Sunday, 27 July 2014

My Salinger Year

This charming memoir begins with scenes of literary young women, dressed in a style ‘redolant of Sylvia Plath at Smith’ catching the morning train from Brooklyn, Queens, to their jobs in agencies or publishing houses. Most are secretaries or assistants, keen to work in close proximity to writers and editors and many are secretly writing novels or poetry of their own.

The agency which employs Joanna Rakoff has the elusive J D Salinger as its most famous client and she is under strict instructions that on the rare occasions he may call she must never engage in conversation with him, tell him how much she admires his work or - worst of all - share her own writing ambitions with him.  

The memoir is brilliant on the rhythms and routines of work. The agency still uses typewriters and all the letters are painstakingly transcribed from ancient tape recorders and typed on thick creamy paper with sheets of carbon beneath. The boss lives on her fading reputation and refuses to drag the agency into the 21st century, thus constantly losing clients. Although the novel is set in 1997 the long-serving staff evoke a glamorous era of Dorothy Parker quips, martini-soaked lunches and little black shift dresses. Only the long-suffering James tries to modernise the agency and has the temerity to introduce a computer into the office.
There are lots of fascinating little details about J D Salinger. For example, he banned the use of images on his book covers, stipulating just text so that readers would come to the work free of pre-conceptions. He also refused to receive or read his fan mail so Rakoff is supposed to read all of his letters and send a standard response, but she finds it impossible not to try to introduce some empathy and warmth into the responses.
It's also a memoir about a young woman making her way in New York.  Rakoff’s low pay and impoverished state means she has to consider carefully whether she can afford to grab lunch or coffee at the Polish bakery or the Greek deli or just go without.  She lives with her difficult boyfriend in a flat which can only be heated by putting on the oven and leaving the door open.
I would highly recommend this memoir, it’s warm and gossipy and literary but never unkind. Best of all, it has made me re-read Salinger. I loved The Catcher in the Rye when I was seventeen and I was worried that a story of teenage alienation wouldn't mean the same so many years later.  I picked up a copy at the weekend (interesting that Waterstones have suddenly re-stocked it) and haven't been able to put it down.  Franny and Zooey next, anyone read it?


Audrey said...

I've never read him either! ... but this memoir is calling to me!

Kat said...

This memoir sounds lovely. I read Salinger over and over as a girl, but, like you, was afraid to go back to it. Now you've inspired me to try again. Maybe I'll reread Franny and Zooey. That was my favorite at one time.But I'm not sure we still have a copy...

Cath said...

I also have never read him, about time I did. And I love the sound of this book. Nice review.

Penny O'Neill said...

This sounds like a captivating memoir. Thank you for the review.

Our book group read "Catcher in the Rye" a few years ago. I'm thinking this might be a nice follow-up to try soon.

Arti said...

Looks like this is a better read than the David Shield's 700+ bio Salinger which had not received very good reviews. Thanks for a detailed and informative post.

Nadia A said...

I've seen this memoir around and read an excerpt - it sounds terrific! After reading your post I am wanting to read it even more. Its on my bday wish list :) And I love that reading it inspired you to pick up Salinger again - I love when books do that! Enjoy Franny and Zooey - I love that one!

Sunday Taylor said...

This memoir sounds wonderful. I will get a copy. I also reread Catcher and loved it all over again. Thanks for the great review!

Bellezza Mjs said...

What a fabulous review, catching me up with such interesting facts and details...I love the carbon under thick creamy paper, for one thing, I love a simpler life than technology which sucks my job dry. Bit, how interesting to learn more of Salinger himself. I think he had an excellent point of only text on covers. I loved, loved loved The Catcher In the Rye. I remember being disappointed I. cranny and Zooey but it was so long ago I don't know if I trust that opinion any longer.

Anbolyn said...

I really enjoyed this one too. It was seriously enchanting. I have also been inspired to read Salinger, but I am going with Nine Stories as I have a block against Catcher in the Rye.

Peggy Ann said...

I don't remember reading Catcher in the Rye in high school. Hmmm, Seems everyone does though. Might just be too long ago to remember.

Ellen said...

This sounds like another excellent recommendation! My daughter's favourite book is 'Catcher In The Rye' and it's gratifying to see a novel appealing to the next generation of teenagers. She started Franny & Zooey on holiday but so far isn't liking it so much, ah well!

shoreacres said...

Evening - I thought I'd drop a note and let you know I left a recommendation for you on Bellezza's "Chanel" blog entry, where you were inquiring about a more citrusy scent. I thought you might miss it without a note.

Now, for a browse around your blog!

Rebecca H. said...

Thank you for the review -- I'm looking forward to reading this one!

Cathy Daniel said...

Incredibly - I too have never read him. I think that Catcher is such an iconic book, I was kind of wary about reading it. Son doing Masters in American Lit. so must have copy in house somewhere. Will find and read! xCathy

Mrs Ford said...

Sorry for very late comment. I was inspired by your post to re-read Franny and Zooey over the summer, and veered between finding it almost unreadably pretentious and really quite liking it! Definitely worth revisiting, though; thank you for the inspiration.

Vintage Reading said...

Audrey, this memoir is one of my best reads this year - hope you enjoy it.

Kat, I still love The Catcher in the Rye but not so much Franny & Zooey.

Cath, you must read this memoir it's brilliant.

Penny, memoirs aren't my usual genre at all but I loved this.

Arti, yes I'd like to read a biog of Salinger but not sure which one to go for.

Nadia, You must read it!

Sunday, I'm glad I reread Catcher and still loved it. Some novels I loved as a teenager don't mean as much to me now - Wuthering Heights, for example.

Bellezza, loved re-reading Catcher but F&Z was new to me and didn't mean as much.

Anbolyn, Catcher seems to divide opinion doesn't it. I'm in the Yes camp but not crazy on Franny & Zooey.

Peggy Ann, it was required reading for teenagers in the class of '79!

Ellen, I agree with your daughter - love Catcher all these years later. F&Z I don't really get!

shoreacres - thank you! One for my Christmas shopping list!

Rebecca, please post a review if you do read it.

Cathy, The American Lit module was my absolute favourite when I took my degree. An MA in American Lit sounds fabulous!

Mrs Ford, completely agree with you about F&Z. I just didn't get it!