Small Pleasures: June 2021

 “And since all this loveliness cannot be Heaven, I know in my heart it is June.”

~Abba Woolson

My spring was filled to the brim with fun adventures and big celebrations. Everything was wonderful, but also filled my life with busyness and intense emotions. Life is finally settling back into a dependable groove, which is giving me time to reflect on the inconsequential and trivial things that add an inordinate amount of delight to my life. June was filled with so many blessings that the hard part of composing this post is narrowing the list down to only five pleasures. The abundance of so many good things is a pleasure all its own.

Small Pleasures: June 2021

  • Strawberries. June is strawberry season in Lancaster County and my family indulges daily. We’re perfectly content with fresh berries and whipped cream, but occasionally we went fancier with no regrets. Cottage pudding, strawberry pancakes, strawberry milk shakes and strawberry cake bumped the strawberry eating experience up several notches. Finally, Jay and I finished our June strawberry bender with strawberry basil mojitos at The Hobbit in Ocean City, Maryland for our anniversary.
  • Gardening. For the first time in years, I have a functioning garden with raised beds and pebble pathways. I am so enjoying watching herbs, veggies and flowers grow. We’ve already been enjoy the results of our labors (lettuces, radishes and herbs) and look forward to more delicious veggies on the way. Spending time at the end of the day putzing around our little patch is a surprising joy I didn’t anticipate.
  • Mythos (audiobook), written and narrated by Stephen Fry. This audiobook single-handedly saved my reading life from the doldrums in June. Listening to Fry narrate his charming and witty takes on the Greek myths was an absolute delight. My favorite stories are about Eros and Psyche (C.S. Lewis’s Until We Have Faces is based on this myth), Hephaestus, and Prometheus. I will definitely be listening to Heroes and Troy (the latter just published on 6/29/21) for more myth goodness wrapped in Fry’s humor and insight.
  • FunkyMonkey Slides. These foam slides are cheap, light and very comfy. I’m currently wearing them around the house and out in the garden, but I think they’ll be perfect for the beach, too.
  • Late afternoons at the beach. Speaking of the beach, we spent two afternoons at the Delaware State Beach at Tower Road during our anniversary trip to Rehoboth, Delaware. Four o’clock is the magic hour at the state beach, the time when the crowds disappear and the beach belongs to a few diehard beach lovers. At that time in the afternoon, the sun is mellow and the sand is warm and the midday heat has subsided. The empty ocean heaves and tumbles and the sea gulls dip and coast. There is space to breathe deep and to stretch out. This setting is so soothing and meditative – a better stress reliever then just about anything else I know.

I hope June has sprinkled your life with many little delights, too. If you would like to share some of them, please do in the comments…

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: Sleepers Hits of 2019

Last January I set 2 reading goals that I was confident I could reach.  The first was a Goodreads goal to read 60 books in 2019.  I exceeded this goal with ease, topping off at 72 books.  I fell into a pretty nasty reading slump in November and December (which was directly related to my second goal) or I probably could have ticked off a few more books by the end of the year.

My second goal was to complete the Booklist Queen’s (formally the Pingel Sisters’) 2019 Reading Challenge containing 52 reading prompts.  I completed 42 prompts and then realized I was left with several of the harder, less appealing prompts to finish the challenge.  As a hard core mood reader, I found the prompts beginning to feel dictatorial and restrictive and I quickly lost my desire to pick up any book.  Thankfully that dark time has passed; I read four books in 2020 and one of them will probably make my Sleeper Hits list for 2020.  Of the 72 books I read in 2019, ten were true Sleeper Hits for me and I can’t wait to share them here.

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 garner at least a solid 4 star rating and are always a happy surprise when it comes to my personal enjoyment of them.

I keep track of the books I read on Goodreads.  I don’t write public reviews but I do write a private note about each book I attempt or finish.  Instead of writing formal explanations for my Sleeper Hits in this post, I thought it would be fun to quote my private Goodreads note about each book.  These notes are not intellectual.  They are my gut reactions to what I’ve read and will provide an insight into my initial thoughts and feelings about each book.

Without further delay, Stephany’s Sleeper Hits of 2019…

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.  (Read February 2019, 5 stars). I loved this book!  Beautifully written.  Hefty content with a very light touch.  The characters are so memorable, especially Rueben and Swede but also Dad and Roxanne.  I laughed out loud.  I wanted to sob, too, but I controlled myself because I wasn’t alone.  The Christianity that I live is realistically displayed here and is believable (even the miracles).  And the peek into heaven is exhilarating.  Why did I wait so long to read this book?  I’m sure my thoughts will return to it again and again. 

Anne of Green Gables, written by L. M. Montgomery and narrated by Rachel McAdams.  (Audiobook, February 2019, 5 stars).  I love this book so much!  Matthew and Marilla are so wonderful.  Anne is a pip.  And L. M. Montgomery’s descriptions are sublime.  Such growth!  I’m sure I didn’t love this book as much the first time I read it (when I was younger) but I know I loved it.  Rachel McAdams does a lovely job with the narration, too.  I’m going to read the second book because I can’t help myself.  I wish Rachel narrated that one, too.

My Sister, the Serial Killer, written by Oyinkan Braithwaite and narrated by Adepero Oduye.  (Audiobook, March 2019, 4 stars).  Well, this was an unusual and interesting story and I did enjoy it.  I certainly inhaled it, anyway.  I just don’t know how to review it because my feelings are mixed.  The good: interesting premise – the main character is the older sister of young woman who is also a psychopathic serial killer of boyfriends.  Older sister cleans up the messes related to younger sister’s dirty deeds.  Flashbacks relate sisters’ issues to abusive, sociopathic father.  Younger sister does not change at all throughout story.  Older sister changes for the worse and that’s my struggle.  She gave up so much to be her sister’s “caretaker”! 

The Parfit Knight, written by Stella Riley and narrated by Alex Wyndham.  (Audiobook, April 2019, 4 stars).  A very fun 18th century historical romance/comedy of misunderstandings along the lines of Georgette Heyer.  Loved the narrator (Alex Wyndham), too.  I’m not a romance reader but this book read more like a fairytale, which I love.  Really liked the main romance between Rosalind and Amberly as well as the secondary one between  Phillip and Isabel.  Amberly’s friends are good characters, too.  Isabel’s brother is perfectly evil.  A light, satisfying read – would definitely consider the next book.

Good Morning, Midnight, written by Lily Brooks-Dalton and narrated by John H. Mayer and Hillary Huber.  (Audiobook/read July 2019, 4.5 stars).  Very solid four stars for this soft apocalyptic literary novel.  Beautiful writing.  Characters with interesting headspaces (Augie and Sully).  Stark setting (the Arctic, space).  Not plot-driven by any means, but that didn’t matter to me.  This book is written to be savored and pondered over.  Themes include loneliness, connectedness, purpose, regret.  Not for Sci-Fi readers who want drama or action (the apocalypse is never articulated), for sure, but I enjoyed it immensely.  Audiobook was great, by the way.

Recursion, written by Blake Crouch and narrated by John Lindstrom and Abby Craden.  (Audiobook, August 2019, 5 stars). Wow, wow, wow!  What a thrilling, exhausting, thought provoking mindbender of a read.  I had no idea what I was stepping into.  I liked Dark Matter but this just felt so much deeper, more stressful and better developed.  I loved exploring the concepts of time, memory and self-knowing and how they intersect. With the right creative leadership, this would make some kind of intense thrill ride of a movie.  It has the feel of Inception.  Loved this!

Nine Coaches Waiting written by Mary Stewart and narrated by Ellie Haydon. (Read August 2019, 4 stars).  Four solid stars.  Lovely writing.  Engrossing story/mystery.  Interesting characters with a capable female lead.  I read this in a little over 2 days – unputdownable.  Not high literature but wholly entertaining.  I will definitely read more Mary Stewart.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  (Read September 2019, 5 stars).  Melancholic.  Pervasive sadness.  Implicit evil and related blindness to the immorality.  “A page-turner and a heartbreaker, a tour de force of knotted tension and buried anguish.”  TIME
I have so many feelings about this book.  The dystopian aspect is always an evil, dark undercurrent but the innocence, the growth and the relationships of the main characters are at the forefront.  Much to think about – will stay with me for a long time.

Atomic Habits by written and narrated by James Clear.  (Audiobook, September 2019, 5 stars).  Excellent, succinct, applicable approach to building habits and making positive changes.  I’ve already applied some of the concepts to health changes I want to make and it is working! Listened to this (narrated by author), but also bought the book and will reread.  Highly, highly recommend.

Winter Solstice by Rosamund Pilcher.  (Read December 2019, 4 stars).  Exceptionally charming – setting, characters, story.  Especially loved the Scotland setting and Christmas time frame.  Hope from very difficult situations.  Ultimately a good feeling, warm fuzzy story.  Highly recommend as a palate cleanser or reading slump/book hangover recovery book.

I have a few honorable mentions this year, too.  These books were better than I expected but not to the degree that my mind was blown.  My Sleeper Hit honorable mentions are:

  • The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, narrated by Patrick Lawlor (Audiobook, May 2019, 4.5 stars).  A fascinating deep dive into the Dust Bowl period of American history.
  •  Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore.  (Read September 2019, 4 stars)  Fun, frothy, STEAMY historical romance with surprisingly good writing and solid research into the suffragette movement in England.
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.  (Read November 2019, 4 stars).  Beautiful, philosophical writing focused on the natural world and the intentions of its creator.

Do you have any Sleeper Hits you’d like to share?  Please do in the comments.

Creepy Books Perfect for October (Middle Grade Edition)

It’s October!

The month when night comes early, sweaters replace T shirts and Halloween is just around the corner.  It’s the perfect time to snuggle up and indulge in a spooky book or two.  While the horror genre is not my cup of tea, I love a darkly atmospheric story that is creepy without being too graphic. I also enjoy a dash of weirdness and some psychological tension.  A compelling plot, interesting characters and strong writing are all that’s required to complete my idea of the perfect spine-tingling book .

Am I asking too much?   I think not.

The middle grade books in the list below hit that sweet spot of well-written, strong storylines coupled with atmospheric creepiness.  They are also compelling enough to satisfy readers of all ages who want some spookiness in their lives but don’t want to be scared witless by a story.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  First, let me say that Neil is my go-to author for creepiness.  He does it so well!  With Coraline, he takes the experiences of moving to a new home and benign parental neglect and turns them into something very sinister.  While investigating her new flat (located in an old home divided into several apartments), Coraline discovers a portal to another flat just like the one in which she currently lives.  At first, everything in this other flat seems better than her ordinary life, including the parents that reside there.  But something is strange about these parents and they want her to stay with them and be their little girl forever.  It doesn’t take long for things to go south for Coraline.  This book is perfectly creepy and the best way to experience it is by audiobook, which is narrated by Neil Gaimen himself.

Dorp Dead by Julia Cunningham and illustrated by James Spanfeller.  Several decades ago Mr. Hoin, my fifth grade teacher, read Dorp Dead to my class after lunch each day; I still remember the feelings of dread I experienced as I listened to him.  Dorp Dead is an odd story that falls squarely on the psychologically dark and dreadful side of creepy.  It’s about a grieving ten year old boy who is  placed in an orphanage after his grandmother dies.  He protects himself by hiding his intelligence and withdrawing from the world around him.  His behaviors are misunderstood so he is sent to live with a wealthy ladder maker whose obsessive-compulsive behavior hints at something truly dangerous.  I can’t say anything more without ruining the story but I recommend this book for readers who enjoy heavy foreboding and psychological tension.  It’s a quick read, too, and the illustrations enhance the creepiness.

The Seer of Shadows by Avi.  Do not be fooled by the middle grade label of this book.  Avi is a masterful storyteller who takes his readers on one hair-raising ride with this tale. It’s an intense and chilling story about a ghost bent on revenge.  Early photography plays an important role in the plot and the author enhances the story with rich historical detail.  The Seer of Shadows is perfect for anyone who loves a good ghost story or an atmospheric Gothic tale.  My kids and I listened to this as a book on tape (that’s how long ago we read it) and I loved it as much as they did.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier.  Take two abandoned siblings and send them to work for an eccentric family living in a crumbling manor house in the middle of a dark forest.  Add a witch, a big spooky tree, a strange nighttime visitor, a mystery and a curse.  Glue it all together with fantastic writing and main characters a person can really get behind and the result is the Night Gardener.  Part fairy tale, part mystery, part spooky story – this book has it all.   It is my  personal favorite on the list and I highly recommend it.

Small Spaces by Catherine Arden.  Small Spaces is the story of Ollie, a girl who has recently lost her mother.  She has also recently found a book that tells of a “smiling man” who can grant your dearest wish, for a price (of course).  On a field trip to a nearby farm, Ollie and her classmates have a frightening encounter which prompts her and two friends to run into the woods near the cornfield where the bus is parked.  When they emerge, they are in an alternate world.  A world that contains “the smiling man”.  As you can guess, bad things happen.  With pumpkins, scarecrows and cornfields sprinkled throughout, the setting of this book is the most Halloweenish of the bunch.  It is also suitably dark and nightmarish for the season.  For those who are in the mood for listening rather than reading, the audiobook, narrated by Renee Dorian, is very well done.

Bonus Recommendation:

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.  At the risk of stating the obvious, October is the perfect month to indulge in some Harry Potter. Dip a toe into a single book or go all out and read the series.  The plot, the world building, the characters – everything, actually – perfectly fit my idea of a creepy, atmospheric and imaginative story.  The scare factor is real and sometimes intense but it’s balanced by believable human drama, meaningful relationships and humor.  If you’ve never read Harry Potter, now is the perfect time to give him a try.  Or, consider revisiting his wizarding world if it’s been awhile since you hung out with The Chosen One.  You won’t be disappointed.

Happy spooky reading!  If you have any suggestions to add to the list, please share 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.