My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

My Salinger YearMy Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I had a category for Most Charming Read of the Year, there would be one entrant for 2014: My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff’s blithe memoir of her tenure at the Agency—her arch moniker for Harold Ober Associates—one of Manhattan’s most venerable literary agencies.


I know, I know: the year has many months and reads ahead, but I’m calling this one right now. My Salinger Year is imbued with a Bright Young Things shimmer and a Woody Allenesque-patina that warms the city’s brownstones until they glow with autumn light or sparkle with the diamonds of freshly-fallen snow.


The year is 1996 and Rakoff, fresh from completing a Master’s degree in English in the U.K., needs a job. She really doesn’t need a boyfriend, but she finds lover and employment in quick succession. The latter becomes her entrée into the New York literary scene. The former, a struggling novelist, informs her emotional and artistic development and breaks her heart more times than he’s worth. Which is, as it happens, not much.


Although the digital publishing  and e-reading revolution is a mere ten years away, the Agency doesn’t possess a single computer and has only recently acquired a photocopier. Rakoff, hired as an assistant to the Agency’s president—to whom she refers only as “my boss”—types dictation on an IBM Selectric, Dictaphone headphones planted on her head, her feet working the pedals beneath the desk. Correspondence is done via the postal service. There are telephones of course, but no one has voicemail. If clients call after hours, the office phones simply ring and ring, echoing down the dimly lit hallways lined with plush carpet.


Enter Jerry, the Agency’s most celebrated client. And if the Agency’s president doesn’t step up her game, he might be the last client standing. Delivering a breathless scene with a comic’s sense of timing, star-struck Rakoff meets another famous client, Judy Blume. Just the one time. Judy, along with a steady stream of other writers, quits the Agency to seek representation where the 21st century is acknowledged as a done deal.


Jerry is, of course, J.D. Salinger. A writer whom Joanna Rakoff, budding writer herself, has never read. Jerry, hard of hearing, reclusive, and endearing, has expressed interest in having his long short story, Hapworth 16, 1924—which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1965—published as a novel by a tiny press in Virginia. For eight months, Rakoff resists reading Salinger, certain his lionized status is but hyperbole and his writing trite. Yet, she is immediately fascinated by the enormous volume of fan mail the author continues to receive, thirty years after his last publication. It is her job to inform each correspondent that the Agency, per Mr. Salinger’s directions, can neither forward the letter to the author nor respond to any requests. When she finally does read Salinger, it is in a revelatory binge. That weekend of Salinger sets the tone for the brief time that she remains at the Agency, but it also leads her to finding her writing voice.


The interactions with J.D. Salinger and the near-farcical subplot of the reissue of Hapworth ground the story in the disappearing age of traditional publishing, when a few elite readers determined what the rest of us would be checking out from our public libraries, or purchasing from the rapidly-vanishing independent bookstores, or once-were-giants Borders and Barnes & Noble.


But at its tender heart, My Salinger Year is the coming of age tale of a young woman and writer and an ode to being young and sort-of single in New York, living in an unheated apartment in Williamsburg and taking the subway to Madison Avenue to talk in plummy, tweedy tones with other underpaid literati. It is a gloriously, unabashedly nostalgic memoir and yes, utterly charming. Rakoff’s writing is breezy and self-effacing, completely in character with the twenty-three-year-old woman who recounts this seminal year. Only an accomplished and confident writer could manage to sustain that tone with authenticity. Joanna Rakoff enchants readers with an elegant memoir that reads like a curl-up-with-a-cuppa novel. She’s just won a new admirer.

View all my reviews

Book Review: In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin

In Sunlight and in ShadowIn Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I spent five weeks with In Sunlight and In Shadow. Five monogamous weeks, which is a committed literary relationship for this fast-in, fast-out reader. Yes, life circumstances wore me out and distracted me, so that some days the amount of pages read would be imperceptible as measured on a standard ruler, but never once did I contemplate setting Helprin aside for a less complicated time or supplementing my evening reading with a less demanding literary companion.

This lush, resplendent novel enthralled me. Each and every one of its 705 pages.

The story itself is quite simple. In fact, the old-fashioned romance and adventure style makes this a curl-up-on-the-sofa read. But the beauty of Helprin’s prose, its rococo grandeur and meandering lyricism, make it worthy of lingering. Take your time to reread certain passages and be astonished anew by Helprin’s particular magic.

Harry Copeland is in his early 30s and recently returned to Manhattan from the European Theatre of WWII. Harry is alone in the world, an only child, his parents deceased, and he is taking his time to heal from the emotional wounds and physical trauma sustained as a special ops paratrooper. What can’t wait, however, is the luxury leather goods business he inherited from his father.

The business is being newly bilked by the Mafia. Not the perfunctorily threatening Jewish Mafia to which Copeland Leather and every other manufacturing business in the building has been accustomed to paying off. This is the deeply serious and deadly Mob. Which has singled out Copeland Leather for extortion.

One day, while traveling on the Staten Island ferry, Harry spies a beautiful woman in white and falls immediately and hopelessly in love. She is Catherine Thomas Hale, of the Manhattan and Hamptons Hales, an heiress and Broadway ingénue. Catherine is strong, moral and wise. She meets Harry’s love and passion measure for measure. They are not really star-crossed lovers: Harry is a Harvard man, after all. But he is a Jew and he is broke – facts he and Catherine cannot long hide from her family.

But this is more than a love story. It is a tale of a city at a golden time, when the memories of two wars and the Depression remain vivid enough to fuse gratitude and caution, yet cannot stop the momentum of power and wealth that rocket New York inexorably forward as the steward of all things modern.

It is a thriller, where thugs with Thompsons are pitted against combat heroes with iron nerves; it is a war set piece, where a band of brothers plummet into the mists and mud of western France; it is a window into a world of grand society, where money can buy everything but peace of mind and integrity.

It is true, Helprin uses six words when two would suffice, but never once does the sprawl, the grandiloquence, feel like an attempt to dazzle or distract. The gorgeous language wraps, not traps, the reader; the descriptions of characters and settings put the reader fully inside a moment, most of which you want never to end.

In Sunlight and In Shadow is romanticism at its soft-focus, golden-hued, unapologetic best. Characters are a little more beautiful, dangerous, erudite and talented than real life could afford; food is more delicious, sunsets more vivid, memories more precise and comforting, It is a novel for pleasure-seekers, for readers ready to sink into a web spun by a story-teller. Logic and relativism need not apply; only good guys, bad guys, truth and beauty allowed.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Tabloid City, Pete Hamill

Tabloid City: A NovelTabloid City: A Novel by Pete Hamill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Two years ago I read Hamill’s epic love story to New York City, Forever. It was sweeping in scope, covering three hundred years of history with a raucous, bewildering narrative that included a lovely supernatural touch.

Tabloid City is yet another Hamill ode to Gotham, but as hardboiled and literal as Forever is epic and ethereal. It covers a twenty-four hour period in the life of a cruel and unforgiving city, the final twenty-four hours in print of one its iconic newspapers: New York World.

Tabloid City reads like a graphic novel looks: a collection of images, of snapshots with thought bubbles or brusque dialogue that run together with the semblance of a story. We spend snippets of time with a host of characters whose lives- some knowingly to them, some not-run together in the classic Manhattan-esque six degrees of separation. Some of the converging characters and storylines, notably that of World editor Sam Briscoe and socialite Cynthia Harding, of NYPD detective Ali Watson and his son Malik, of Consuelo Mendoza hold promise of a deeper, richer plot. Others are either meaningless -I’m thinking of fugitive Myles Compton- or so manipulated, such as amputee Iraq war veteran Josh Thompson – that you feel drained by the distraction. You spend so little time with any one character or story line that it is difficult to develop empathy for them or the trajectory of their lives beyond the confines of the paragraph.

But really, the pace, the coincidences, the Law and Order feel would work well for me had there been some variance in the characters’ voices. They all thought and spoke and behaved in the same staccato, film-noir, Elmore Leonard-like cadence. I have to think this was deliberate- Hamill is too sophisticated of a writer- but the result was very mono-tonal to me.

One of my favorite books of 2010 was Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. It too dealt with the death of a print newspaper, had a host of characters that flitted in and out of the narrative, and even included bizarre backstory that could easily have swallowed the principal plot. But it works- it was fresh and clever. Tabloid City takes itself so seriously that you, as a reader, feel a bit beat over the head. With a wet newspaper.

View all my reviews

Book Review: An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin

An Object of BeautyAn Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I never expected I would wax enthusiastic about this novel. It’s not my usual fare, this heartbeat-away-from-yesterday contemporary New York story with a fashion plate protagonist, but I gobbled it up in two bouts of insomnia this week. I can’t discuss the story without making one big spoiler of the plot, but it’s whimsical and fast-paced. Yet- this is Steve Martin, after all- the laughter is wry and not without sadness and irony.

The best bit of this treat is the writing. I’ve read Steve Martin’s two earlier novels and enjoyed his laconic, sardonic style, so I was expecting more of the same. But here his writing snaps, his pacing crackles, and his plot pops. Perhaps because the setting is Manhattan and not Santa Monica, his prose exudes a terrific energy.

Then there is his central character, Lacey Yeager, an art world whiz kid with ego and ambition enough to dwarf the Empire State Building. She is not a sympathetic character, reason enough for me to abandon any other book. She is everything I am not- beautiful, sophisticated, irresistible to men- (qualities that made me wonder if it is possible for a male author to write an interesting story about an average-looking woman); then again, Lacey is also manipulative, promiscuous, unethical- a bit of a skank, really. And she can’t speak French. Pauvre salope. Score one for me. Point is, Martin gives her beauty and chutzpah, but shows her making some terrible decisions. Fortunately, he doesn’t tell you whether or not you should admire or condemn her survival instincts.

The setting, the New York City art scene from the early 1990’s to 2008, is also wholly unfamiliar ground. Martin is an experienced art collector and he pulls back the curtain to reveal a demi-monde of dilettantes and deception. There is a definite Bronx Cheer spirit to the story, but I wouldn’t deem this a parody. Martin skillfully creates this world through dialogue and action that show its complexity, fickle nature, and the egos and finances at stake without condescending to his art-ignorant readers.   The inclusion of reproductions of the paintings fought over, bid on, admired and stolen is a stroke of brilliance.

There are things that rankle me: the characters are a bit flat and cartoonish- it is a stretch to relate them to real characters in my life. Near the end, after the story reaches its climax, it drags with expository detail that reads like a movie voice-over. And once again, 9/11 is used (momentarily, in this case) to bring forth an element of humanity in the most jaded. But of course, the author could not have told a story of modern NYC without including that dreadful day.

A great way to while away a few hours’ sleeplessness. Or perhaps I remained wide awake because I was that enthralled.

View all my reviews