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Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen

Review

Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen

Mary Norris’ 2015 book, BETWEEN YOU & ME, offered an entertaining blend of grammar guide and personal history, as she related her decades-long career behind the scenes at The New Yorker while also offering clever insights into the workings of the English language.

In her follow-up, Norris does much the same thing --- but this time, her focus is on a language likely to be a bit less familiar to her English-speaking readers. Here, she outlines her long passion for the Greek language, which she began studying as a young woman first starting out at The New Yorker. Norris was in the enviable position of working for an employer who covered the cost of continuing education when that education had direct bearing on her work --- and thanks to a sympathetic colleague, she was able to make that case. What follows is a lifelong love affair with the Greek language, both ancient and modern, as well as its history, mythology, geography and culture.

"Although classics scholars, devotees of Greek mythology and frequent travelers to Greece may be familiar with much of the territory Norris covers, certainly almost every reader will learn something new in the pages of GREEK TO ME."

GREEK TO ME proceeds more or less chronologically, at least in terms of Norris’ own experience with the language --- beginning with her initial study of modern Greek and concluding, in the final chapter, with her recounting of her longest time spent in the country to date, a three-month trip taken in 2017, after her retirement from the magazine. Along the way, she relates her misadventures with language learning --- particularly her inadvertent faux pas when putting emphasis on the wrong syllable, rendering her utterances nonsensical at best and obscene at worst. She also traces her personal journey (literally and figuratively), from her short-lived star turn in a series of dramatic productions (in classical Greek, naturally) to her coming to terms with what it means to be a woman traveling independently, both through life and through a foreign country.

Each chapter, however, can also be read more or less independently, since each one tackles a different element of Greek language or culture, from the alphabet to the myth of Demeter and Persephone to the controversy over the Parthenon and the Elgin marbles. Norris’ writing is strongest when the personal and the analytical intersect, such as when she writes about her colleagues at The New Yorker coming to support her performance in “The Trojan Women,” even as they --- with the magazine on the verge of being sold to Condé Nast --- were embodying a sort of tragedy of their own. She also uses the experience of reading (and enacting) Greek tragedy as a way to explore and understand a family tragedy from her childhood, one that shaped her family’s dynamics in perpetuity.

Although classics scholars, devotees of Greek mythology and frequent travelers to Greece may be familiar with much of the territory Norris covers, certainly almost every reader will learn something new in the pages of GREEK TO ME. And most will come away grateful for her candid, often vulnerable approach to blending nonfiction and personal memoir.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 12, 2019

Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen
by Mary Norris

  • Publication Date: April 2, 2019
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel, Writing
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 1324001275
  • ISBN-13: 9781324001270