Women Writers Wednesday 10/21/15

I could wax unpoetic here about how I used to teach The Catcher in the Rye back when I taught 9th grade English, about the way one of my colleagues taught it as a Buddhist text, the debate between whether that book is a glorious masterpiece or a slice of Americana that has outlived its usefulness in adult life.

But I’d much rather get out of the way, and just present this week’s Women Writers Wednesday, a thoughtful and elegant look at Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, which comes to us from Sukhada Tatke.

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Envy Joanna Rakoff for her Salinger Year

For any JD Salinger lover, or for that matter, any literature lover, Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year is a delectable treat into which one can bury oneself and come out, once done, feeling refreshed and thrilled. Envy is not an accident, but a lingering feeling which accompanies every turned page.

courtesy of www.penguinrandomhouse.com
courtesy of http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com

The book opens in New York, which remains the thread that binds the writer’s experiences as she maneuvers through the complex, multifarious labyrinth that is the city and her own life. Rakoff’s is a story of hundreds, even thousands, of young aspiring writers in New York whose “tote bags (are) heavy with manuscripts.” After completing her Master’s degree in English Literature, she ditches her “college boyfriend” and makes her way to New York with dreams of becoming a poet. But like everyone coming to a big city, she is in want of a job that can pay her. Within days, she finds herself being interviewed in an anachronistic and dark office of Harold Ober Associates, which she refers to as “the Agency” in the book. She lands the job only when she assures her interviewer that she can type: on a typewriter.

It is only after she starts working at the Agency that she realizes the enormity of whom it represents. “Never, ever, ever are you to give out (Jerry’s) address or phone number,” her boss tells her on her first day at work. Among the first funny moments in the book is Rakoff’s confession that the only Jerry who comes to her mind then is Seinfeld.

Considering herself an earnest student of literature, Rakoff had never regarded Salinger as a serious story-teller. “I didn’t want to be entertained. I wanted to be provoked,” she says in her defense for having skipped the most influential American writer of the 20th Century.

One is often left feeling that Rakoff happened to be in the right place at the right time. But how many would have done justice to their Salinger year the way she does?

As a perceptive observer and gleaming story-teller, Rakoff’s narration brings to life the charming moments—charming, however, often exclusively to the reader and not to those living them—that take place in this Agency which clutches its old ways. Her recounting is laced not with contempt for the older generation which refuses to move forth with time, but with nonchalant amusement. My Salinger Year is as much a story about the literary and publishing world in Manhattan and the wave of transition that had hit it, forcing it to make the shift from Dictaphones and typewriters to computers in the dot com era, as it is a coming-of-age memoir where Rakoff is forced to gallop into adulthood.

The writer of her story reminds me of my favorite Salinger character, Franny Glass, who is trying to understand the ways of the world, slipping into depression every now and then.

Rakoff is at a crossroads that life brings one to when one is evolving and struggling to find one’s self. She learns that she has to repay a loan her father had taken for her education without her knowledge, ends up with a job she doesn’t necessarily like, gets her life entangled with a reckless boyfriend who is differently wired from her, and comes to terms with the changing arc of friendship with a woman she calls her best friend. Jenny, like Rakoff, had dreams of writing but gave them up for a suburban path which she deems easy. “‘I know,’ I said reflexively, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to be normal. I wanted to be extraordinary. I wanted to write novels and make films and speak ten languages and travel around the world. I wanted everything. So, I thought, had Jenny.”

The protagonist of the story, Salinger himself––for who else could be a protagonist in a book mentioning the man––is behind phone conversations with Rakoff, or hushed discussions surrounding him. His is a continual presence, of course, as his name lurks around in the cupboards of the Agency on hard paperback editions of his books.

What surprised me most pleasantly was the portrayal of the reclusive writer who had, in my imagination, metamorphosed into a grumpy old man begrudging his popularity; someone he barely resembles during his limited interactions with Rakoff over the phone. His tone is genial, almost affable when he refers to Joanna with names other than her own, thanks to his debilitating hearing.

Rakoff’s struggles as an aspiring writer in New York are as real as the struggles of Salinger’s characters, although bereft of the sense of unresolved grief that stings the latter. Salinger’s characters, be they the most popular adolescent hero Holden Caulfield or the war veteran Seymour Glass who commits suicide, are rife with melancholia and gloom. Rakoff meets them at a time when her own life is prickled with angst, much like the fraternity and sorority in Salinger’s work.

Rakoff’s Salinger moment was somehow waiting to happen until she entered her 20s. Perplexed by her own life and curious about the legend, she embarks on her Salinger journey on a weekend her boyfriend goes to a friend’s wedding alone. She pores over his work, reading one book after the other until she is done. That’s when she begins to relate to, even appreciate, the fan mail addressed to Salinger, that she painstakingly answers as part of her job.

courtesy of guzelonlu.com
courtesy of guzelonlu.com

Salinger’s work is timeless and age is only an unnecessary constraint. To bracket his work as being for children or teenagers is as good as depriving one’s life of the treasures required to enrich it. After all, what are love, loss, grief, nostalgia, despair, isolation, and desperation, if not lifelong companions? My Salinger Year celebrates these and pays homage to a man who deserves every bit of it.

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Sukhada Tatke is a freelance writer and journalist based in Houston. She has previously worked in Mumbai at The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writings have appeared in Scroll.in, Texas Monthly, and The Houston Chronicle. Her pet topics include social inequality, cultural heritage, and everyday life. She tweets at @ASuitableGirl, and you can find more of her work on www.sukhadatatke@contently.com.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

Women Writers Wednesday 6/3/15

Here’s an informal poll: what books have changed your life?

I’m not looking for a Facebook-viral list of 25 Important Books You’d Die on a Desert Island Without or anything like that. I want to know, what that one book is which changed something vital about your existence. You might have ten favorite books you could no sooner rank than you could choose a favorite among your children or pets. This is not that dilemma. What is the one piece of literature that made some aspect of you profoundly different?

There are many books which have affected me deeply, no doubt, in a variety of ways. But one book that absolutely changed the course of my life is Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. This book, and dinner with the author himself at a mutual friend’s home, inspired me to pursue fiction writing seriously rather than to get another degree in poetry. The course of my professional life was forever and probably irrevocably altered by this choice.

I’d love to know what book has mattered this much to you. In the comments below, leave an anecdote about a single book that has meant something special. In fact, the first five people to respond will get a free copy of Finis. for themselves or gifted to someone else.

Today’s Women Writers Wednesday comes to us from Carla Jean Whitley about a book which had a deep and lasting impact on her.

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If you’re a bookworm, you’re probably acquainted with the experience of a book hangover, if not the term itself. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when you approach the end of a book that has captured not only your attention, but your heart. Book hangovers follow the stories, essays, or poems that affect a life so powerfully, it becomes hard to believe there are other books worth your time.

Within the first two chapters of Anna Quindlen’s “How Reading Changed My Life,” I knew that I’d encountered just such a book. In this essay collection, Quindlen recounts the value of reading, whether the object of your affection is high-brow literature or a novel from childhood. It’s only 96 pages, and so I was mourning its inevitable conclusion by the end of the second chapter.

from Random House's publicity site
from Random House’s publicity site

“How Reading Changed My Life” immediately found a place on the shelf among my favorite, most-trusted books. It’s a book I turn to time and again, and one I frequently select as a gift for fellow readers.

And while this remains the book of Quindlen’s I cherish the most, it is also the gateway drug. Her columns for the New York Times and Newsweek are compelling—she won a 1992 Pulitzer for her Times work, after all—and in the books that have collected those, I’ve found a kindred spirit. Quindlen is a writer, a mom, and a wife who offers insight on all areas of life. She left nonfiction years ago with the intent of working solely as a novelist (and her recent Still Life with Bread Crumbs is my favorite of her fiction). But over the years, Quindlen has continued to shed light on family, politics, life, and age. She is a woman I love to read.

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Carla Jean Whitley is a writer, editor, and teacher based in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is a features writer for Alabama Media Group. She is the author of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music and Balancing Act: Yoga Essays. Her next book, Birmingham Beer: The Role of Alabama’s Largest City in Changing the State’s Beer Culture, is scheduled for release this spring. Connect with her at carlajeanwhitley.com.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

Women Writers Wednesday 5/13/15

About this time of year, my status changes from “crazy busy” to “my Fuxtagiv Meter (TM) is approaching the null set.”

The stack of papers I have to grade is taller than my forearm is long. (Repeated flippant suggestions to assign less work or to not actually grade it all are neither appreciated nor apparently aware of what the job of teaching is about.) I have a countdown of how many days are left in the semester on my white board, but the countdown of how many more actual teaching days (meaning, days on which I lecture or lead a discussion or present new course material) is on an hourly tick-down in my head. Students come by to ask me for their averages at least four times a day. One might assume I don’t enjoy my teaching job — which would be mistaken, I assure you — if nearly all of my colleagues weren’t feeling the same way. We have days to weeks left in the school year. We are too busy.

One constant pursuit for not just me but most of the people I know in a similar situation to mine is the persistent struggle for work-life balance. I’m not sure I even know what a work-life balance is supposed to be. I’m pretty sure I don’t have it, or else I wouldn’t be so stressed out.

Remember when Real Simple magazine first came out? I do. I picked up a copy in the checkout line at The Container Store — drunk off the atmosphere of organization and efficiency that store fugues into its shoppers, seduced by the magazine cover’s promise to streamline my life. I got that tome home and never had time to read it. Seriously? I thought. Who has time to read two hundred pages of non-plot-driven small print? (The magazine has since improved.)

As soon as I get some time to myself — assuming I get some of that — I intend to read the book that’s being reviewed here in the Women Writers Wednesday series today. Betsy Polk brings to our attention Julia Scatliff O’Grady’s Good Busy: Productivity, Procrastination, and the Endless Pursuit of Balance. Fortunately, it sounds like a short, quick read, which means the author, unlike the early creators of Real Simple, already has some intelligence about the topic. Polk’s review is brief, too, but meaningful. Enjoy.

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I’ll admit it. I was feeling “busy” when the deadline for this review approached. In fact, I’d become one of those people who responds to greetings of hello, how are you with an eye roll, a sigh and a “really busy.”

How had this happened when I’d long held fast to the belief that busy was not an emotion? It was merely a general situational condition, experienced by most people at various life points. Nothing special, certainly not discussion-worthy.

And, yet, though I would have been loath to admit it at the time, there was comfort in my busyness. After all, it was the result of a series of positive happenings: the publication of a book after years of editorial rejection; a series of happy milestone family events that required extensive event planning and some exciting work and travel opportunities. This was all good busy. So, who was I to sigh and roll my eyes about it?

I needed help and I found it, in Julia Scatliff O’Grady’s Good Busy: Productivity, Procrastination, and the Endless Pursuit of Balance.

cover image from Amazon
cover image from Amazon

This 88-page, lovely little blue guide is the perfect companion for the busy. It’s small enough to go anywhere, short enough to be read in one, peacefully blissful afternoon, and compelling enough to stick. Each of the ten chapters promotes a one word practice – from Buffer, the practice of building in time, to Hunt, finding the source of one’s busyness. O’Grady knows her audience and throughout this treasure box of a book, she adroitly engages her too-busy readers with pocket-sized wisdom their overwhelmed memories can retain. (I, for one, am clinging to the practice of “buffering,” as I strive to rid myself of the anxious buzz of impending lateness).

Make no mistake, this is no time management or how-to book. There’s no judgement here, no shoulds, no lists, just a collection of stories and guiding practices that illustrate what it means to understand and best embrace our current states of busy.

Thanks to the insights gleaned from Good Busy, I’ve found my own practice and am calling it gratitude. From now on, no more sighs or eye rolls for me – just thank yous for the gifts good busyness can bring.

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Betsy is an author, keynote speaker, workshop leader, facilitator, mediator and board certified coach for The Mulberry Partners, the consulting firm she co-founded with Maggie Ellis Chotas in 2003.  With Maggie, Betsy co-authored Power through Partnership: How Women Lead Better Together, a book that celebrates the benefits that come when women work together and debunks the myths that too often get in the way (Berrett-Koehler, 2014).  The message of the book has resonated for women all over the world, leading to Betsy’s and Maggie’s selection as speakers for the US Department of State’s International Information Program. This year, Betsy and Maggie represented the program in Fiji and Papua New Guinea as presenters for International Women’s Day. Power Through Partnership has been featured in Investor’s Business Daily, msnbc.com, LevoLeague.com, Durham Magazine, The Las Vegas Business Press, The Huffington Post, HuffPostLive, Fortune.com, Time.com, and The Dallas Morning News.

Betsy received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a master’s degree in organization development from the American University/NTL program. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC with her lively, fun family. Find her online on Twitter (@Powership) and at these websites: www.themulberrypartners.com; www.powerthrupartnership.comhttps://www.facebook.com/BetsyandMaggie.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.