Joanna Rakoff’s wonderfully engaging memoir, My Salinger Year, shares the author’s experiences during the year she moves to New York City straight out of grad school. She sort of maybe wants to be a poet. She knows she wants to work with books. Maybe publishing? She leaves her boyfriend behind, even though he sounds like a good guy (maybe because he’s a good guy?) and takes up with a not-entirely-nice aspiring novelist. It’s that time of life when the decisions we make confound even us.
A placement agency finds her a position at a literary agency that is rather behind the times. Her boss is a much softer version of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Still, she’s eccentric, unpredictable, and a bit of a mystery. Rakoff lies her way into the job. She doesn’t actually know how to type or use a dictaphone. (And why should she?! They’ve been out of style for years.) But she muddles through, becoming quite good at it. She even places a short story with a small literary magazine and feels triumphant. Her boss is ready to take her under her wing. And that’s the problem–what happens to her own writing if she commits to becoming an agent?
This is for any teen who dreams of a career in publishing or writing (and they’re out there). Or any teen who dreams of escaping their hometown by moving to the big city. Yes, the events in this book took place almost 20 years ago, but the basics haven’t changed. Trying to find livable, affordable housing in Brooklyn (let alone an affordable lunch in Midtown); juggling credit card debt and student loans with going out to dinner with friends; the sadness of high school and college friendships that fade with time; weathering the humiliations of needing to ask for help with the simplest things during your first day(s) at work, like how to turn on the electric typewriter.
Then there’s J.D. Salinger. Even though Rakoff’s boss is losing most of her clients, she is still Salinger’s agent, and dealing with speaker requests, fan letters and Salinger’s own telephone calls is a big part of Rakoff’s job. Salinger remains an enigma, but Rakoff’s reaction to his work is a wonder to read. If you have teens in your libraries who are passionate about Salinger’s books, they need to read this.
Finally, I thought I might mention that this is a rather PG-rated read, as memoirs go. No abuse, no dysfunctional family. It’s a refreshing change of pace.
RAKOFF, Joanna. My Salinger Year. 272p. Knopf. Jun. 2014. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780307958006. LC 2013026931.
Rakoff’s affecting coming-of-age memoir of her time spent working in publishing begins when she dropped out of graduate school and moved to New York City to write poetry and find herself. She left her college boyfriend behind and moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn with a man who lived off of her earnings while working on his first novel. In January 1996, the young woman as an assistant at a venerable literary agency. She hoped this would mean discovering new talent, but mostly she used a dictaphone and hulking old Selectric to type letters and contracts. Her (unnamed) gruff and enigmatic boss was quite old-fashioned about technology. The Agency’s most famous client was J. D. Salinger. Joanna was tasked with typing up form letter responses to his fan mail, and told never to engage him in conversation on the telephone. As time passed, Joanna was increasingly unable to stick to the required form letter, especially in reply to war veterans and young readers changed by The Catcher in the Rye, and these letters haunted her. She also found herself caught up in conversations with Salinger about poetry, and even Agency business. At the start, Joanna was naive, inexperienced, and lacked confidence in her personal and professional life. By the end of this memoir, she has grown enough to leave her freeloading boyfriend and reconsider her place in the publishing world. Teens who dream of living in New York will be enthralled, and Joanna’s overwhelming response to Salinger’s books will have them rushing to re-read them all over again.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City