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My Salinger Year Hardcover – June 3, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, June 2014: Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there existed a world in which writers used typewriters, publishers and agents sent manuscripts (on paper!) via the U.S. Postal Service, and starry-eyed ambitious young people moved to New York to try their luck in the literary world. (Okay, so that last bit still holds true.) It was the late ‘90s when writer-to-be Joanna Rakoff got her first job in New York publishing as an assistant to the woman who represented the great reclusive author J.D. Salinger. In the winsome and meticulously observed My Salinger Year, Rakoff recounts her experiences as an earlier-era Lena Dunham-creation, complete with a ratty Brooklyn apartment, strident anti-establishment boyfriend, and big, big dreams. “We all have to start somewhere,” is how Rakoff begins her story of being young, gifted, and possessed of a coveted “editorial assistant” job that her parents (my parents, your parents, everyone’s parents) would call “secretary.” While it’s true that J.D. “Jerry” Salinger figures into the narrative--and rather sympathetically so--it’s a mistake to say he’s at the heart of it. Youth, adventure, hope, ambition, and a keen eye and ear are what make this book run; with it, Rakoff--author of the novel A Fortunate Age--takes her place among such illustrious coming-of-age-in-New-York writers as Sylvia Plath, Candace Bushnell, and, well, maybe even J.D. Salinger. --Sara Nelson
*Starred Review* Rakoff, the author of a much praised first novel, A Fortunate Age (2009), chronicles her year working at the problematically retro New York literary agency that had been representing the reclusive, nearly deaf, and still demanding J. D. Salinger since 1942. It’s 1996, and Rakoff’s chain-smoking boss is loud and cryptic. There is no computer on the premises, and Rakoff’s nebulous responsibilities entail using an ancient Dictaphone and handling Salinger’s heart-battering fan mail—hundreds of letters from lonely, angry teens and grateful military veterans who recognize in the author one of their damaged own. A poet involved with an unsavory, wannabe novelist, Rakoff misses her far more reliable college boyfriend. She finds her low-wage job enchanting, intimidating, ludicrous, and, briefly, thrilling when Salinger pitches the agency into a tizzy by allowing a teeny-tiny press to turn “Hapworth” (1965), his last published story, into a book. As Rakoff recounts her funny and wrenching personal predicaments, she also charts the quiet battle of attrition between the values of the old publishing world, personal and impassioned, and the aggressively invasive corporate imperative. An intriguing look at the ever-fascinating Salinger and a gracefully incisive tale of love and literature, creativity and survival. --Donna Seaman
Top customer reviews
It was a fun read at times, and as a book lover/english-nerd myself, I enjoyed hearing about the authors real love of books. I realized when reading this book that somehow I've gone 28 years without reading anything from Salinger, so immediately upon finishing this book I bought Catcher in the Rye. As the fan letters to Salinger that are chronicled in this novel made it so I felt like I was really missing out on a great author.
I think I would have liked the book more if it just focused on life at the agency. As I mean, for me the stories of her NYC life with her friends and her boyfriend just confused me. The friends seemed flat...and the boyfriend horrible. They just seemed like unnecessary characters who didn't really do anything for me. I mean come on, the bf couldn't have been that horrible or why would you stay with him for a year? If these side characters were going to be included in the novel, I would have appreciated more of an depth and honest look at them.
At first, I kept thinking Rakoff was living in the 1950's rather than the 1990's. The smoking in the office, the typewriters (and accompanying lack of computers), and the huge Dictaphone contraptions all confounded me until I read this quote from Joanna's friend, Jenny...
"But really the Agency is like something out of Dickens. You step inside, and it's like you've time traveled back a hundred years."
Then, I realized I was supposed to have been Jedi mind tricked into thinking I was watching an episode of "Mad Men"! However, this element was the source of a lot of the story's humor and eccentricity.
What really made me love My Salinger Year was Rakoff's tone and writing style (hence the number of quotes in this review!). She writes with humor, irony, and an appreciation for the ridiculous.
On her increasingly irrelevant boss:
"My boss, as far as I knew, had no children, and she - like a certain breed of adult - appeared to have never been a child herself, but rather to have materialized on earth fully formed, in a taupe-hued pantsuit, cigarette in hand."
I especially loved her commentary on Don, her Communist boyfriend who tries so hard to be "authentic" that he ends up just being ridiculous.
"He surrounded himself with fools - the broken, the failed or failing, the sad and confused - so that he might be their king. Which, obviously, made him nothing but the king of fools."
"Don had refused to come home with me for my grandmother's birthday, citing his opposition to the tradition, but - here again - I suspected that this alleged ideological stance might be simply a smoke screen for either poverty or cheapness, that he didn't want to spend the money on a bus ticket, not to mention a gift for my grandmother."
Though I'm not a devoted Salinger fan and the only thing of his that I've read is The Catcher in the Rye (and I've only read that once...in high school), I did enjoy his eccentricity and found the humor in all the intricate rules that surrounded the Agency's "handling" of him. I also enjoyed learning some of the history behind his writing and am now more likely to reread The Catcher in the Rye at some point.
Rakoff's writing and the coming-of-age element to her story made this one of my favorite books of the year and my favorite memoir of the year.
Check out my blog, Sarah's Book Shelves, for more reviews.
But the heart of Rakoff's story is her relationship with J.D. Salinger. Both the man and the writer. Part of Rakoff's job was to answer the reclusive Salinger's fan mail and during her year at the agency, Salinger negotiated a publishing deal with a small press. For some reason, Rakoff never names her boss, one of the major figures in the book or reveals the actual name of the agency, which is weird at first but after a while it doesn't matter that much.
The author's story is well written and her ability to balance three or four subplots keeps the reader turning the pages. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in American literary history, J.D. Salinger or anyone interested in a glimpse of the publishing world in its last days before the Ebook revolution.