The last time I posted here, I talked a bit about having a difficult time. About wading through, waiting for the days to pass. That was an incredibly difficult piece to both write and to put out into the world. But the few weeks in-between then and now have been equally, if not more, difficult. I knew they were going to be - I had a feeling in my gut that turned out to be right - but that doesn’t make it any easier to endure. It led me to think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. It made me question what I want and why I want it. What I could do to make things right for me and for those around me. There’s never a good time for an existential crisis but this timing was truly rotten. But, that’s just the way things are. Sometimes it feels like you’re a pot on the stove: you bring the water to the boil - an everyday task - then you drop in the pasta, stir it and sit back waiting for it to come to life. Sometimes you watch it come to the boil just in time to turn down the heat and let it do it’s thing. But sometimes your timing is off and before you know it the starchy water is overflowing all over the stove and you’re left only able to rescue the pot and it’s remaining contents. The latter is how the last few weeks have felt.
One of the things I realised is that I don’t want to do anything that stops me from doing the things I love. I know that sometimes sacrifices are made and you do little deals with yourself: not seeing your partner now means being able to go on holiday together later. Not being able to see friends or read properly or pick up the phone and call home - these are only temporary. But sometimes things we think are temporary keep rolling on to a point where they become permanent without us even realising it. And this is what’s happened to me. I know a few things that are ahead of me that I’m truly excited about, but I also know that there’s going to be some extraordinarily hard work and difficult decisions to make between now and then. For now it’s time to take a breath and move on. Slowly but surely, one day after the next.
A big result of this time was that I didn’t pick up a book for three full weeks. I was halfway through reading Phillip Roth’s The Anatomy Lesson but it was completely disbanded when the chaos around me took over my every thought. Not being able to read felt like taking away a part of myself. I’ve talked about how sometimes this can happen but I turn to magazines or short stories instead, but this time I read nothing at all. When I realised that I hadn’t read a single page of a novel, magazine or newspaper in two weeks I felt a kick to the stomach similar to a sense of mourning. So as soon as I was able, I knew I was going to need to pick up a novel and launch myself back into my world of books. To become myself again. But I couldn’t face going back to The Anatomy Lesson - not for the material but for the reminder of where I’d left it. Likewise I couldn’t dive straight into intense literary fiction or anything psychologically taxing. I’d already had a crisis of my own, I didn’t want to read about anyone else’s just yet. For once I gave up on reading about broken families, difficult relationships and emotional dramas. I wanted to fall back in love with the world of words and I knew My Salinger Year would be a good place to start.
My Salinger Year is a memoir based on Joanna Rakoff’s time working for an esteemed literary agent: so esteemed that their main client was J.D. Salinger. The book is equally a year in the life of the agency as it is a year in the life of the author. At a seminal point in her twenties, Rakoff moved back from London to the US and found herself working as an assistant to the voracious senior agent after one quick employment agency interview. We see Rakoff grow both personally and professionally, through difficult relationships, friendships that grow apart, her parents passing back financial responsibilities and her own relationship to her writing and self-confidence. But in many ways My Salinger Year stands as a testament to the love of books. From the ageing, leather-bound first editions of the established agency clients, to the thrill of selling short stories of new, up-and-coming writers, and the reality of the world of literature moving into a digital age through the 1990’s.
Occasionally Rakoff’s writing style feels a little too twee: the trips to get coffee from Grand Central station as a treat, the description of her early office outfits (mostly as a result of gifts from her mother), the pining for her ex-boyfriend while staying with the rather brutish Don. But having said this: these are mistakes and experiences all of us make in our early twenties, that’s the point. We all stay in ridiculous relationships, graduate from creative arts degrees and suffer the financial burden, struggle to work out how we fit into our own skin. Over the course of the novel though we see that Rakoff is genuine in her voice, holding herself accountable to her experiences and decisions, driven by a desire to find her place amongst the bookshelves.
I loved this passage late into the novel where Rakoff finds herself alone for the first time in an age, while her boyfriend is away at a wedding. It’s similar to how I was feeling at the time of reading My Salinger Year - I felt like I should be doing a lot of things, but I knew what I needed to do, which was very little.
I thought about going to the MoMA, or the movies, or up to the Met - all things I loved to do alone and now felt obligated to do with Don - but the lines at the museums were sure to be long and the theatres were filled with summer blockbusters. I thought about calling or dropping in on a friend, but who were my friends? Where were my friends?
So instead I did what I really wanted to do, what I knew all along I’d do: I went home and read.
Taking Rakoff’s advice, I finished reading My Salinger Year in the bath, a very good place to be. A place that my very dear friends Jess and Scott had leant to me while they were at work: a warm, quiet, beautiful house very close to my own, that has one thing that I’ve missed ever since moving into our current apartment - a bath. While I was waiting for the water to fill the bath and for the kettle to boil to make herbal tea, I found myself absentmindedly flicking through their copy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Three Good Things. I came across a recipe very much close to my heart: roast potatoes, asparagus and haloumi cheese, served with roast garlic, parsley and a squeeze of lemon (the recipe is available on The Guardian here). It reminded me of a dish I used to cook for myself often when I was just cooking for one, roast potatoes, asparagus and a poached egg. I have no memory of where this recipe came from, but it’s the ultimate comfort. After wandering the local fruit and veg store aimlessly earlier in the afternoon, I came home from Jess and Scott’s knowing exactly what I was going to cook my partner and I for a simple, wholesome dinner. The perfect kind of dinner to eat curled up on the couch before an early night. Roast potatoes, fennel and brussels sprouts with a poached egg. All the vegetables are roasted in the oven - the diced potatoes in for 15 minutes first with a couple of cloves of whole, unpeeled garlic - before adding the sliced fennel and halved sprouts. Because I’m a salt addict I couldn’t resist adding a few capers to my bowl before floating a poached egg on top and a sprinkle of chopped parsley. Nothing says comfort like a runny egg yolk or roasted potatoes and the two together are pure heaven. The garlic will hopefully help to stave away a potential rundown sickness that often accompanies a bout of the blues, but with a warming bowl such as this, a soft couch layered with blankets and a cup of tea cooling as I ate, suddenly things didn’t seem as bad.