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
Jenny 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
Growing 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.