Mendelsohn dares readers to engage with the complexities of the epic poem and apply its lessons to their own lives.
New work by Daniel Mendelsohn, Roz Chast, Nicole Krauss and Marcel Proust(?!) and a biography of Al Hirschfeld are all part of our summer book guide.
Shortly after college I had a girlfriend who was interested in the profound nature of reality. Among other things, our intimacy, for her, was a platform to investigate with honesty what we thought about existence. Without realizing what was going on, I laughed off these attempts which with hindsight, and even at the time, I would have relished perhaps if readier in some other context.
Although he had begun teaching himself ancient Greek when he was 10, Daniel Mendelsohn was not interested in the Hebrew he had to memorize for his bar mitzvah in 1973, nor in the Jewish faith that the Hebrew conveyed. It was the reception after the bar mitzvah ceremony that changed his life: “For as I was passed from relative to relative to be kissed and slapped on the back and congratulated, the confused mass of unknown and similar-looking faces bothered me, and I began to wonder how it was I came to be related to all those people, to the Idas and Trudys and Juliuses and Sylvias and Hildas, to the names Sobel and Rechtschaffen and Feit and Stark and Birnbaum and Hench.” Young Daniel became the gardener of the family tree, learning and tending to its roots and branches, interviewing relatives and keeping notes on index cards, and later with genealogy software. He always had an especially keen interest in his maternal grandfather’s brother Shmiel and in Shmiel’s family, the ones that, Mendelsohn knew, had been killed by the Nazis. In 1980, after his grandfather’s death, Mendelsohn and his mother found letters from Shmiel to his brother, the grandfather. The letters’ heartbreaking quality, with their desperate, futile pleas for help to get to America, enhanced Mendelsohn’s curiosity about the fate of Shmiel’s family.