Book Reviews: Autobiographies & Biographies
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Read by Tracy in June 2014
Tracy recommends as a sneak peak into the world of publishing.
The Blurb: Poignant, keenly observed, and irresistibly funny: a memoir about literary New York in the late nineties, a pre-digital world on the cusp of vanishing, where a young woman finds herself entangled with one of the last great figures of the century. At twenty-three, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent for J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in a plush, wood-paneled office, where Dictaphones and typewriters still reign and old-time agents doze at their desks after martini lunches. At night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic instinct, Rakoff is tasked with answering Salinger's voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from his readers around the world, she finds herself unable to type out the agency's decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger's devotees, she abandons the template and begins writing back. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger's, on her own dangerous and liberating terms. Rakoff paints a vibrant portrait of a bright, hungry young woman navigating a heady and longed-for world, trying to square romantic aspirations with burgeoning self-awareness, the idea of a life with life itself. Charming and deeply moving, filled with electrifying glimpses of an American literary icon, My Salinger Year is the coming-of-age story of a talented writer. Above all, it is a testament to the universal power of books to shape our lives and awaken our true selves.
The Reality: What can I say, I loved it. This is a beautifully written memoir of sorts, as Joanna Rakoff draws on her own experiences working for an old-fashioned literary agency in New York City (who I presume is in fact Harold Ober Associates in real life). I would expect that there are few such agencies left in the world today, so this is indeed a rare insight into a vanishing culture. Set in 1996, we meet Joanna recently graduated with the dream of becoming a poet, but until she can fulfil that vision, she secures a position working at a literary agency that represented among others F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Judy Blume. Of course the pay is pitiful and her family recognized that she is a glorified secretary at a menial job bringing her no closer to fulfilling her literary ambitions. Joanna soon realises that her boss is the literary agent for Jerome D Salinger. On Joanna's first day, her boss announces that 'They need to talk about Jerry.' Luckily Joanna was soon informed who 'Jerry' was and that "They'll say they want to i nterview him or give him a prize or an honorary degree or who knows what. Producers will call about the film rights. They'll try to get around you. They may be very persuasive, very manipulative, but you must never, never, never, never give out his address or phone number." The Agency itself is full of interesting characters, some of who have been their whole careers and others more transient, but all with a fascinating story. It is their personal lives that give us a real understanding of the personal and public persona a lot of people wear. Although her boss may be seen as a hard woman, in fact, her life was filled with sadness.
As she settles into her position, Joanna finds herself in charge of answer Salinger's fan mail, a task that falls to the Agency as Salinger refuses to read or acknowledge any of the letters himself. These letters were deeply personal and instead of using the form-letter response, Joanna feels she must answer them personally. She soon learns why a form-letter was the preferred method of response when she herself becomes abused by fans of Salinger who demand he answer their mail personally and is probably one of the reasons why he became reclusive. Of course Salinger was also the favoured author of some unusual people (John Hinckley Jr and Mark David Chapman) and the Agency felt it prudent to read the letters, "just in case". What makes this story fascinating is that Joanna has never read Salinger, she does not know why his stories affect so many people, but finds herself intrigued by the man. She finally succumbs and reads all his novels in one weekend and becomes increasingly mesmerised. Against her boss's admonitions, she developed something of a telephone relationship with Salinger, finding him "never anything but kind and patient". Their communication increases when the unknown happens and a publisher actually makes direct contact with Salinger, it is funny that nobody before had ever thought to write a letter directly to him instead of via his agents.
I too, have not read his books, and am keen to address that shortcoming in my literary endeavours, however as I have now found out, his work is not available electronically so I will need to venture to a bookstore in the near future. However, this just proves that you don't need to be a fan of his work to appreciate the book. I was fascinated in the running of the Agency. It held almost mythical status with other agencies and even though it was struggling to find its feet in the internet age it was gradually adapting. All communication was manually maintained with correspondence being dictated and typed on electronic typewriters. Although a photocopier was a new addition to the office which eliminated carbon paper. It took me back to my first job in a bank before the heady days of electronica.
The other personal characters in Joanna's life are slightly disturbing. Her father who as soon as Joanna has a job, hands over to her all her college debts #as he believes this will give her a good credit rating when she wants to buy a property. In the meantime she is struggling to buy food without the extra debt burden. This then brings us to her boyfriend, Don. He describes himself as a socialist, boxer and an aspiring author. He certainly thinks a lot of himself and seems oblivious to the notion that he isn't a particularly good writer. Luckily Joanna starts to see through him especially when she finds out about his best friends wedding and his sudden desire for her not to attend.
The story isn't all about Salinger and eventually Joanna takes on more and more responsibility in the Agency starting to review manuscripts and recommending new authors, in addition she finds her poetry becoming published. She watches the world around her change but still finds herself going back to the drawer that holds Salinger's fan mail and responding as she can. Based on the story I think it was Joanna's ability to learn from the experience and really get to know the writers and the various outlets for literature that saw her able to secure some very good book deals that may have not been explored by others. Oh what a shame we are all so focused on being line and following genres that are populare instead of breaking the mold.
This book was kindly provided by NetGalley in return for an unbiased review.
Beloved Strangers by Maria Chaudhuri
Read by Tracy in February 2014
Tracy recommends as a look at the difficulties of trying to blend culture and country
The Blurb: On and on we dream, we wish, we love no matter that the dreams come to an end, the wishes evolve or that love dissipates like dust in the wind. Perhaps, what matters only is that we have lived long enough to dream, hard enough to wish and indisputably enough to love. One of Maria's early memories growing up in Dhaka is of planning to run away with her friend Nadia. Even then, Maria couldn't quite figure out why she longed to escape. It is not that home is an unhappy place. It is just that in her family, joy is ephemeral. With a mother who yearns for the mountains, the solitude and freedom to pursue her own dreams and career, and a charismatic but distant father who finds it difficult to expresses emotion, they are never able to hold on to happiness for very long. Maria studies the Holy Book, says her daily prayers and wonders if God is watching her. She dreams, like her mother, of unstitching the seam of her life. It is her neighbour, Bablu, the Imitator of Frogs, who both excites and repulses Maria by showing her a yellowing pornographic magazine, but it is Mala, a girl her own age who comes to work in their house, whose wise eyes and wicked smile makes her dizzy with longing. When she moves to New England for university at eighteen Maria meets Yameen, a man who lives in a desperately squalid apartment in Jersey City, woos her with phone calls and a marathon night of drinking in New York bars, and is not what he seems. From Dhaka to New York, this is a candid and moving account of growing up and growing away, a meditation on why people leave their homes and why they sometimes find it difficult to return. "Beloved Strangers" is an unforgettable memoir marking the arrival of a brilliant new voice from Bangladesh.
The Reality: A memoir on her life, so far, Beloved Strangers sees Maria grow up and away from her home in Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh) to the heady delights of New York. Another memoir I hear you moan. This is different, it highlights how difficult it is to straddle two cultures, let alone two countries. This is no perfect idyllic childhood. Instead we follow Maria as she tries to fulfil her desire for something different, then to finding that something different, and finally her realisation of wanting familiarity when things and life is difficult. The book is slightly voyeuristic as we are drawn into Maria's intimate life. She grew up in a family that was unable to fully explore their dreams, instead living as is expected of their caste and their position. Her mother wanted to be a singer, but her father wouldn't allow it. They build a home, but cannot move into it due to financial difficulties and instead must settle for the upstairs apartment which constantly gnaws of her parents relationship. Maria feels she is unloved, but I just thought it was a lack of communication or understanding that gives her this feeling, her parents were always there and they obviously loved her and gave her the best opportunities they could. Maria eventually finds herself unable to put down roots, a sort of wanderlust that dictates her life. However, the second half of the book sees a lot more structure. She meets and marries Yameen, who gives her the feeling of wading through water. Probably not the best analogy of a happy marriage! Then disaster strikes the US with the terrorist attacks in New York and Maria suddenly finds herself hated by the country she had adopted. Maria could have injected a lot more emotion and intensity into the story, but instead the book is more a wandering through her past. Beloved Strangers is a debut novel and introduces us to a novelist of the future - hopefully.
Thank you to NetGalley for providing us with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.