Small Pleasures: March 2021 Edition

For me, recognizing the fun, the beauty, the pleasure and the delight in my everyday life has always been a small way to acknowledge the goodness of God and to give thanks for all of it. G.K. Chesterton had a very positive opinion regarding thankfulness. He said:

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

Who knew I’d be thinking some lofty thoughts as I list the little pleasures that tickled my fancy in March?  Maybe my list will spark some noble thoughts of your own.

Small Pleasures: March 2021

  • Watching the world wake up to spring. Winter was long, cold and snowy here in my neck of the woods. Watching the world turn fifty shades of green and flower into pink, yellow and white has been a delight.
  • Strawberry mango smoothies. For most of March, Jay and I participated in a Whole 30 “detox”, a very rigid temporary diet which, in a nutshell, allows only fruits, vegetables, non-grain unprocessed protein sources and most nuts and seeds. Yes, it was a grim 30 days. A concoction of frozen strawberries and mango, a few tablespoons of orange juice, ice and water saved me from ruin numerous times. These smoothies were refreshing, naturally sweet and delicious. Along with uncured bacon and roasted pepitas, strawberry mango smoothies brought sunshine to the dark corners of my Whole 30 experience.
  • Bridal showers. Love is in the air and weddings are right around the corner. My son is getting married in May and my nephew’s wedding is in June. March was filled with bridal showers in anticipation of the big events. Gathering with loved ones and friends, eating good food, and honoring my future daughter-in-law and niece-in-law were wonderful ways to spend two weekend afternoons in March. Even bigger fun is ahead!
  • Time away. At the end of March, Jay and I spent a few days in Bethany Beach, Delaware. The trip was filled with small pleasures: delicious food, a long walk on the beach and poking around a delightful independent book store. After being stuck at home for several months, to be somewhere different – and in a hotel, no less! – was a joy beyond reason.
  • The Queen’s Man murder mysteries by Sharon Kay Penman. As part of the Western Europe category for the Book Voyage Reading Challenge I’m doing this year, I went backlist and way back in British history. Sharon Kay Penman wrote four murder mysteries set in the 1190s during the capture of Richard the Lionheart on his return from the Crusades. These books were such a pleasure to read! Delightful characters, interesting plots, and a peek into the Middles Ages during the reign of the Plantagenets. The only sad thing about this experience is that Penman didn’t return to the series after the 4th book. I could have spent many more hours sleuthing with Eleanor of Aquitaine’s spy.

So, what small pleasures have you been enjoying lately?

Small Pleasures: January/February 2021 Edition

In the last year, I have not been disciplined at all in writing posts for this space. I blame part of my negligence on COVID upending my life, especially with regard to my job. Mostly, though, I’ve struggled to find things to write about that would be remotely interesting to anyone, myself included.

I miss writing for pleasure. To ease myself back into the groove, I’m going to attempt to write one post a month, focusing on small pleasures that are currently sweetening life for me. Small Pleasures posts are fun and relatively easy to write and I’m hoping this practice will help me to get back into the writing groove. These posts also force me to be mindful of all the blessings I enjoy on a regular basis and to be grateful even when it feels like I’ve accidentally boarded the express train to Crazy Town and can’t figure out how to get off.

There is no doubt that life has been very strange and very hard lately. But, it hasn’t been all bad. Or even mostly bad. It’s time to focus on some of the good stuff.

Small Pleasures: January/February 2021

  • Listening to The Chronicles of Narnia. A few years ago, I started making one light-hearted New Year’s resolution every year. Last year’s resolution was to try one new-to-me local restaurant each month. Then COVID happened and my resolution failed. This year, I decided to go a different direction; I’m taking the year to listen to The Chronicles of Narnia. So far, I’ve breezed through The Magician’s Nephew (narrated by Kenneth Branagh), The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (narrated by Michael York), and The Horse and His Boy (narrated by Alex Jennings). This resolution has been a delightful experience so far and has brightened many a cold walk and long drive these last several winter weeks. I’m taking a break now, simply because I want to savor this experience, but I can’t wait to jump back into the Narnian tales soon.
  • Interior Design Books. One dream Jay and I have shared from the beginning of our marriage is owning a cabin in the woods. We are finally seeing that dream come true! Two years ago we purchased a wooded property in southwestern Pennsylvania, near the borders of Maryland and West Virginia. This spring we are hoping to finally break ground for the cabin. While I am interested in all aspects of the project, I cannot wait to work on the interior of the cabin – choosing flooring, designing the kitchen, etc. To get in the right frame of mind, I spent the first several weeks in January immersing myself in interior design books, seeking guidance and inspiration. I love interior design and felt an inordinate amount of joy perusing books like Lauren Leiss’s Habitat and Joanna Gaines’s Homebody. Now, not only do I want to create a cozy cabin interior, I also want to redo my whole house.
  • Watching great TV series: All Creatures Great and Small, Miss Scarlet and the Duke, and Hercule Poirot. I am not a frequent TV watcher, but PBS has had some stellar offerings this January and February that I couldn’t resist. All Creatures Great and Small was a charming series based on the book by James Herriot and Miss Scarlet and the Duke was a frothy, sparkling romp. I looked forward to spending my Sunday evening snuggled in bed, indulging in some Masterpiece Theater love. I really hope both shows are continued for another season. Jay and I have also been slowly working our way through Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (on Britbox and Acorn subscriptions). David Suchet is Hercule and brings the famous character to life in all his idiosyncratic glory. We’ve made it to Season 11, which contains longer, more cinematic and darker episodes that I am really enjoying. When the time comes to say good-bye to Hercule and his mustache, I’ll be very sad.
  • Writing Scripture as a form of meditation. I’ll be the first to admit that COVID upended my life in many ways. I will also be the first to admit that the shake-up hasn’t been all bad. One of the benefits of working remotely is the opportunity to enjoy slower mornings. As part of my morning routine, I’ve started writing scripture verses as a form of focus and meditation. It’s a small practice that takes very little of my time and yet, the impact has been extensive. I feel calmer and better able to handle life and the people in it, I have a more positive attitude, and I recognize God’s hand working in my life in a very real way.
  • Reading by the fireplace with Jay. What else can I say about this? It is a relaxing activity that includes many of my favorite things; spending time with Jay, reading, and snuggling by the fire when it’s wintry outside.
  • Driving my new-to-me vehicle. I recently bought a grown-up, empty-nester vehicle after driving huge SUVs for most of my parenting life. I am tickled with my new wheels! Who knew such a mundane task could be so fun?
  • Daydreaming about the Outer Banks. One of the ways I’ve been managing to keep any semblance of sanity during the dark, cold days of winter is to daydream about our biennial extended family beach trip to the Outer Banks. It is always a relaxing, low pressure week of sun, sand and ocean that never fails to rejuvenate me. This year, after a long, long stretch of turmoil and stress, I need that break more than ever. I think about the trip at least weekly. July can’t come fast enough.
  • Snow. My corner of the world has been in a snow drought for the last few years. This has made the winters dreary and sad. This year, snow has covered the ground for most of January and February. I’ve spent many hours by the fireplace, drinking tea and watching the snow fall and I couldn’t be happier.

Take some time to acknowledge and celebrate the little things that bring light and joy to your life, too. I promise you, you will feel better for doing it. If you want to share in the comments, please do.

My Reading Life: Sleeper Hits of 2020

So, what is a Sleeper Hit?

The entertainment industry uses the term to describe a movie that becomes a big hit despite a small financial investment, little promotion and/or slow opening success.  I use the term to describe a book I expect to be good (or even great) but ends up exceeding all my expectations.  Sleeper Hits aren’t always 5 star books.  They do garner at least a solid 4 star rating and are always a happy surprise when it comes to my personal enjoyment of them.

My reading life in 2020 was no differet than the rest of my life in 2020 – weird. I alternated between binge reading comfort genres and long dry spells of no reading at all. Even with all the reading weirdness, I still managed to consume 71 books. This amazes me, because I’m currently experiencing one of those long dry spells and feel like I haven’t picked up a book in weeks. A Sleeper Hits of 2020 post almost didn’t materialize because I wasn’t sure I’d have enough books to write about. As I looked through my stats on Goodreads, though, I was reminded of several books that were wonderful surprises and I’m happy to share them with you. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to try a book or two from the selection below or make a list of your own Sleeper Hits.

Stephany’s Sleeper Hits of 2020

What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon, narrated by Saskia Maarleveld and Will Damron. A time travel tale set in 1920s Ireland during the struggle for independence from England, What the Wind Knows is surprisingly informative and suspenseful.

My Goodreads note: A great time travel book with a fascinating peek at 1920s Irish history. I was engaged from the beginning and fell in love with the setting, storyline and characters. I can’t help myself – I love a bit of fantasy, especially when it’s mingled with believable real world stuff. 4.5 stars.

Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare. Shortly after the COVID – 19 quarantine began in March, I went on a Regency romance reading rampage. This is not a genre I typically turn to but it kept me reading during a difficult time so I’m going to honor it here. Romancing the Duke is a fun riff on Beauty and the Beast that absolutely doesn’t take itself seriously. (Warning – this is an open door romance, meaning intimate activities are described in detail. If that’s not your jam, just skip those parts or skip the book.)

My Goodreads note: A surprisingly smart, enjoyable and engaging Regency romance with a very open door (which I can skip, truthfully, because the writing is just corny). I liked the incongruence of modern sensibilities set in the early 1800s. It feels very tongue in cheek; the author is definitely trying this and I appreciate the absurdity. A palate cleanser/recovery read with very likable characters, propulsive storyline and happy ending (of course). 4 stars.

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier, narrated by Michael Page. Welcome to middle grade fiction with a Charles Dickons vibe and loads of magic and mayhem. If you are looking for an escape from the the current reality we find oursleves facing, give Peter Nimble (or any of Jonathan Auxier’s other books) a try.

My Goodreads note: Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes was fantastic. This quest/hero myth is filled with lovable characters, hidden kingdoms, evil villians, talking animals and MAGIC. Action-packed means no lags in the story. There is death, abuse and other difficult topics in this book BUT there is also a very satisfying happily ever after. Love Jonathan Auxier! I will continue to seek out his dark but hopeful stories. 5 stars.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, narrated by Philip Franklin. I read Into Thin Air shortly after both of my sons came home from college to quarantine in March and talked about it so much that my entire family went into an Everest deep dive. This book is a chilling (no pun intended) account of survival and death in a very inhospitable place.

My Goodreads note: I thought this was an excellent book as an eye-witness account of a journalist hiking Everest in 1996 during a deadly storm. It was gripping, touching, and (I felt) as honest as could be given the writer was a participant who survived and was still dealing with the guilt and shock of the experience. I learned so much. I talked about the book so much with my family. I continue to Google information about the tragedy and about Everest. It’s nonfiction that reads like a thriller. Aside: I will not be climbing Everest. 5 stars.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. I am not even sure how to describe this mindbender of a book which was recommended to me by my daughter. It’s a complicated mystery that requires complete concentration from its reader. I experienced one of the worst book hangerovers in years after reading this one.

My Goodreads note: What did I just read?! A dark, propulsive mindbender of a book which would weirdly pair well with Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. I’m exhausted from all the time-travel, sustained urgency, and abundance of facts and people to keep straight. There are several mysteries going on, not just Evelyn Hardcastle’s death, but I wasn’t really trying to figure them out. I just wanted to enjoy the ride. And what a crazy ride it was! I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep; my brain is too agitated… 4.5 stars.

The Night Tiger written and narrated Yangze Choo. This book, filled with myth and magical realism, transported me to the Malay penninsula in the 1930s, which was colonized by the British. The audiobook, narrated by the author, was a joy to listen to and enhanced the reading experience for me.

My Goodreads note: Thoroughly enjoyed this book, even though it was a slow start for me. The peak into Malaya, the myths and legends of the area (especially weretigers), all the superstitions, the 1930s timeframe, the mysteries that propelled the storyline – quite fascinating and so different from my experience of the world. The stories of Ren and Ji are beautifully and expertly entwined. There is a lot going on, gilded with the fantastical. A long, langorous ride with a few rapids. Audiobook superb for pronunciation and accent. Def in my lane. 5 stars.

Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon, narrated by Barrie Kreinik and Peter Ganim. I need to thank Anne Bogel from Modern Mrs. Darcy for putting Code Name Helene on her 2020 MMD Summer Reading Guide. I’m weary of WWII stories so I don’t think I would have given this book a second thought without her praise of it. Ariel Lawhon bases her fictional story on the real, larger than life Australian, Nancy Wake, and I was blown away by it and by her.

My Goodreads note: Excellent! Loved the structure of two timelines converging. Loved the characters. Loved the fact that this was based on a real woman who had a tremendous impact on the outcome of WWII in France. Fantastic storytelling. Loved Henri and his relationship with Nancy. Not an easy book to read but I’m so glad I did. Audiobook narrator was superb. Highly recommend! 5 stars.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Sherman Alexie has a gift for infusing difficult situations with humor and hope. And make no mistake – this book is full of difficult and heartbreaking situations experienced by a Native American teen in Spokane, Washington. Still, the beautiful writing, the realistically portrayed experiences, the clever illustrations and the undercurrent of quirky familial love and respect make The Absolutely True Diary a pleasure to read.

My Goodreads note: From the very first sentence I was hooked. How can a story that covers such incredibly difficult topics be funny and ultimately hopeful? I don’t know, but Sherman Alexie is a master magician doing exactly that. Why did I wait so long to read this? Fiction really works for me when I want to learn about someone’s life experience, especially when it is so different from my own. And Arnold “Junior” Spirit’s freshman year is light years away from my own high school experience. Wow, what a book!! I highly recommend it. 5 stars.

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. I’ll admit that The Other Bennet Sister will probably only be appreciated by Pride and Prejudice lovers. However, if you are someone who knows and loves that classic well, then Other Bennet Sister will be right up your alley. Janice Hadlow skillfully imagines the life of Mary Bennet, the plain, prim and intense middle sister in the Bennet family and in the process creates a believable and interesting story. This book was a treat!

My Goodreads note: Absolutely loved this book. Mary is given a personality, an inner life and believable experiences that mold her into the unhappy character of Jane Austen’s P & P. What made this so enjoyable was the growth of Mary post P & P – her maturity and self-awareness. Well written, with a similar tone to P & P, I found myself getting grouchy when I didn’t have time to indulge in the story when I wanted to. Of course, there is a happy, believable ending and for this story, that was what I wanted. 4.5 stars.

The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson. This book came out of nowhere. I never heard of it or the author until I came across it in an e-book sale. It’s a coming of age story that reads like a memoir. I honestly love books like this – weird books with unusual and often sad or dark surprises, yet which are ultimately hopeful and uplifting. I don’t want to say too much; this book should be approached with no preconceived notions.

My Goodreads note: Just wonderful! Everything I love – coming of age story in a short timeframe, beautiful writing, strong sense of place, unexpected story arc. Wistful, bittersweet, nostalgic. Tragedy juxtaposed with hope. Reads very much like a memoir. Loved it. 4.5 stars.

There you have it – my happy reading surprises of 2020! Although I am not hopeful in the least that 2021 will, in general, be an upgrade from 2020, I am hopeful that I will encounter more Sleeper Hits in this new year. I’m certainly off to a good start and it’s only the second week in January.

How about you? Do any of these books sound good to you? Or, do you have Sleeper Hits you want to share? Please do in the comments below.

Small Pleasures: December 2019

(Small Pleasures lists highlight the everyday items, activities and experiences which bring an extravagant amount of happiness to my life.  Writing these lists is a fun practice of mindfulness that encourages gratitude for the abundance of blessing in my life.)

December was the typical blur of holiday preparation and eventual celebration.  Recognizing the small pleasures among the big took more work than usual.  It was worth the effort, though.  The end result captures some of the ways I managed to protect my sanity during the most wonderful time of the year.

Small Pleasures: December 2019

  • Klaus (Netflix original movie).  This beautifully animated movie tells the story of Santa Claus in a fresh, delightful way.  It’s poignant, magical, satisfying.  Watching it with my newly married daughter made the experience even better.  I recommend it, with kids or without.

  • Winter Solstice by Rosamund Pilcher.  This charmer of a book lifted me out of a rotten reading slump and set me down in the middle of a quaint Scottish village during a December snowstorm.  The story had everything I was looking for: engaging characters struggling through difficult circumstances but still open to friendship and love, an evocative setting perfect for Christmas, and a deeply satisfying ending.   Winter Solstice was the perfect book for December and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who will listen.  I’m also looking forward to investigating the rest of Rosamund Pilcher’s catalogue.
  • The fresh scent of a live Christmas tree.  The Fraser fir we bought as our Christmas tree this year filled our house with it’s lovely piney scent for days. That smell is the one I associate most with Christmas and I love it.  (So do the cats, who basically live under the tree for the entire month of December).

  • Watching Perry Mason with Jay.  My husband and I get on these kicks where we focus on an old TV show and watch the available seasons/episodes over the course of several months.  We did this with the original Star Trek series and have recently turned our attention to Perry Mason.  I’m enjoying the show’s plotlines but I’m loving the peek into 1950s/1960s culture and style.  Della Street is my favorite character.  She’s a smart, competent, stylish and independent woman at a time when that was rather uncommon.
  • Felt dryer balls.  In an effort to reduce some of the cleaning chemicals I’m using in my home, I decided to try wool dryer balls in place of fabric softener.  I purchased my set from Food 52 (the cool tones) and am very happy with the softness of my laundry.  What makes the end result even better is the few drops of Mountain Rain fragrance oil (from the Fresh Summer collection by Barnhouse Blue) I add to the balls before I toss them into the dryer.  Now my laundry is soft, smells wonderful and I’m helping the environment and our skin in one very small way.

Add numerous cups of hot tea and an excess of twinkling lights and you have my personal prescription for thriving during the hectic Christmas season of 2019.  Do you have any small pleasures to share?  Please do in the comments!

Small Pleasures: Summer 2019

Summer is mellowing out and winding down.  Before I give the season a final farewell wave, I want to reflect on some of the small pleasures I’ve enjoyed over the last few months.  Routinely acknowledging the good things in my life exercises my gratitude muscle and helps me mentally end the summer on a happy note.

Small Pleasures: Summer 2019

  • Sitting on the front porch.   My front porch is the perfect place for reading a book or hanging out with my husband.  It’s comfortable and secluded and I whiled away many, many hours there this summer.
  • Orange Creamsicle smoothies.  My extended family enjoyed our biennial trip to the Outer Banks in July.  There is a smoothie shop in Corolla called Island Smoothie that makes the most delicious and refreshing Orange Creamsicle smoothies I have ever tasted.  I stopped by almost every day of our vacation for a hit of brain-freezing goodness.
  • Toy Story 4.  I was surprised by how much I loved this movie.  It is the perfect ending to a beloved Disney/Pixar franchise.
  • The Try Channel.  I am addicted to this YouTube channel highlighting Irish people trying different foods and drinks and providing commentary on their experiences.   Posts are uploaded every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I haven’t missed one all summer.  the combination of fun personalities and hilarious interactions and reactions keeps me (and Jay) coming back.  The Krispy Kreme clip hooked me and I haven’t looked back.  (Fair warning – salty language runs amok in these videos). 
  • Star Trek (the original series). Late last year, Jay and I decided to work our way through all three seasons of Star Trek (79 hour long episodes) on Netflix.  We finished the last show, Turnabout Intruder, this summer.  Bad acting and cheap sets aside, we both gained a real appreciation for the ways this short lived series attempted to addresses issues of the time (the late 1960s) and we developed a better understanding of the impact the show has had on American pop culture.  More importantly, though, spending time with Captain Kirk, Spock and the crew of the Starship Enterprise was a nostalgic stress reliever for me – something I desperately needed this summer.   
  • Audiobooks.  Over the summer semester, I drove an inordinate amount of miles to observe my clinical students.  One of the benefits of all that travel was the opportunity to listen to some excellent audiobooks.  These books turned what could have felt like a boring waste of time into an adventure I looked forward to. My favorite audiobooks from the summer are:
    • Recursion by Blake Crouch (5 stars)
    • Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Dalton-Brooks (4.25 stars)
    • Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (4.5 stars)
    • The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (4 stars)
    • Atomic Habits by James Clear (5 stars)
    • Nine Horses Waiting by Mary Stewart (4 stars)
  • Butterflies, moths and bumble bees.  This summer seemed to be a bumper season for pretty bugs.  I love watching the bumble bees gather pollen and the butterflies fluttering from flower to flower.  It made my heart happy.
  • Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (available on Amazon). Somehow I missed this historical drama based on the book by Anthony Trollope when it came out in 2016.  The mini-series is very high quality and an absolute joy to watch, especially because I was unfamiliar with the storyline.  I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys movies/mini-series like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Gaskill’s North and South.
  • The Currently Reading podcast. Besides audiobooks, I enjoy listening to a good podcast when I’m driving.  In August, I stumbled across the Currently Reading podcast hosted by Meredith Monday Schwartz and Kaytee Cobb.  The podcast is fairly new (just over a year) and after taking my time over the last several weeks working through their back catalog, I’m almost caught up.  In each episode, these ladies casually talk about the books they’ve read recently (good and bad), they do a deep dive into a bookish topic, and then press favorite books into their listeners hands.  I especially like that they cover many backlist titles and that they have no problem discussing books they didn’t like and why.  Listening to this podcast keeps me excited about reading (not that I need the encouragement) and adds to my TBR (to-be-read) pile with each episode.
  • Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo show.  A very weird, very magical experience. I enjoyed every minute of it and am thankful I had the chance to see it.

To be completely honest, when I first started this list, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come up with enough items to make the post worthwhile reading.  I’ve been so weighed down with the burdens of work, I failed to see all the good things I enjoyed this summer.  Now I can let the summer go with a happy heart and welcome the fall with open arms.  My lovely daughter is getting married in a few weeks so this autumn is starting out with one gigantic celebratory bang.  Bring on the pumpkins, apple cider and fall fairs!

I hope my list inspires you to reminisce on your own summer pleasures.  If you’d like to share some of them in the Comments, I’d love to read about them.