Saturday, July 12, 2014

"My Salinger Year," by Joanna Rakoff

“My Salinger Year” (Knopf, 2014) a memoir by Joanna Rakoff, tells of her experiences in the mid-1990s as a young, newly minted assistant to a literary agent whose most famous client was J.D. Salinger. Rakoff occasionally spoke with “Jerry” on the phone, but only actually met him once or twice; apparently his very few visits to the agency’s office were major events. This memoir is about Rakoff's own young life, her initial steps toward being a writer, her romances, her life in New York City, and her plans and dreams for the future, as well as her daily routines at the agency and the people she worked with there. In a sense, she represents all the young people who flock to New York to live a literary life, however much on the fringes they may be; their hopefulness is touching if naive. Her recounting of her experiences with Salinger is mainly a thread on which to hang her own story, but she does manage to give readers a sense of what kind of person he was; in her experience, he was friendly and genuine, if somewhat eccentric. And toward the end of the book, she conveys quite vividly what his fiction means to her. When she finally reads his fiction, which she has avoided in the past because it is so popular with young people, she is transfixed: “The experience of reading a Salinger story is less like reading a short story and more like having Salinger himself whisper…into your ear. The world he creates is at once palpably real and terrifically heightened, as if he walked the earth with his nerve endings exposed,” she writes (p. 199). This memoir is a combination of young-writer-starting-out memories, literary gossip, insightful portrayals of the various people in her life, and reflections on literature, love, and life. For those of us who love to hear about the world of literature, writing, publishing, and all related matters, this is a lovely, enjoyable, and satisfying memoir. I also enjoyed Rakoff’s 2010 novel, “Fortunate Lives”; she is a writer to watch out for.

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