Book Review: My Salinger Year

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My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff. Reviewed by Louise Hilton. 

Joanna Rakoff’s nonfiction debut chronicles her year spent as the assistant to the head of a literary agency in Manhattan in the late 1990s. The agency’s most important client? J. D. Salinger, hence the title. A bright and eager twentysomething, the bookish Rakoff is thrilled at landing a job at the prestigious Agency, as the never-named company is referred to throughout the book. Imagine her surprise when she arrives in the dimly lit office to find a dusty old Selectric typewriter and a stack of tapes waiting for her to listen to on a Dictaphone (remember those? I didn’t think so.) This, in 1996. The office is so old-fashioned that by the end of Rakoff’s time with the agency, her boss’s one concession to the encroaching digital age is the addition of a sole computer for the entire office to share.

Far from what she’d thought would be the glamorous world of publishing, Rakoff spends her days transcribing her boss’s dictated letters and sorting through the Agency’s most important client’s fan mail. When she started working there, Rakoff had yet to read any of Salinger’s work so she’s at first surprised by the dozens of letters that arrive each week for him. Once she reads the heartfelt messages from frustrated teenagers à la Holden Caulfield to aging veterans like Salinger himself, she realizes the profound effect novels such as The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey had on his readers. She decides to write personalized replies to some – utterly ignoring Agency protocol of sending form letters to fans – which leads to interesting consequences.

Rakoff also touches on the post-graduate ennui she and some of her friends experienced and details her life outside of work, living in Brooklyn – before it was cool – with a tiresome man. Luckily she finally realizes what a nightmare their relationship is (jealous “writer” boyfriend with socialist leanings and an absurdly healthy ego, need I say more?) and strikes out on her own.

A highlight of the book is when Rakoff settles in to read all of Salinger’s novels one lonely weekend. She captures perfectly the transformative experience of reading Salinger for the first time, discovering that his novels are not just for angst-filled teenagers like his beloved Holden: “Salinger was not cutesy. His work was not nostalgic. These were not fairy tales about child geniuses traipsing the streets of Old New York. Salinger was nothing like I’d thought. Nothing. Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him. I loved it all.”

Far from a gimmicky tell-all about her brush with literary fame – although her retelling of the phone calls she received from the famously reclusive Salinger and their one meeting in the flesh are exciting to read about – My Salinger Year is a lovely ode to books, reading, and New York. It’s also an engrossing read about a young woman finding her way in the world and at a mere 249 pages, I found it woefully short. This is by far my top pick of 2014.

*An abridged version of this review first appeared in The Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.) on 1/25/15.

Book Review: And the Dark Sacred Night

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And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass. Reviewed by Louise Hilton.

Kit Noonan is going through a midlife crisis.  An academic who’s been out of work for two years, he is floundering, haunted by his lifelong wish to uncover the identity of his biological father, a secret his mother and stepfather Jasper kept from him.  Kit’s wife, out of patience with his sad sack ways, encourages him to revisit his childhood home in search of answers.  The narrative alternates between Kit’s trip back to the gruff but lovable Jasper’s house and flashbacks to his mother’s youth and his own childhood.

If you read Glass’s debut, the National Book Award winner Three Junes, you’ll likely remember Lucinda, Fenno, and Malachy, all of whom play important roles in this novel as well. Glass is a master at portraying different truths of the human condition, in this case, our ineffable need to know where we come from and to feel a connection to our past.  Her characters’ back stories combine seamlessly to lead Kit – and the reader – on his journey of discovery.  I highly recommend this beautifully written, touching novel about family, regret, memory, and, above all, love. The title tells it all: taken from the lyrics “the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night” of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, it reminds us how magical the world really is.

Book Review: Madam

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Madam: A Novel of New Orleans by Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin. Reviewed by Louise Hilton. 

Madam is set in 1897 New Orleans and centered around Mary Deubler, a prostitute in Venus Alley, a seedy area of the city that would soon be formally incorporated as the official red-light district known as Storyville. Mary is a well-developed character, perhaps due in part to the fact that she is based on the real-life Josie Arlington, one of the future Storyville’s most infamous madams.

We follow her trajectory from her time as Mary, the impoverished streetwalker with dreams for a better life for herself and her family to her reemergence as Josie, the refined and glamorous doyenne of one of the city’s so-called “sporting establishments”. The authors certainly capture the raucous environment of the Big Easy, replete with salacious details of the seedy underworld scene, licentious politicians, and cameos from colorful notables including Louis Armstrong and “Jelly Roll” Morton.

Having grown up in Louisiana, I had a few quibbles with some of the setting details: jambalaya does not have beans in it as the authors mention in one scene; it’s a café au lait that they serve at Café du Monde, not a “coffee au laits”; and we call them crawfish down here, never crayfish. Shudder. Overall though, Madam is an entertaining read.

NB: This review first appeared in The Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.) on 10/19/14.

Book Review: The Coat Route

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The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury, & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat by Meg Lukens Noonan. Reviewed by Louise Hilton. 

The Coat Route is a quick and interesting read on the making of a $50,000 coat. No, that’s not a typo. Journalist Noonan set out to discover the story behind this unfathomably expensive overcoat crafted entirely by hand and to determine the role, if any, that bespoke (custom-made) clothes play in our fast-paced era of instant gratification.

Noonan journeys across the globe to trace the making of each element of the coat, from Peru (home of the vicuña, a camelid whose fleece is the finest in the world) to Florence and Paris (the lining) and finally to England (the buttons) and Australia (the thread). Fun fact: The tailor specializing in bespoke clothes who was commissioned for the coat even did the stitching for the book jacket. Noonan also gives a brief history of bespoke tailoring, especially that of London’s fashionable Savile Row, but laments that the word itself has been hijacked – there are even “bespoke” ice cream shops – which diminishes the significance of this centuries-old tradition.

$50,000 for a coat is of course an obscene amount of money, and a luxury only very few could afford. But Noonan presents the story in such a way that reading about the attention and care behind this and similar garments makes you think (and cringe) about the production methods of the cheaply made clothes with the all too familiar “Made in China” labels we so often put on our backs. In the end, The Coat Route is not only a commentary on the consumer society in which we live, with its “disposable” clothes and products, but a compelling ode to artisanal industries.

*An abridged version of this review was published in The Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.) on 8/17/14.

Book Review: Shocked

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Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me by Patricia Volk. Reviewed by Louise Hilton. 

Shocked is Patricia Volk’s homage to both her glamorous mother Audrey and Elsa Schiaparelli, the eccentric Italian fashion designer who revolutionized the art world with her over-the-top creations (think lobster dresses and shoe hats).  Volk read Schiaparelli’s memoir as a young girl and recalls the profound effect it had on her – we all remember that one special book from our childhood that marked us – and how she relished any similarity she felt she shared with her idol.  Volk recounts her privileged New York upbringing (her father was the proprietor of a popular Garment District restaurant) and juxtaposes her family history with that of Schiaparelli.  It may sound like a contrived narrative approach, but Volk more than pulls it off, making Shocked a scrapbook of sorts, with photographs in each chapter of both her own family and the designer’s world.

The book itself is beautiful, with a mottled hot pink dust jacket (the title plays on one of Schiaparelli’s major contributions to the fashion world, the coinage of the color Shocking Pink), and the outline of the bottle for the designer’s perfume Shocking (Audrey’s favorite, naturally) on the book itself.

Audrey Volk embodied a certain archetype of women from a bygone era – applying her “face” every morning, meticulous grooming, putting great stock in appearances – but for all her polish and glamour, Audrey had a cruel streak and the most poignant parts of the memoir are when the young Volk struggles to please her.  Overall, Shocked is an engaging read and tribute to two larger-than-life women.


An abridged version of this review appeared in The Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.) on 6/22/14.