Looking at Looking Up

With tremendous humor and heart, Linda Pressman tells the story of growing up as the sixth of seven daughters of two Holocaust survivors in Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors, and Skokie, her recently released debut.

Linda, of the funny and heartwarming blog, Barmitzvahzilla, was my first blogging friend.  She and I met through a writing class at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and have been navigating the blogosphere together ever since, so I went into the experience of reading her memoir expecting to like what I found.  But I was quite honestly blown away by the skilled manner in which Linda balances the sometimes horrifying details of her parents’ lives with the humorous accounts of her prosaic American girlhood.

This tension between the legacy of her parents’ Eastern European pasts – her mother’s war years spent running from the Nazis and hiding out in makeshift zimlankas in the Polish woods and her father’s laboring in Siberia – and the realities of her Chicago suburban present is a central theme of Linda’s memoir.  Despite her parents’ backgrounds and the fact that she is one of seven (!) daughters, Linda is as normal a kid as there is.  She worries about things like wet-look boots and kissing boys and avoiding getting stuck talking to a droning older relative at a family party.  She’s also “normal” in the way she wants to fit in, wants to make the “abnormal” parts of her life fit a mold:

It’s important to me that there be a happy ending to the stories Mom tells me.  I’ve been programmed for happy endings and fairy tales by school, by my teachers and by living in the United States, which I’ve always been told is the greatest country in the world and which has won every war it’s fought.  When my Mother’s story doesn’t mesh with my happy ending template, the story must change, not the template.  The story must be mashed and smashed and shortened and broadened and flattened to fit in there; and when it does just for a second – before it springs out again – that’s when I stop listening to what happened.  Our Holocaust past is unlistenable.

Linda has a remarkable grasp of the details of her childhood and she peppers them cleverly and creatively throughout her memoir in order to enrich her story.  Her greatest gift as a writer, though, may be her skill in writing comedy.  Linda has a way of elucidating the humor inherent in everyday interactions between siblings, between parents and kids, and among friends.  Indeed, Husband gave me a few suspicious looks when he found me laughing to the point of tears while reading a memoir by the daughter of Holocaust survivors.  (No, I’m not heartless; Linda’s just that funny.)

Her account is also – perhaps inadvertently – full of lessons for parents. My favorite piece of advice was one her mother apparently derived from her time on the run from the Nazis: “Keep the children alive.”  (A pretty good reminder to me, I think, as I worry about which food to feed Baby Sister next – apples or prunes?)  And, although her parents’ circumstances were extreme, Linda’s story is ultimately a universal one, about the ebb and flow of the parent-child dynamic – shaped through the revealing of tragic details of the past, embarrassing the kids in front of their friends, and the crucible of the cross country drive.

I highly recommend Linda’s memoir, Looking Up.  In it, Linda has told a remarkable story remarkably well.

Please check back on Thursday for an interview with Linda about the process of writing her memoir, its reception, and her path to publication.

I enjoyed Linda’s book so much that I want to share a copy with one of my readers.  I will draw a name from the comments sections of both this post and my upcoming Q&A with Linda (using the tool at www.random.org) to receive a copy of Looking Up.  Deadline to enter: midnight EDT, Monday, August 22, 2011.  (You may comment on each post to double your chance of winning!)

And the winner is…Justine!  (Giveaway is now closed.)


32 responses to “Looking at Looking Up

  1. Always love a good book!!!

  2. I’m going to order this book right now! What a great review. Thank you!

  3. I really loved Linda’s book, too. Like you, I was smiling at “Keep the children alive.”

  4. I can’t wait to read this book! As I am making my way through memoirs this summer, it definitely sounds like a promising Kindle queue item.

  5. I can’t wait to read this.

  6. Hooked already – cannot wait to read this. I think I may suggest it for my book club. I think it’s very cool that you guys met in a writing class and have maintained a relationship! Which Gotham class did you take? I’ve taken a couple and was toying with doing one again this fall.

    I found this quote to ring true with me, even though Linda’s past and mine do not share common ground: “When my Mother’s story doesn’t mesh with my happy ending template, the story must change, not the template.”

    Whether I win a copy or not, I’ll definitely be reading Looking Up.

    • Hi Missy,

      Linda and I met through “How to Blog.” (Don’t you love that creative title?) 🙂 It was the first Gotham class I took and I found it really helpful as I was launching Motherese. Later I took one called “How to Freelance” on Linda’s recommendation and really liked that one too.

      I’m also thinking about taking another one this fall. Were you contemplating any one in particular?

  7. Linda’s book has been sitting at the top of my stack all summer and, well… life (& kids) being what they are (chaotic? messy? schedule-obliterating?), her memoir is still sitting at the top of the stack.

    But I’m now looking forward to reading even more. Thank you for this lovely nudge to do just that.

  8. Her book sounds quite interesting. You provided a very nice review.

  9. Kristen, I’ve wanted to pick up this book for some time. Thanks for the nudge. Your review is lovely and I love the line, “Keep the children alive.”

  10. Thanks, Kristen for this lovely review of my book! And thank you for capturing such important parts of the story. I appreciate it!

  11. I just heard about this book somewhere else, and this review makes me even more excited to read it!

  12. Linda this is going to be a great movie one day! We had quite the childhood in Skokie! Your family was a big part of my life,. Love, Boomer

  13. I also enjoyed Linda’s book inmensely. Like you, there were moments when I was giggling at the antics… More often than not, I find myself thinking, “keep the children alive.” A wonderful review for an amazing book!

  14. Sounds interesting (I am a history buff), and I am interested to hear your interview with Linda.

  15. I found Linda’s blog sometime ago via another blog, and I enjoy her wit. Much like the “real world,” the blogging one can sometimes be small.

    I am intrigued by this book. Good for her for carrying out the dream of so many (the book writing part, I mean) and apparently tackling a tough subject in a humorous way.

  16. I am from Skokie and look forward to reading her memories.

  17. Sounds great Linda—and thanks for the prompt Kristen… I need to get this in my reading pile pronto (being from Lincolnwood, Skokie is practically my own terroir… as well as quasi-terror).

    Sending All Good Wishes for the life of “Looking Up.”

    • You know, Bruce, I thought of you and your stories of your Chicagoland childhood while reading Looking Up. I think you’ll find a lot to like – and to commiserate with – in Linda’s well-written pages.

  18. Thanks to everyone for the great support and, of course, to Kristen! Hello to Boomer who, for those who read the book, was one of my sister “Brenda’s” (name changed) giant gang of nick-named friends! Still Boomer!

  19. It looks like a really great book.

  20. I am always excited to learn of another memoir to read. Thanks for the heads up! Also might check out some of the classes you refer to….

  21. I’m always eager to read your recommendations, and this time, you’ve hit close to home. Literally. Skokie is a ten-minute drive from my place 🙂

    I know what I’ll be reading next. First, I have to finish the epic Game of Thrones series. A monumental task for someone with so little time to read!

  22. I’ll be honest, I’m usually skeptical of book reviews on blogs, but I feel like your words really filled in the story that Linda wanted to tell. Some stories are so complex, that sometimes it can be really challenging to get past just that first layer. What you’ve unraveled for us to continue with is lovely. I, like Justine, need to finish the Game of Thrones (the 5th book came today) but this is definitely going on my list.

  23. Can’t wait to read Linda’s book. As a child of a holocaust survivor who grew up in Skokie, I would be interested in comparing our experiences.

  24. 6512 and growing

    Six of seven daughters would make an interesting enough story on its own, but the rest sounds fascinating too.

  25. Pingback: Looking At Looking Up with Linda Pressman | Motherese

  26. It really is an incredible book! So.. if for some chance I win the book, please go on to the next random person. I already have it.. and I LOVE it! The part of the book that made me laugh the most was the picture she painted depicted her, sick and barely breathing with asthma in the back of the station wagon- and as they headed west to drier air- she slowly started coming to life and torturing her sister. I cannot do it justice, it was hilarious.

  27. I enjoy reading book reviews of bloggers I follow. I find that their interests often match my own. The book sounds intense and I think I’d shy away if you were not so consistent with how Linda works humor into the fold to ease that tension. I must get it on my list.

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