Books I read in 2017

After becoming a mother, even more than reclaiming my body, I have longed to get back into my reading groove. The past few months, it’s definitely felt like that’s started to happen and I’m feeling more at home in myself than I have for a long time.

Maybe it’s the fact that my kids are finally at a point where they can play semi-independently. I feel much better about lounging on the couch with a book than I do scrolling through my phone while they fight over magnets.

Last month when Joe was out of town for the week and I was solo parenting, I actually took a half vacation day to finish a book club book while getting a pedicure and drinking coffee. It was glorious. Self-care, for me, is making room to read.

Getting an alumni card to the Drake University library has also been a game-changer. They have all of the new literary fiction out in a special “leisure reading” section and it seems like the college students are too slammed with studying to check anything out. Plus, it’s open super late and just down the street, so it’s super easy to bike or walk over.

My book club also continues to be a source of joy and sisterly connection. Even if we don’t love, love the book, the meeting is something I always look forward to because those women are the most genuine, funny, smart – I could go on.

Following my ‘Books I read in 2016‘ list, I thought I’d make one for this year!

Brianne’s books of 2017

This year, I tried to focus more on works from voices that are typically more marginalized. I’m probably forgetting a few that I read, too.

Book Club kicked off 2017 with “Swing Time by Zadie Smith. I think we collectively didn’t love the plot, but did love some of the snippets because Zadie Smith.

Then we read Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, which was fantastic but also kicked a bunch of young moms in the ribs repeatedly because it follows two women dealing with infertility and adoption and immigration and deportation. It’s fictional, but it’s also very real.

I listened to “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid which is a great book to experience in audio form. I had a free trial of scribd, a reading subscription service. I got it out of the library for Joe later, too. It’s a magical realist take on mass-migration and is quick and compelling.

I breezed through Maria Semple’s “Today Will Be Different” which is a comedy that packs some existential punches, too. (This didn’t really adhere to my marginalized voices goal, and I read it on my phone.)

Over my birthday week, I dove into  “Commonwealth” by Ann Pachett, who is one of my favorite authors.  Reading her books is like knitting with a luxurious, expensive wool that makes you want to pull our your stitches just so you can feel it roll around in your fingers a little longer.

I read “The Mothers,” by Britt Bennett, which was a good story and I cared about the characters when I was reading it, but didn’t stick with me like some of the others I read this year.

On vacation, I read “The Hate You Give,” by Angie Thomas. It’s technically a YA book, but a powerful Black Lives Matter coming of age story.

I also read “Do Not Become Alarmed” by Maile Maloy, which I think I liked much more than anyone else in book club. It’s a harrowing story, though (fictional) about a family vacation gone terribly wrong, so maybe I was just in the mindset. I liked her description of parenthood.

Trials of the Earth,” a recently re-issued memoir of pioneer woman Mary Mann Hamilton. I remember reading Little House in the Big Woods the firs time and being freaked out by the girls blowing up pig intestines to play with. Well, adult me was losing my mind at the matter-of-fact recounting of so much hardship and death Mary experienced.

I cried through “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders. It was haunting and beautiful and disorienting. I loved it even when I really didn’t like it.

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss, was a book club pick. We all loved her book “The History of Love” but this one wasn’t universally appreciated by the squad. It’s a divorce book and the Kafka and Israel references were outside of my scope of familiarity. There were some really beautiful passages, though.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong was such a quick, warm read. It’s about a breakup and Alzheimer’s and I’m pretty sure I read it in one sitting. It starts out around Christmas and would be a good one to pack on a family trip.

I read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan because book club was super pumped to pick her new book “Manhattan Beach” for December’s club and that wasn’t available at the library yet. I had to check the publish date (2010) because it felt both really current and slightly dated. I liked it a lot although I didn’t attach as much to the characters as I think I was supposed to. Maybe I read it too quickly?

All the Missing Girls” by Megan Miranda was a page-turner/thriller/bestseller. If you liked Gone Girl, you’ll probably like this. (I stayed up really late over Thanksgiving to finish it while everyone was sleeping!)

You’ll Grow Out of It” by Jessi Klein had me laughing out loud. Her confessional essays about taking baths and Anthropologie were so spot-on. I thought the first half of the book was better than the second, but it was a quick read. She has this great section about realizing there are two main types of women: wolves & poodles (based on their innate femininity) and I was like YES! I’ve always felt like a ‘wolf’ and her description is so perfect and hilarious.

Here’s my book stack that’s due Jan. 7:

I think I’ll let Joe read the Sedaris and I started “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward tonight. (I heard “Made for Love” was totally crazy but good.) It’s a little ambitious, but I have 12 days off around the holidays, and lots of miles to travel, so I’m hoping to make it through most.

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What I’m into: October 2017

Drinking a cup of coffee right before putting the kids to bed (or, rather, letting one’s husband put the kids to bed because he’s going to be at a work thing the following night) is a totally good idea, right? Checking in on the old blog to get myself focused for an evening of productivity.

Reading

I got an alumni library card for the Drake University Cowles Library (thanks, MPA degree!) and it is so awesome. College students don’t read for fun, and so their selection is well-stocked. Plus, it’s a quick bike ride from my house.

Leave it to “Trials of the Earth,” a recently re-issued memoir of pioneer woman Mary Mann Hamilton, to give me a little perspective in life. I’ve always been drawn to pioneer stories (team Laura Ingalls Wilder forever) but this is such a blunt, raw, moving account. Pioneer life was hard work, and as this NPR review puts it :

Beyond everything else, this memoir impresses on readers just how easy it was to vanish in an earlier America. Fevers and accidents carry off loved ones, sometimes in a matter of hours; in other instances, it’s simply the promise of a better life in the next county that lures Hamilton’s friends and relatives away, never to be seen again.

I also skimmed “The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated” on our trip back to Chicago for a wedding. It breaks things down into 10 pretty simple rules. We’re doing most of the things listed, but I’m hoping to be much more proactive/knowledgeable about our finances and there were some chapters that covered new ground for me. It’s also funny and approachable, if you’re looking for smart advice in this department.

Cooking

Our veggie drawer hath overfloweth this fall, between our own little garden, produce from neighbors and a half share of the Blue Gate Farm CSA. I just defrosted some grated zucchini from last month and made up another batch of Smitten Kitchen zucchini fritters tonight. So. Good.

You seriously can’t go wrong with any of Deb’s recipes (and I’m not a huge cook) so I got Joe a copy of her new cookbook for his birthday, with the promise I’d make him whatever he wanted from it.

Exploring

I post kind of a lot about places we visit as a family, and I have been loving the blog Des Moines Outdoor Fun since discovering Stephanie via Instagram. She seems like a total kindred spirit. We checked out Margo Frankel State Park on Sunday morning (north Des Moines – almost Ankeny) after seeing one of her posts, and it was a great little spot to spend a couple of hours with the kids.

I also recently joined the Polk County Conservation Advisory Board (don’t be too impressed, I basically just e-mailed to ask to be on it!) and attended my first meeting out at Yellow Banks State Park (Runnells/Pleasant Hill area).

It was neat to see a new-to-me nature spot, and we got a sneak peek at some plans for cabins there, and saw how the little lake had been re-done. There’s a backpacking camp area just an eighth of a mile from the parking lot/dock, so I think we might be able to try that out with the kiddos next summer.

Dressing up with my husband

Joe and I got fancy for a reception in Chicago at Lacuna Lofts, where my little brother will have his wedding next fall. It’s a funky site with a great view of the skyline. I’m so excited for him! I get to be a groomswoman.

We brainstormed our Halloween costumes on the way home and decided to go as protected bike lanes and the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge!

I used to love coming up with the Iowa/Des Moines themed costumes when I worked for the YP weekly, and it felt good to get creative, even if it was kind of last minute.

I can’t believe tomorrow is November! Even though this year has been generally awful (in my opinion) on a macro scale, and I’ve had my first panic attack about the state of the globe, I am so, so thankful for my family, my community and the happiness in my life.

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Eileen is Two

Miss Eileen turns two today!

It’s sort of an end of an era for us, because it was her last day at Ellen’s house for daycare. She will start school with Emmett on Monday. Of course, I wrote a little thing about it for the Des Moines Moms blog. 

Eileen lives life loud and at full speed. She loves on her baby dolls and is getting a hang of her Strider bike. She puts Wilbur in his place — and me, too! When she feels beautiful, she says “Mom, take a pic-cha!” Of course, I do. She and Emmett are already sharing a bunk bed and are best buds most of the time. Her birthday present was a plush bison purse, naturally.

P.S. I love looking back on Eileen’s birth story on her birthday. It feels so surreal to think that two years ago, this is what I was doing on this day!

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Fall things

My mom and aunt came to town this weekend and we made our annual pumpkin patch pilgrimage to Howell’s in Cumming. It just gets more fun every year. The patch tradition feels like the best marker of time for me as my kids grow.

We first took Emmett to Howell’s when he was just four months old, dressed in a pumpkin suit to keep his abdominal stitches protected (!!!) and then took Eileen when she was like a week old or something with just her pumpkin-hat clad head peeking out of the carrier (!!!) because I’m an insane person for a gourd photo opp. This year, I dressed her in an outfit my mom brought back from Germany and that I wore as a toddler.

We remembered to pack a lunch this time. Lately I’ve been making little ham sandwiches on those Hawaiian bread buns for kid picnics. They’re the perfect size.  Since nobody needed a morning nap, we were able to spend about three and a half hours exploring – feeding goats, jumping on bounce pillows, shooting corn cobs out of cannons, etc.

Joe and his brothers-in-law biked the Hennepin Canal  in Illinois this weekend, so we also met up with cousins at Walker-Johnson Park in Urbandale. I’m late to the game but that park is super awesome. After going to 31 Des Moines parks in July, I was blown away by this massive complex and how many different play areas there are.

It would be easy to spend hours here, and it’s connected by trail to the Urbandale library. Plus, it’s just down the street from Aldi, so I swung by on the way home and picked up cheap wine & crackers for a low-key post-playground, pre-dinner snack for the grown ups.

I love a crisp fall day but I’m also embracing the rainy days we’ve had. Our book club just discussed George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which was a challenging read but moving. (I ugly cried over poor, dead Willie Lincoln more than I ever imagined I could.) Our next pick is Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss, which just came out last month. Her book “The History of Love” is in my all-time top 3 favorites, so I’m excited to curl up with this one.

I’m also hoping to get sewing again. I want to make some little doll dresses for Eileen’s 50 cent babydoll that we got at a Goodwill. She’s obsessed with Baby Addie and turns two next week! I’m not sure where she gets her mama instincts, but I do know from whom she inherited her bossy streak.

I feel like I’ve missed blogging and crafting and I’m not sure what I’ve been doing with my evenings, but I have been walking/podcasting more (are you listening to Death, Sex & Money?) and cooking and doing  youtube yoga.

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Codfish Hollow or bust

We basically time traveled last weekend and had 24 sweet, sweet hours that felt way more 2007 than 2017.

When I heard Nathaniel Rateliff was playing a barnstormer concert in Iowa, I had this pang of I’m-so-not-in-my-20s-anymore longing. I’d caught a few barnstormers shows”back in the day,” but honestly concertgoing has, for the most part, been a casualty of parenthood.

I mentioned the show to Joe and told him I really wanted to go, but didn’t want to deal with the logistics of figuring out how to make an overnight trip to Codfish Hollow in Maquoketa work. Turns out, tickets sold out in 30 seconds, but my awesome husband scored a pair, plus overnight babysitting. The show was actually part of a larger GARP music fest which is put on by the guy behind the indie music site Daytrotter, and for a day it was like being able to teleport to our pre-parenthood life.

We left Des Moines a little before noon on Saturday and took our time heading East, with a stop at the Daly Creek Winery & Bistro in Anamosa for a late lunch and little wine tasting. (We are Iowa Public Radio sustaining members and the bistro offers a 2-for-1 deal as part of the member card.)

After lunching on the patio we drove past the state penitentiary, which is quite something. Our route took us along the Grant Wood scenic byway (this is where the artist who painted American Gothic grew up) and for a quick visit to Maquoketa Caves State Park for drive-thru spelunking. (We will return in a few years when the kids are older and we have proper attire.)

We made another nature pit stop at the Hurstville Interpretive Center which has some neat conservation displays.

Codfish Hollow is essentially a farm off a gravel road that transforms into a polite mini Woodstock. We parked in what was recently a cow pasture (there was ample evidence of its typical residents) and tailgated a bit before heading down to the venue area. Joe was pumped about the idea of sleeping in our van (#vanlife but not really because we’re just parents trying to pretend we’re cool for a night) so we folded down the seats and blew up an air mattress and it was actually pretty great to not have to break a camp in the morning.

To get down from the pasture to the barns, you can walk or take a hay rack ride driven by an older farmer named Marv.

Oh, the tractor ride, the barn surrounded by sunflowers, the music and food trucks and dilapidated buildings housing pop-up art shows… I was basically crying with happiness because the spirit of the day exemplified everything I’ve come to love about Iowa. Also, by this point I’d had several margaritas.

We explored the grounds and listened to some bands outside on a blanket under a starry sky. Nahaniel Rateliff didn’t take the stage until 10:45 p.m., but it was a totally energized show. Joe and I danced and had these goofy grins on our faces the whole time.

If you have a chance to see a show at Codfish Hollow, plan to make a weekend of it. We brushed our teeth in a Casey’s bathroom, crashed a fireman’s benefit breakfast in the tiny town on Wyoming, Iowa on our drive home and pulled into Des Moines just as our hipstermobile turned back into a carseat-toting family minivan.

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First Family Vacation: Wyoming Road Trip

I wanted to get into the mountains this summer, but tackling the Tetons with toddlers seemed daunting. We’d heard great things about Medicine Bow National Forest and the Snowy Mountain Range (just a 10 hour drive from Des Moines, Iowa) and made southeastern Wyoming our destination for our first summer adventure vacation as a little family.

It turned out to be a wonderful trip to take with a 4 and not-quite-2-year old, capped off with a stop to view the total eclipse in Nebraska on our return. The highlights for me were our outdoor experiences (short hikes but big views), but there was really some fun family bonding, too. Eileen is in that parrot stage of learning speech, and she and Emmett played well together.

Tto be honest, those giddy moments – like getting to eat Fruit Loops, swim in a hotel pool and extra cuddles – are probably the memories of the trip for the kids.

The drive 

We loaded up on DVDs and books at the library, filled a giant tote with snacks and stayed at Joe’s parents in Council Bluffs to shorten our first big driving day to 8 hours. The drive from CB to Centennial took about 12 hours, total, with long stops at the Archway Museum in Kearney, NE (which totally made me grateful I was making the trek in our Chrysler Town & Country versus a covered wagon) and in Cheyenne, WY for dinner.

Where we stayed 

The first two nights, we stayed in an Airbnb-style little log cabin at J4Brehm’s Ranch, just outside of Centennial, WY. It was absolutely perfect for our family, and we wished we’d been able to reserve it through the weekend.

The cabin is listed as sleeping 6, which might be tight, but felt roomy for our two adults and two littles. The kids loved climbing up to the loft to horse around during the day, and it was nice to have a little kitchen and separate sleeping and living area.

The first morning, three of the horses came up to the fenceline just beyond our cabin and we got to pet them and see some of the other livestock on the other side of the ranch. The second night, Joe and I set up the baby monitor and had a mini date in the cabin’s private hot tub after the kids fell asleep. The sky was huge and the Milky Way was aglow. (They also have more primitive cabins for 4 and a cabin that sleeps 12 in some big lofts. I could see returning with cousins to take over the big cabin.)

We stayed in Laramie the other two nights, and then overnighted in Grand Island, NE, after the eclipse.

Where we hiked

Out first day, we drove the Snowy Range Scenic Byway and hopped out at Libby Flats, an observation tower that provides 360 degree mountain views, took a mini hike at Lake Marie, visited the natural hot springs in Saratoga and then returned for some hammock time at Lake Marie, which was totally dreamy.

Our second day, we headed to the Lewis Lake Trail Head (per some suggestions) to see if we could summit Medicine Bow Peak as a family. We borrowed an amazing Osprey hiking backpack from friends and it was easy to take Eileen along.

It got pretty windy and the rock scrambling became precarious right around lunchtime, so we didn’t get up to the tippy top. But I was really proud of how far Emmett climbed and we got in some incredible views. The glacial lakes that dot the landscape are stunning.

The morning after our first night in Laramie, we drove east about 20 minutes to Vedawoo National Forest, which has breathtaking rock formations.

The kids were not feeling hardcore hiking, but we did explore the simple trails just off the parking lot had incredible scenery. I’d love to camp here some day.

What we ate

We stopped for dinner in Cheyenne and wished we’d discovered the Accomplice Beer Company brewpub before we’d eaten. They have a full menu, but we just had a beer flight from their cool serve-yourself station. It’s in the old depot and the patio is right along the train yard.

My friend Chelsea goes to Centennial every year to visit family, and she recommended breakfast at Mountain View Hotel, which did not disappoint. I had a lovely omelette and latte (they roast their own coffee) and it was so filling we mostly just snacked for lunch, and then hit Bear Tree Tavern & Cafe for pizza and beers on our way back down from the mountains.

Another friend who lived in Laramie suggested Sweet Melissa Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant which was a funky and delicious lunch stop. We also picked up some provisions from the downtown co-op and had local brews and desserts at Coal Creek Tap, and dessert from Big Dipper Ice Cream Shop.

Total Eclipse 

We gave ourselves two days to drive home, and it just so happened that our return route took us through the path of totality for the solar eclipse. We got up at 3 a.m. to arrive just in time to watch from the Stuhr Museum, which showcases prairie pioneer life with a museum and living history village.

All in all, the trip was without any major meltdowns or mishaps! This felt like a family milestone, for sure. I think we did just the right amount of planning ahead but allowing for wiggle room, and it was fun to collaborate with Joe and creating a memorable adventure for us all.

If you’re in Iowa and looking for a kind of “training wheels” mountain adventure with small kids, I highly recommend Medicine Bow. It was a budget-friendly trip, and my guess is it’s also far less crowded than the Colorado Rockies and other National Parks at this time of year, too.

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Wyo inspo 

We took our first family vacation (road trip!) to Wyoming this week. Trip recap soon, but here are a few snaps of spots that inspired me. I’m exhausted/envigorated, if that makes sense? 


Gladiola flowers were everywhere! I think I will plant some in our parkway to remind me of this trip. 


Laramie – or “Laradise” – as the locals call it, had a fun mural project and I made Joe stop for more than a few wall photos. I love how murals are popping up more and more in Des Moines, too! 

Bonus of a road trip: Reading time! I finished “The Hate You Give” (a fictional take on #blacklivesmatter) and should polish off “Do Not Become Alarmed” by the time we pull into the driveway. Joe snagged “Lincoln in the Bardo” but I have dibs on next read.

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