Tuesday, January 3, 2017

best of 2016 | best books

2016 Books and Beverages collage
Follow what I read and chat with me about books on Instagram: @funnelcloudrach | #booksandbeverages

2016 was a great reading year - I read 62 books, explored different genres with the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, joined Goodreads, and enjoyed discussing books with my online book club. The year started off with the creation of the Virtual Book Club with Veronika and Karen. Our first selection was the most boring book I have ever read in my life (H is for Hawk - HOW does this have 4 stars on Amazon?!) and we ripped that book a new one in our online discussion. I had tears of laughter running down my face at each new hilarious comment, and with that, our group was forever bonded in snarkiness. Luckily, every book club pick after that was excellent. (Though honestly, I think we have more fun discussing the bad ones!) In June, we lost Karen to cancer and I also lost some of my mojo for reading (and life). But I did keep reading throughout the year, more consistently than I ever have.

Here's what I read in 2016:

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Snapper by Brian Kimberling
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson
Lumberjanes, Vol. 2: Friendship to the Max by Noelle Stevenson
Wake Up: The Morning Routine That Will Change Your Life by Jeff Finley
Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart by Carrot Quinn
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me by Ellen Forney
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
Slade House by David Mitchell
Tomboy by Liz Prince
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard by John Branch
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Paris: A Love Story by Kati Marton
Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Stitches by David Small
The Martian by Andy Weir
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson
This is the Life by Alex Shearer
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Black River by S.M. Hulse
Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver
300 Days of Sun by Deborah Lawrenson
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Blue Horses by Mary Oliver
The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
The Council of Dads by Bruce Feiler
Miss American Pie by Margaret Sartor
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi
Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelson
Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver
Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt
You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons by Mo Willems
Shelter by Jung Yun
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli
Unbecoming by Jenny Downham
Yes, Please by Amy Poehler (audiobook)
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama (audiobook)
Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall
Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall
The North Water by Ian McGuire
Simpatico by Sam Shepard
Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe (audiobook)

And the breakdown, because I love these types of stats:

Total Number of Books: 62
Fiction: 30
Non-Fiction: 29
Poetry Collections: 3
Graphic Novels: 13
Audiobooks: 3
By Male Authors: 31
By Female Authors: 31

A 50/50 split between fiction/non-fiction and male/female authors! This makes me feel pretty good that I'm reading a wide variety of books.

Favorite Books | Did You Ever Have a Family
                             Americanah
                             Burial Rites
                             The Martian

Larry has always teased me about loving depressing books, and my favorites definitely confirm that. I loved Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family, but the premise is heartbreaking. And Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which is based on a true event (and which I read in preparation for our trip to Iceland last summer), is downright bleak and crushingly sad. On the other hand, Americanah and The Martian aren't sad books, and they definitely lived up to the hype they've gotten over the past few years. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an incredible writer and incredibly smart and I can't wait to read more of her books. And I never ever thought I would read, much less include in my favorites, a book called The Martian (which Larry kept recommending me to me and I kept ignoring), but I must admit I loved it. (And the movie was pretty good, too.) It may not be high-brow literature, but it was pure entertainment and I got thoroughly sucked in and couldn't put it down.

A few other good ones: if you enjoy a thrilling summer page turner, I enjoyed The Kind Worth Killing more than both Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. Station Eleven also lived up to the hype, and I'll admit I was reluctant to read it because I am not at all interested in dystopian books. (Larry enjoyed this one, too.) This is the Life and Essays After Eighty may not be everyone's cup of tea, but they provided thoughtful, humorous, insightful nuggets about life. And The North Water was the most masculine book I've ever read - brutal, gruesome, and perverse. You've been warned! It is savage, bloody, and definitely NOT for everyone, (there are only I few people I would confidently recommend this to, my husband being one of them) but it was also captivating and I couldn't stop turning pages. Another manly book is Black River, a modern western, which was surprisingly written by a woman.

My favorite graphic novel was Tomboy. If you were ever bullied or felt like you didn't fit in as a child, you'll relate to this one - Liz Prince nails it. My favorite audiobook was The Audacity of Hope, which is narrated by Barack Obama himself. I found his voice and his thoughts to be so soothing and reassuring during my post-election depression. I'm hoping to listen to more audiobooks in 2017, now that I've found that I strongly prefer memoirs which are read by the author. Several months ago I got hooked on embroidery and I've found that it's the perfect repetitive/mindless task to work on while listening to a book. I've also surprisingly been enjoying reading poetry - but only Mary Oliver. I find reading a few of her poems (which are mostly about nature or dogs) first thing in the morning is almost meditative and gives me a better outlook on starting my day. I'm still skeptical of other poetry, but Mary Oliver is awesome.

I've been struggling with whether I should set reading goals for 2017. On the one hand, I love setting goals and know that they motivate me to read more, and on the other, I feel that having a goal turns reading for pleasure into an assignment and takes the fun out of an activity that I'm doing for my own enjoyment. I know I want to read a lot, but should I put a number on it? My goal for 2016 was to read 52 books (one book per week) and I was able to exceed that goal, but does setting a number discourage me from reading longer books?  One reason that I was able to read a lot of books this year is because I read some poetry collections and graphic novels which were extremely fast reads. But I have a couple of 1,000 pagers sitting on my shelves that I was never inspired to tackle. I also enjoyed working on the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge in both 2015 and 2016, but both years I came close, but never finished the challenge. The challenges definitely got me to read lots of books that I wouldn't have ordinarily picked up (science fiction, poetry, post-apocalyptic, horror, comics, a play), but does it matter that I didn't complete the challenge? Another goal is to keep working my way though the Pulitzer winners, and yet another is to read more of the books that have been sitting unread on our own shelves. So little time, so many books! What should I do? Part of me wants to set a specific reading goal for 2017, and the other part of me says my reading goal should be to read whatever I want!

I'm curious to hear what others think about reading goals! And if you'd like to join our virtual book club (which I think we should re-name to Snarky Virtual Book Club!), connect with me on Goodreads and I'll send you an invite!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

weekend adventures | tubing the shenandoah

tubing the shenandoah
On the last Saturday in September, we celebrated summer's last hurrah with a tubing trip down the Shenandoah River. I'd been trying to make this excursion happen all summer, but with vacations and crappy weekend weather forecasts, we didn't pull it off until summer's eleventh hour. Actually, it was the third day of fall. But no matter, the weather was perfect and getting out on the river was a great way to extend summer.
tubing the shenandoah
Our friend Bryan is always game for an adventure, and when all of our other friends already had plans for the weekend, the three of us decided we weren't going to miss out on the perfect weather forecast or the chance to squeeze in one last summer activity. We booked a three mile float with Front Royal Canoe, donned our river shoes and swimsuits, packed a couple of coolers of sustenance (ok, it was beer), lathered up with sunscreen, and were driven in an old school bus to the launch point. Our coolers were even fitted out with their own tubes. Redneck fun at its finest.
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
I figured the tube adventure was a good opportunity to practice taking photos with the GoPro I got in July. Over the summer I had tested out my new toy at the beach and in Iceland, with mixed results. One we got on the river, I strapped the camera to my arm, but it kept sliding, so I ended up strapping it to my knee. I find it really hard to set up a photo with the GoPro (or even tell which mode I'm in), so I just pushed the button randomly and literally shot from the hip. Er, knee. Once again, I got a lot of awkward pictures of my arms and legs and other random body parts...

Still, it was fun to shoot some pics on the river without worrying about how to keep a camera dry. Don't let these "action shots" fool you. It was slow going on the river. Really slow going. A couple times we asked each other "Are we even moving?" The trip was supposed to take 3-4 hours, but we had almost 6 hours before we had to get the tubes back to the outfitter. Plenty of time! We had all day to mosey down the river. (Foreshadowing!) We didn't bring our phones with us and had no idea what time it was (and no way to contact anyone!) It was SO liberating. All we had to do was float.
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
This was definitely the most relaxing thing I did all summer. The sun was shining, the water was clear and refreshing, and the views were gorgeous. I literally had nothing to do but sit in a giant inflatable donut and drink beer. I didn't even have to leave the tube to pee! I think this is the only scenario I've ever experienced where peeing was easier for girls than guys!
tubing the shenandoah
(I'm peeing right now.)

We quickly learned that it was best to tie all our tubes together so we could talk without drifting apart (and so we all had easy access to the beer cooler.) This also worked well when we hit slow spots and the boys got out of the tubes to pee pull us, and I could sit my lazy butt in my inflatable toilet tube and pee float while being towed. This is the life.
tubing the shenandoah
We eventually stopped for lunch and while we were eating Larry pointed to a black shape down the river. "Is that a cow in the river?" he asked. We scoffed at him, and then the black shaped moved its head! It was a cow in the river!
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
Another awkward GoPro photo. With cows in the background.

By the time we got back in our tubes, the cow had moved to shore, but we found a whole herd watching us wearily from the river bank. We slowly floated past the herd (and some idiot girls who nearly rammed the wading cows with their canoe while trying to take selfies with them. PSA: Cows don't like selfies!)
tubing the shenandoah
T-E-A-M-W-O-R-K

Our little flotilla slowly floated on. It seemed to be taking a very long time to travel three miles, but luckily we were well-stocked with refreshments.
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
tubing the shenandoah
And then we realized the sun was starting to set and river came to a virtual halt. What the heck time was it anyway? We had to have the tubes back by 6:30, but it couldn't possibly have taken us longer than the 4 hours maximum time it was supposed to take to float the river, could it? We started getting worried. The river wasn't moving at all and the boys got out of the tubes to tow us. The whole trip the river had been perfectly clear and about two feet deep, but suddenly the river was five or six feet deep and full of muck. When Bryan mentioned that he had sunk knee-deep in slime, I made the decision to stay in my tube. The guys spent the last 20 minutes of the trip swimming through literal sludge to get us back in time. Thanks, guys!

It was 6:15 when we returned our tubes. Somehow it had taken us five and a half hours to float three miles!

But still, I can't wait to do it again! It was great forced relaxation after a summer spent stressing and introverting. (Time in nature makes everything better.) Why didn't we do this every weekend over the summer? Next time, I'll try to round up a bigger crew (who's in?), but that probably won't happen until next year. That Saturday ended up being the last day of summer weather in Virginia. By Sunday it had dropped ten degrees and by Monday I was wearing a sweatshirt. It's been raining ever since.

And with that, summer 2016 comes to a close. I'm hoping there's still a chance to get back on the river this fall - maybe in a kayak...

Monday, August 22, 2016

the summer of blackberries

Collage - Blackberries
If I remember the summer of 2016 for anything, it will be for the Olympics and the blackberries. I've spent the past few months avoiding society and generally hiding from the world. Perhaps it's not the most constructive way of dealing with things when life gets tough, but it's what I tend to do in overwhelming, uncomfortable, and stressful situations. So I've spent the summer as a homebody - drawing in my sketchbook, watching the Olympics on TV, and eating my weight in blackberries.

I like to go berry picking in the summer and on the last day of July, Larry and I set out in search of some nature therapy and some berries. At the time, I wanted blueberries. I knew the blueberry season was coming to an end, but we checked the websites of several farms which said there was still scattered blueberry picking available. We decided not to go to our usual berry farm and to try somewhere new, so following the directions on the website, Larry called Catoctin Mountain Orchard to verify that they were open and had blueberries available. The answers were yes and yes, so we drove 65 miles to Thurmont, Maryland. Upon our arrival, we inquired about blueberry picking and were told "Oh, we don't do u-pick on Sundays." WHAT. I was more than a little peeved. What's the point of calling ahead if you get incorrect information...anyway, it was time for Plan B. So we headed back to our favorite, reliable farm, Butler's Orchard, in Germantown. In the past, we've picked blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries at Butler's, but it had been a few years since we were last there. I was dismayed to learn that they now have a cover charge to get onto the picking fields. It really irritates me to have to spend money to get into a place where I am going to buy something. That being said, since we had paid a cover charge, I didn't feel bad about sampling a few berries straight off the vine. (Maybe this is why they have the cover charge? Are people eating the produce in the fields? Anyway, between the two of us, the cover charge was equivalent to the cost of two pounds of berries, which we certainly did not eat from the vine!) Enough complaints, though, onto the picking...

We drove up to the blueberry fields, and as we had been warned, the blueberry picking was "scattered." There were very few berries, and the berries that were left were puny. It wasn't much fun, so we headed to the blackberry fields instead, which were dripping with huge juicy berries. We picked almost 9 pounds of blackberries! I've lost interest in carrying my DSLR camera with me and photographing everything these days, so here are a few iPhone pics:
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
Everyone always asks me what I do with 9 pounds of berries. For a berry-addict like me, it isn't hard to use up all those berries, plus I enjoy the challenge of finding and testing new recipes. It was Iron Chef Battle Blackberry in the Smoellke Test Kitchen and I think blackberries have comprised 75% of my diet over the past few weeks. I love trying new recipes, but honestly, my favorite way to eat any berries, is straight up in a bowl. Blackberries are also a great drink ingredient, so I made more than a few purple cocktails.
summer of blackberries
Here are 15 ways we ate and drank blackberries this summer, as pictured above, left to right:

 1. Straight up with a little sugar
 2. Blackberry Gin Fizz
 3. Blackberry and Pecan Grilled Pizza
 4. Blackberry Piña Colada
 5. Big Ass Salad with Blackberries and Fig Balsamic Vinaigrette
 6. Blackberry Whiskey Sour
 7. Blackberry Cheesecake Galette
 8. Blackberry Mezcal Smash
 9. Blackberry Cream Pie with Toasted Oat and Sesame Crumb Crust
10. Bourbon Blackberry Collins
11. Vegan Pancakes with Blackberry Syrup
12. Blackberry Shrubs: Blackberry-Rum Shrub and Blackberry Bourbon & Maple Syrup Shrub
13. Blackberry Cornmeal Muffins
14. Blackberry Pineapple Smash
15. Blackberry-Pineapple Sidecar

That Blackberry-Pineapple Sidecar is one of my favorite cocktails ever. I may have drank three last night. They're good medicine when you've had a tough few months, but perhaps an even less healthy coping method than hiding under a rock. ;)

And with that, all the blackberries are gone and the Olympics are over. Until next year/2020...

Friday, July 15, 2016

the headless squirrel

the headless squirrel
Sigh.

Another day, another dead animal in the backyard, another haiku (or six). What luck that decapitation has five syllables!

More backyard drama:
Banjo has a bloody beard.
A headless squirrel.

Just another day 
in the Smoellke backyard. The
body count is high.

Two dogs, one body.
At least it wasn't a fox.
Stop killing things, jerks!

Another squirrel.
And what happened to its head?
Decapitation.

"The head is torn off!"
Larry investigated.
"Want to see a pic?"

Yummy squirrel brains.
A backyard delicacy.
Banjo licks his chops.

Friday, July 8, 2016

weekend adventures | hiking rose river loop

rose river falls
Larry and I have been trying to hike as much as possible in 2016. We've always been good about hitting the trail whenever we have a nice weekend, and we hike a lot when we travel, but this year I've been trying to plan out some hikes ahead of time and be a little more intentional about it.

After our short walk on the A.T. in February, and reading about the National Park Service's A.T. Hike 100 Challenge, I set a goal of hiking 100 miles in 2016. I realize this isn't very far, and that a seasoned thru-hiker can complete 100 miles in three or four days. But I am not a thru-hiker - I am a weekend hiker who is just trying to get outside and get some exercise whenever I can. Our typical weekend hikes are about 5-6 miles, which means we'll need to hike 15-20 times this year to hit our goal. Considering that the only months that generally have acceptable hiking weather in Virginia are March through June and September through November, that means we need to hike 2-3 times per month. And since we work during the day and live in the suburbs, we only have a few weekend days per month available for hiking, and that all depends on weather, and if we don't have house projects to do on the weekends. Anyway, that's the long-winded backstory to our little goal for the year.

With spring approaching, I created a trail log and started researching hikes in VA/WV/MD, to avoid the dreaded Saturday morning "Where should we hike?" discussion. I think Larry and I had both been getting a little bored with local hiking because we felt like we'd done every trail in the area. Obviously, this is not true, but we were definitely stuck in a rut and needed to discover some new trails, branch out a bit, and challenge ourselves. We've mostly hiked in Northern Virginia and the northern part of Shenandoah National Park. Virginia is a big state and there are many other regions that we need to explore. It would just take a bit of planning ahead. I found Virginia Trail Guide to be a great resource, and came up with a long list of potential hikes, which I taped to the wall in my office. They ranged from easy local trails for when we only have a few hours or want to bring the dogs, to trails in Shenandoah that we've missed (we still haven't hiked Old Rag, but it's on the list for this year!), to hikes in the southwestern part of the sate that will require a road trip and weekend cabin accommodations, to more ambitious hikes with steep climbs that I feel like we need to train a bit for first. I was pretty amazed at some of the incredible hikes that Virginia has to offer - Devil's Marbleyard, Mount Rogers, Brumley Mountain Trail in Great Channels, Cascade Falls, Devil's BathtubMcAfee Knob, to name a few - and it got me excited about exploring our state again. Who knew there were boulder fields, slot canyons, and wild ponies on the trails in Virginia?

This post is going to be a bit of a let-down after that introduction, as we didn't try any of the ambitious hikes on my list, and instead opted for a 4-mile loop in good ol' Shenandoah. I'd actually been wanting to hike Rose River Loop for years since I'd seen it described as one of Shenandoah's best trails for streams and waterfalls. We headed out to Shenandoah the day after we visited Hillwood Gardens. It's always surprising how far behind the seasons are in the mountains. With spring in full bloom in DC, it was a bit disappointing to get out to Shenandoah and see that everything was still brown. I lugged my camera up and down the trail (which seemed to go on forever, and felt like much longer than 4 miles!) and took very few photos, because brown-on-brown just isn't that photogenic. It was still a pretty trail along a stream with lots of waterfalls, but I imagine it being a lot prettier in late spring/early summer.

Anyway, here are a few photos of Larry's back hiking through the brown:
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
Spotted in the wild: Two dorks, inadvertently matching

I'd love to go back to Rose River Loop when there are leaves on the trees and we could take a dip in the pools, but that probably won't happen any time soon, because there are lots more trails on my list and lots more mountains to climb...

Thursday, July 7, 2016

weekend adventures | exploring hillwood gardens

hillwood gardens
Spring is always such a beautiful, yet fleeting, season in DC. It seemed to disappear even more quickly than usual this year, I think because we were traveling and because horrible weather (a month of rain) kept us from enjoying our usual outdoorsy activities. But in the middle of April, we had a weekend of perfect weather, so we took my mother to explore Hillwood Gardens for her birthday. The gardens were in full bloom, the sun was shining, and the sky was vivid blue.

Hillwood Gardens is an estate purchased by Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1955. Marjorie was the owner of Post Cereal, the founder of General Foods, and the richest woman in America. We toured the mansion, and it was ridiculous what money could buy - she collected Fabergé eggs, French and Russian art, and jewelry, had multiple estates, and a huge staff that kept everything running smoothly. I much preferred the gardens to the interior of the house (which was filled to the brim with all the expensive useless things that money could buy). But despite her tastes in decorating (so many portraits of herself!), Marjorie was a philanthropist, an excellent employer, a skilled businesswoman, and an animal lover.

But back to the gardens! I think of DC as such an urban space, and always find it surprising to stumble on gardens and wooded areas within the city. From the mansion's portico, there was actually a view across the lawn to the Washington Monument in the distance. Just imagine the garden parties you could have here. Someone get me a cocktail!
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
Most of my photos were taken in the Japanese garden because that was my favorite. But there was also a pet cemetery, a cutting garden, a French parterre, a putting green, a rose garden where Marjorie's ashes are located, and the lunar lawn which is watched over by Leo the stone lion and which offers that billion dollar view towards the Washington Monument. While I enjoy the gardens at the National Arboretum more, what's remarkable to me about Hillwood is that it was a privately owned residence. It's a lifestyle I just can't imagine living, though it was fun to pretend for a day.