BOOKS REVIEW by Willard Manus

Two extraordinary books have come my way lately.

THE ORCHARDS OF ITHACA is Harry Mark Petrakis' tenth novel and one of his best. An intimate family drama set in Chicago's Greek-American community, it focuses on Orestes Panos, owner of a successful Greek restaurant on Halsted Street, whose 50th birthday coincides with the arrival of the 21st century and the Y2K scare. Petrakis orchestrates cosmic and personal themes in a masterful way, resulting in a narrative that makes for compelling reading.

Orestes, the son of a tough, brutal father, has struggled all his life to hold on to his own humanity and decency, be a good husband and father at home, an ethical, upright citizen in the world at large. Life tests him severely on all counts. His children fail him, a beautiful but strange young girl falls in love with him, and he is caught up in a church scandal. Even worse, his wife suddenly confesses to a shocking secret, one that nearly shatters the bonds that have held them together for twenty-three years.

Orestes must go deep into his own dark, troubled self to find the strength to cope with these punishing spiritual blows. The way he responds to the challenge provides the book with its power and drama. Ultimately THE ORCHARDS OF ITHACA moves beyond hurt and resentment into the healing light of redemption and forgiveness. (Southern Illinois University Press, $25.)

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Geoerge Seferis, the first Greek writer to win a Nobel Prize (1963), is the subject of a major new biography by Roderick Beaton (Yale University Press). Beaton is an academic (University of London) but his magisterial, 528-page book is anything but ponderous and stuffy. On the contrary, GEORGE SEFERIS--WAITING FOR THE ANGEL wears its scholarship lightly, making it easy and compelling to read. Not only does it re-create Seferis' life in a vivid way, it discusses his poetry, prose and diaries with much intelligence and grace.

Seferis was more than just a great poet, he was a lifetime diplomat, serving in such dangerous and clamorous places as wartime Greece and Egypt, post-war Turkey and Cyprus. His foreign adventures read like a novel and are well-spiced by the people he met over the years--Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Constanine Karamanlis, Archbishop Makarios, Harold Macmillan and Angelos Sikelianos among many, many others.

Seferis' abiding love for Greece and its people--especially its fishermen and farmers--saturates his poetry and prose. When he died in 1973, Athenians lined the streets to greet his funeral procession and defy the Junta by singing a banned Theodorakis song based on a Seferis poem called "Denial" (or "Renunciation"). The feeling between Seferis and his native land was mutual.