Greek to Me

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 31 Mar 2019

Member Reviews

New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris, AKA the Comma Queen, writes absolutely delightful memoirs. Her boundless curiosity and giddy enthusiasm will sweep you up and into her stories. She’s generous with her insecurities, too; though, in this second memoir, she is more confident and less apologetic.

Greek to Me details the joy that ancient and modern Greek have brought to Norris’s life. The memoir follows her language-learning journey – convincing the New Yorker to pay for her classes at Columbia, performing in plays, reading the myths – as well as her travels through Greece and Cyprus.

Along the way, Norris lets us further into her personal and work lives, recounting family tragedy and the upheaval during Condé Nast’s takeover of the New Yorker.

Greek myths and legends have had a fantastic few years: retellings have been published by Stephen Fry, Madeline Miller, Pat Barker, Emily Wilson and more. If you’re still in the mood for more, Norris’s memoir is not to be missed.

Author: Mary Norris 
Publisher: Text Publishing
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Mary Norris, whose last book, “The Comma Queen,” has done it again; this time by making learning to speak Greek seem easy and traveling the not-so-beaten paths of Greece. While I enjoy Mary’s writing style, I envy her adventurous spirit of travel and her joy of life-long learning.
Mary gives us a few more glimpses of her childhood back in Ohio and her wonderous work environment at the revered, “The New Yorker.” (Even though we’re the same age, I still want to be Mary when I grow up!) 
If you had the pleasure of reading her last book in 2015, you might remember that Mary left the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio in 1970 to attend Douglas College, then the women’s college of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, NJ. (Rutgers didn’t become coed until 1974!) graduating in 1974. She then earned her Masters in English from the University of Vermont two years later. In 1978 she was hired by, “The New Yorker” magazine has remained there to this day as copy editor, and now Author.
Can you tell how proud I am of Mary? I’m also a tiny bit jealous since I’m an alum of Rutgers too. She now lives in NY and I live in OH. Stop laughing.
Okay, back to the book. Mary describes her love of languages and learning, and how one of her colleagues at the New Yorker, Ed Stringham, got her interested in Greece, and then her desire to learn the language. After taking several classes at Columbia and Barnard she has been to Greece many times. During her study of the Ancients she took part in a few plays, starting out in the chorus in Electra and playing Hecuba in The Trojan Women in the next.
Katharine Hepburn had played Hecuba in a 1971 movie version of The Trojan Women. I was a fan of Hepburn, making a point of going to revivals of her films at the Thalia, but I had missed The Trojan Women, and I didn’t dare watch it now, when I had to play the role myself, in a dead language, without her cheekbones.
I decided to write Ms. Hepburn a letter, delivered through her publisher. I asked Ms. Hepburn how she had varied her performance. I had had a little experience in musical comedy, but was it possible, in tragedy, to play it for laughs?
It was a typewritten note on letterhead stationery, dated January 15, 1985, with the name Katharine Houghton Hepburn engraved in red. “Dear Mary Jane Norris,” it began.
“I’m sorry that you missed the movie of The Trojan Women,” Hepburn wrote, and I could picture her chin quivering and hear her intonation. “Of course, we played it for laughs. It’s the only way 
Especially Hecuba –” She signed off, “Good luck and you are certain to be a big hit.” It was liberating to know that Hecuba could be outrageous.

Later, at the play:
“Who among Spartans heard you scream?” A woman in the audience laughed! (Hepburn would have been proud.)
The book is strewn with glorious tidbits like these, and I didn’t even include all her adventures while traveling through Greece. Sometimes on foot, or a bicycle, or on a boat talking with Greek sailors. Oh Mary, you’re a clever one. Really, you must read this book. 

Every traveler with a shard of imagination ought to be able to discern from a distance the word ΤΑΒΕΡΝΑ and head there confident that in the TAVERNA there will be a narrow straight-backed wicker chair (a little uncomfortable for a big American ass, but you can’t have everything) and a
glass of ouzo, with ice and water, and something to eat— maybe a plate of tiny fried fish, such as one might feed a seal, or feta cheese cut into cubes the size of dice. And, of course, a cat begging under the table.
Πάμε, as the Greeks say. Let’s go!


Thank you to NetGalley, W.W. Norton and Co. and Mary Norris
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Part memoir, part travel journal, Greek to Me takes the reader on a journey through the ancient cities and language of Greece. Norris and I have many things in common, like a love of languages and all things Greek, so this was a real treat for me. Her feelings for the mythology and the old world are ones that I've felt myself. Her stories about her travels and herself include aspects of live we can all relate to. An enjoyable treat.
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No other writer has made punctuation so much fun. In Norris’s follow-up to Between You & Me, the author manages to get her boss at the New Yorker to pay for ancient Greek language lessons  and a trip to Greece. Managing to  explore the origins of the English language while simultaneously munching on olives and sipping ouzo. A treat for armchair travelers and those who appreciate the finer points of language and punctuation
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