Glad I Read: My Salinger Year

My Salinger YearSometimes a book just picks me up in its pretty arms and carries me away for a while. Such was the case here. Joanna Rakoff picked me up and deposited me in a sort of timeless world where books and writing matter more than anything else. This is the year Rakoff accidentally fell into a job at a literary agency – a place stuck in the early 60’s despite a calendar which read 1996, a place where the obsessive reclusiveness of J.D. Salinger controlled behavior, a place where a young woman could discover her passion.

This is just the kind of memoir I love to read because I recognize so much of myself in Rakoff – the yearning, the confusion, the inability to take action when she should. Mostly, I recognize a kindred spirit in terms of book love. Along with her, I lament her boss’ inability to “get books.”

“She’d never spent entire days lying on her bed reading, entire nights making up complicated stories in her head. She’d not dreamed of willing herself into Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre so that she might have real friends, friends who understood her thorny desires and dreams. How could she spend her days—her life—ushering books into publication but not love them in the way that I did, the way that they needed to be loved?”

I love this idea that books need to be loved to fully come alive. I concur. It’s not what this memoir is about but it’s the background idea that drew me in and kept me engaged. Ironically, what pushed me away is that the book becomes more and more about Salinger and Salinger’s writing the longer it goes on. I’m just not in the Salinger Fan Club, so I automatically took an emotional step back just at the time I should have succumbed completely to the story.

But, really, it’s not much of a complaint. Rakoff is engaging and intelligent enough that even I could set aside my personal opinion to appreciate what she is writing. And, I love her retelling of her limited interactions with the man himself.

“Writing makes you a writer,” he’d told me. “If you get up every morning and write, then you’re a writer. Publishing doesn’t make you a writer. That’s just commerce.”

Ultimately a very satisfying memoir and one I won’t soon forget.

Read alikes
The Catcher in the Rye
Rules of Civility
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading


Questioning a classic – The Catcher in the Rye

“I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are the words of Holden Caulfield, perhaps one of the best known protagonists in American literature. They are also words that pretty well describe how I feel about this novel, which I read for the first time as a 41 year-old woman. My reactions to this book are a little bit confused and hard to explain; and, while the story grew on me in the second half, I never fell in love with The Catcher in the Rye.

So who am I to question the presupposed genius of this classic? Who am I to doubt its place in high school English classes across the country? Who am I to dare criticize an author as wrapped in mystique and reputation as J.D. Salinger?

I am a reader. I am humble enough to acknowledge that I probably don’t have much new information to add to a 60 year-old discourse, but I’m confident enough to declare that I don’t have to like a book just because it’s deemed a “classic.” So here I go.

Holden Caulfield is a deeply depressed, conceited young man on a 24-hour drinking, smoking and spending bender, unsupervised in New York City. His voice is “lousy” with criticisms of the “phonies” who surround him in boarding school and nightclubs, dismissive of anyone whose life doesn’t measure up to the unrealistic ideals he’s created and immature about relationships. These qualities may have been revolutionary in 1951 (and they may indeed still describe most 16 year-olds), but characters like Holden are now found everywhere, and in far more likable guises, in literature.

So, basically, I didn’t like him for most of the novel. I spend most of the book wondering why someone would want to write this particular character. That’s a problem.

But here’s where my confusion comes in. There were moments (too few and far between) that Salinger really touched my heart, when Holden seemed three-dimensional and painfully honest.

“That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never knew where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.”

And then, the middle-of-the-night scene in his sister Phoebe’s room is really genius. I found this book so much more engaging when we got out of Holden’s mind and into some dialogue and interaction. With Phoebe, we see Holden’s sensitive side. I finally started to like him, but the book was 75% done. It just took too long to get there.

I find it very difficult to grasp that in a few years my son will likely have to read this novel as the definitive “coming-of-age” novel of modern literature. It doesn’t feel in any way modern. I don’t think my sons will identify with Holden’s life. So if they come back to me with, “this book is so boring,” at least I’ll be able to relate.

I’m glad I read it, because I do think this book has influenced so many writers. I am willing to concede that I may just not get the point. Are the very things that bothered me the reasons it has stood the test of time? Maybe, but, in the words of my husband, “meh.”

Paperback Pick

Just going to show that books are just as good in paperback, here are a few of my picks for your weekend reading.

A Land More Kind than Home

A Land More Kind Than HomeWiley Cash

One of the best books I read in 2012 is now in paperback! Rural, religious zeal, coming of age, mystery — this book has it all.

From my 5 star review

Wiley Cash did not so much ease me into the disturbing world of his novel, as grip me by the throat and pull me along…The Appalachian mountains come alive through his descriptions. The characters’ voices practically sing off the page.

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads


Tupelo Hassman

Another 5 star review of another harrowing book.

To love Girlchild as much as I did, you have to be willing to understand “raw.” Tupelo Hassman does not shy away from the anger, bitterness or shame that go with the broken down territory.

I am currently reading two books in paperback edition

Finally getting around to reading The Catcher in the Rye, which I’m liking not loving…

and one of absolute favorite books, which I am rereading (and enjoying even more the second time around), The Family Fang, by the uber-talented Kevin Wilson. This was another 5-star review.

The Catcher in the Rye

Book cover from Goodreads

Book cover from Goodreads

What are your weekend picks?

Happy reading.