Tag Archives: reading room

Books I read in 2016

Reading is my favorite luxury. That feeling of being transported while under a big blanket on your couch. I have this epic ability to tune everything out when I read (a talent which, if you are in my family, you don’t love). I always feel a little lost when I’m between books.


I’m so thankful to be part of a ladies book club that meets every 6 weeks or so, a commitment to myself and to my friends to share thoughts and let the wine (and pizza) and conversation flow. I missed our last meeting and it feels like I’m a sailor who passed by a welcoming harbor without stopping.

If you’re looking for a book to pick up, here’s a recap of most of the books I read this year – I’m sure I am forgetting a few!


I just finished Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi and it was a terrifically “now” (although kind of pre-Trump “now”) take on race in America that also managed to feel like hanging out with a Nigerian-born college best friend and seeing the world from a different lens.

Over Thanksgiving and my grandpa’s funeral, I read “We are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas. It was a story spanning an Irish-American woman’s life from the 1950s through 1990s and it wasn’t uplifting or groundbreaking, but it felt like being witness to a quiet family drama.

In October, I read “Homegoing” by Ya Gyasi, which explores the African slave trade and African American relations in a beautiful voice. I love books that take on multiple perspectives and the connect a whole lineage, and this was a fantastic, personal read that also helps show institutional racism.

Our book club felt the need to rate “The Argonauts” by Maggie Nelson on a different scale, because it felt important and provocative and existed on a more academic plane than most of the other novels we read. If you want to delve into some feminist theory and gender studies type of reading and gain a better understanding of “trans” people and relationships, it’s a book that captures that in personal and current way.

I likened “The Girls” by Emma Cline as eating a sour candy. It’s smoothly composed but has a sour, wicked plot. It’s one of the hot novels of the year and follows a teenager who gets swept into a Manson-like cult.

Devoured “Tuesday Nights in 1980” by Molly Prentiss. It’s bouncing between connected characters and set in New York at the turn of 1980 (at least so far) and big into the art scene at the time.

I loved “How to be a Person in the World,” a collection of Ask Polly advice columns by Heather Havrilesky. I’d press it into the arms of any woman navigating her 20s, who doesn’t mind a lot of eff-bombs.

I picked up Dear Mr. You” by Mary Louise Parker, in Cambridge and remember relishing it and the bliss of a kid-free Boston getaway. The actress presents a memoir in letters, it was one of those books that’s easy to breeze through, but you really want to savor.

I don’t think I got through all of them before my library loan expired, but I was captivated by the short stories in ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women,’ by Lucia Berlin. The NYT calls her stories “careworn, haunted, messily alluring and yet casually droll.” Spot on.

P.S. Lazy girl’s guide to east reading: Download the Overdrive app and you can rent e-books from your library from your bed. I’ll always prefer the real thing, but sometimes you need a quick/free fix. 


P.P.S. Next up is “Swingtime” by Zadie Smith. Anyone have a copy I can borrow? I should probably buy it because I loved “White Teeth” and Zadie Smith, in general!

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Reading Room: The Blue Jay’s Dance

I started the book yesterday, parked in the grocery store lot, waiting for Emmett to wake from his nap. I read it last night and then in stolen moments this morning, finished at lunchtime, wiped the tears from my face and immediately hopped on my bike, pedaling to go press it into the hands of my dear friend who is expecting her second baby in late December.


Cara sent me The Blue Jay’s Dance months ago as part of a care package from California. The cover is a lot bit 1992, and it didn’t scream READ ME, NOW — so it sat on a side table until what was apparently just the right time.

This was a gorgeous, richly worded essay for me to appreciate at a moment my baby is growing into a toddler, when I can see that birth year from a close distance. Louise Erdrich is my mother’s age, but with this book she is my sister. She and I share “mother-writers,” a heritage of the Brontes and Virginia Woolf and Joan Dideon, the same primal need for long, rambling walks in the woods and to feel deeply, inviting in a profound sadness and longing alongside the joy.

(For those of you who share my canon, The Blue Jay’s Dance felt like Great with Child, that fantastic book of letters to a young mother that my friends all passed around when we were pregnant, mixed with the natural/spiritual existentialism of Annie Dillard, mixed with the frankness and humor of Anne Lamott.)

Erdrich lives the writing life, introspective, and reflects herself back so honestly to us that I see myself in her words. The book is divided into seasons, and within each season snippets of life on the acreage, with her family, the flowers, pets and wildlife, and alone with her thoughts, and even a few recipes — meals that punctuated that birth year for her. Erdrich’s lyrical prose:

“I see myself frozen in a clutch of mothers, a flock, a panic of mothers…In talking to other women over the years, I begin to absorb them somehow, as if we’re all preamble…Mothering is a subtle art whose rhythm we collect and learn, as much from one another as from instinct. Women without children are also the best of mothers, often, with the patience, the interest, and saving grace that the constant relationship with children cannot always sustain. A child is fortunate who feels witnessed as a person, outside relationships with parents, by another adult.”

I urge other expectant and new moms to fill their shelves not just with baby and toddler-rearing instructional manuals but with works like these to nurture the soul.


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As it happens

I was going to tell you about my day last Thursday, about how — after the funeral for Joe’s grandmother, I took the train from East Chicago into the city to take the bus back to Des Moines, and had a few hours alone.

How wonderful it was to walk past the Art Institute of Chicago, one of my most favorite places, and wander into the Lurie Garden and dip my feet into the shallow urban creek and read a few chapters of a book in solitude. The sound of jazz in the distance. The scent of midsummer blooms with names like ‘purple lance astilbe’ and ‘white dragon knotweed’ and ‘queen of the prairie’ transcending the Chicago’s smells. The view of the Lake and sailboats bright blue and white, just like the clouds. The skyline and street-level architecture familiar to me. The energy of the city streaming in through my smile. I drank it in.


But really, sometimes it’s just relishing the aloneness. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of event-planning and logistics, and quiet time by myself allows me to recharge so I feel like I have the mental capacity to get. it. done. Also, I think we readers are never alone, and never get annoyed by waiting when we have our books.

(On the ride out, we listened to The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime on CD. Personally, I’ve finally discovered Joan Didion and am ob-sessed, although I sometimes have to read a sentence three times and I really have zero knowledge of the politics of Latin America. This week, I finally tore through Someone Could Get Hurt and did a lot of out-loud laugh-snorting.)

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A friend’s memoir

My friend Josh recently had his memoir, “Down from the Mountaintop,” published by the University of Iowa Press. I haven’t read it yet, but he’s an incredibly thoughtful and talented writer, so I’m sure it is excellent.


(The book is on sale for $10 through April 15 with the promo code IAAWP2014.)

The blurb:

A lyrical coming-of-age memoir, Down from the Mountaintop chronicles a quest for belonging. Raised in northwestern Montana by Pentecostal homesteaders whose twenty-year experiment in subsistence living was closely tied to their faith, Joshua Doležal experienced a childhood marked equally by his parents’ quest for spiritual transcendence and the surrounding Rocky Mountain landscape. Unable to fully embrace the fundamentalism of his parents, he began to search for religious experience elsewhere: in baseball, books, and weightlifting, then later in migrations to Tennessee, Nebraska, and Uruguay. Yet even as he sought to understand his place in the world, he continued to yearn for his mountain home.

For more than a decade, Doležal taught in the Midwest throughout the school year but returned to Montana and Idaho in the summers to work as a firefighter and wilderness ranger. He reveled in the life of the body and the purifying effects of isolation and nature, believing he had found transcendence. Yet his summers tied him even more to the mountain landscape, fueling his sense of exile on the plains.

It took falling in love, marrying, and starting a family in Iowa to allow Doležal to fully examine his desire for a spiritual mountaintop from which to view the world. In doing so, he undergoes a fundamental redefinition of the nature of home and belonging. He learns to accept the plains on their own terms, moving from condemnation to acceptance and from isolation to community. Coming down from the mountaintop means opening himself to relationships, grounding himself as a husband, father, and gardener who learns that where things grow, the grower also takes root.

Congratulations, Josh!

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When summer serves up kind of a sour lemonade, it helps to have some distractions — like big bowls of chocolate cherry ice cream, a sewing project for a lovely friend that takes over the dining room table —  and a visit from your mom.

I’m getting more confident in my quilting and learning to embrace the imperfections. I remember my grandpa always saying that we leave some lumps in the mashed potatoes so people know they’re homemade. It’s a lesson that extends outside the kitchen for me.


My mom and I used to watch a lot of Gilmore Girls together (I’ve referenced the fact that Rory moved to Iowa to cover the Obama campaign at the same time I moved here, thus cementing the fact that we are spirit sisters). A couple of days ago, Nicole from Making it Lovely linked to this post of Rory’s reading list from the show.

I’ve read 34.5 of them (I got halfway through The Master and Margarita for book club a few years ago), but it’s a long list and I think I’ll have to reference it next time I’m looking for a book to check out.

That sweet book girl print from The Black Apple was one of the first things I got for my single-20something-in-Des-Moines apartment in Waterbury. This one is cute, too.


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Book pusher

I realized something tonight. I’m a book pusher. Instead of doling uppers or downers or herbals out of plastic baggies, I give people books.

“Oh, you’re going through that, or into this, or taking a trip there? Here’s _____. You absolutely have to read this right now because it’s fabulous and will change your life.”

I went home feeling awful Friday afternoon and was thankful to wake up to a rainy evening to stay home and read “The Borrower,” by Rebecca Makkai.

If Makkai isn’t the same kind of pusher I am (and she has to be, given all of the literary references), then the book’s narrator most certainly is. Lucy, a librarian in Hannibal, Mo. grew up in Chicago, reading the children’s lit I read. (I loved “The Egypt Game.”) I imagine Lucy the librarian was in “Battle of the Books” as a kid. “The Borrower” centers around a sort of kidnapping of her precocious patron, and it’s a story of fleeing and identity and the experiences (real and literary) that shape us.

I remember the first day I got my library card — how I stood proudly to have my picture taken under the fake tree on the children’s floor. I remember learning to read before kindergarten, and going to the library most days after school, and how cool I felt to be invited in the back desk area of the librarians on weekends when my family would stop in. I helped out putting on puppet shows, and in eighth grade wrote a seriously depressing novella that was hardbound and able to be checked out. I think I saw more of the library’s pet gerbils than my own peers. (File under: Reasons Brianne is kind of strange.) There were no good hilly wooded parks in Lisle, so I will confess that the library parking lot was a very PG-rated alternative to “inspiration point” in high school. The fact that the parking lot bordered the priests’ house kept things in check. Ha!

I never go back to the library when I’m home visiting my family, because I think it would be the hardest to realize how small it really is. I like to keep it exactly as I remember it from growing up. And, truthfully, if I were to go in one day and not have all of the librarians know me by name, and invite me back into their secret staff area, I might actually cry.

If you, too, considered the library a second-home and perhaps used to amuse yourself creating book checkout systems in your room by yourself as a kid, you should definitely read it. Then tell me if it also made you want to listen to Regina Spektor again for the first time in awhile.


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Not exactly beach books

With the long Memorial Day weekend coming up, I thought I’d share some books I picked up recently.

What’s on your summer reading list? Aren’t those printable bookmarks (by Nicole’s Classes) hot? Via How About Orange.

I’m almost finished with GirlChild, which is a hard one to explain. Most of the chapters are super short, and it reads almost like a diary of an extremely precocious girl growing up in a seedy trailer park. The writing is compelling, but it’s not your typical novel-style narrative. That probable makes no sense.

These aren’t exactly beach books (note the absence of chick lit/thrillers), but I geeked out a little bit the other day when I accidentally locked myself out at work and had to go over to the University library to work remotely until someone could let me back in:

This is what happens when I get locked out.

I’ve been wanting to read both of the nonfiction books (right and left sides) for awhile, and then “The Borrower” just kind of jumped out at me.

Then I purchased these from the amazing $2 clearance shelf at Half Price Books:

“Changing My Mind,” by Zadie Smith
Part of my senior English thesis was inspired by her book, “White Teeth.”

“O, Pioneers!” by Willa Cather
A friend studies her work and I finally read “My Antonia” last summer at the farm and thought it was gorgeous

“The History of Love,” by Nicole Krauss
I already read/own a copy of this book, but it is so amazing that I wanted to have an extra so I wouldn’t hesitate giving it away! I can’t bring them all to the beach, though…Am I too old to pack a yellow sand pail? Seriously wishing I still had those red sunglasses.

If you’re in the Iowa NoCoast, consider a jaunt down to Lake Ahquabi State Park in Indianola to read in a canoe. We love to rent boats down there!

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Quiet lately

Compared to the hustle of last week, last weekend wound things down.

Reading: The Buddha in the Attic, which is more a gorgeous lyrical long poem than a novella. (Recommended by my local bookseller, Alice.) It’s lovely. The writing is delicate and strong at the same time – like a spider web of words.

Recovering: The Drake Relays 1/2 marathon was this past weekend. I survived, then moved about the house on Saturday after the race with minimal bending of my knees. I am officially an old lady. Joe and I watched Beginners after the race and lots of episodes of United States of Tara on Netflix instant. I was grateful to be pretty much immobilized.

Admiring: Joe’s handiwork laying down the new patio path. He’s the kind of guy who plans and measures. I played in the garden planting our seedlings in the rain and all of my clothes are still in a big muddy pile at the back door.

Stitching: A project that I don’t have a pattern for. Just an idea, some fabric and needle and thread. I’m really hoping it comes together because I love the print and I’m attached to the vision. It’s going to be a present. I hope it turns out!

I love a quiet weekend at home.

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A baseball book

I finished “The Art of Fielding” on the flight home and had to let you all know, because it’s the first book in awhile that exceeded my expectations. Fielding is a debut novel that I wanted to read for book club (“The Marriage Plot” won, which was only meh) and that had a lot of buzz when it was first published. (Buzz has not equated with awesomeness in the last several much-fussed-over books I’ve read.) I bought it for the iPad, but I’m totally going to get a hard copy, too, because the script on the cover is so lovely, and because it’s one I’d like to be able to loan out to people.

I’m not a big baseball fan, but although the sport serves as the framework for the book, it’s not about baseball as much as it is exploring the idea of perfection, legacy and finding purpose. The writing was so good it made me want to go back and read passages over again just to roll them around in my brain, like when you taste something really delicious and want to relish it on your tongue.

There where no whys in a person’s life, and very few hows. In the end, in search of useful wisdom, you could only come back to the most hackneyed concepts, like kindness, forbearance, infinite patience. Solomon and Lincoln: This too shall pass. Damn right it will. Or Chekhov: Nothing passes. Equally true.

If you’re looking for a quality book, check it out. I’d have given this a 9 out of 10 at our book club rating session.

Also, this is only semi-related, but for longform journalism, I’ve really been digging the site Grantland lately. It’s a sports site, so again, this is weird for me, but they have some fantastic writers and connect the pieces to larger life themes a lot of times, so it’s more context than pure stats, if that makes sense.

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Reading list, etc.

We hosted book club at our house tonight and it was nice enough out to bust out the fire pit for a rip-roaring discussion about diplomacy, sleeping around in 1930s Berlin and the essence of human nature, thanks to Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts.” (Larson will be in town this May for a free discussion as part of the DMPL AViD series.) Most of our group are big fans of “Devil in the White City,” but this book only garnered middling reviews. It’s interesting to learn about the leadup to World War II, but the consensus here was that the book is more of a slow burn that never really gets to a boiling point. Also, we were divided on whether it made us more or less likely to want to keep a detailed journal. Another of our nonfiction picks we thought would have been better as a long magazine article. (Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.)

In addition to a bonfire and braunschweiger (gross), Joe made these delish German Chocolate Macaroons from a recipe in a back issue of Cuisine at Home.

German Chocolate Macaroons

I know it’s a shameless plug for the husband, but I must say that this spring’s “Fresh and Fabulous,” which should be out soon, is pretty awesome. Joe re-creates a lot of the recipes they’re working on and I was a big fan of everything he made.

Anyhow, back to the books. In our typical caucus decision fashion, we chose “Girlchild,” by Tupelo Hassman. I’m going to give you the synopsis, and you’re going to think I suggested this book, but it was really Joe! It was up against Hemingway, which I voted for because I’ve honestly never read any Hemingway and that seems wrong. But I do think I’ll love this book. I’m just a little nervous to discuss it because I think I’ll reeeaally love it and I expect a divided opinion.

Rory Hendrix is the least likely of Girl Scouts. She hasn’t got a troop or even a badge to call her own. But she’s checked the Handbook out from the elementary school library so many times that her name fills all the lines on the card, and she pores over its surreal advice (Uniforms, disposing of outgrown; The Right Use of Your Body; Finding Your Way When Lost) for tips to get off the Calle: that is, the Calle de las Flores, the Reno trailer park where she lives with her mother, Jo, the sweet-faced, hard-luck bartender at the Truck Stop.

Rory’s been told that she is one of the “third-generation bastards surely on the road to whoredom.” But she’s determined to prove the county and her own family wrong. Brash, sassy, vulnerable, wise, and terrified, she struggles with her mother’s habit of trusting the wrong men, and the mixed blessing of being too smart for her own good. From diary entries, social workers’ reports, half-recalled memories, arrest records, family lore, Supreme Court opinions, and her grandmother’s letters, Rory crafts a devastating collage that shows us her world even as she searches for the way out of it.

Synopsis via IndieBound.

I know. A main character with the name Rory AND Girl Scout references?

In other Des Moines Arts and Culture news, the next Civic Center season is going to be amazing. As soon as I got the announcement in my inbox, I forwarded it to my mom:

This amazing season, plus cheap flights starting this fall between Chicago and DSM? Who else can I lure here?


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