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My Salinger Year

My Salinger Year

4.0 2
by Joanna Rakoff

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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


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. 

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rakoff’s second book (after A Fortunate Age) is a reflective account of her experiences working in publishing during the mid-1990s, a time when key players in the industry were adjusting to many technological advancements, as well as a unique look at the often misunderstood J.D. Salinger. Having moved back to New York after earning a master’s at a London graduate school, Rakoff takes a low-paying secretarial job at a respected but old-fashioned literary agency (she wrote in a Slate article that it was Harold Ober Associates) that represented high-profile authors such as Judy Bloom and Salinger among others who remain unnamed. Ending her relationship with her “college boyfriend,” Rakoff rented a run-down apartment in the burgeoning but not-yet-gentrified Williamsburg with her new boyfriend, the anti-establishment Don, who spent his time working on his novel while she was away at the office. When an editor from a small press expressed interest in publishing one of Salinger’s minor and nearly forgotten stories, Rakoff began an ongoing correspondence with Salinger, and formed a tender connection with the man that prompted her to read his work, beginning a late-bloomer’s love of an elusive writer. This is a vibrant coming-of-age memoir that moves along with momentum and energy, and one only wishes Rakoff had spent more than one year with Salinger so we’d have an even fuller portrait of a man who was and is often misunderstood. (June)
From the Publisher
My Salinger Year is at heart—and it has lots of heart—an affecting coming-of-age memoir about a naïve, eager literary aspirant who, like a character out of Salinger (Franny Glass, for one), ‘was trying to figure out how to live in this world’ . . . What adds freshness to My Salinger Year is not just its wry take on the writer of the rye but Rakoff’s sympathetic mix of passivity, naïveté, stoicism, earnestness, understated intelligence, and finely honed literary sensibility . . . Rakoff wisely—and deftly—weaves her Salinger story into a broader, more universal tale about finding one’s bearings during a pivotal transitional year into real adulthood.”
            —Heller McAlpin, The Washington Post
“A breezy memoir of being a ‘bright young assistant’ in the mid-1990s . . . Salinger himself makes a cameo appearance . . . The real star of My Salinger Year remains the Agency itself, with its Dictaphones and fox stoles, its wistful attempts to cling to the days of ‘“Thin Man” movies and steamship travel’ . . . The ‘archaic charms’ of the Agency are comically offset by its refusal to acknowledge the Internet age.”
            —Suzanne Berne, The New York Times Book Review
“Glamorous . . . A time-capsule portrait . . . Rakoff does a marvelous job of capturing a cultural moment—the publishing industry on the cusp of the Internet era—and describing the ambition and anxiety of a young, bright, creative person living beyond her means in an expensive and relentlessly competitive city . . . What is most admirable is [her] critical intelligence and generosity of spirit.”
            —Priscilla Gilman, The Boston Globe
“Absorbing . . . Not only does Rakoff adeptly capture the uncertainty of youth—how one weaves down the road of responsibility, with hardly enough money for rent or sense for relationships—she also perfectly describes the agency’s office . . . A beautifully written tribute to the way things were at the edge of the digital revolution, and also to the evergreen power of literature to guide us through all of life’s transitions.”
            —Kim Schmidt, Chicago Tribune
“Charming . . . Accomplished . . . With her gimlet eye for detail, Rakoff captures 1996 hipster Brooklyn perfectly, although these creative, aspiring, slightly ridiculous people are eternal types . . . My Salinger Year’s heart lies with Rakoff’s own story . . . Salinger is not a mentor to her but a muse who inspires her artistic independence.”
            —Alix Ohlin, San Francisco Chronicle  

“Rings true . . . Rakoff is a keen observer . . . The loneliness of life after college, perfectly explained . . . There’s something Salingeresque about her book: it’s a vivid story of innocence lost.”
            —Entertainment Weekly
“Gentle, funny, closely observed . . . Covers much more than just Salinger . . . The special unworldliness of the young literary person, who has reached adulthood without ever knowing or caring much about how the world works, is the real subject of My Salinger Year.”
            —Tablet Magazine
“Moving . . . Heartfelt . . . Rakoff uses Salinger—his fan mail and her favorite character, Franny—to help illuminate her inner life . . . The memoir is touching, and it’s easy to empathize with how Rakoff, like Franny, is ‘trying to figure out how to live in this world.’”
            —USA Today
My Salinger Year describes its author’s trip down a metaphorical rabbit hole back in 1996. She arrived not in Wonderland, but a place something like it, a New York City firm she calls only the Agency . . . An outright tribute to the enduring power of J.D. Salinger’s work.”
“Gripping and funny . . . A coming-of-age story: an involving, evocative tale that will have bookish women everywhere shuddering in recognition. Like Rona Jaffe’s novel of the 50s, The Best of Everything, it is concerned with what it feels like to move to the big city, to take on your first job, and to struggle to survive on a tiny salary when all the while your dreams are seemingly being snuffed out at every turn, and your love life is spiraling into muddle and mayhem. It is about the heady, never-forgotten period in every girl’s life when fear and elation seem almost to be the same thing . . . So raw and so true.”
            —The Guardian
“Hard to put down . . . Demands sympathy, admiration, and attention . . . The details about Salinger are fascinating . . . What this book is really about, though, is not Salinger, but Rakoff; a coming-of-age tale of a young writer . . . Irresistible.”
            —The Sunday Times
“Intimate . . . Elegant . . . Graceful.”
            —The Sunday Telegraph
“As memoirs go, this is possibly one of the year’s funniest, enthralling and entertaining . . . For an insight into old-fashioned publishing this must be hard to beat. Everyone smokes, returns tiddly from boozy lunches, and authors are treated with respect. It knocks spots off The Devil Wears Prada.”
            —The Sydney Morning Herald
“Lures you in . . . A story about growing up and getting better in a rapidly changing industry and world.”
            —Flavorwire, “June 2014 Books You Must Read”
“Honest, introspective, and completely compelling . . . Sure to appeal to readers who are obsessed with the enigmatic Salinger, but it is intended for those who have experienced (or are experiencing) their own bluesy, confused, post-college Salinger Year. Rakoff is a careful observer and endearingly human. Her coming-of-age story is a gentle reminder that we are all, still, coming of age.”
            —Library Journal
“Sharply observed . . . Engaging, particularly for its mastery of tone . . . Rakoff provides good company as she explores the mysteries of the literary world.”
            —Kirkus Reviews
“This is a vibrant coming-of-age memoir that moves along with momentum and energy, and one only wishes Rakoff had spent more than one year with Salinger so we’d have an even fuller portrait of a man who was and is often misunderstood.”  
            —Publishers Weekly
“While it may be the Salinger cameo that initially draws readers in, it’s Rakoff’s effortlessly elegant, unhyperbolic prose and poignant coming-of-age story that will keep them engrossed through the very last word.”
“Here is the story of a reader becoming a writer, of a young woman deciding who she will be, of the power of books. Here is a memoir that manages to be dreamlike but sharp, poignant but unsentimental. Here is a book I’m going to have to insist you read immediately.”
            —Maggie Shipstead, author of national bestseller, Seating Arrangements
“The writing is beautiful, and the story takes me back to my first days in New York . . . The best thing I’ve read in ages.”
            —J. Courtney Sullivan
 “This is an impossibly excellent read—a glowingly entertaining, miss-your-subway-stop engrossing, note-perfect piece of storytelling. Joanna Smith Rakoff’s My Salinger Year is ostensibly about finding your way as a young adult and what it really means to be on your own for the first time; but it’s really about Manhattan at the brink of the internet age, the disappointments of love, the joys of reading, the perils of ambition, phonies (of course it’s about phonies!), what books meant to our culture in the twentieth century and what they continue to mean in the new one. Really now, who doesn't want to find out what it’s like to have cranky old Jerry Salinger screaming at you first thing, before you’ve even had your morning coffee?”
            —Charles Bock, author of New York Times bestseller, Beautiful Children
“Joanna Rakoff is the literary world’s Lena Dunham, both of them witty, sensitive, elegantly baffled, zeitgeist-hitting Brooklyn ladies of their respective half-generations. We root for Joanna as she painstakingly juggles the Dictaphone and Selectric of her enigmatic chain-smoking female boss, in a city that has banned nicotine and switched to computers; as she deals with her lovable, impetuous, gym-rat Socialist boyfriend in the still-Wild West of Williamsburg; and as she finds herself in the worshipping world of ‘Jerry,’ the stodgy agency’s venerated star-client and reason for being. Joanna discovers herself the just-pre-“start-up”-world way: by worrying and feeling and writing and struggling. Make no mistake: Joanna's memoir is about her, not J.D. Salinger. And we're the richer for it.”
            —Sheila Weller, author of New York Times bestseller Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and the Journey of a Generation
“Every young person who moves to New York with creative ambitions should read Joanna Rakoff’s wonderful memoir of being young and literary in the late 1990s. Navigating her first ‘real’ job—which happens to be at a storied literary agency—a live-in boyfriend who doesn’t invite her to his best friend’s wedding and an apartment without a kitchen sink, Rakoff finds joy in reading and writing and in the city itself, which comes alive in her hands, from rooftop parties downtown to the Plaza Hotel to arty coffee shops in not-yet-gentrified parts of Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the story Rakoff tells of that one all-important year is as transporting as the best novels and is full of insight into work, love and the pursuit of an artistic life.”
            —Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
“I fell in love with My Salinger Year like the young Joanna Rakoff falls in love with the books in it—deeply, with abandon, letting the world fall away. For anyone who worked in a pre-Google office in New York City, this book is a gift of memory, a Dictaphone transcription from a forgotten age. But anyone who loves fiction, and people, and youth, and love, will fall in love with it, too—and with Joanna's sensuous longing for belonging, the lovely and curious kind of coming of age we all would like to remember for ourselves.”
            —Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints

Library Journal
Following her debut novel, A Fortunate Age, Rakoff returns with a debut memoir. It's the early Nineties, and Rakoff, disenchanted with her graduate studies in London, decides she would rather write poetry than analyze it. Chasing this ambition, she flees to New York City and tries to make ends meet by working as a temp at a literary agency. The agency, although frozen in the time of chain-smoking bosses and Selectric typewriters, represents a long list of celebrated clients, including J.D. Salinger himself. Rakoff, who has not actually read any of Salinger's novels, finds herself swimming in Salinger fan mail and typing—on an actual typewriter—responses on the reclusive writer's behalf. Meanwhile, at home, she struggles to keep warm, let alone pursue her literary aspirations. She shares her crumbling Brooklyn apartment with her dubious boyfriend, Don, a competing writer. VERDICT This honest, introspective, and completely compelling story is sure to appeal to readers who are obsessed with the enigmatic Salinger, but it is intended for those who have experienced (or are experiencing) their own bluesy, confused, post-college Salinger Year. Rakoff is a careful observer and endearingly human. Her coming-of-age story is a gentle reminder that we are all, still, coming of age. [See Prepub Alert, 1/6/14.]—Meagan Lacy, Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. Indianapolis Libs.
Kirkus Reviews
A sharply observed coming-of-age memoir about an aspiring writer's entry-level job at a fading literary agency.Though Rakoff earned acclaim for her debut novel (A Fortunate Age, 2009), her memoir is more engaging, particularly for its mastery of tone. The author establishes herself as something of an innocent, a master's grad who wanted to write poetry but required a job to tide her over. She found one at an unnamed literary agency that continued to operate with typewriters and fax machines and where her boss's main responsibility was the nonbusiness of J.D. Salinger. It would be easy for a satiric hipster to have satirical fun with the material—particularly with the onslaught of letters from generations of Salinger fans who actually expected (or even demanded) a response—but Rakoff isn't that sort of author. She reserves just the slightest bit of judgmental irony for herself and for her boyfriend, a socialist, boxer and aspiring novelist. Her family recognized that she was a glorified secretary at a menial job that would bring her no closer to fulfilling her literary ambitions and didn't provide her with sufficient salary to pay her bills. Against her boss's admonitions, she developed something of a telephone relationship with Salinger (whom she'd never read before taking the job), finding him "never anything but kind and patient. More so than plenty of people who called the Agency. More so than plenty of his fans." Eventually, Rakoff fell in love with his books, established correspondence with some who wrote him (and learned why a form letter was previously the standard response), assumed more responsibility as a manuscript reader and something of an agent herself, and left the agency as a published poet.Many of the mysteries of the literary world remain mysteries to the author, but she provides good company as she explores them.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

How many times had I been told that Salinger would not call, would never call, that I would have no contact with him? More than I could count.
And yet one morning, a Friday, at the beginning of April, I picked up the phone and heard someone shouting at me. “HELLO? HELLO?” Then something incomprehensible. “HELLO? HELLO?” More gibberish. Slowly, as in a dream, the gibberish resolved into language. “It’s Jerry,” the caller was shouting. Oh my God, I thought. It’s him. I began, slightly, to quiver with fear, not because I was talking to—or being shouted at by—the actual J. D. Salinger, but because I so feared doing something wrong and incurring my boss’s wrath. My mind began to sift through all the Salinger-related instructions that had been imparted to me, but they had more to do with keeping others away from him, less to do with the man himself. There was no risk of my asking him to read my stories or gushing about The Catcher in the Rye. I still hadn’t read it. “WHO IS THIS?” he asked, though it took me a few tries to understand. “It’s Joanna,” I told him, nine or ten times, yelling at the top of my lungs by the final three. “I’m the new assistant.”
“Well, nice to meet you, Suzanne,” he said, finally, in something akin to a normal voice. “I’m calling to speak to your boss.” I had assumed as much. Why had Pam put him through to me, rather than taking a message? My boss was out for the day, it being Friday, her reading day.
I conveyed this to him, or hoped that I did. “I can call her at home and have her call you back today. Or she can give you a call when she gets in on Monday.”
“Monday is fine,” he said, his voice ratcheted down another notch. “Well, very nice to meet you, Suzanne. I hope we meet in person someday.”
“Me, too,” I said. “Have a great day.” This was not a phrase I ever used. Where had it come from?
“YOU, TOO!” Ah, the shouting.
I put the phone down and took a deep breath, as I’d learned to do in ballet. My entire body, I realized, was shaking. I stood up and stretched.
“Jerry?” asked Hugh, stepping out of his office with a mug of coffee.
“Yes!” I said. “Wow.”
“He’s deaf. His wife set up this special phone for him, with an amplified receiver, but he refuses to use it.” He sighed his trademark sigh. To be Hugh was to be let down by the world. “What did he want?”
“Just to talk to my boss.” I shrugged. “I offered to call her at home and have her call him back, but he said Monday was fine.”
Hugh wrinkled his face in thought. “Hmm, why don’t you call her anyway. I think she’d want to know.”
“Okay,” I said, thumbing through my Rolodex.
She wasn’t home and had no answering machine. She didn’t believe in them. Just as she didn’t believe in computers or voice mail, another newfangled invention not employed by the Agency. If you called during business hours, you reached Pam, the receptionist. If you called outside business hours, the phone just rang and rang, as it did at my boss’s apartment, twenty blocks north of the office. I tried again, every hour or so, until the end of the day, to no avail. It would have to be Monday.

Meet the Author

Joanna Rakoff’s novel A Fortunate Age won the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers and the Elle Readers’ Prize, and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle best seller. She has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vogue, and other publications. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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My Salinger Year 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
KimHeniadis More than 1 year ago
This selection was for one of the book clubs I’m in, and not normally something I would choose to read. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and I’ve never read anything by Salinger. Gasp! Maybe one day…. The setting of the place she works at is stuck in the 1950’s, with the dictaphones and typewriters. At first I thought it was the 50’s, until I read that it was actually the mid 90’s. The Agency (and yes, that’s how Rakoff speaks of it), does not send Salinger any of the fan letters that he receives, and one of her jobs is to send a standard form letter. She starts to actually reply to some of the letters, letting them know Salinger can’t, but here’s her words of wisdom. There is not much about Salinger in this book, it’s about Joanna Rakoff, who comes from a well off family, and lives in New York trying her hand at becoming a published poet. While the clients at The Agency are being wined and dined, she’s living in an apartment that doesn’t have heat, in the winter, in New York. But she wants to live the dream so she continues to be with a man who she was fascinated by at first, but then slowly realizes he’s using her for the small amount of money she has. Rakoff loses the friends she had in college, and realizes the people she thought were her current friends, have many issues. Her parents stop paying her credit cards and student loans, so the lifestyle she led of going out for drinks and dinners, starts to decrease. Basically her life is like the millions of people who are on their own, don’t have parents to pay their way, and only find low paying jobs. She makes it work, like so many other people are forced to do everyday. But the big difference is she has her parents to fall back on, if she really needs to. By the end of the book, she’s talked to Salinger on the phone a bunch of times, and once in person. And she’s made contacts in The Agency, and is able to start getting some of her work published. This memoir was okay. Nothing super exciting happened, and I wonder if she hadn’t had some contact with Salinger, if this book would have even been published. Perhaps if you enjoy her poetry, and want to know a bit more about her, I would say go for it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago