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.)