Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Review: "My Salinger Year" by Joanna Rakoff

I read more fiction than nonfiction, but quite often when I read memoirs they tend to recount the challenges, tragedies, or dysfunction that the authors have experienced or overcome. That's one of the reasons I found Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year so refreshing.

In the late 1990s, Joanna takes her first "real" job post-graduate school, as the assistant to the main agent at a prestigious literary agency. For years, "the Agency" has been a lion in the literary world, represents some true legends, including "Jerry," aka J.D. Salinger. Yet the agency seems mired in the past, shunning the use of modern technology (correspondence is still typed on typewriters rather than computers), and its old school approach leaves it vulnerable. For Joanna, who dreams of becoming a poet, day after day of typing up dictated letters from her boss isn't entirely challenging, and she hopes to be given the chance to read manuscripts and perhaps someday discover the next great author.

"I did, desperately, want to be part of the Agency, more than I had wanted anything in ages, and without really understanding why—I had to relinquish some semblance of myself, my own volition and inclinations."

One of Joanna's responsibilities is to respond to the enormous number of fan letters Salinger receives daily. People of every age and walk of life write to Salinger, asking for advice, for validation, for support, and bare their hearts, telling him how much his books have meant to them. Having never read any of Salinger's books, she doesn't quite understand why people are so affected by his writing. Joanna is supposed to send a form letter explaining that Salinger doesn't want to see any of his fan mail, but she is so moved (and in some cases, perturbed) by these letters that she takes it upon herself to respond to some of them on her own.

Meanwhile, Joanna struggles with her own love life, torn between her Socialist boyfriend, an aspiring writer and boxer who doesn't quite show her the love she deserves, and her college boyfriend, whom she left without warning. She also is forced to confront financial realities after being taken care of by her parents for so long. As she waits for her literary dreams to come true, she wonders what her future holds—both within the Agency and in life.

My Salinger Year is a funny, moving account of a young woman's experience in the literary world, something you rarely get a glimpse of. It's also a tremendously well-written look at the power of books and the written word, and its ability to move and affect us. While I've never worked for a literary agency and didn't get the chance to meet J.D. Salinger, I identified with some of Joanna's struggles, which made the book fascinating and affecting.

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