Weather by Jenny Offill (“Aren’t you tired of all this fear and dread?”)

No pictures of books lying open on a bed, surrounded by neutral blankets, dried flowers, and half drunk cups of coffee, for me. I prefer simple. Real over artificially composed. And, an author who writes as if she understands exactly what I am thinking myself.

Such is Jenny Offill.

Her writing is lyrical. It is contemplative. Stream of consciousness, within a wry joke, within a story. Somewhere in this novel she is pointing us to hope, using the devices of humor, anecdote, reflection, and “prepping.”

What to Do If You Run Out of Candles

A can of tuna can provide hours of light. Stab a small hole in the top of an oil-packed tuna can, then roll a two-by-five-inch piece of newspaper into a wick. Shove the wick into the hole, leaving a half inch exposed. Wait a moment for the oil to slack to the top of the wick, then light with matches. Your new oil lamp will burn for almost two hours and the tuna will still be good to eat afterward.

But, this is not the stuff that appeals to me the most. It is the narrator’s reflection on her job as a librarian, her role as sister, wife and mother. (As I read, I wished I had written more of the things my son said to me when he was small. All I can remember is, “Mom? What do strangers look like?”)

I will leave you with some snippets of my favorite bits. Surely they will give you an indication of why I love this book so much:

But how to categorize this elderly gentleman who keeps asking me to give him the password for his own email. I try to explain that it is not possible for me to know this, that only he knows this, but he just shakes his head in that indignant way that means, What kind of help desk is this?

And:

The problem with assortative mating, she said, is that it feels perfectly correct when you do it. Like a key fitting into a lock and opening a door. The question being: Is this really the room you want to spend your life in?

And:

I kiss Eli’s head, trying to undo the rush. Why didn’t I have more kids so I could have more chances?

And:

Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?

Old person worry: What if everything I do does?

And:

There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.

And:

Don’t use antibacterial soap! Catherine told me, because lalalalalalalala.

And:

I’m like a woman carrying a full cup into a room of strangers, trying not to spill it.

And:

A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”

I think, ultimately, that she reminds us we are in charge of our own thoughts, our own outcomes. Here is one last passage:

A man is having terrible dreams. In them, he is being chase by a demon. He seeks counsel from a therapist, who tells him he must turn around and confront the demon or he will never escape it. He vows to do this, but each night in his dreams, he runs again. Finally, he manages to turn around and look straight at the demon. “Why are you chasing me?” He asks it. The demon says, “I don’t know. It’s your dream.”

The Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation

When I started reading this book, I thought she was neurotic. Now I understand that she is just blatantly honest, this mother, this wife, who tells us her story in bits and snippets as though we were reading her journal. Or, her mind.

They may seem disconnected, these stream of consciousness thoughts, but they are interwoven with quotes from poets and scientists, reporters and explorers, priests and Zen masters, to reveal a disconcerting vulnerability. I found my attention captured by this woman who begins by telling us the love she feels for her newly born daughter:

“The baby’s eye were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”

and:

“My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn’t know them.”

But then she segues into marriage, into the abyss of an affair she discovers her husband is having.

“There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinement dropping a button on the floor then trying to find it again in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have a button. In all other respects, my nights are the same.”

and:

But my agent has a theory. She says every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string.

So now this woman at the playground is telling me about how her husband rifles through her purse for receipts. If he finds one for the wrong kind of ATM, he posts it on the refrigerator, highlighted in red. She shrugs. “he can’t help it.”

What exactly am I waiting for her to say? That she married a fool? That her house is built on ashes? And here I am, the lucky one for once. Such blinding good fortune to have married him.

The wives have requirements too, of course. What they require is this: Unswerving obedience. Loyalty unto death. My husband sits in our kitchen and hand-sews a book. I hope that when it goes through the post office no machine will touch it.

and:

She remembers the first night she knew she loved him, the way the fear came rushing in. She laid her head on his chest and listened to his heart. One day this too will stop, she thought. The no, no, no of it. Why would you ruin my best thing?

and:

They used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.

and:

The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact).

and:

What Rilke said: I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.

They whisper-fight, now. They hash out their issues in the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings. There seems to be no solution.

There are two women who are furious at him. To make one happy, he must take the subway across town and arrive on her doorstep. To make the other happy, he must wear for some infinitely long period of time a hair shirt woven out of her own hair.

Her writing is segmented enough to be fascinating, connected enough to be brilliant.

But, if it was me? The minute my love wants someone else, he is free to go. I would never, ever, make a place for him to stay, let alone demand it.