In the spring of 2011, Daniel Mendelsohn, a professor of classics at Bard College, taught one of his most challenging students: his father, eighty-one-year-old Jay Mendelsohn, a retired mathematician. Mendelsohn père, a man always bothered by things left half-done, joined the class to continue his long-interrupted study of the classics. He proved to be an uncompromising student, always ready to speak up, and also always ready to listen. He charmed his fellow students, making it a lively, indeed, unforgettable semester. His son’s engaging memoir, An Odyssey (Knopf, $26.95), includes many of the discussions from Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer, along with background on the epic, etymologies of key words, profiles of the characters, and an appreciation of Homer’s narrative strategies, including his use of ring composition, a series of stories that seem to wander but in fact know exactly where they are going. Mendelsohn himself employs such loops, intercutting the course’s linear progress through Homer’s poem with a series of memories, family stories, the “Retracing the Odyssey” cruise he and his father took, and reflections on his father’s final months. An Odyssey is an illuminating work of literary criticism that makes Homer’s masterpiece not just admirable but truly urgent and exciting. Mendelsohn draws on Homer’s timeless insight into fathers and sons for his evolving understanding of his own father, a man who had always stumped him, and who, with Homer’s help, teaches Mendelsohn more than he expected.
Michael Allen was arrested at age 15, tried as an adult at 16 for attempted carjacking, sentenced to 13 years in prison, paroled after 11, and killed in a shooting two years later. Danielle Allen’s heartbreaking, enraging Cuz (Liveright, $24.99), the story of the cousin eight years her junior, is at one level a story about numbers—one of the nightmares from the nation’s mass incarceration. But it’s crucial to see it first as a story about lives and individual choices—about one family’s struggle to surmount those overwhelming numbers. Why did Michael die so young, and why do so many other African-American men meet the same end? It could have made a difference if Michael hadn’t been sentenced as an adult. If he hadn’t been caught in the early zeal for “three strikes you’re out” laws. If he’d been paroled where he could have pursued the firefighting he’d shown an aptitude for. But rules determined these things and they didn’t consider the individual’s best interests. Or what if Michael hadn’t fallen in love with someone violent? If his stepfather hadn’t been abusive? If his family had better understood his needs? If Michael hadn’t kept secrets? Allen relentlessly traces every strand of Michael’s fate, struggling to see how his life could have gone otherwise. There are glimpses of hope, and though she conveys Michael as bright, engaging, and no more or less fallible than anyone else, he’s ultimately crushed between the War on Drugs and the equally unforgiving “parastate” of the world’s largest illegal drug consumer. What’s the answer? Decriminalize drugs. Get rid of the invisibility that permits gangs to flourish and guns to pour into the streets. That keeps parents from knowing what their children fall prey to. Allen’s powerful book, as moving and compassionate as it is angry, reasoned, and courageous, makes it all a little more visible.
A rightfully monumental biography, Ron Chernow‘s Grant (Penguin Press, $40) is a finely crafted portrait of a complex man. Chernow, awarded the Pulitzer for his life of George Washington, details the life of the Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant by exploring the underbelly of military success. He starts by exposing Grant’s vulnerabilities, which figured in the future commander-in-chief’s memoirs as the modest ambitions of a young soldier at West Point. Suspecting he lacked the skill to succeed as a warrior, Grant was nonetheless determined to lead and command. He studied hard. Became a skilled equestrian, developed strong mapping skills, and eventually proved himself on the battlefield, despite skepticism from journalists and fellow soldiers who were aware of Grant’s struggle with alcoholism. Chernow also illuminates much about Grant’s staunch criticism of slavery, his resignation from the army, his newly formed political awakenings, and infamous financial problems. Later, as the eighteenth president, Grant emerges from the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination and his own scandals as “America’s most famous man” who, as Mark Twain notes, “saved the country from destruction.” Prepare to be deeply immersed in this account of an immortal American life.