Book Review – “My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff

My Salinger Year - Joanna Rakoff

Book: My Salinger Year

Author: Joanna Rakoff

Publisher: Knopf

Publication Year: 2008

Number of pages: 252

Price: Rs. 247 (Paperback on Amazon) and Rs. 125.30 (Kindle) on Amazon.in / Rs. 221 on Flipkart.

My rating: 5/5

This book was recommended to me and a friend (the same one who very sweetly sent me a copy of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) by another very dear friend. The latter had highly praised this book, and I was even more intrigued when the former finished reading the book in one sitting and couldn’t stop praising it.

And no wonder. This is easily one of the more lucidly written books that I’ve read this year.

The book journals a year in the author’s life when, in 1996, she takes up an assistant’s job in a New York literary agency which, as she later realises, represents J. D. Salinger. As the year progresses, she gets to know her colleagues better, answers Salinger’s fan mail, helps her manager who is going through a tough time personally, has second thoughts about her current boyfriend and gets involved in a book that Salinger wants to publish.

The time-period and the setting of the book gave me a very post-Mad Men era feel. This is helped not only by the fact that it is set in New York in the late nineties but also by the somewhat puzzling insistence of the agency to not embrace technology: it’s 1996 and yet, they use faxes and Dictaphones instead of computers and e-mail.

Right from the very beginning, there are beautiful descriptions of the city of New York. Be it the fairy tale like day when deserted streets greet our heroine as she determinedly goes to her first day at work, in spite of the entire city being snowed in, or when she occasionally treats herself to walks inside the landmark Waldorf hotel where she breathes in the opulence; this is a very keen observer who is able to transport the reader to a different place and time.

There are also geeky insights into the world of publishing. For instance, how books usually have their names written vertically down the length of their spine. You know, how you need to tilt your head to the right to be able to read the name of the book and the author when books are arranged on a shelf? Yeah. Salinger hated that. He insisted that all his books have their names written horizontally. Which created a curious problem if the book, as is the case of the one which is under discussion to be published, is not voluminous enough to accommodate the length of the title and the author. What does one do? Do you widen the margins? Increase the fonts? (It was while reading this that I realised that I had always sub-consciously preferred book titles to be printed horizontally on the spines.)

And then, there are the Salinger mails. From young and the old, from the frustrated to the angry; they all write in to Salinger. The recluse that he is, he has specifically requested none of it to reach him. And it falls upon the author to write a standard letter back to each mail which comes. But going through the contents of the letter, she can’t help but be moved to write a little personal note to these people who are trying to get through to a great author. The letters and her responses take a life of their own and, I suspect, makes the author see things in a different light by the end of the year.

This is a beautifully written book which completely moved me. Like the author, I too haven’t read any books by J. D. Salinger (she does read his works by the end of the book, though) and this perhaps made me connect with her in a strange way. Her struggles of trying to survive in expensive NYC felt like a reality check on the beauty that she described in other pages. The voice of a young woman, living a tough life in New York City and yet having access to the great American literary scene in the late 90s. Perfect weekend read.

Lingering thoughts:

  • “Oh. That Jerry!”
  • “He was also just afraid. Afraid the way most people become when they get what they’ve long wanted.”
  • Next time I’m in a spot of bother, I too am going to stand in a doorway like Joanna’s boss and shout “HUGH!!”
  • “You can’t go about revealing your goddamn emotions to the world.”

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘My Salinger Year’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.in or on Flipkart.

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Selected Shorts – Donna Tartt, Etgar Keret and Evelyn Waugh

Selected Shorts is one among the handful of podcasts that I’ve been listening to regularly of late.

“It’s story time for adults,” says their website, “with PRI’s award-winning series of short fiction read by the stars of stage and screen. Recorded live at Peter Norton Symphony Space in NYC and on tour. A co-production of Symphony Space and WNYC Radio.”

I’m not quite sure where I picked up on it, but the programming has been good enough to encourage me to set aside an hour every week to sit and listen to it.

The first episode which caught my attention was one where Patricia Kalember, a regular reader at Selected Shorts, read Donna Tartt’s short story Ambush. The story, a bittersweet tale about the friendship of a little boy and girl in the backdrop of the Vietnam war, had been featured in the 2006 Best American Short Stories. Although a stranger to the various accents, I was engrossed at the remarkable ease with which Ms. Kalember switched between them and narrated this beautiful tale. You can hear the episode here. (Needless to add, I have since added Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning Goldfinch to my to-read list)

But the episode which really nailed the deal for me was the one featuring none other than Mr. Spock himself! Leonard Nimoy, in an episode titled An Alien and a Gentleman, reads Etgar Keret’s Good Intentions, followed by Evelyn Waugh’s The Man Who Liked Dickens. In the former, Nimoy speaks in the voice of the narrator, a hitman who has been contracted to kill the only man who was ever kind to him. In the latter, he is chilling as the tribal chief who wishes to keep reading Dickens’ works over and over again. I won’t spoil the fun for you; listen to the episode here.

An additional clincher is that these episodes are recorded live, and you can hear the audience ‘participate’ in the reading through their reactions. Close your eyes as you listen to the podcast, and you are transported as an audience member of the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York.

Prior to Selected Shorts, I hadn’t read any of these stories and also hadn’t heard about these authors. As I subscribed to the podcast, I smiled as I realised that books were reinventing themselves in the digital age. Survival of the fittest, as they say.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Title: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Author: Truman Capote

Number of Pages: 157

Price: Rs. 205 (Amazon.in)

I read this book as a part of The Sunday Book Club’s (@tsbookclub on Twitter) #TSBookChat. As is the norm with me these days, I immediately searched for the book on the Kindle store and was surprised and disappointed to not find a Kindle edition. Hence, I ordered for a copy of the book.

Having read the book, I can now admit that I’m thankful that the Kindle edition wasn’t available. Packaging this under their Modern Classics series, Penguin has done a fabulous job with the quality of the cover page and also of the pages inside. Also, the fonts used for the book make it a pleasure to read. (Someday, I will dedicate myself to studying various fonts.)

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a charming novella. Narrated by a nameless author (who has, at the beginning of the book, not had anything published) who lives in 1940s New York, the story features the charismatic Holly Golightly, a modern “American geisha”, if you will. She doesn’t have a job, per se, but was almost a Hollywood starlet before she runs away to New York, offering herself as company for dinners and parties to anyone who would compensate her for her time and presence. Holly, who at the beginning of the novella, is about 18 or 19 years old, is most definitely not the “ideal” society girl and you know she is going to fall into trouble sooner rather than later. Yet, Capote manages to capture a mix of naivete and brashness which made me adore her and kept me curious about her fate.

I remember watching the film ages ago, and hence, it was only Audrey Hepburn I saw in my mind’s eye while I read the book. I recalled a very different ending in the film and thought the “romantic comedy” genre inspired end was better than the slightly ambiguous one the novella provided. Yet, one cannot really blame Capote, as the novella feels more like a labour of love than something he was writing that would enable him to pay the bills.

Apparently, Capote wrote the character keeping Marilyn Monroe in mind. I guess it will remain a debate for film historians to decide who would’ve been a better Holly Golightly.

This edition also comes with three short stories: House Of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar and A Christmas Memory. House of Flowers disappointed me a bit and A Diamond Guitar merely flirted with my curiosity and my imagination. However, it was A Christmas Memory which was the most impactful of the three. It is a tribute to Capote’s skill that the reader is so invested in the characters by the end of this short story. It almost perfectly captures how we feel looking at people as we grow up, more often than not, far away from those who we love.

This was the first time I was reading Truman Capote and I am now sufficiently impressed and curious to read In Cold Blood, which I believe was what earned him fame and established him as an excellent modern writer.

My rating for the book (the 3 short stories included): 4 out of 5.

Image courtesy: Penguin Books