Friday, May 15, 2015

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff: Two booksellers' reviews

Liz Whaley, our recently-retired, former English teacher, feminist, brilliant reader and bookseller, and I, lowly bookstore manager, both read Joanna Rakoff's memoir, My Salinger Year when it came out last year. When two booksellers read the same book here, one usually cedes the review-writing to the other. In this case, both of us loved it so much we each wrote our own review. 

Stef's review:
This is a delightful memoir about Joanna Rakoff's year spent working at the literary agency of J.D. Salinger (or Jerry, as she learns to call him). It's her first year in New York City-- she's moved away from home, broken up with her college boyfriend, and been given her first credit card bills to pay. She's broke, eating sad little salads and wearing old vintage clothes, but inspired. It's a memoir about being young in New York, and books. Oh the books.  

Liz Whaley's review:
Rakoff, a bright young college graduate with dreams of becoming a writer, applied for a job in 1996, at The Agency, a literary agency which represented, among other authors, J.D. Salinger. She became assistant to the Agency president who handled Salinger personally. Rakoff used a dictaphone to transcribe her boss's letters, but she also was assigned to send form letters to Salinger's fans. She had never read Salinger and doesn't do so until many months into her year there. She writes eloquently about her experience at this place, a relic of the 1950s with Selectronic typewriters, no computers, and a decided atmosphere of "years ago." Rakoff's many anecdotes are fascinating, and her insightful reading of Salinger's work is amazing.

I like that I, as a self-absorbed young whippersnapper, focus my review on Rakoff's personal life-- her first year in New York, the salads she eats, her love life-- while Liz, someone who actually worked in a literary agency (Curtis Brown in the 1950s), focuses it on the work. God, what does that say about generational differences? 

Liz, one of my literary and life heroes, had this to say about her time at Curtis Brown, Ltd.: 

When they hired me, I'm sure they were happy I had a degree from Wellesley College, but what they really wanted was my proficiency in typing and shorthand. I think I might have had the title of Editorial Asst. but I was really just secretary to the woman who handled manuscripts and books from England, which was where our main office was.  We secretaries had to handle the switchboard when the regular person took lunch break. It was one where you pulled out and plugged in cords; once I cut off London by mistake.  I did read unsolicited manuscripts, the ones addressed to Mr. Curtis Brown. But I also read the early first novel of Patrick O'Brian, Testmonies, which I praised. He later went on to write his famous Master & Commander seriesWhen they decided to hire a new editor or apprentice editor, I had high hopes, but they brought in a man...Those were the days when the women made and served the coffee, typed on manual typewriters with carbon paper and onion skin for copies, and deferred to the men!

Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year, will be at Water Street Bookstore on Thursday, May 21st at 7pm. 

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