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An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn

An Odyssey

An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn
Sep 12, 2017 | 320 Pages
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    Sep 12, 2017 | 320 Pages

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    Sep 12, 2017 | 320 Pages

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“My favorite classicist once again combines meticulous literary investigation with warm and wrenching human emotion—books like these are why I love reading.” —Lee Child
“When Daniel Mendelsohn’s mathematician father lands in his son’s Homer seminar at Bard, the older man sets in motion an odyssey both hilarious and heartfelt. Father and son start in the pages of an epic, board a ship to follow the hero’s path through the Mediterranean, and finally end where all our stories do. An Odyssey melds genius-level lit crit with gut-level moving memoir. Beautiful and wise.” —Mary Karr
“Tender . . . complex and moving: a book that has much to say about fathers and sons. On one level, An Odyssey elegantly retells the story of Mendelsohn’s Odyssey course, complete with all the gags, competition, and good cheer of an intergenerational bromance. [But] it dives deeper, excavating a portrait of Mendelsohn’s special student, his father: his lonely childhood, his early brilliance, his forfeiture of Latin for a life of numbers. Why a man so warm could be so cold. As Mendelsohn unpeels the layers of his father’s life and education, he dramatizes the beauty—and tedium—of the classroom. The reality of instruction is messy; Mendelsohn happily shows us how difficult the transference of passion can be. In this way, the students become supporting characters to the book’s hero, Mendelsohn’s father, who lurks in the corner like a hero in disguise. There is but one ending to the book; within a year, Jay would die, and so Mendelsohn’s journey—indeed like Homer’s—would be undertaken after the fact, when something remained to be learned. It is a remarkable feat of narration that such a forbiddingly erudite writer can show us how necessary this education is, how provisional, how frightening, how comforting.” —John Freeman, The Boston Globe 

“Heartfelt, touching . . . a dazzlingly rich story of identity and recognition from an exacting critic and award-winning memoirist. . .When his father enrolled in Mendelsohn’s undergraduate seminar, Mendelsohn didn’t know his father would only have a year to live. The course, and the cruise retracing Odyssey’s voyage to Ithaca a few months later, set in motion an emotional journey neither man could have anticipated.  With each new foray in his oeuvre, Mendelsohn discovers deeper truths about those we think we know, including ourselves. Mendelsohn’s intelligence glitters on the page.” —Rajat Singh, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Mendelsohn is an artful storyteller whose skills are equal to the task of weaving Homer’s poem into his own life. In this insightful, tender book, Mendelsohn gracefully marries literary criticism and memoir to describe an intellectual and personal journey that becomes one of profound discovery for both [father and son]. Most impressive are his transitions from scholarly con­sideration of ‘The Odyssey’ to intimate stories of his family life, as when the class discussion flows effortlessly into a magical moment, witnessing [his father] Jay as he offers a heartbreakingly beautiful tribute to his wife… [There are] many wise lessons to be gleaned from this lovely book.” —Harvey Freedenberg, BookPage

 “Fascinating . . . by turns cerebral, lively and poignant. Mendelsohn has achieved an enviable renown as essayist, literary critic and author of autobiographical explorations undergirded by insights from classic texts. In Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus, now 20, is searching for the father he has never known; likewise, while teaching a course on the Odyssey, Mendelsohn discovers that the classroom becomes a way to better understand his cantankerous father. In lesser hands, this sort of parallelism would seem gimmicky, but not here. It’s clear that Mendelsohn’s Socratic method of teaching (via dialogue rather than lecture) forces everyone, including himself, to see things with fresh eyes. Every step of the way, An Odyssey charts a remarkable journey made indelible by Mendelsohn’s elegant prose. —Dan Cryer, Newsday
“Rich. . . surprising, seamless. Mendelsohn is perhaps the most accessible contemporary ambassador of the classics; An Odyssey makes his most convincing case to date for their vital necessity. The book argues that Homer’s classic may be, more than anything else, a family saga.  In An Odyssey Mendelsohn places himself in the Telemachus role to ponder his relationship to his own father, who, like many fathers seems to have at some point drifted away. This book is as much tribute to the magic that can occur in the classroom as an unlikely tale of a father and son’s spiritual reunion. It is an adventure in criticism and in familial reckoning, telling the story of how Daniel and his father get to know each other in the last year of his father’s life. Mendelsohn takes us through the Odyssey alongside his class, meanwhile drawing comparisons between his and his father’s journeys, and those of Odysseus and Telemachus. Mendelsohn has honed a method of mixing memoir and criticism to reflect on the problems of contemporary life through the lens of the Greek classics. What’s remarkable is the extent to which the Odyssey truly does help him—and us—understand our lives.” —Craig Morgan Teicher, Bookforum
★ “Enlightening—engaging, gripping and deeply moving . . . Mendelsohn explores the enduring relevance of Homer’s Odyssey through a memoir tracing the complex relationship between father and son.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Beguiling. . . in this memoir, Mendelsohn recounts a freshman class on the Odyssey he taught at Bard College with his father, an 81-year-old computer scientist, sitting in. … Mendelsohn gradually unwraps layers of timeless meaning in the ancient Greek poem; Homeric heroes offer resonant psychological parallels to a modern family. Mendelsohn weaves trenchant literary analysis and family history into a luminous whole. A gem.” Publishers Weekly
★ “Sharply intelligent. . . A frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review, Mendelsohn is also a classics scholar. His father, a retired mathematician, had been interested in the classics during his school days and decided to continue his education by studying with his son . . . Ultimately, this book [is] about what they learn about each other—and what they can never know about each other. The author uses a close reading of the epic to illuminate the mysteries of the human condition; he skillfully, subtly interweaves textual analysis [with] the lessons of life outside it . . . A well-told story that underscores the power of storytelling.”Kirkus, starred review
“There are a handful of books that have captured the pleasure and romance of [the classics]. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was one. This is another. What happens in this book isn’t really its point; it’s more about the telling than the tale. And the telling is breathtaking. Homer has a phrase for those who can speak bewitchingly: they have ‘wingèd words’. Mendelsohn has wingèd words.” —Catherine Nixey, The Times (UK)
“A brilliant new memoir . . . richer and deeper than Mendelsohn’s previous work. At its core, it is a funny, loving portrait of a difficult but loving parent: Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, who is, like [the Homeric hero] Odysseus and perhaps all of us, polytropos: “many-sided” or “much-turning.” Mendelsohn sets an account of the Homeric Odyssey alongside a nuanced portrait of his own complicated familial and quasi-familial relationships, including a vivid picture of Mendelsohn’s anger, anxieties and embarrassments about his father. The book shows us how his desire to become a classicist was shaped in part by the desire to please his father, and how he shares some of his father’s need to be always right. Most powerfully, Mendelsohn contrasts his account of Homer with his father’s more critical response . . . the meeting of the two perspectives leads to a far richer reading of the poem. The fault-lines mapped in the disagreements of father and son correspond to some of the most fascinating interpretative questions of The Odyssey itself. Mendelsohn is a perceptive literary critic and a self-consciously elegant writer. An Odyssey is a stellar contribution to the genre of memoirs about reading—literary analysis and the personal stories are woven together in a way that feels both artful and natural. A thoughtful book from which non-classicists will learn a great deal about Homer.” —Emily Wilson, The Guardian (UK) 
“Spellbinding . . . multi-layered, inclusive. . . With bardic capacity, Mendelsohn tells a story that is heroic in scope yet distinctly humble in manner. Mendelsohn’s keen, penetrating observations plumb the micro-emotions of the several stories interwoven here. Slowly, painstakingly and with abiding, warm humor, Mendelsohn pursues reconciliation with his prickly father, who becomes a cantankerous student in Mendelsohn’s seminar at Bard College. The book’s magic is in moving from topic to topic, setting to setting, insight to insight, ancient to modern over what is sometimes no more than a paragraph break, and with no creaking of the narrative machinery. A meditation on filial love as candid, tender and in its own way ruthless as its counterparts in the Bible, Shakespeare and Homer . . . written with style as remarkable and flexible as the Odyssey, with sentences Proustian in complexity yet lucid and balanced . . . both dense and fleet, and wholly captivating.” —Tim Pfaff, The Bay Area Reporter

“A memorable mixture of literature and life. . . One of the students in Mendelsohn’s spring undergraduate seminar on Homer’s Odyssey was quite different from the others: Mendelsohn’s own father. Classroom discussions of Odysseus’ long, wandering journey home to Ithaca led father and son to undertake a real-life Mediterranean cruise retracing the Greek warrior’s travels. Mendelsohn begins to see his father in a new light even while the older man challenges the basic tenets of Homer’s epic. . . [It is] a journey of understanding they undertake together. Interesting and instructive.” —Bridget Thoreson, Booklist
“Radiant . . . a candid, majestic book on the art of teaching, and the push-pull relationship between professor and student, especially if the student is one’s father. At the book’s center is [Mendelsohn’s father] Jay, whose presence in the classroom bewilders and charms the other students and his son . . . Mendelsohn artfully allows Jay to define himself through bluster and unexpected moments of tenderness. With skill and passion [Mendelsohn] underscores how and why Homer still resonates today. Intimate connections between Greek myths and our own lives reveal the author at his singular best. With this graceful and searching memoir, we all drink from the cup of knowledge proffered by one of our leading philosopher-writers.” —Hamilton Cain, Star Tribune
“Brimming with longing and heartbreak . . . A noted memoirist and venerable contributor to a myriad of respected periodicals, Daniel Mendelsohn doesn’t hold back. In this memoir, he turns his attention to two men who have influenced a large portion of his life: Homer, and his own father. An Odyssey carefully unpacks details from Homer’s epic poem, with the author taking the stance of a vigilant observer. Witnessing his father’s guileless rediscovery of the ancient text, Mendelsohn’s life’s work as a classicist is turned on its head. The revelations and thoughts of the central characters of Homer’s Odyssey serve as portals to deeper understanding of contemporary relationships. Studying (and essentially mirroring) Homer’s legendary work allowed both the Mendelsohn father and son to find new dimensions for their love of one another. While the events of An Odyssey conclude with Jay passing away, the vibrant stamp he left behind on his son is evidenced by the profundity of the memoir’s pages. It’s an epic reconciliation, albeit a quiet one, focused on all that he’d been given by his father, celebrating their mutual love and respect.” —Michael Raver, The Huffington Post
“Brave . . . A memoir that itself is a deeply Odyssean work, not just structurally, but thematically: as Mendelsohn takes us through Homer’s epic, he reveals how its themes – the passing of time, identity and recognition, the bonds between fathers and sons, husbands and wives – resonate across his and his father’s lives. The book thus enacts a truth that has long been central to Mendelsohn’s writing and teaching, which is that the great works of antiquity remain relevant today. This is a gentle, at times almost nostalgic, work; Mendelsohn’s lithe prose flits seamlessly across intervals and registers, switching from erudite exposition one minute to emotion-filled reminiscence the next. This accomplished book testifies to what is perhaps the Odyssey’s most abiding message: that intelligence has little value if it isn’t allied to love.” —William Skidelsky, The Guardian (UK)
“Brilliant . . . not just a memoir but a celebration of Homer’s great poem. Throughout we learn not only of the nuances and stories of the Odyssey, but the actual structure as well, illustrated by the author placing his own story in the parameters of the Greek epic. Mendelsohn proves to be a wonderful teacher; he confidently leads you through the ancient text. He also tells an intimate story about a father and son who don’t become close until late in life. If Homer’s The Odyssey is about any one thing it’s about stories, imagined or real, heroic or tragic. This memoir is also the story of another father and son and the stories they reacted and told each other.” —James Conrad, Chronogram
“Beguiling. . . The ancient tension [between fathers and sons] that Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, points out in the Odyssey is still simmering when father Jay takes his corner seat in son Daniel’s Odyssey class. Mendelsohn’s book keeps four stories aloft at once: a summary of The Odyssey; his account of the class he teaches; the story of his relationship with his father; and an account of his own and his father’s life. The refreshing thing about An Odyssey  is that it’s a repudiation of the cultism of the classics. Reading The Odyssey, the great book, with your failing old man, and keeping each other company in the parallel epic known as life [is] a memory that will last longer than anything on your cellphone.” —Ian Brown, The Globe and Mail (Canada)

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