Tag Archives: The Catcher in the Rye

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

My Salinger Year

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Writing a memoir about working at the literary agency that represented J.D. Salinger without having the memoir be about Salinger sounds impossible. Yet Joanna Rakoff does it, and does it well, in My Salinger Year. Set in late ’90s Manhattan, the book opens with Rakoff working as an assistant in a well-known literary agency that represents “Jerry.” Initially assuming the Jerry in question is Seinfeld, Rakoff only realizes which Jerry it is after she notices the spines of Catcher, Nine Stories, and the others on the agency bookshelves.

Young Rakoff is given the task of dealing with Salinger’s fan mail, which he receives by the bundle and leaves to the agency. Despite it being nearly the new millennium, the literary agency still uses typewriters, so the task is menial and monumental. At some point Rakoff starts responding to the letters on an emotional level. To several letter-writers – a war veteran, a high-school student – she veers from the form letter and crafts her own responses.

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America’s Ten Favorite Books are Better Than You Expected

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Among the embarrassing surveys of how few Americans can find Ukraine on a map and/or the dismal polls of people who believe the Senate should be controlled by Republicans, this week saw the release of a cultural indicator that actually bears good news.

Tuesday, Harris Interactive published the results of a poll asking Americans which books they love most. The survey — which last ran in 2008 — revealed that The Bible, by God, was America’s favorite. No surprises there, as other studies have clearly shown that Americans largely identify as Christian. The good book maintained the #1 spot it held in 2008, while Gone With the Wind also kept its ranking, coming in again at #2. The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter collections (each counted as one book, which is not altogether sporting, if you ask me) traded positions in the #3 and #4 spots, with Potter taking higher honors this year. Other books that appeared on the 2008 list did not fare as well — which is actually the best part. A number of blockbuster novels on the previous list were replaced by a handful of American classics.

Perhaps most interesting is the way the changes from ’08 to now sync up oddly well with the typical evolution of many American readers.

In 2008 we read like eager young adolescents, just starting to take on “big” books (as in 300+ pages, ostensibly written for adults) and devouring anything that caught our interest. This explains our 2008 affinity for Stephen King’s The Stand (#5); the Dan Brown books (Da Vinci Code #6 and Angels and Demons #8); and of course, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a hallmark of enthusiastic youngsters and Congressional staffers discovering the nascent thrill of thinking that they are thinking for themselves.

In 2014, we stepped up our game. We are now reading like older, slightly more sophisticated adolescents.  The Stand has been displaced by To Kill a Mockingbird in the #5 spot, followed by #6 Moby Dick, #7 The Catcher in the Rye, #8 Little Women, #9 The Grapes of Wrath and #10 The Great Gatsby.

This trend indicates that, in the last six years, our nation must have felt the influence of a really important English or Drama teacher, someone who helped us figure out a lot of stuff we were going through recently and who we’re never going to forget. If the trend holds, we should all be getting into experimental fiction and Annie Dillard by 2020.

Whatever the case may be, we should all just be happy that Atlas Shrugged has fallen off the list. For those of you who think that’s bad, well, the last poll was taken in 2008. You know whose fault this is: 

- Michael Moats

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Technology is Making Poetry Awesome Again

Despite what Wattpad is doing to the novel, a new program called RapPad has given everyone an excuse to read poetry.

RapPad was designed to help aspiring rappers write the hottest computer generated rhymes. Over at Mental Floss, linguist Arika Okrent recently used the “Generate Line” function to combine famous opening lines with existing rap lyrics. For example:  Continue reading

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Books that Mattered in 2013: The Catcher in the Rye

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In 2013, J.D. Salinger was the subject of Salinger, a much anticipated biography written by Shane Salerno and David Shields after a decade of research and extensive interviews. The book, along with a concurrently released documentary, was marketed with a slow-trickle of revealed “secrets,” including never-before-seen photos of the author, a dramatic theatrical trailer, and a legitimately exciting announcement about the works that are planned for publication in the years to come. Hopes were high. Unfortunately, when the biography arrived, it was clear that it was terrible. Same for the movie.

For that reason, we are returning to the source, the real reason any of this is happening at all. Salinger the book might have mattered briefly in 2013, but Salinger the author has mattered since 1951, when his debut novel The Catcher in the Rye started something that still has us talking 62 years later.

See all the books that mattered in 2013.

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If There’s One Thing I Hate, It’s the Movies

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More Salinger news from Time Online:

Less-than-stellar reviews of the recent documentary exploring the life of The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger haven’t stopped Harvey Weinstein from plans to turn it into a scripted feature-length film.

The movie will be written by Shane Salerno, the man behind the current documentary and book. Regarding that:

Penning an entirely new Salinger movie, while already well researched, isn’t the only thing going on for the former Armageddon writer. Even while promoting his documentary and book of the same name, Salerno has continued work on one of the three Avatar sequels.

Let’s just hope Salerno’s depiction of Salinger’s postwar struggles is more nuanced than his previous portrayal of mental health challenges:

Previous Salinger coverage herehere, and here.

- Michael Moats

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Jerry, Rigged

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Salinger by Shane Salerno and David Shields is not so much a biography of J.D. Salinger as it is an assortment of press clips and interview excerpts about Salinger. None of the pieces are properly dated or sourced in the main text, aside from the name of the person speaking or writing, so fifty-year-old articles are lined up next to commentary from academics and the thoughts of the actor Edward Norton. Somewhere in between are words from people who actually knew Salinger. In the book’s 500-plus pages, the “authors” contribute maybe 50 pages of text.

The result is something like a J.D. Salinger Facebook news feed. This is not optimal, but it’s not the biggest problem with Salinger.

The biggest problem is that on a subject where nuance and understanding are required, Salinger is sloppy and lazy. Its flood of information ends up being a mile wide and an inch deep. Even when presenting new details that are valuable and intriguing, Salinger manages to tell a story that is less than the sum of its parts. Then there is David Shields, who I will deal with in a moment. But for these reasons and more, this is about to get ugly.  Continue reading

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The Colbert in the Rye

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Last night, two of my favorite things came together when the cOlbert Book Club covered “Everything but The Catcher in the Rye.”

Colbert has spoken often about Salinger on his show. In 2008 he challenged the author to come on The Report, and covered Salinger’s passing in 2010. These segments hold to Colbert’s usual irreverence, but the show’s attention to Salinger comes from a genuine place. When he’s not in character, Colbert is a dedicated fan of  the author. In 2011, he contributed a small letter to Know the Past, Find the Future: The New York Public Library at 100. In the book, he is pictured holding a stack of Salinger’s letters that are stored at the NYPL. Colbert wrote:

I suspect this photo would have annoyed J.D. Salinger. Here I am, the stereotypical liberal arts fanboy, going weak over something he typed.

But I can’t help myself. When I first read Salinger, I thought he wrote the Glass family stories just for me.

You can see the image and read the full entry in the book, which also features contributions from Jonathan Franzen, David Remnick, Zadie Smith and others.

Colbert reading Salinger's letters.

Stephen Colbert reading Salinger’s letters at the New York Public Library.

Last night’s Report was completely dedicated to Salinger. Over the fireplace was an adapted Catcher cover reading “The Colbert in the Rye,” and the segments included the first installment of the one-part series “Better Know a Salinger;” interviews with Tobias Wolff and Shane Salerno; and an appearance of JarJar Caulfield (just watch it).

There was no mention of The Real Holden Caulfield, but I speak for all of us at Fiction Advocate in saying that we would happily provide Mr. Colbert with a free copy. Or if he wants to purchase one (or a few), our proceeds are still being donated to the Wounded Warrior Project — another issue I know Colbert cares deeply about.

Watch the full cOlbert Book Club “Everything but The Catcher in the Rye” episode.

- Michael Moats

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Why I’m Worried about Salinger

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Next week marks the release of a new biography and documentary about J.D. Salinger, whose decades of secrecy and litigiousness makes these kinds of things into major moments.  Any new Salinger information is also, for obvious reasons, a cause for worry.

Anyone who loves Salinger wants to believe that he is that author Holden described in Catcher, “a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Any new revelations have the potential to shatter that possibility, especially if the people delivering it focus on the rumors and speculation that have followed their eccentric subject. On the other hand, there is the risk of ignoring the fact that Salinger probably wasn’t always a nice, well-balanced guy.

A Salinger bio is an easy thing to screw up. Fortunately, there are reasons for hope about this latest attempt.

Shane Salerno, who is driving the project, has worked on Salinger for nearly a decade. This is an unlikely commitment if the only payoff is going to be a bunch of scandalous personal details. Nor do I think the Weinstein Company would have invested in making and marketing the movie if there wasn’t more to it than tabloid revelations.

Speaking of the marketing, for a movie about Salinger’s secrets the publicity has so far avoided playing to lower denominators. Mostly, it has consisted of a few tasteful and previously unreleased photos of the author: Salinger as a soldier in World War II, his most important and influential historical context; Salinger in New Hampshire looking every bit a normal, happy person rather than a hermit of the mountains.  The theatrical trailer is a bit intense — but what trailer isn’t? A revelation that Salinger was supposedly born with only one testicle, an arguably pointless detail, was  told by reviewers who read it in the book, and not part of a PR campaign. The most important new information, that Salinger scheduled at least five new pieces of fiction to be published after his death, emerged in measured announcements through credible sources.

Not everything has worked, especially the cartoon image of Salinger coyly holding a finger to his lips, encouraging people not to spoil any secrets revealed in the book and movie. For an author who resisted publicity to the point of refusing to have his image printed on his books, this is a special and multi-faceted kind of affront. Though it will probably sell books and tickets. But for the most part, the new book and movie seem to be focused on important things that matter, not trying to gin up attention with unsavory speculation. The documentary is, after all, scheduled to air on PBS and not TMZ.

That’s the good news. I do, however, have one lingering worry. This worry has to do with the involvement of a writer named Paul Alexander. Alexander is a former Time reporter and a biographer who has written on subjects as wide-ranging as Sylvia Plath, Andy Warhol, John Kerry and Karl Rove. In 1999, he published Salinger: A Biography. Alexander is listed as “an adviser” on the forthcoming book, and his own biography is the “based on” source for the Salinger documentary. My concern is that Alexander’s book is the single worst Salinger biography around today.  Continue reading

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