Laysee's Reviews > An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic

An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn
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it was amazing
bookshelves: five-star-books

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic is an immensely satisfying and deeply moving memoir of a son’s search for his father.

The author, Daniel Mendelsohn, is a Classics Professor at Bard College in New York. In the Spring semester, 2011, Mendelsohn’s 81-year-old father (Jay, a retired research scientist and Mathematics professor) asked to audit his undergraduate semester on the Odyssey. Now, that struck me as a daunting proposition. For sixteen weeks, therefore, from January to May, Jay came to class and participated in discussion with a bunch of undergraduates.

Jay said he was not going to talk in class, but in the very first class, he challenged the view that Odysseus was a hero. Odysseus was not a ‘real’ hero because “he’s a liar and he cheated on his wife.” “He also lost all his men and all twelve ship. What kind of leader loses all his men? You call that a hero?!” Oh, this was fun for me to read, but a nightmare for Mendelsohn. His reaction, however, was priceless: ”Yep, I said, a little defiantly. I felt like I was eleven years old again, and Odysseus was a naughty schoolmate whom I’d decided I was going to stand by even if it meant being punished along with him.”

I remembered little of the Odyssey. What I remembered better was the poem ‘Ulysses’ by Alfred Tennyson, which I loved. It offered a glimpse of Odysseus’ life after he returned home to Ithaca. I trooped along with Jay to class and relished this opportunity to be taught by a Classics scholar, extraordinaire. Book by book, Mendelsohn had his students and me enthralled with Homer’s literary magic. I appreciated his systematic approach to the epic poem beginning with an exposition on the etymology of words - voyage, vacation, travel. The Odyssey, I learned, is a ‘nostos' narrative; ‘nostos’ means Homecoming. It is combined with another Greek word, ‘algos,’ which means pain. Hence, the pain associated with longing for home is ‘nostalgia.’ Mendelsohn also introduced the ring composition, a narrative technique in Greek literature that wove the present and the past together, which mirrored the elaborate circling in space and time in the Odyssey. He drew attention to the long, six-beat, oom-pah-pah meter, also known as the dactylic hexameter in Homer’s twelve thousand one hundred and ten lines. If the reader did not mind some deviation from the memoir, it was all extremely fascinating and rewarding. Mendelssohn provided an absolutely gorgeous analysis of the Odyssey, a phenomenal literary criticism. It was a veritable treat to sit in this seminar!

Like all good teachers do, Mendelsohn asked searching questions that directed attention to the themes in Homer’s poem. Do heroes cry? “What might a heroism of survival look like?” What makes a good marriage? Why did Odysseus choose mortal Penelope and not the goddess Calypso? “How does one recognize someone after one can no longer rely on physical appearance?” “When the exterior, the face and body, have changed beyond recognition, what remains? Is there an inner ‘I’ that survives time?” “What is the difference between who we are and what others know about us?” These questions generated lively discussion in class. It was fascinating watching the young undergraduates sparring with an elderly man who could have been their grandfather, and even more fascinating to observe the mutual respect and admiration that developed between them.

In essence, the Odyssey is a homecoming story of a child going in search of an absent father and starting to learn about him and the world. It is a homecoming story. It is the story of Telemachus’ education. This memoir is the story of Mendelsohn’s education. Like Telemachus, Mendelsohn came to know who his father really was. From childhood until his mid twenties, Mendelsohn only knew his father to be a hard man for whom the value of a pursuit resided in the amount of painful exertion it demanded. Mendelsohn admitted, ‘I felt that if I devoted myself to a career whose training was painful, my father might approve of it.’

I thought it wonderful that at the end of this seminar, Mendelsohn and his father went on a Mediterranean cruise, ‘Retracing the Odyssey.’ On the cruise, Mendelsohn had many opportunities to get acquainted with the softer side of his father. At cocktail hour, Jay sang and charmed the crew on board ship. There were tender moments of revelation that were heartwarming. On one occasion, Mendelsohn reflected, ‘I suddenly realized, this was who he was: a lovely old man filled with charming tales about the thirties and forties, the era to which the music tinkling out of the piano belonged, an era of cleverness and confidence and sass. It was as if he were the Great American Songbook. A spasm of emotion courses through me, something primitive, childish.’ This father-son odyssey was particularly poignant as, unbeknownst to them, it was their last educational journey together.

I will close with Mendelsohn’s quote on teaching, which he exemplified in his seminar class:
“It was from Fred that I understood that beauty and pleasure are at the center of teaching. For the best teacher is the one who wants you to find meaning in the things that have given him pleasure, too, so that the appreciation of their beauty will outlive him. In this way - because it arises from an acceptance of the inevitability of death - good teaching is like good parenting.”

I recognize that a book like this is not for everyone. However, if you enjoy the classics, then this may just be your cup of tea. Mendelsohn said of the Odyssey that it is 'scathingly brilliant.' I can confidently say this of his memoir, too. Thank you, Professor Mendelsohn.
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Reading Progress

May 20, 2019 – Started Reading
May 26, 2019 – Shelved
May 26, 2019 – Shelved as: five-star-books
May 26, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-31 of 31 (31 new)

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message 1: by Candi (new) - added it

Candi I truly enjoyed reading this brilliant review, Laysee! I'm not sure I would have considered reading this memoir if I'd seen it in passing, but I'm more than just a little curious about it now. I love that last quote you shared too :)


message 2: by Laysee (last edited May 26, 2019 07:04AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Laysee Candi wrote: "I truly enjoyed reading this brilliant review, Laysee! I'm not sure I would have considered reading this memoir if I'd seen it in passing, but I'm more than just a little curious about it now. I love that last quote you shared too :) ."

Thank you, Candi. I wish I remembered whose review prompted me to read this memoir so I could thank him or her. That's the beauty of Goodreads. My turn now to share the pleasure of reading this memoir. I'm happy to have whet your curiosity and interest. Mendelsohn's memoir deserves a wider readership. It's highly readable and quite funny, too.


message 3: by Cheri (new)

Cheri Exceptional review, Laysee, I love that I can feel your emotional response to this, as well as including some lovely quotes, I especially loved the last one.


Laysee Cheri wrote: "Exceptional review, Laysee, I love that I can feel your emotional response to this, as well as including some lovely quotes, I especially loved the last one."

Thank you, Cheri. This is quite an exceptional memoir. It took the author three half years to write it. Tall order to mirror the structure of the Odyssey and draw parallels between the son-father relationship in Homer's work and in his personal life.


message 5: by Glenn (new)

Glenn Sumi Beautiful review, Laysee! I've been eyeing this book for a while, but wanted to get to it after a proper reading of The Odyssey. Thank you for the push!


Laysee Marita wrote: "Thanks for your excellent review, Laysee. It was a real pleasure to read it."

Thank you, Marita. I derived much pleasure reading this book and writing the review, too.


Laysee Glenn wrote: "Beautiful review, Laysee! I've been eyeing this book for a while, but wanted to get to it after a proper reading of The Odyssey. Thank you for the push!"

Thank you, Glenn. Wow. A proper reading of The Odyssey will definitely enhance your appreciation of this memoir. I must say that Mendelsohn discussed the epic poem in sufficient detail that one can still enjoy it without having read it.


message 8: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Really enjoyed your account of this book, Laysee.


Laysee Fionnuala wrote: "Really enjoyed your account of this book, Laysee."

Thank you, Fionnuala. Makes me happy that you enjoyed it. :-)


message 10: by Angela M (new)

Angela M Beautiful review, Laysee.


Laysee Angela M wrote: "Beautiful review, Laysee."

Thank you, Angela. It's a touching memoir.


message 12: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Fascinating review, Laysee. If I ever get to reading the Greek classics, I will make sure not to miss this one.


Laysee Dolors wrote: "Fascinating review, Laysee. If I ever get to reading the Greek classics, I will make sure not to miss this one."

Thank you, Dolors. I didn't realize until I read 'An Odyssey' how great 'The Odyssey' was. You won't be disappointed in either of these books.


message 14: by Jaline (new)

Jaline Your review is just brilliant, Laysee - and not a bit scathing! ;)


Laysee Jaline wrote: "Your review is just brilliant, Laysee - and not a bit scathing! ;)"

Haha, Jaline. Thank you so much. :-)


message 16: by Ilse (new) - added it

Ilse Fabulous review, Laysee. At school, my son's class could either chose to read 'Augustus' by John Williams or this one to write a paper on - as they chose Augustus I hope the class of my daughter will chose Mendelsohn within a few years, so I can read this together with her.


Laysee Ilse wrote: "Fabulous review, Laysee. At school, my son's class could either chose to read 'Augustus' by John Williams or this one to write a paper on - as they chose Augustus I hope the class of my daughter will chose Mendelsohn within a few years, so I can read this together with her. ."

Thanks so much, Ilse. It is wonderful that your son gets to read good literature in school. Augustus is another of my well loved books. I hope you and your daughter get to read Mendelsohn's book together. It is an excellent introduction to Homer's epic poem. I think you will find it well worth your time.


message 18: by Jaline (new)

Jaline Beautiful review, Laysee, and I really enjoyed the quote on teaching that you included. :)


Laysee Jaline wrote: "Beautiful review, Laysee, and I really enjoyed the quote on teaching that you included. :)"

I thought that a great quote, too. Thanks again, Jaline.


message 20: by Jim (new)

Jim Fonseca Really excellent review Laysee. Thank you


Laysee Jim wrote: "Really excellent review Laysee. Thank you"

You're most welcome, Jim. Appreciate your kind words. Thank you!


message 22: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Ansbro A most intriguing review, Laysee, regaling me with all kinds of info on Odysseus (Ulysses) that I didn't previously know.
There's a great line in Tennyson's poem about the slow moon moving ponderously in the sky ... let me find it...


message 23: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Ansbro Here it is:
"The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs..."
So evocative!


message 24: by Fran (new)

Fran What an awesome review, Laysee!


Laysee Kevin wrote: "A most intriguing review, Laysee, regaling me with all kinds of info on Odysseus (Ulysses) that I didn't previously know.
There's a great line in Tennyson's poem about the slow moon moving pondero..."


Like you, Kevin, I learned many things I previously did not know about Odysseus, which made this a rewarding memoir to read.


Laysee Kevin wrote: "Here it is:
"The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs..."
So evocative!"


Lovely lines from Tennyson. Thanks so much, Kevin!


Laysee Fran wrote: "What an awesome review, Laysee!"

Aw... thank you, Fran. Appreciate your kind comment. :-)


message 28: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters Laysee- I cant express enough the treasure it was to read this review!!! Perfect timing for me too...
I’m engaged with The Odyssey myself.... listening to the Audiobook by Claire Danes ...and...
Comparing the ebook with my physical book. I’ve been tackling all three formats - learning what I can.

You gave me much to chew on in your review- thanks.
I’m glad you enjoyed it- loved the quotes - your thoughts - the information you wrote and your feelings toward this book.
You made me want to be in that classroom too.

Hugs - love- and thanks 💕


Laysee Elyse wrote: "Laysee- I cant express enough the treasure it was to read this review!!! Perfect timing for me too...
I’m engaged with The Odyssey myself.... listening to the Audiobook by Claire Danes ...and...
Co..."


Elyse, it's fantastic that you're reading this epic poem. Impressive! If you should decide to be in Mendelsohn's classroom, you will find the seminars so much richer for having read Homer. Thanks so much for this generous and lovely comment.


message 30: by Kimber (new)

Kimber Silver Laysee, this review is brilliant! I was utterly caught up in it! Wonderful quotes!🌹💖


Laysee Kimber wrote: "Laysee, this review is brilliant! I was utterly caught up in it! Wonderful quotes!🌹💖"

Kimber, thanks so much. The Odyssey experience that Mendelssohn served up in this memoir is priceless. Loved it.


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