Best Book

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One of the greatest joys of my life is when my children (and grandchildren) prove themselves better than I am, especially in areas I believe myself to be good at. And in the case of my three kids and both my grandkids, all my expectations have been exceeded. And while I had nothing to do with their upbringing, Ron’s kids and grands have done the same. And aside from their eagerness to climb onto roofs, carry extremely heavy loads, and put themselves in harm’s way, they have bested Ron in so many ways also. We are proud parents and beaming grandparents. 

I feel the same way about my former students. I take so much pleasure in seeing them succeed in so many ways. And as I was an English teacher and taught Creative Writing, I am especially proud of former students who excel at writing. One of these is Jenny Offill. Jenny’s father was chairman of the English Department and so she was predisposed to being interested in language, but she has bested her own parents in the same way my kids have bested me. 

A prompt I gave her class was based on a wonderful short story by Richard Brautigan, “I was Trying to Describe You to Someone.” In this fresh use of metaphor, Brautigan starts off by saying that while he was trying to describe her to someone, he couldn’t say she looked like Jane Fonda, because she doesn’t. Instead he describes this woman obliquely in an extended metaphor describing how life changed when electricity came to rural families in the Midwest. And at the end he says, “And that’s how you look to me.”

It’s a fun exercise for writers, giving them the opportunity to describe someone they have strong feelings about in an original way. Jenny wrote about me describing how she regarded me like her pleasure in finding a weirdly shaped M&M in a bag of M&Ms. I laughed aloud when I read it so many years ago, and it still makes me smile to think about that comparison.

Jenny continued to excel as a writer, at the Stanford Writing Program and has written several books. It’s the most recent one, Department of Speculation, though, that made the hair stand up on my head. I found the book while in Mr. K’s recently looking for books to take to Mexico with me next week. I saw her name and snatched the book off the shelf. I couldn’t wait to get into it, and read it through that afternoon. Wow!

Reading Department of Speculation reminded me of reading Virginia Woolf for the first time. It is that original. The novel is about the marriage of a couple who survive a colicky baby and other woes, a story that has been told many times before, but this retelling comes at the subject from many different angles at the same time. The style of the telling amplifies the complexity of the subject. As Tolstoy says in the first line of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in different ways.” 

I read the book in one sitting, but look forward to reading it again. Jenny layers on the complexity with references to Greek philosophers and even Russian Cosmonauts, and each reference is a key to unlocking another level of meaning. the references are dropped into the text without explanation, allowing the reader to think about the ways in which each of them adds layers to the simple tale. 

Gaudy Welsh Pottery c. 1820

I am certainly not the only person who was blown away by this book. It was celebrated by The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker, among many others. The New York Times called it “One of the ten best books of the year!” 

OMG, Jenny Offill. I am so proud of you!

Ron and I will be in Mexico all next week (yipee!) and the store will be closed on weekdays. Ruth will be here on both Saturdays, and Jessica will be here Sundays. We have filled our suitcases with books, and I hope to have more recommendations to offer when we get back.