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Reviewlettes: ‘Dept. of Speculation’ and ‘Paddle Your Own Canoe’

I’ve got kind of an odd pair today, a recent piece of fiction that reads more like poetry and an audio book memoir with a crude sense of humor. But, I do think Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill and Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman have something in common — both books are, on some level, interested in relationships and how people in our lives affect our ambitions and successes. They also both speak to the challenges and rewards of the artistic life, even if they come at those themes from very different starting points.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

dept of speculation by jenny offillJenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes — a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions — the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.

Dept. of Speculation is a weird and wonderful little book. Told in a series of almost-but-not-quite vignettes, the book explores the trials and celebrations of a long relationship and marriage. The little bits and pieces that author Jenny Offill uses to tell this story seem random but, like a good poem, are perfectly and strategically chosen to tell more than just the words on the page. The arc of Offill’s narrator isn’t totally obvious, but it’s super interesting to read. I devoured this one in just a couple of sittings, but I really want to go back to it again to read more slowly — I’m sure I will catch so much more.

Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman

paddle your own canoe by nick offermanGrowing a perfect moustache, grilling red meat, wooing a woman — who better to deliver this tutelage than the always charming, always manly Nick Offerman, best known as Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson?  Combining his trademark comic voice and very real expertise in woodworking — he runs his own woodshop — Paddle Your Own Canoe features tales from Offerman’s childhood in small-town Minooka, Illinois, to his theater days in Chicago, beginnings as a carpenter/actor and the hilarious and magnificent seduction of his now-wife Megan Mullally.  It also offers hard-bitten battle strategies in the arenas of manliness, love, style, religion, woodworking, and outdoor recreation, among many other savory entrees.

Paddle Your Own Canoe is a really funny book, but man can Nick Offerman swear! I’m not that prudish in my reading, but felt like this book needed a little bit of a warning for the really dirty sense of humor. I know a few of the jokes made me blush. I really loved listening to Offerman read this book, but because the book doesn’t really have a “narrative arc” or plot — it’s more a series of essays or lessons — I tended to let a lot of time pass between listening sessions. If you have a hard time focusing on audio books, this one may work better in print.

Disclosure: I borrowed a copy of Dept. of Speculation from my local library and purchased a copy of Paddle Your Own Canoe through Audible. 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sandy March 25, 2014, 5:55 am

    I’ve got Speculation on my wish list after Ti’s review (I’ve been told there are two billion quotes to write down). And the rude one sounds right up my alley! Heh heh.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End March 25, 2014, 7:08 am

    Hahahaha, I feel like Nick Offerman has told dirty jokes in every single interview I’ve ever seen with him. Some of them would definitely make me uncomfortable if he made them to my face, but luckily I can sit in the comfort of my own home to hear them. :p

    • Kim March 25, 2014, 9:31 pm

      I, apparently, never watched an interview with Nick Offerman because I didn’t expect it, at all! It wasn’t really a bad thing, just unexpected.

  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader March 25, 2014, 9:05 am

    Weird and wonderful, yes! I thoroughly enjoyed that little book. I think it’d be a great book for a re-read 😀

    Nick Offerman is something isn’t he? He’s an interesting cat for sure. I might have to grab that one…one of these days.

    • Kim March 25, 2014, 9:32 pm

      I love how multi-passionate he is, everything from dramatic stage acting to woodworking.

  • Andi @ Estella's Revenge March 25, 2014, 9:12 am

    I’m glad you liked Dept. of Speculation, too! Such a lovely, well-planned, unique book.

  • tanya (52 books or bust) March 25, 2014, 9:21 am

    Odd pairing indeed! One thing that I’ve heard about Offerman’s book is that his love for his wife really comes through. But i will remember not to play it on the next family car trip.

    • Kim March 25, 2014, 9:32 pm

      Yes, he clearly adores his wife. Reading about that was refreshing, compared to some other celebrity books I’ve read.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) March 25, 2014, 11:19 am

    I’m intrigued by Dept. of Speculation but I’m afraid it might be too smart for me.

    • Kim March 25, 2014, 9:33 pm

      Oh no, I don’t think so. It’s a smart, interesting book, but not overly complicated.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading March 25, 2014, 12:30 pm

    Every time I see a review of Dept. of Speculation I want to pick it up again. I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those books that has a permanent spot on my shelf for a long, long time.

  • Athira March 25, 2014, 4:31 pm

    This is the second time I am hearing about Dept. of Speculation. I need to give it a try!

  • Diane@BibliophilebytheSea March 25, 2014, 5:56 pm

    Definitely want to try Dept of Speculation. Sounds quirky in a good way.

  • Trisha March 25, 2014, 9:14 pm

    Offerman’s book seems hilarious but I can see how that kind of humor needs to be taken in small doses.

  • Jeanne March 26, 2014, 1:43 pm

    You and I read Dept of Speculation in two very different ways–I read just a tiny bit for a number of nights–and we both liked it. That says something.