Tag Archives: Joanna Rakoff

A Fortunate Age: A enjoyable literary soap opera

Cover imageI thoroughly enjoyed My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of her time as a literary agent’s assistant, and was pleased to hear that her novel was to be published in the UK. It’s been available in the States for a few years although its reception seems to have been somewhat mixed. I’d also heard that it was a tribute to Mary McCarthy’s celebrated 1963 book The Group which still sits on my bookshelves after several readings. I’ve long been a sucker for novels that take a group of young people – friends since college – and follow them over the next five or ten years of their lives, a liking which may well have been triggered by McCarthy’s novel. Her all-woman group met at Vasser while Rakoff’s six-strong mixed band get together at Oberlin, her own alma mater.

It begins in 1998 with a wedding. Lil is marrying Tuck, who no one in the group is quite sure about. Lil and Tuck met at Rochester both studying for their doctorates but Tuck has dropped out and Lil has secured a teaching position intending to continue with her thesis in New York. On the strength of Tuck’s job with one of the new attention-grabbing magazines, they’ve set themselves up in a loft in rundown Williamsburg, the first of many gentrifiers to come. All six friends aspire to work in the arts or academia – Emily looks set for acting success on Broadway, Sadie works for a literary agent in the city, Beth is working on a doctorate in newly minted cultural studies, Dave is determined to become a musician and Tal is resisting parental pressure to go to law school convinced he’ll make it into the movies. Rakoff’s novel follows her group through marriages, children, affairs, career ups and downs, dot-com boom and bust, and calamitous world events, from the late ‘90s to 2004 when they are brought together, once again, by another rite of passage.

There’s a lovely quote from Daniel Deronda prefacing the novel which sums up youthful expectations beautifully: ‘What she was clear upon was, that she did not wish to lead the sort of life as ordinary young ladies did; but what she was not clear upon, how she should set about leading any other…’ This sets you up nicely for what follows in Rakoff’s book. It’s something of a doorstep – just tipping the 500-page plus balance – described rather disarmingly as ‘sprawling’ by the publishers and it has to be said that it could do with a trim. There’s a good deal of angsty introspection which made me a little impatient at times but Rakoff’s characters were sufficiently engaging to carry me along with them as they negotiate that tricky period between supposed adulthood and the actuality. The realisation that work may not be utterly fulfilling, that passion only takes a relationship so far, that money has to be made, that much of early parenthood is sheer hard grind – all of this is well handled with wit and humour. Rakoff’’s women characters are better rounded than her men – she seems to give up on Tal entirely who only pops into view now and again, mentioned in group catch-ups then appearing in the final pages. Not an unalloyed joy, then, but much better than my scanning of American reviews suggested. Perhaps the best measure is to ask whether I would want to catch up with Rakoff’s characters should she write a sequel and the answer would be yes but, please, keep it shorter next time.

Books to Look Out For in June 2015: Part 1

TenderSuch are the many and varied splendours of the June publishing schedules that I’m going to spread them over two posts. Hard to choose which of the first two I’m looking forward to most – both authors are notable for their understated yet lyrical writing but I’ve been waiting four years for Belinda McKeon’s second novel. Her much-lauded debut, Solace, was one of the finest novels I read in 2011, the year it was published.  Set in the late 1990s, Tender is the story of Catherine and James who meet in Dublin, both fresh from rural Ireland. While Catherine welcomes life with open arms, James retreats into himself and their friendship founders. If it’s only half as good as Solace, Tender will be a very fine book indeed.

Hard to follow that but for me Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night is equally to be anticipated. Haruf’s elegant, small town novellas set in his home state of Colorado are an absolute joy to read. He died last year and I wondered if knowledge of what was coming might have coloured the melancholic Benediction. This final novel takes us back to Holt where Addie Moore, widowed for twenty years and lonely, pays the equally bereft Louis Waters a visit and puts a proposition to him. If you haven’t yet discovered Haruf please do try him, particularly if you’re a fan of that pared-back style I’m always banging on about.  

Both a poet and a novelist, Owen Sheers has quite a reputation for lyrical prose, too. His new novel, I Saw a Man, is about Michael Turner who has lost his wife and is now living in London next door to the Nelsons with whom he has become close friends. For Michael, the Nelsons represent everything he has lost but their friendship is a solace to him until a catastrophe changes everything. The synopsis sounds a little trite but Sheers is a fine writer and I suspect his book will be worth reading for that alone.Cover image

Julia Rochester’s debut, The House at the Edge of the World, also involves a death in the family. John Venton’s drunken spree lands him at the bottom of a cliff when Morwenna is only eighteen. The family scatters – Morwenna’s twin in one direction, she in another, while her mother happily turns her back on years of miserable marriage. Only her grandfather stays on in the family home. Seventeen years later they all meet again in the eponymous house and, as in all the best family stories, dark secrets begin to surface. I like the sound of this –  the family secret trope can be riveting if handled well.

Last year I read and enjoyed Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, her account of the time she spent as an assistant to the eponymous reclusive’s literary agent. Bloomsbury are publishing her first novel A Fortunate Age off the back of her memoir’s success. A coming-of-age novel, it revolves around a group of college friends who are just starting out in late ’90s Brooklyn. I’d like to think it will be one of those absorbing novels played out on a small canvas: lots of opportunities for rivalries, domestic crisis, friendships made and broken – you know the kind. However a glance at Goodreads suggests it’s not an unalloyed joy. No doubt I’ll read it anyway

Cover imageChurlish as it may sound, after last year’s seemingly endless parade of titles about the First World War, I’ve been avoiding anything war-related – with the honourable exception of Catherine Hall’s The Repercussions – but Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook sounds like an unusual take on the subject. Cook to Himmler, confidante to Hitler and Simone de Beauvoir’s pal to boot, Rose has not only managed to survive the Armenian genocide, the Nazis and the horrors of Mao Zedong’s regime but has maintained her zest for life throughout. Now 105, she’s recounting her life in what sounds like a thoroughly entertaining tale, tall or otherwise.

That’s it for the first batch of June titles. A click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis. Look out for the second instalment sometime in a week or so, and if you’d like to catch up with May titles you’ll find hardbacks here and paperbacks here.

My Salinger Year: A book to cherish

My Salinger YearMy Salinger Year is Joanna Rakoff’s account of her first job after completing her post-grad studies in London, a year spent working for J. D. Salinger’s literary agent. It’s 1996 and on her first day she wonders where her computer is only to be presented with an electric typewriter then put to work typing up the backlog of contracts and letters all held on a pedal-operated Dictaphone. This is an office where photocopiers are regarded as the coming thing. In her first week she’s called into her boss’s office and given the Jerry rules – never reveal Salinger’s personal details, never pass on any letters – and a pile of unanswered fan letters complete with a form response. The problem is that when she comes to read them she’s unable to harden her heart to the World War Two veterans who identify with Salinger, to the teenagers who identify with Holden Caulfield convinced that Salinger has been channelling them, to the mother who wants to name the library she’s setting up in memory of her daughter after a Salinger short story. She writes her own replies.

Rakoff is an immensely likeable and entertaining guide to the inner workings of the Agency, as it’s referred to throughout, which seems to have not one but both feet firmly planted back in the mid-twentieth century. At one point her boss daringly considers buying a computer but only if they’re available in black. Max and Lucy try their best to breathe fresh air into the Agency, taking on young, edgier clients but Rakoff’s boss reigns supreme, refusing to take part in auctions and removing any reference to ‘electronic books’ from contracts. The Agency is all agog when Salinger himself strikes a deal with a tiny publisher to publish a short story originally run by the New Yorker, in book form. It’s a fraught enterprise and Rakoff finds herself fielding phone calls from the publisher attempting to soothe his shredded nerves. Loud calls with the man himself are conducted behind closed doors in her boss’s office and some times with Rakoff herself. She becomes quite matey with him, confessing her own literary aspirations. Running through her account is Rakoff’s personal life: her college boyfriend in California who she loves but cannot be with; her New York boyfriend, older, self-obsessed and neglectful; her hopes for her own writing career and the horrible realisation that she will somehow have to make ends meet on the Agency’s pittance and pay off the credit card bill that she’d assumed her parents were footing. By the end of it, you can’t help but root for her, desperately hoping that she’ll ditch Don, rescue the close friendship that seems to be drifting away from her, reunite with her college boyfriend and make her own mark on the literary world. In the final section of the book, Rakoff ties up the loose ends of her Salinger year then brings us pleasingly up to date with her life.Stet

I would have been amazed if I hadn’t loved this book entrenched as it is in the book world and I wasn’t disappointed: it’s a delight from start to finish, an endearingly affectionate portrait of a particular corner of the trade being dragged, quietly protesting, towards the twenty-first century. It’s tone reminded me of Julie and Julia – Julie Powell’s account of a year spent learning to cook like Julia Child – and at times it screams ‘film me’. If this has whetted your appetite for another insider’s view and you haven’t come across Diana Athill’s Stet already, you’re in for a treat. Beautifully expressed, it isn’t as exuberant as My Salinger Year but it’s a fascinating insight into life as an editor in a publishing house. I thoroughly enjoyed both.