.’ I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever. I can’t just sit back and watch from a distance anymore. _
Melissa: That’s amazing.
David: Isn’t that lovely?
Melissa: I want to read that book right now.
David: That paragraph inspired an ongoing conversation between Mel and I about how good English is at describing emotion. I maintain that it is not very; Mel argues that I’m not giving it enough credit. And we’ve been talking about that for 15 years now. I maintain that better language is for emotions include music and for the right audience, cartooning and maybe video. And all of that is because of of layering, right? You can say one thing and shade it with something else.
Melissa: I do that with writing by just sticking a whole bunch of words together with hyphens between them.
David: The Germanic train constructions we were talking about. I am in very, very solid company and thinking, this is a good book. Like, I feel a little silly saying, Hey guys, this is a good book. Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Book Review all put this on their best books of 2002 lists. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and in 2003, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Melissa: So but now it has your endorsement, so it’s really arrived.
David: Get Eugenides on the phone. He’s finally made it. Some award-winning books have a certain stiffness to them, the sense that the writer was aiming for greatness somehow. This is not that. Middlesex is very readable. It’s inviting. I would also say this book also has a strong sense of Detroit. David Kipen of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote ‘Among so many other things, this praiseworthy, prize worthy yarn succeeds is a heartbroken mash note to the Detroit of Eugenides birth. The city whose neighborhoods he sometimes appeared to love as he loves his characters less for their virtues than for their defects. Any book that can make a reader actively want to visit Detroit must have one honey of a tiger in its tank.’ That’s Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Melissa: My next pick is Circe by Madeline Miller.
David: Oh, I’ve wanted to read that forever.
Melissa: Yeah, so I have a really sizable hole in my education where knowledge about Greek mythology should be. I vaguely remember reading a book about mythology for kids in third grade what I went through this phase of checking out nonfiction books from the library like a maniac. I read the biography of Harriet Tubman like eight times or something. I was super into nonfiction for kids. Whenever the subject of mythology comes up on Jeopardy!, I’m just completely lost, which is how I gauge if I know enough about a topic or not. So even though everyone was raving about this book in 2018, I put it on my TBR and I just never got to reading it. It’s described as an adaptation of various Greek myths, including the Odyssey, and it’s told from the perspective of Circe, who is a witch. The witch aspect was very compelling to me, but I guess I kind of thought it was going to be one of those homework books. You know what I mean? You would be glad to have read it, but it would be work. So I never got really excited about picking it up. I’m here to say that I was 100-percent wrong about this book. And I now fully understand why everyone was losing their minds about how great it is. I loved this book so much. It’s lively and totally engaging and wickedly, darkly funny, and at the end I had hot tears running down my face. I never expected that to happen. It was one of my favorite reading experiences of the year. So let’s talk about the story.
David: OK. That’s a lot of buildup.
Melissa: I stand by every word I just said and more. So let’s talk about the story, OK? It’s told in the first person from Circe’s point of view, and we meet her when she’s a child. A strange, observant, intelligent child. And like most of us, she just wants to be loved. But she’s bullied by her siblings and dismissed by her parents. She’s not pretty enough. She’s not powerful enough. She’s just not enough. And that’s because her dad is the titan Helios. I Greek mythology, the Titans were former gods who were overthrown by Zeus and the Olympians. So there are colossal chips on the shoulders of these characters. Her parents and her siblings make it really clear that they think she doesn’t measure up. I was getting some Jane Eyre vibes in there.
David: Yeah, I can see how you would.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah. You know I love that. Yeah. So Circe grows up and she realizes that she does have special powers, after all, and if she can cultivate them, she will be a very powerful sorceress. This makes Zeus extremely anxious, and he banishes her to a deserted island. And even though she’s supposed to be isolated and in solitude, all kinds of people and creatures just keep stopping by her island and stirring up mischief and giving her opportunities to use her powers. So throughout the course of her story, we get all of the greatest hits of Greek mythology: the Minotaur, Icarus, Medea, Odysseus. And here’s the thing that makes it so awesome. The Odyssey and the Iliad are stories about war heroes. Right? They’re stories about men and their exploits.
David: They’re very, very manly works.
Melissa: In Circe, we get to see those events through the eyes of this woman who is very complex and who triumphs in her own heroic feats. She slays monsters. She holds her own against the gods. She is a force. I somehow developed a massive girl crush on Circe. I went stalking her online and looked at all of the paintings people have done for over the centuries.
David: Looking for Circe’s Instagram?
Melissa: Yeah. One of the aspects of her personality that I loved is that she’s emotional, but she’s never sentimental. She feels things, but she’s not mushy. And as she matures and grows into her power, she gets very clear eyed. She’s able to recognize when she’s doing something or is about to do something because of emotion rather than intellect.
Melissa: So most of the things she does eventually are the result of conscious choices rather than just being pushed around by the storm of emotion. In addition to getting to spend time inside of her head, which is really fun, there is a ton of action. I did not expect that. I don’t know what I was thinking. There’s all kinds of monsters. There are epic sea adventures. She turns a crew of men into pigs. She has pet lions and wolves. There are gods riding on golden chariots. She’s casting magic spells all over the place. It’s fantastic.
Melissa: Literally. So I listened to this as on audiobook, and I also read it on my Kindle. So I went back and forth so I could just stay in this world while I was reading it. The audio book is narrated by a British actress named Perdita Weeks, and it is glorious. Her voice is really luxe, and she’s a really good storyteller. I just felt like I was captured in this magic spell.
[clip of audiobook: Chapter two. Word came that one of my uncles was going to be punished. I had never seen him, but I had heard his name over and over in my family’s doomy whispers.]
Melissa: I cannot wait to read this book again. And I added Madeline Miller’s other big novel, which was also hugely popular and successful. The Song of Achilles is now also on my TBR that is Circe by Madeline Miller. Treat yourself and read this book as soon as you possibly can. It’s so good.
Melissa: I also want to mention quickly a little bit of a cheat if you also want to fill in the holes in your education on Greek mythology, this book does it. I picked up a lot of things I didn’t know about the Greek gods and their origin stories, but if you want to go a little bit deeper, I also read the children’s book D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths by the husband-and-wife team Ingri and Edgar. It’s great. It has never been out of print since it was first published in 1967. Wow. We’ll put a link to that in the show, notes D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.
David: My next book is Rebetiko, which was written and illustrated by David Prudhomme and translated by Nora Mahony. The heart of this book is a form of music. And first, I want to talk about the music behind the book. So it’s called Rebetiko, and it’s got a back story. Just after World War One, the mighty Ottoman Empire falls. Out of those ashes, eventually came many countries Egypt, Iran, Austria. But let’s concentrate on Greece’s neighbor across the sea: Turkey. After World War One, Turkey wants to be its own nation. They want to establish their own identity. They want to break free. They’re going to do their own thing now.
Melissa: That’s really rich after the Ottomans ran all over the Middle East and Europe for centuries.
David: Yeah, yeah. Part of that, unfortunately, involves a war with Greece. Do you want to guess who’s the bad guy in the conflict between Turkey and Greece?
Melissa: Both of them>
David: It’s Britain.
Melissa: Of course it is. How could I not have guessed? Grabby Hands.
David: Britain says to Greece, Hey, help us fight the Germans and we’ll give you these sweet, sweet territories. And Turkey was like, not so fast. And then things got hot after that. Greece takes over some land and then Turkey takes it back and then Greece goes home. And after that, the Turks are all like, I don’t care if I never see another Greek person again. Right? And they booted all the people who were Greek Orthodox back to Greece. Regardless of how long they’d been living in what is now Turkey. A million and a half Greeks were what historians called ‘denaturalized from their homelands,’ which is quite the euphemism. They were kicked out of the place they were born. They were ethnically cleansed. They lost their homes. It was messy and dangerous and depressing. What does all this have to do with music? So now you’ve got a large population back in Greece and they’re in their homeland, but they’re not part of it. They have nothing. They’ve been through two wars — World War One and the Grecko Turkish War. A good chunk of them start doing three things smoking hash, making trouble, and playing music. And that’s how we got Rebetiko. [clip of rebetiko music]
Melissa: Conflicts are always terrible for people, and then they also produce amazing music and food.
David: Fact. Yeah. This book it’s a graphic novel is about a bunch of Rebetiko musicians in the 1930s. The book takes place in one day. You follow around a bunch of musician friends as they fight and smoke and play and meet the sun the next morning. I don’t think it’s overly romanticized. It’s pretty romantic. There’s definitely parts of it that seem way less than sexy, but at the same time, it’s hard not to get pulled into that evening. The book is from David Prudhomme, who’s a French comic artist. Now might be a good time to remind everyone that the U.S. has an underdeveloped relationship with comics as an art form. Every other culture on Earth has more mature content in its comics. If you’re interested in why, you can look up the comics code authority, they regulated the content of comics in the United States from 1954 until the 2000s
Melissa: Until the 2000s! I didn’t realize it stretched that long.
David: I didn’t either. I was thinking like mid-70s, people started rebelling against it, and that’s true. They did. But it wasn’t until the 2000s where comics companies were finally like, Yeah, OK, we don’t need to do that anymore. So that’s almost 50 years. It was a form of self-censorship that the comics industry used to ease the fears of alarmists in the ’50s. The code included things like and this is a quote from the code: In every instance, good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds. So if you want to know why comic book movies feel like morality plays, there it is. Anyway, this is a comic book for adults. The criminals are not punished. The themes are dark, and it’s lovely. It’s a really a beautiful work. The art is graceful and mature, has an illustrated sense to it. The story is focused on these wildly imperfect characters. I feel like it gave me a real sense of who they were and what their problems were and how difficult it was living with their anger and their exile. And at the same time, it’s hard to think that spending an evening in their company wouldn’t have been just glorious. Just awesome. Nineteen thirty six, Greek islands, the songs, the dancing, the food. Yes, getting chased by the cops, the sun coming up the next morning. Sign me up, right?
Melissa: Big adventure.
David: The book was awarded the best graphic novel of 2010 by Lire, which is a French literature magazine, which again gives you a sense of the cultural difference there. Reading this while you’re sipping an ouzo and listening to Rebetiko in the background would make for just a lovely, lovely evening and would definitely make you want to get over to Greece. It’s Rebetiko. It’s written and illustrated by Paul Prudhomme.
Melissa: That sounds so good.
David: Yeah, it’s nice.
Melissa: I really want to say that on New Year’s Eve that’s what we’re going to do. I love a story that takes place in a compressed time frame, like going really deep with characters in one magical night. I love that.
Melissa: My last pick is This Rough Magic by Mary Stuart. And before I get into the book specifically, I want to talk about the author Mary Stuart, because I kind of fell in love with her when I was doing my research.
David: I love when you’re reading a book and you find an author’s work. You know what I mean? You’re reading something and you really enjoy it, and you kind of turn the corner on what else have they got? And there’s this whole world that kind of opens up for you.
Melissa: Yeah. And I was familiar with her name, but prior to this, I had not read any of her books. And now I think they’re going to be a go-to when I need comfort read. But I’m getting ahead of myself. She was born in England in 1916, so she was just coming to adulthood when World War Two started. And she met her husband Frederick in 1945 at a VE Day dance, and they were married a few months later.
David: So he came home from the fight, met a nice girl at a dance, and they got married. Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: And then later he was knighted, so she officially became a lady, although she never used the title herself because she felt like it was too much. Here’s what I love about her in terms of her professional output. She’s credited with creating the romantic mystery genre that gives equal weight to both parts of the story. So her mysteries are packed with suspense and lots of suspects and twisty plots, and the process of solving them gives her heroine a look at the true character of the hero. So they fall in love while they’re solving the case.
David: That’s nice.
Melissa: But her heroines are not just arm candy for the heroes. Her women are very adventurous, always well-educated, poised, and they are not afraid to stick their noses into messy situations and come out swinging. These are girls with moxie. They’re basically the opposite of the classical gothic heroine that’s a damsel in distress. Although many of her settings include the tropes of gothic fiction that I love: sprawling estates, weird noises in the night, men with mysterious pasts, that kind of thing.
David: This all sounds right up your alley.
Melissa: Yes. One hundred percent. So Mary Stuart wrote dozens of these kinds of novels. And then as the second act in her life, she wrote a YA series that tells the Arthurian legend from Merlin’s point of view, it’s called the Merlin Chronicles. And according to the story, her publishers were freaking out that she wanted to do this because she was known for these romantic mysteries. And suddenly she’s, like, I’m going to write a YA series about King Arthur. But she persevered, and the books were bestsellers throughout the 1970s and ’80s, so she triumphed. Stuck to her guns and triumphed.
David: Good for her.
Melissa: When she died in 2014, she was 98 years old. Wow. Yeah. She’d written 20 novels, a volume of poetry, and The Merlin Chronicles. And altogether, she sold more than five million copies of her books.
David: Oh, good for her.
Melissa: I know. I feel so proud of her. I don’t even know her. She set most of her mystery romances in England, but many of them also take place in travel destinations like Spain, France, Austria, and the Greek islands. Which brings us to this book This Rough Magic. Some listeners might recognize the title as being from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and some of the characters in the book also share names with characters in The Tempest. But this is not heady stuff. This is the dreamy, over-the-top fun novel that will make you want to book a trip to Greece as soon as possible. There’s a sprawling, shadowy gothic mansion, a secret cave and underground cellars. A deadly fight on a boat in a storm. A missing diamond ring. A possible murder. Romance. Trickery. And this is the best part: A magical dolphin.
David: A magical dolphin.
Melissa: A magical dolphin.
Melissa: I mean, at this point is the plot even matter?
David: I suppose not.
Melissa: Ok, here’s the setup just in case anyone cares about what these people are actually doing in all of these things. Lucy Waring is our heroine, and she is a struggling actress in London. Her latest show is closed, and she doesn’t know what to do with herself, so she goes to visit her sister in Corfu, which by the by is the alleged location for The Tempest. Her sister is married to a very wealthy husband who owns several large houses on the island, including one that he’s rented to an iconic stage actor who retired under mysterious circumstances.
Melissa: Lucy is just getting settled on the island when strange things start to happen. Two islanders mysteriously drowned, and she’s drawn into a perilous mystery that puts her at odds — or does it — with the famous actor’s son, a talented but enigmatic but compelling musician. So all of these interpersonal hijinks and the investigation into the deaths are set against the backdrop of Corfu and Greece in the late ’50s or early 1960s, and this is when nearby Albania was a communist country with closed borders. And it’s only about 20 miles across the water from Corfu to Albania. On a clear day, you can see it. So there’s smuggling and there’s red fear, and there’s the tension that comes from having communists right there when they have just gone through World War Two.
Melissa: And as I mentioned earlier, there was the Civil War in Greece. So there’s a lot of political upheaval happening in the background. And that comes into the story a little bit. So it is grounded in reality a tiny bit. I don’t want to say anything more about the plot because it’s a hoot. I listened to this as an audiobook, and there were times when I was walking in the park and I would woop and snort out loud at what was happening in the story. Mary Stewart’s descriptions of the scenery and the weather, the water, the beaches, the breezes, the ancient ruins — all fantastic. Very transportive, really well done. They run right up to the edge of being too much, but they stay on the side of being just right. And my notes say quote, the ending is bonkers and fantastic. I loved it. I don’t know if I can say that it’s a good book. If we were going to objectively judge these things, but I can say that I enjoyed it one million percent. And if I need to pick me up, I will definitely read more. Mary Stuart just pure escapist fun that transported me to Greece. That is This Rough Magic by the indomitable Mary Stuart.
David: Those are five books we love set in Greece.
Melissa: Plus a couple of extras.
David: Plus a couple extra. I know a joke about Greece.
Melissa: What is it?
David: So this ancient Greek playwright splits his pants and he walks into the tailor shop and the tailor looks up at him. And it says Euripides? And the playwright looks back and says, Umenides?
Melissa: That is terrible.
David: Is that awful?
Melissa: Oh, it’s so bad. I love it.
David: This is our last episode of Season Three. We will be back with Season Four in early 2022, and you can expect a few mini episodes in the meantime. If you like, what we’re doing now is a good time to join our Patreon. I highly recommend it.
Melissa: Yeah, because our patrons get to vote on what destinations we cover in Season Four. That’s true. This is a great way to let your voice be heard. If you are listening to an episode and you’re like, Boy, I really wish they would cover blah blah blah. Joining our Patreon is a great way to let us know that.
David: Also, if you want to ensure that we’re going to be around for Season Four or Five or Six, that that would be lovely to help us out. You can get to our Patreon by going to strongsenseofplace.com/support. Once you’re there, you get access to a bunch of bonus goodies we’ve been sharing with our patrons.
Melissa: I talked about some books that didn’t make it into the podcast in little mini episodes.
David: We did a little short story recording that that I really like.
Melissa: There’s so many things we learn while we’re preparing for the show that we don’t have time to put into the podcast, and all of that bonus stuff is available on Patreon.
David: Yeah. Plus, you get to hang out with our other sexy, sexy patrons. So strong push. Please do it. If you enjoy the show, give us a hand. Thank you so much for joining us for Season Three.
Melissa: It’s really fun for us to have all of you to share in our curiosity about these amazing places in the world, and it’s such a gift to get your emails and tweets and Instagram. Thank you so much for being part of our world.
David: Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Heidi Kaden/Unsplash.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is © 2021 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.