Message in a Bottle
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

imageThis might sound strange, but after finishing the just-released memoir My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, I realized I’m guilty of incorrectly judging a book by its cover color. Although an advance copy had been sitting on my nightstand for quite some time now, I kept pushing it lower and lower in the pile for the simple reason that the predominantly brown cover didn’t appeal to me. I never even bothered to read the jacket copy, so I wasn’t even avoiding the premise or description. It was just that the cover made it seem like anforgive meoverly masculine book.

It’s not the first time I initially passed on a brown cover that held treasure between the pages. The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer was an almost completely brown cover, and oh did I resist reading that one, even though it was the talk of the publishing house I worked for at the time. It was Moehringer’s memoir of growing up fatherless in the local bar in Manhasset, New York. Instead of romanticizing a booze-filled past, this coming-of-age portrait has something for everyone, from father-son story to first love to adjusting to college to finding his way as a journalist. And all of it is recounted with the knack of someone who spent hours telling stories to a colorful cast of characters in a bar; the kind of person who could make you down his writing faster than a good drinker could chug a beer.

imageWith that aside, what I’m intending to tell you about is My Salinger Year. I somehow overcame my aversion to the cover and stayed up far too late reading it two nights in a row. Enough random sources had been whispering in my ear and urging me to crack it open that I finally reached the point of feeling obligated. To be honest, I only noticed the cover included a girl in the window of the apartment after I’d finished reading the whole book. All I’d seen was brown brick.

I should have read the description because it soon became clear this was a book I had to read. It’s a memoir of Rakoff’s year working as an assistant to an established literary agent, right around the time that most offices were just starting to shift to using computers. This was exactly the era when I started my first internship in the editorial department at Simon & Schuster, and my god reading this book was like being there all over again. From feeling so poor that you had to be satisfied with coffee for lunch to yearning for 500 pages of assigned reading per night, the experience of being an assistant in the literary world of Manhattan comes completely to life. This is The Best of Everything in the 90s (I wrote about that 1958 glimpse at the young publishing assistants’ world here) and will easily captivate the same audience.

Although the title implies this book is about Salinger, it’s really a coming of age story about Joanna Rakoff. (If you’re looking for a book about Salinger, read this post instead). Her boss represents “Jerry,” as he’s reverently called around the office, and her interactions with Salinger as well as with his piles of fan mail could actually have been with any number of legendary authors. Even the anecdote about Judy Blume’s appearance in her office could have been about any big writer. What’s universal about Rakoff’s job is what appealed to fans of The Devil Wears Pradaa proximity to and yearning for artistic greatness that makes young and as-yet-unaccomplished 20-somethings particularly vulnerable.

imageWhile she deals with a lackluster relationship based on rebellion, Rakoff begins responding to Salinger’s fan mail. She soon abandons the agency’s recommended form letter and engages in the fans’ attempts to start a dialogue with the author of Franny and Zooey and The Catcher in the Rye. But she’s never read a word of Salinger’s writing. Again, this just isn’t a book about him at all. What comes out is a portrait of a likeable and slightly lost young woman working on her own voice. She feels like the kind of person that anyone who reverently loves books will feel a kinship towards. As she transforms from wide-eyed and awestruck apprentice to a confident aspiring agent who sells her first story, her character nearly bursts off the page with authenticity.

The ending, which jumps forward in Rakoff’s life, has a strange and almost disjointed feeling to it. While it does tie in the significant role Salinger played in her life, there is a part of me that wishes we could have just left the barely-adult Rakoff trudging towards the subway with a bag full of manuscripts. But I suppose every young assistant must grow up eventually, including myself.

Like Rakoff, I’ve never read a word of Salinger except maybe part of Franny and Zooey in high school (but if so, I don’t remember it). So I was impressed with myself for getting up the morning after I finished My Salinger Year and pulling Catcher in the Rye off the shelf. I read the first two chapters last night and damn is it good. What took me so long? Well…I guess I wasn’t excited about the plain red-brown cover.

There’s a moral in this whole story. Something about not judging a book….well…you get the point.



A Sense of Place

Island BooksOne of the best reasons to read something new is to live the life you aren’t living, and there’s no better way to escape than into a book with a strong sense of place. We all want to find new adventures and explore uncharted lands, and through the eyes of great writers we have the opportunity to transport ourselves through space and time.  Our bookstore has such a sense of place, and while browsing around in here it’s hard to wish we were anywhere else. The good news is we can have it all—we can be both here and elsewhere between the pages of some of our favorite books. We’d like to send you on an armchair vacation too, so we put together this list of ten books that will take you on a memorable trip to…

Rules of Civility1) 1938 Post-Depression New York City: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year-old named Katey Kontent. Armed with her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression, readers will quickly fall for this book’s sparkling atmosphere as Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.

Wolf Willow2) Southern Saskatchewan frontier, Canada, early 1900s: Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner: Wallace Stegner weaves together fiction and nonfiction, history and impressions, childhood remembrance and adult reflections in this unusual portrait of his boyhood. Set in Cypress Hills in southern Saskatchewan, where Stegner’s family homesteaded from 1914 to 1920, Wolf Willow brings to life both the pioneer community and the magnificent landscape that surrounds it.

Anthill3) Alabama wildland: Anthill by E.O. Wilson: This autobiographical novel follows the thrilling adventures of a modern-day Huck Finn, whose improbable love of the “strange, beautiful, and elegant” world of ants ends up transforming his own life and the citizens of Nokobee County. Battling both snakes bites and cynical relatives who just don’t understand his consuming fascination with the outdoors, Raff explores the pristine beauty of the Nokobee wildland.

The Poisonwood Bible4)   1960s Belgian Congo: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn5)  1830s Mississippi river: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn paints an unforgettable picture of Mississippi frontier life, and combines picturesque adventure with challenging satire. This is the story of a teenaged misfit who floats on a raft down the Mississippi River with an escaping slave, Jim. In the course of their perilous journey, Huck and Jim meet adventure, danger, and a cast of characters who are sometimes menacing and often hilarious.

Snow Falling on Cedars6) 1950s San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: In 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder.  Rich memories of a land desired, loved, and lost, and a charmed love affair between a white boy and the Japanese girl who grew up to become Kabuo’s wife, hang over the ensuing trial. San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbors watched. 


Caleb's Crossing7) 1660s Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks: Growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans, Bethia is restless and often slips away to explore the island’s glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship. Bethia’s minister father takes on the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb goes on to study at Harvard. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb’s crossing of cultures.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil8) 1980s Savannah, Georgia: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt: Was it murder or self-defense?  For nearly a decade, a shooting and its aftermath in Savannah’s grandest mansion reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares.  John Berendt’s suspenseful and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction.  Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

A Fine Balance9) 1970s Mumbai, India: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers—a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village—will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, this novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.

The Tender Bar10)  1980s Manhasset, Long Island: The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer: A moving, vividly told memoir full of heart, drama, and comic timing. J .R. Moehringer grew up without his father and instead turned to the bar on the corner, a grand old New York saloon that was a sanctuary for all types of men-cops and poets, actors and lawyers, gamblers and stumblebums. The flamboyant characters along the bar tended him, and provided a kind of fatherhood by committee. When the time came for J.R. to leave home, the bar became a way station—from his entrance to Yale; to his tragic romance with a woman out of his league; to his stint as a copy boy at the New York Times. Through it all, the bar offered shelter from failure and a constant, beloved place to call home.


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