My Greek Books
This month, My Greek Books goes on a virtual journey back in time, to Greece. One is an English translation of a classic Greek novel, and the other two are written by Greek-American authors. Keep reading to learn more.
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My Xanthi by Stephanie Cotsirilos
Independently published (June 1, 2023)
About the author
Chicago native Stephanie Cotsirilos earned degrees in comparative literature and music from Brown and Yale Universities. After, she moved to New York for a career on and off Broadway, where she created the role of “The Critic” in the Tony Award-winning musical, ‘Nine’. She wrote songs and scripts produced at Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, Writers Theatre, and other spaces.
Later, she studied law, then joined a New York firm. After her husband’s untimely passing, she moved with her son to Maine. There, she turned her focus to legal writing and strategic documents for nonprofits. But her creative side continued to nudge her, so she also wrote poetry and fiction. Feeling that continued pull back to the arts, she became a consultant and interim executive director for the Portland Ballet.
Stephanie is also an essayist, and her work appears in Beacon Press’ award-winning anthology Breaking Bread: Essays from New England on Food, Hunger, and Family. She was a Story of the Week author finalist in in Narrative Magazine‘s Fall 2022 Story Contest, and a published finalist in Mississippi Review’s 2019 Prize in Fiction. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her work has appeared in print and online venues including McSweeney’s, The New Guard, and various media. My Xanthi is her first novella. This release is a second and expanded edition of the book released in 2021.
In Riverside, CA, 66-year-old Nick Milonas, a criminal defense attorney, lives with his wife and teen daughters. One of the daughters is writing an essay about her father’s work, and questions him about morality. She can’t fathom that he defends criminals. While he explains the legal system and that everyone is entitled to a fair hearing, he’s upended by a package of letters sent by his former nanny’s daughter in Greece. When he was a child, his mother became ill, and a woman came from Greece to help the family. Xanthi, dressed in widow’s black, couldn’t speak a word of English. Her dark clothing a shroud to her own past and her own grief, she remained a mystery to Nick. He eventually bonded with her and loved her dearly, a walking enigma that lived in his home and heart. He hadn’t thought about her much in recent years, until the letters arrived.
Xanthi wrote letters to her daughter during her time in America. Her daughter had them translated and sent them to Nick. Feeling the envelope might be a Pandora’s Box of sorts, he hesitated to open them. Through the letters and flashbacks, we learn about the years Xanthi lived with his family, and the brutal reality of her life in the Peloponnese during the Civil War and following. As he reaches the end of the stack, he realizes she lied to him about a vital aspect of her life. Feeling betrayed, he begins to ponder his own life and profession, as he grapples the gray area between the law and justice.
My Greek Books review
My Xanthi is a powerful story about life, family, justice, and war—and the decisions we make that sometimes challenge our principles. This novella packs a punch. Stephanie Cotsirilos adeptly crafted an intriguing story that will draw you in from the first moment and keep you on the edge of your seat. The ending knocked me off my feet. This story will stay with me. Add it to your list.
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Secrets in a Jewellery Box by Demetra Angelis Foustanellas
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1st edition (April 1, 2014)
About the author
Born and raised in Ottawa, Canada to Greek immigrant parents, Demetra Angelis Foustanellas later moved to Greece with her husband and two children. While raising her kids, she researched her heritage, and observed the customs of the daily life of her ancestral land. These insights are revealed in Secrets in a Jewellery Box, her debut novel. Demetra and her husband live on the Greek island of Samos.
Though this book lingered on my to-be-read shelf for a while, on one summer day, something drew me to it, like the time had arrived to open that proverbial jewelry box.
The daughter of Greek immigrants and born in Canada, Elly feels stifled by her parents’ old-world ways. This causes considerable conflict in their home, and she feels like she must somehow break free. While still in high school, she meets Perry, a handsome—and older—young man visiting from Greece. Smitten, they pursue a relationship. They marry and soon have a daughter. But Perry can’t leave Greece behind. Feeling the call to defend his country during the Junta years, he returns to Athens. Young Ellie is left to raise her daughter alone. Having left one difficult situation for another, Elly steels herself for single parenthood and tries to build a new life. As she grows, her daughter Nena becomes curious about her father. But Elly refuses to “open that box”.
Now a teenager, Nena begs her mother to allow her to travel to Greece to reconnect with her father. Elly can’t entertain the thought, but her daughter won’t back down. When she reluctantly follows her daughter to Greece, she learns that there’s more to the story than she ever knew. She can’t hide from it any longer and must reckon with her past—and what it means for her future.
My Greek Books review
I don’t know why I waited so long to read this. Demetra Angelis Foustanellis eloquently captured the realities of a child of immigrants. I could easily relate to growing up in a “new world”, being bound by the often-misunderstood customs and mores of the “old world”. Demetra writes from the heart, drawing readers into a story of a young woman in a quest for independence, who jumps at the chance for freedom, only to find herself in an equally difficult situation. The story is complex, as Elly, a person who desperately wants to escape her heritage—and then hide from her past—raises a daughter who is just the opposite—Nena desperately wants to learn about and embrace her heritage—and thirsts for any information about her family’s history. This compelling and heartfelt story examines family, love, pride, and making peace with the past, in order to truly make a fresh start. Secrets in a Jewellery Box is one you won’t be able to put down.
Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki, translated by Karen Van Dyck
NYRB Classics; Reprint edition (July 9, 2019)
About the author
Margarita Liberaki (1919-2001) was born in Athens. Her mother, Sappho Fexi, was a poet. According to Wikipedia, her grandfather is the important publisher and bookstore owner Georgios D. Fexis, and her sister is Sculptor Aglaia Liberaki. She married Attorney and Poet Giorgos Karapanos in 1941.
Though she earned a law degree in 1943 from National and Kapodistrian University in Athens, Liberaki pursued her literary passions. She published her first novel, The Trees, in 1945. The following year, she published Τα Ψάθινα Καπέλα (The Straw Hats), which when translated into English by Karen Van Dyck, became known as Three Summers. She published two additional novels.
Shortly after the child’s birth, the couple divorced. Liberaki then moved to Paris and wrote for theater in Greek and French. Among her written works are several plays, screenplays, and poems. Her daughter went on to become a novelist in her own right.
About the translator
American Literary Critic and Translator Karen Van Dyck was born in the US but grew up in Scotland, Australia, and several US cities. She is the Kimon A. Doukas Professor of Modern Greek Language and Literature in the Classics Department of Columbia University in NY. She received a 2022 honorary doctorate from the University of Athens for her pivotal role in translating Greek poetry into English and getting them recognized in the “political and literary context of world literature”. She received the 2016 London Hellenic Prize for the bilingual anthology of Greek poets, Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry. Her doctoral thesis in Modern Greek Studies garnered the Stavros Papastavrou Award for best thesis in 1990. She’s received many more awards, accolades, and grants. Learn more about her here.
The English translation of Three Summers was first published in 1995. Read more here.
Three Summers follows three young sisters, Maria, Infanta, and Katerina, as they come of age outside of Athens, before WWII. We mostly see the story from the youngest sister Katerina’s perspective, taking us through the girls’ transitions from teens into adulthood, over three summers. The story unfolds almost like a diary, Katerina tells the story in what feels like streams of consciousness, and guides us from topic to topic, event to event, falling in and out of love, and determining their place in the world. They also try to learn their family’s secrets. The book was recently listed on Literary Hubs’ “50 of the Greatest Summer Novels of All Time”.
My Greek Books review
Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki will take you back to those halcyon days of youth. Those days when you were still young, but thought you knew everything. As we follow the girls through to the end of innocence, we see that really, not much has changed. Teens are still teens—trying to find themselves and where they fit, discovering their desires, hopes, and dreams, eager to strike out on their own, and of course, defying their family’s wishes. How perfect to read this now that I have two teenaged daughters. The translation’s aptly named story is perfect for a summer read. It’s light, fun, and a fantastic reminder of what it was like to be that age, when the possibilities were endless, and the great adventures were about to begin. I’d love to dive into this in the original Greek. I’ll definitely seek out more of her work. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the girls are waiting to share the rest of their story. Check it out.
My Greek Books—August 2023 Edition
That’s it for this month. Dig into these books as the summer winds down. Check back next month for more My Greek Books. Happy Reading!