a bookclique pick by Rhoda Flaxman
If you loved The Odyssey in school — and even if you didn’t — this book is a winner. Offering a trip through Homer’s epic text, Classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn interweaves the story of a son, Telemachus, and a father, Odysseus, with another son/father pair — Daniel and his father, Jay.
When Jay, an eighty-two-year-old man with tremendous intellectual curiosity, asks to sit in on Dan’s freshman seminar at Bard College, father and son both garner insights into their own relationship, which was always distant and difficult. When the seminar ends, the two decide to embark on a cruise titled “Retracing the Odyssey,” and Dan begins to see his father as others do — charming, knowledgeable — instead of contemptuous, argumentative, and emotionally walled-off.
Ultimately “the endless tug-of-war between fathers and sons” dissipates through their shared experiences. As Dan says, “As we moved farther away from home, my father seemed to shed some hard outer surface and soften.” As a result of their classroom interactions and their voyage to the sites of The Odyssey, not only does Jay learn about his son, but Dan receives an education into the identity of his father as well.
This book is not just the story of two sons and fathers. It is also an insightful description of Mendelsohn’s teaching practice, and, as a teacher myself, I found myself agreeing with many of his precepts. For example, he says, “A good teacher doesn’t just tell you what to do, or what to think. A good teacher shows you how.”
If you love etymology and the classics, have an interest in parent/child relationships, or want an example of excellent teaching and writing, I recommend this engaging account of a contemporary quest. Mendelsohn’s simple, graceful style and ability to mix his materials organically last right up to the moving, understated ending.