Book Talk: Finding My Father: His Century-Long Journey from World War I Warsaw and My Quest to Follo
“ An accomplished, clear-eyed, and affecting memoir about a man who is at once ordinary and extraordinary.”
About the Book
Long before she was the acclaimed author of a groundbreaking book about women and men, praised by Oliver Sacks for having “a novelist’s ear for the way people speak,” Deborah Tannen was a girl who adored her father. Though he was often absent during her childhood, she was profoundly influenced by his gift for writing and storytelling. As she grew up and he grew older, she spent countless hours recording conversations with her father for the account of his life she had promised him she’d write.
But when he hands Tannen journals he kept in his youth, and she discovers letters he saved from a woman he might have married instead of her mother, she is forced to rethink her assumptions about her father’s life and her parents’ marriage.
In this memoir, Tannen embarks on the poignant, yet perilous, quest to piece together the puzzle of her father’s life. Beginning with his astonishingly vivid memories of the Hasidic community in Warsaw, where he was born in 1908, she traces his journey: from arriving in New York City in 1920 to quitting high school at fourteen to support his mother and sister, through a vast array of jobs, including prison guard and gun-toting alcohol tax inspector, to eventually establishing the largest workers’ compensation law practice in New York and running for Congress. As Tannen comes to better understand her father’s—and her own—relationship to Judaism, she uncovers aspects of his life she would never have imagined.
Finding My Father is a memoir of Eli Tannen’s life and the ways in which it reflects the near century that he lived. Even more than that, it’s an unflinching account of a daughter’s struggle to see her father clearly, to know him more deeply, and to find a more truthful story about her family and herself.
Reviews & What Readers Say
“ Drawing on abundant sources, sociolinguist [Deborah] Tannen creates a loving biography of her father, who indelibly shaped her life. . . . A generous and empathetic portrait."
“ An exceptional book. I put all other reading aside to delve into this one. A woman who has always had a deep affection for her father but didn’t come to truly know him until she was an adult, has made a promise to him that she is eventually going to write his life story. What she comes to learn, through interviews with him in his old age and through his journals that he bequeaths to her, is the soul of who he is and what his dreams are.
Eli, Tannen’s father, has a gift. He is a natural storyteller. Born in Warsaw, he and his family immigrated to America when he was 12 years old, leaving just after World War I. Arriving in New York City, he was a curious kid with a strong intellectual capacity and was, unfortunately, unable to complete his early education. He entered the workforce at a young age, working more jobs than you can imagine, to support his mother and sister. He ultimately graduated from high school later on and went on to earn a law degree, taking a longer route than anticipated, but it was not until much later in life that he was able to practice law and provide a comfortable life for his own family."
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Deborah Tannen is the acclaimed author of You Just Don't Understand, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly four years including eight months as #1; the ten-week New York Times bestseller You're Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation; I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs and Kids When You're All Adults, which won the Books for a Better Life Award; Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work; That's Not What I Meant!; and many other books. A professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, she has written for and been featured in newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, and Newsweek. She appears frequently on TV and radio, including such shows as 20/20, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Colbert Report, Nightline, Today, Good Morning America, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She is university professor and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, and has been McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University. She lives with her husband in the Washington, D.C., area.