Wednesday, 25 June 2014

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

published 2014





On my first day at the Agency, I dressed carefully in clothing that struck me as suitable for work in an office: a short wool skirt, in Black Watch plaid, and a dark green turtleneck sweater with a zipper up the back, from the 1960s, purchased in a London thrift shop. On my legs, thick black tights. On my feet, black suede loafers… I had never worked in an office before, but I had acted – as a child, in college, after – and I regarded this outfit as a costume. My role being the Bright Young Assistant. The Girl Friday...

At the station’s west side, I pushed open the heavy glass doors and stepped out into the freezing wind. Slowly, I made my way west through the deep snow on Forty-Third Street, until I encountered something even stranger than a silent, unpopulated Grand Central Station: a silent, unpopulated Madison Avenue. The streets had not yet been plowed. The only sound was the wind. An untouched mantle of snow stretched evenly from the shops on its east side to those on its west, marred by not a footprint, a candy wrapper, not even a leaf.



observations: Is this a good title? No, I think it’s terrible - because it summons up a picture of a completely different book, and of a Goldilocks moment. This is the book it sounds like, in the aspiring writer/blogger’s thoughts:
‘I’ll read everything Updike wrote, and I’ll see if it makes me happy, and I’ll blog about it, and there’ll be interplay with my personal life, and then I’ll  get a book contract, and Jennifer Lawrence can play me in the movie. Nah, Updike wrote too much. Harper Lee? No, not enough. I know, Salinger. Just right. And everyone loves Salinger.’
Julie & Julia has a lot to answer for.

But actually it isn’t that book at all, it’s something much better. Joanna Rakoff took a job in New York in 1996, working for an old-established literary agency: she was in her early 20s, had just got her Masters, and had the boyfriend from hell 
(has the original read it?) . Her office was bizarrely old-fashioned – no computers, business methods from a statelier age – and her clothes also sound wrong for the time. Her boss was agent to JD Salinger, and over the year Rakoff speaks to him over the phone, meets him once, and answers letter from his fans – Salinger refuses to have any mail forwarded to him. This is a lightly fictionalized memoir of the time, and it is charming and delightful, and will resonate with anyone who ever had a first job – any kind any time. 

More on this book in another entry soon. For posts on JD Salinger, click on the label below.

Today I have re-used the illustration from an earlier entry: the picture is such a good one I think that’s fine. I first used it for Nicholas Mosley’s wonderful Impossible Object – but the excerpt above simply cried out for this image. It is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ie weather archives, shows a storm in Manhattan in 1969, and has the popular title ‘Miniskirt in a snowstorm.’

19 comments:

  1. Moira, the image is more interesting to me than the book. Digressing a bit and touching on Prashant's recent 99 books post - Catcher in the Rye by Salinger was one of the few books I read on the list. Didn't enjoy it at all, though it was read in tandem with something equally as bleak - McCarthy's The Road - that was a cheery weekend's reading!

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    1. There's a theory, which Joanna Rakoff mentions in the book, that you have to read Catcher in the Rye when you're in your teens in order to appreciate it fully - did you leave it too late perhaps? I absolutely will not read any more McCarthy: I don't appreciate the writing style, and cannot bear the misery.

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    2. July, 2010 when I got to it, so whilst I still behave like a teenager on occasion, I must have missed the boat.
      I have heard that theory mentioned before in relation to Salinger - also Kerouac. Someone who if I never read another book by him in my life it will be too soon. I had to stab myself in the eye with a fork, just to experience a different sort of pain.

      I have a few more McCarthy's on the pile (unfortunately?) but I'm not rushing to them. I haven't enjoyed him as much as I thought I would. Maybe he's too literary for me - a lot of his imagery went over my head and I might as well have been reading Child of God in Swedish for the amount of comprehension I had. I did enjoy the Coen brother's film of one of his books - the title of which escapes me - I'll read that one at least!

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    3. I'd never heard of Child of God, and looking at Amazon blurb, I don't think it's going to be the book to break the McCarthy embargo.

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  2. Moira - Interesting isn't it how a title can be so misleading, if that's the word. But it does sound like a great chronicle of the beginning of a career. And that description of Madison Avenue in the snow - pitch perfect! I'd heard Salinger was a near-recluse and it sounds from this that he was.

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    1. Yes, the book is full of interest, but also - and I may not have stressed this enough - just very very enjoyable and funny. Even if her job hadn't been so intrinsically interesting, I think she would have made a great story out of it.

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  3. What a lovely extract you chose. Haven't we all done this? Reminded me of when I was in my early twenties dressing up for my (extremely short-lived) career in the Civil Service.

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    1. I think it resonates with all of us! Reading this book really brought back to me the joys and fears of a first job, as well as the clothes.

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  4. This book has always appealed to me, glad to see that you have good things to say about it. Maybe I will fit it in one day. Another to look for at the book sale. I look forward to the next post on this one.

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    1. I think you'd find it an easy read if it ever turns up Tracy, and rather charming and personal. Are you a Salinger fan? - as I try to say above, I think it's more about first jobs and your 20s, but it is especially intriguing if you like Salinger.

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    2. Yes, I am a Salinger fan. Read Catcher in the Rye in my teens or while I was in college, not sure which, and all of the stories sometime after that. At this point I only have a copy of Nine Stories, but would like to reread all of the stories.

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    3. I love the stories - the collection is called For Esme with Love and Squalor in the UK, and that's my favourite one.

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    4. I am glad you reminded me of that. Fantastic Fiction implies that they are two different books, and I might have purchased that one again. I will look around for Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeams... too.

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  5. I have this one waiting for me on my Kindle and I'm looking forward to reading it!

    Here my "Books I Loved": http://www.sarahsbookshelves.com/fiction/fever-megan-abbott-book-review/

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    1. Thanks Sarah, I visited your blog and really liked it: I will visit again....

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  6. Just finished this one last night. It's slight, and the subject matter is a bit clichéd, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's a very fast read, and Joanna was likable and honest. I tend to scan the blurbs on the dust jacket before reading a book, and the top one on the back cover compared Rakoff to Lena Dunham. That almost stopped me right there! I find Dunham overrated and overly self-conscious. But I went ahead with the book and was glad I did. I found myself nostalgic for a world that existed only twenty years ago. The "Salinger letters" was a nice thread running through that was a bit like a barometer of her growing maturity. And lots of clothes talk!

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    1. It was pretty good wasn't it? I would read something else by her. Don't start me on those comparisons on the backs of books... the publishers don't seem to think that they might be putting off as many people as they draw in.

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    2. Sorry for replying so late. My email system decided some of the Clothes in Books comments were Spam (???), and I'm not as diligent with cleaning my Spam folder as I should be.

      But as for back of the book blurbs? The one comparing "Eyes like Mine" to the Dragon Tattoo books would have caused an automatic rejection from me if I didn't have your recommendation.

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    3. Those blurbs drive me mad. I nowadays try to read as little as possible about a book I'm going to read (because of spoiler blurbs) but you have to have a clue so as to know whether to get it, and those comparisons are positively off-putting most of the time.

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