Friday, June 8, 2012

The Receptionist by Janet Groth

Title: The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker
Author: Janet Groth

Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir / 1950s / 1960s / 1970s / New York City / New Yorker Magazine / Writing)
Publisher/Publication Date: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (6/6/2012)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Loved!
Did I finish?: I inhaled this book in one night.
One-sentence summary:
Reading Challenges: Dewey Decimal

Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover -- it captures the feel of retro New York City and I love the woman with the pencil in her hair -- so cute!

First line: It all happened by the merest chance.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you're a Mad Men fiend or like writers on writing, or enjoy coming-of-age stories in complicated, vigorous times.

Why did I get this book?: I love books on books, and memoirs of writers on other writers.

Review: Although I don't read The New Yorker, I'm aware of its reputation, the careers launched, the personalities housed there, (and I've certainly read pieces that debuted there, anthologized later); so when offered a review copy of Groth's memoir, I pounced.

This was a book so good I've lost the ability to arrange letters into words. So I apologize now for the jumpy, incoherent gush of a review that follows.

From the first pages, I was sold on Groth.

Mr. [E.B.] White took a moment to absorb this information. When he could bring himself to speak again, he asked, "Can you type?"

"Not at a professional level," I said.

He coughed and looked at the resume that Arthur Zegart had given him and that had led to my being there in his office. "What about this short story prize you won?...Was that story typed?"

I told him that yes, of course it had been, but that I deliberately maintained a slow, self-devised system that involved looking at the keyboard.

"I was afraid, you see, that if I became a skilled typist, I would wind up in an office typing pool."
(p2)

I want Groth to be my bestie -- who wouldn't?! Candidly she shares how she got her job, the professors who inspired her to take up writing, the writers she worked with, the love affairs, her aspirations as a writer and a scholar, and the way The New Yorker changed throughout her time there. This memoir is a series of vignettes from 1957 to 1978. Technically there as just a receptionist, Groth's life was shaped and impacted by the personalities she assisted, supported, befriended, romanced, entertained, liked, disliked, loved, and lost: Muriel Spark, John Berryman, Joseph Mitchell, Renata Adler, and hosts of others.

Groth came-of-age at an era that, frankly, frightens me -- the late '50s and '60s -- in big, bad New York City, working for a literary magazine that was renown then for the personalities and expense lines. When women were having to find, invent, reinvent, discover, and hide themselves, Groth navigated that time with not unsurprising bumps and fits, and she shares her experiences without shame. (Happily!) I found her to be breathtakingly honest in her account of her time at The New Yorker. Her tone sounds a little bemused, a little pained, a little wry -- not aloof, but aware -- and I was often holding my breath in amazement. Her writing is so honest and unapologetic, and yet, she shares enough warmth and vulnerability that I felt deeply sympathetic toward her.

Even if you're not familiar with the writers from The New Yorker, if you enjoy memoirs and coming-of-age stories, get this one. Like a surprisingly dangerous aunt, Groth's stories are titillating, gasp-inducing, fascinating, depressing, and inspiring.

*** *** ***

GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Receptionist to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 6/22.

25 comments:

  1. Really interesting topic.. Literary New York sounds fun.

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    1. It was so fascinating -- Groth writes a bit about her own development not just as a working professional, a writer, a scholar, but also as a woman with independent political beliefs, a sexual creature searching for companionship -- so good, so sad, so awesome.

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  2. Sounds like a fun book. I love reading memoirs from "ordinary" people that offer insights to times and places I've never been. Will add this to my "to read" this. Thanks!

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    1. I was just captivated by this book from the first page -- I don't know how ordinary Groth is -- she's pretty exceptional, I think -- I couldn't weather what she did -- but she had what was a rather 'dreary' job at a fascinating place -- really worth picking up!

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  3. Wow--this sounds like a really cool book. You're right, the cover draws you in right away. This is the first time I've seen this, so I'll definitely be adding it to my TBR list. Thanks!

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    1. I hope it gets some buzz -- it was a marvelous book!

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  4. Oh my, yes! This is the first I've heard of this book. Thanks!

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    1. I'm so grateful Algonquin brought it to my attention -- I love books like this!

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  5. I was wondering whether you would be happy to put up a link in my monthly series called “Books You Love”. The idea is for people to link up posts about a book they loved – it doesn’t have to be one they just posted about. It could be an old fave. I am hoping we will end up with a nice collection of books that can go on our reading lists. Here is the link Books You Loved June Edition

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  6. I must get a copy now! I worked in publishing in NYC for a few years so there's definitely a special place in my heart for memoirs focused on the literary scene. Being a woman coming up in that climate must have been difficult. Probably why this is a compelling read.

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    1. Jenna -- I'd love to know what you think of this one should you get to it. It was marvelous. Groth talks about feminism, and wanting to be independent, trying to balance being worldly with being responsible -- it was all really fabu -- just loved it all. Every word.

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  7. I grew up on The New Yorker. This books sounds absolutely fantastic. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! Do you think it would be a good choice for a book club? I'm starting to put together a list for suggestions for next year, and your review makes it sound like a good fit, as my group likes to include a few non-fiction titles.

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    1. I think it would make a great book club choice -- it's about PG13ish for risque-ness -- Groth doesn't hide her affairs and flings, and she's not vulgar, but she also does pepper in some titillating details. Not sure if that might be a problem. It's a breezy read, too -- 250ish pages, I think -- so doesn't feel 'heavy' like a memoir.

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  8. This book sounds like it was written just for me! Definitely checking this one out!

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    1. It was like having lunch with her - so exciting! I hope you do pick this one up!

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  9. Yes, Yes, Yes!!! Sounds so perfect. And really, you had me at the Mad Men comparison.

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    1. Honestlly, Groth is amazing and her transformation from midwestern girl to NYC bombshell (and everything in between) was so fascinating & enjoyable.

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  10. I'm regretting not saying yet to this one! It sounds amazing, and I'm a long-time New Yorker reader. I have ordered a copy of the library, so if I don't win your contest, I'll be reading it soon enough!

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    1. Carrie -- you'll love this one, I suspect -- it reads like a novel but has the titillating thrill of it being true!

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  11. I love that EB White anecdote about typing!

    Just stopped by to ask if you'd please email me your physical address so that I can send you the Michael Chabon ARC for the readalong next month. emily [at] odysseybks [dot] com. Please stay tuned for the linky sign-up and the reading schedule, and thanks for joining in the fun!

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  12. I also loved that E.B. White anecdote. Thanks for sharing that bit. I would love to read this book!

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  13. I already adore (and envy a bit) Janet Groth. I love that she downplayed her typing ability. Brilliant! Can you imagine being interviewed by EB White and working around authors such as Muriel Spark and Joseph Mitchell? I am very curious about what it was like for Groth, especially being a woman, to work at the New Yorker in the '50s and '60s. On Mad Men, as anyone who watched it knows, women weren't exactly treated with respect and certainly not as the equal of men.
    I am also very interested in reading this book to experience Groth's writing which must be terrific since she worked for The New Yorker. I like this magazing a lot and often read it but I always feel intimidated by it, too!

    I'm thrilled you reviewed this book, Audra! Thank you! You review is terririfc and makes me so excited to read Groth's memoir I probably would have missed out on knowing about this book if not for your review.
    I love the cover, too, it's great.
    I apologize for my 'motor-mouth' (or fingers, I guess!)

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  14. Sounds fascinating. Thanks for the giveaway.

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