An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic

From award-winning memoirist and critic, and bestselling author of The Lost: a deeply moving tale of a father and son's transformative journey in reading--and reliving--Homer's epic masterpiece.When eighty-one-year-old Jay Mendelsohn decides to enroll in the undergraduate Odyssey seminar his son teaches at Bard College, the two find themselves on an adventure as profoundl...

Title:An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic
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An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic Reviews

  • Melora

    Well, now I'm ready for a reread of

    ! Mendelsohn's book, which successfully combines the genres of family memoir and literary criticism, is wonderfully engaging. Mendelsohn, a writer and professor of Classics at Bard College in New York, uses the story of how his father sat in on his “Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer” seminar as a launching point for exploring family relationships, particularly the bonds between fathers and sons, with all their mysteries and complexities, both in hi

    Well, now I'm ready for a reread of

    ! Mendelsohn's book, which successfully combines the genres of family memoir and literary criticism, is wonderfully engaging. Mendelsohn, a writer and professor of Classics at Bard College in New York, uses the story of how his father sat in on his “Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer” seminar as a launching point for exploring family relationships, particularly the bonds between fathers and sons, with all their mysteries and complexities, both in his own life and in the classic epic they study together over the course of a semester.

    Early in his book Mendelsohn brings up the topic of “ring composition,” a literary device where an author uses flashbacks and flashforwards but always circles back to “present” events in the tale, and this device, introduced in reference to The Odyssey, allows him to examine with deepening understanding the life and motivations of the father he loves but has long regarded as cold and tough. Mendelsohn and his father follow up the spring course with a summer “literary cruise” around the sites made famous by Homer's epic, and that experience too offers him new perspectives on his father.

    Like I said, this made me want to reread the Odyssey, and that's saying something, as I've always agreed with Mendelsohn's dad in finding Odysseus is a hard guy to admire. He fails to bring his men home, he cheats on his wife, he's a braggart, etc. Mendelsohn's a skillful teacher, though, and he helped me see details, parallels, and connections in the work that I'd previously missed or not fully appreciated. While I still don't

    Odysseus, Mendelsohn showed me that the poem is more concerned with the bonds between family members and profound in its insights in these matters than I'd previously appreciated.

  • Jill Meyer

    Daniel Mendelsohn, a Classics professor at Bard College, has written "An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic", a book, a memoir, almost a dissertation on what seem to be two of his favorite subjects, family and classical literature. An earlier book, "The Lost: The Search for Six of the Six Million", covered the same subjects, but with a different orientation.

    Mendelsohn writes about a year in which he both taught a class at Bard College on "The Odyssey" and took a Greek island cruise which tra

    Daniel Mendelsohn, a Classics professor at Bard College, has written "An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic", a book, a memoir, almost a dissertation on what seem to be two of his favorite subjects, family and classical literature. An earlier book, "The Lost: The Search for Six of the Six Million", covered the same subjects, but with a different orientation.

    Mendelsohn writes about a year in which he both taught a class at Bard College on "The Odyssey" and took a Greek island cruise which traces Odysseus's 20 year journey. Although his seminar at Bard was for college students, he asked his early 80's father, Jay, to attend the seminar and to take the cruise with him. Daniel had been at odds with his father for years; Jay was famously a brilliant and taciturn man, married to his wife for over 60 years and was the father of five children. Daniel had long tried to understand his father and felt that Jay, with a long interest in the classics and Greek, might benefit from studying that father-son (and grandfather) epic, "The Odyssey" together.

    Many people have written memoirs about their parents. Most never quite make that final leap to understanding their father's actions, their mother's thoughts. As children we might know what our parents have done, but we usually don't know what they feel. Daniel Mendelsohn intersperses what happened in the family's past with passages from "The Odyssey". How Odysseus felt after not seeing his home, his wife, his father, and his son for twenty years can't exactly be paired with a man's life two thousand years later, but just the working through the passages of the epic with his father helped bring the two closer and helps Daniel understand - a bit - about his father.

    I am not a classicist. I've never read any of the epic poems Daniel Mendelsohn writes about in "An Odyssey". I enjoyed his previous book, "The Six" better, but then I am an armchair historian and have read a lot about the Holocaust. So, I was a bit in uncharted waters when I began reading "An Odyssey". But I had enjoyed Mendelsohn's references to classical studies in "The Six" - yes, he managed to combine personal history and the classics in that book, as well - and so I looked forward to reading his new book. I'd say I understood most of it but thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Mike

    As the subtitle suggests, this book is firstly about a particular father and son, Daniel Mendelsohn himself, and his 81-year-old ‘Daddy’, Jay. But it’s also about other father/son relationships including the fathers and sons at the heart of the

    . That extraordinary book has survived at least two and a half millennia, and continues to speak strongly into people’s lives.

    Odysseus – whom Jay doesn’t consider a ‘hero’ - is both a son and a father: son to Laertes, and father of Telemachus, the

    As the subtitle suggests, this book is firstly about a particular father and son, Daniel Mendelsohn himself, and his 81-year-old ‘Daddy’, Jay. But it’s also about other father/son relationships including the fathers and sons at the heart of the

    . That extraordinary book has survived at least two and a half millennia, and continues to speak strongly into people’s lives.

    Odysseus – whom Jay doesn’t consider a ‘hero’ - is both a son and a father: son to Laertes, and father of Telemachus, the boy he left behind as an infant. Twenty years later the two confront each other for the first time as adults. Telemachus is now a young man struggling to stand in his absentee father’s footsteps.

    The

    is the subject of a course Daniel teaches at his University. Jay, a man who delights in learning, asks if he can sit in on the course. He intends only to observe, not participate. But observing quickly becomes involvement. As we follow through this course and see the book’s effect on the students and the two men, we’re not only given an understanding of the book, with its various interpretations and challenging viewpoints, but also of the relationship between the two Mendelsohns.

    Early on, Daniel tells us that the

    uses a technique where, during the course of its telling, we’re given backstories that explain the narrative, and stories that explain the backstories. Flashbacks within flashbacks, as it were. The

    is full of such stories, many of which reflect and comment on other stories within the overall frame. Some of the stories may be ‘true’; some plainly are not. Odysseus is a trickster and a fabricator of tall tales: when is he speaking plainly and when is he embellishing events?

    The two Mendelsohns experience at least two Odysseys. Firstly, working through the book together brings to light the fact that the stories Daniel ‘knows’ about his father aren’t necessarily ‘true.’ Other family members remember them differently. Some of Jay’s own versions of his history aren’t ‘true’ in the sense that Daniel wants truth. For the first time, perhaps, Daniel learns things of deep significance about his father, a man whom he’s often felt was unemotional and remote.

    After the course is finished a friend suggests the two go on a cruise that focuses on the places where the Odyssey is supposed to have taken place. This is their second Odyssey, and one that brings them closer than before.

    Daniel also learns that even though he’s the teacher, and has worked with the

    for many years, he has to accept that other people’s interpretations may have validity, even those of some of his students. And some the students’ observations are deep enough to bring change to Daniel’s views about his father.

    This is a fascinating book. Daniel, being a teacher, tends to repeat things, perhaps to make sure we’ve heard and understood them. It’s a more helpful technique than it first appears: we encounter the Odyssey more effectively than we realise. The insights about father/son relationships are applicable to our own lives. And with Mendelsohn’s need to change his views – sometimes to his embarrassment – we see that his book is as much about his - and our – ability to change, as it is about the extraordinary book, the

    .

  • Jon Stout

    As a Classics professor, Daniel Mendelsohn taught a course on Homer’s Odyssey, and he invited his aging father to sit in on the course.  In his book, he took the opportunity to examine his own relationship with his father at the same time as he was discussing his students’ reaction to the epic poem.  I was struck by this because I too, years ago, had taught the Odyssey as part of a Literature of Western Civilization course, and I too had a special place in my heart for the father-and-son reunion

    As a Classics professor, Daniel Mendelsohn taught a course on Homer’s Odyssey, and he invited his aging father to sit in on the course.  In his book, he took the opportunity to examine his own relationship with his father at the same time as he was discussing his students’ reaction to the epic poem.  I was struck by this because I too, years ago, had taught the Odyssey as part of a Literature of Western Civilization course, and I too had a special place in my heart for the father-and-son reunion of Odysseus and his son Telemachus.

    Mendelsohn is a wonderful teacher, and I have to say that many of the insights that he conveyed were beyond what I was able to teach.  Nevertheless, I learned in my own teaching that I never learned a topic so well as when I had to prepare to teach it.  Mendelsohn had the students reacting to the first four chapters of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus’ son Telemachus tried to figure out what to do in the face of his father’s ten-year absence, and a crew of unruly suitors wooing his mother Penelope and trying to take over the realm.

    Mendelsohn also devoted considerable attention to Odysseus’ character, that of a bold trickster who was courageous yet canny, and who told fabulous stories with various degrees of connection to reality.  The students empathized well with Telemachus’ plight, and they had various degrees of skepticism with regard to Odysseus’ character.  Mendelsohn’s father, sitting in on the course, had a different reaction, questioning Telemachus’ inaction and indecision, and criticizing Odysseus’ lying and cheating.

    In this setting, Mendelsohn wove back and forth between discussing Telemachus’ situation and examining his own relationship with a sometimes demanding and opinionated father, whom he loved but did not completely understand.  In examining the epic with his students, Mendelsohn posed questions such as:  How do you recognize a father that you don’t know?  What are the signs of intimacy that identify someone who has evolved and changed?

    I found the father-son topic particularly moving, both on literary and on personal levels.  Mendelsohn did not completely understand his father, just as Telemachus knew Odysseus only by reputation.  There were ways in which the son was inspired by his father and at the same time frustrated by his father.  In coming to know the father, the son (both Telemachus and Mendelsohn) came to know something of what formed the father, as well as what caused the deficits in the relationship.  And the son also learned the signs of his father’s love.

    The book continued after the course was over, with Mendelsohn’s traveling, along with his father, on a cruise which retraced the locations in the Odyssey.  They developed new connections and rapport as they experienced the trip together.  The account proceeded to the bitter end, a year later, when his father died.  The end was particularly poignant, when his father’s last spoken word was a symbol of intimacy that tied together their life together as well the themes of the Odyssey.  I had tears in my eyes.

  • Paul

    Mendelsohn has been passionate about the classics, so much so that it is he teaches it at Bard College. One year his eighty-one-year-old father, Jay, decides that he will sign up and join the young people learning about this epic tale for the first time. Jay is a retired research scientist who was a maths expert but realises that this is his one last chance to discover about the great literature of the world, something that he didn’t do when he was being educated. So, begins an emotional adventu

    Mendelsohn has been passionate about the classics, so much so that it is he teaches it at Bard College. One year his eighty-one-year-old father, Jay, decides that he will sign up and join the young people learning about this epic tale for the first time. Jay is a retired research scientist who was a maths expert but realises that this is his one last chance to discover about the great literature of the world, something that he didn’t do when he was being educated. So, begins an emotional adventure that they both undertake, as they teach the students and learn about each others perception of the tale and Mendelsohn peers through the chinks in the armour to see the secrets that his dad has not spoken about all his life. This journey into the book inspires them to take a cruise around the Mediterranean where they visit the places mentioned in the book, and it gave Mendelsohn a collection of memories that he will treasure forever.

    It is a touching memoir of Jay Mendelsohn and Daniel Mendelsohn and their relationship that was straightforward and complex at the same time. As he works his way through the Odyssey, he draws parallels between that and his own life journey with his parents and his father in particular. He is open with his relationship that he has had with his father and takes time to be open and explain details as the discovery of things that were to clarify what made his father the way he was. One challenging part of the book was was that I have never read the Odyssey, so this book was a voyage of discovery in certain ways for me. It is a book that has never crossed my radar before but might give it a go one day. Worth reading for those that was a different take on a family memoir.

  • Camille

    What a beautiful book! Not your typical memoir, lit crit, or travel piece--but a remarkable, complex, gorgeously written mash-up of all three genres that left me feeling immense gratitude to the author. Read this book!

  • Robert Case

    I listened to "An Odyssey" while journeying home from a family holiday gathering. It was the ideal companion to my own 2-day road trip. On its face the book presents a detailed review of the archetypal hero's journey, told from the perspective of an aging Classics professor conducting a seminar with a classroom of aging teens, and his octogenarian father. The subject is Odysseus' epic return to his island kingdom and to three generations of family at the end of the Trojan War. These distinct bio

    I listened to "An Odyssey" while journeying home from a family holiday gathering. It was the ideal companion to my own 2-day road trip. On its face the book presents a detailed review of the archetypal hero's journey, told from the perspective of an aging Classics professor conducting a seminar with a classroom of aging teens, and his octogenarian father. The subject is Odysseus' epic return to his island kingdom and to three generations of family at the end of the Trojan War. These distinct biographies are skillfully interwoven by a compassionate author/teacher into a compelling narrative.

    This book is a seamless and compelling memoir that kept me alert and engaged during my own long drive home. I could not help but consider my own ties with father, siblings, and children. I found comfort and guidance in the similarities and shared experience. So, this reviewer highly recommends the book to anyone looking for a suggestion for an audio accompaniment to their next road trip.

    My one reservation with the audiobook is that the narration is rather flat and spiritless. Otherwise, the book comes highly recommended.

  • Rebecca Foster

    In the spring term of 2011, 81-year-old Jay Mendelsohn, a retired mathematician, sat in on his son’s Bard College undergraduate seminar on Homer’s

    . They subsequently went on a “Retracing the

    ” cruise together. Again and again, epics like the

    lend not just their structure but also their themes to Mendelsohn’s family story. Notions of heroism and masculinity are interrogated throughout. I suspect this will appeal more to classics buffs than to general readers. However, the q

    In the spring term of 2011, 81-year-old Jay Mendelsohn, a retired mathematician, sat in on his son’s Bard College undergraduate seminar on Homer’s

    . They subsequently went on a “Retracing the

    ” cruise together. Again and again, epics like the

    lend not just their structure but also their themes to Mendelsohn’s family story. Notions of heroism and masculinity are interrogated throughout. I suspect this will appeal more to classics buffs than to general readers. However, the quest, with its manifold aspects – to understand Homer’s epic in historical context, to rediscover its incidents in situ, and to reclaim a relationship before it’s too late – is affecting. Can one ever really know the whole of one’s parents’ story, Mendelsohn asks, given how much of a head start they’ve had on life? In this family memoir that plays around with classical literary forms and tropes, that’s the question that lingers.

    See my full review at

    .

  • Tamara Agha-Jaffar

    by Daniel Mendelsohn is a combination of literary criticism of Homer’s

    , a family memoir, and a travelogue. This is a unique and fascinating combination that Mendelsohn skillfully weaves together by transitioning seamlessly from one genre to another.

    The literary criticism occurs when Daniel Mendelsohn, a Classics professor, conducts a seminar on Homer’s

    . He analyzes the text with his students, providing insights and interpretations that ill

    by Daniel Mendelsohn is a combination of literary criticism of Homer’s

    , a family memoir, and a travelogue. This is a unique and fascinating combination that Mendelsohn skillfully weaves together by transitioning seamlessly from one genre to another.

    The literary criticism occurs when Daniel Mendelsohn, a Classics professor, conducts a seminar on Homer’s

    . He analyzes the text with his students, providing insights and interpretations that illuminate the text in rewarding ways. The family memoir occurs when Mendelsohn’s octogenarian father sits in on his seminar and contributes to the discussion and analysis. As a result of his father’s reactions to the

    , Mendelsohn interrogates his own relationship with his father, one that had been fraught with tension, misunderstandings, and lack of communication during his formative years. The travelogue occurs when father and son go on a literary cruise that re-traces Odysseus’ return from Troy.

    Mendelsohn describes the structure of Homer’s

    as a “ring composition” in which “elaborate circlings in space and time are mirrored” and where

    Mendelsohn replicates this same ring structure in his work, looping backward and forward in time; weaving interpretations, highlighting details, and drawing connections within the poem; translating words from the Greek, providing their definitions, connotations, and context; and applying all of the above to significant events from his life that shed light on his relationship with his father. One of the most intriguing aspects of his discussion of the poem is the manner in which he interrogates Odysseus’ relationship with his son and his father, applying both to father/son relationships in general and to his relationship with his father in specific. This is as much an odyssey of Mendelsohn’s personal discovery of his father’s personality and behaviors as it is anything else.

    What emerges from this work is a sensitive portrayal of Mendelsohn’s father, a fascinating critique of Homer’s

    with profound insights on the poem, and a travelogue describing the locations father and son visit as they pursue their own transformative odyssey.

    A fascinating and compelling work. Highly recommended for anyone with a pulse.

  • Lyn Elliott

    Review to come.

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