Small Pleasures: April 2017 Edition

April ended up being a month of utter craziness at work.  To buffer the effects of all that stress, I indulged in a lot of escapist activities at home.  This translated mostly into reading (or listening to) lots of books, watching stuff on Netflix, and eating too much junk food.  Most of the small pleasures on my list this month are derived from these self-indulgent activities.  I can’t really say how helpful all the culture consumption was for my unruly stress levels but it sure was fun!

  1. Sing (2016).  Last weekend, my husband and sons went with my dad to his cabin in the mountains to do some trout fishing.  This left my daughter, Julia, and me to fend for ourselves as best we could.  This basically meant lying on the sectional in the basement bingeing on movies and mini-series.  (It was glorious.)  Sing was the first movie we watched.  The general gist: anthropomorphic animals participate in a singing contest that’s designed to save an old theater from being repossessed by the bank.  The animation is fabulous, the characters are comical and endearing, and the music is energetic and uplifting.  Sing is an adorable, entertaining piece of fluff and sometimes that’s just the thing when life gets too serious.
  2. North & South (2004).  I love a good period drama based on literature and the BBC cranks out the very best.  My all time favorite miniseries is Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.  But, a very close second is North & South with Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe which is based on the book of the same name by Elizabeth Gaskill.  This is one instance in which the movie outshines the book by a long shot. So much chemistry and repressed passion vibrate between Margaret Hale and John Thornton that I think I could watch the last scene over and over without ever tiring of it.  It pushes all my romantic buttons.  Julia watched this for the first time with me in April and she loved it, too.
  3. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.  During the couch potato fest I mentioned above, Julia and I stumbled upon this Australian series on Netflix.  The series is based on the books by Kerry Greenwood and revolves around the exploits of lady private detective Phryne Fisher in 1920s Melbourne.  There is so much to love about this show: the sumptuous costumes (I’ll take every pair of Phryne’s shoes), the storylines, and the characters and their relationships to one another.  There are three seasons worth of viewing pleasure and we’ve been tearing through episodes.  Finding this gem is the happiest accident of the month and escapist indulgence at its best.
  4. News of the World by Paulette Jiles.  This book.  It has everything I need for the perfect reading experience: memorable characters who demonstrate growth, a strong sense of time and place, an interesting storyline with layered themes, beautiful writing.  It’s the best book I’ve read so far this year.  So. Very. Good.

The following small pleasures simply increase my general happiness quotient but aren’t specifically related to escaping stress …

  1. What Should I Read Next (WSIRN) podcast.  This weekly podcast is so much fun! Every Tuesday, Anne Bogel (a.k.a. Modern Mrs. Darcy) interviews one guest about three books they love, one book they hate and what they are currently reading.  Anne then offers the guest three suggestions for what to read next.  The conversations are always interesting and informative and now my TBR pile is completely out of control.  I also read the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog regularly for book suggestions.  The Summer Reading Guide is coming out in a few weeks and I can’t wait!  Both the podcast and the blog take me to my bookish happy place.
  2. Lamb Loves Fox and trois petits oiseaux Flickr feeds.  Other than photographing my travel adventures, I haven’t been spending much quality time with my camera.  That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and be inspired by other photographers’ work.  Visiting Lamb Loves Fox and trois petits oiseaux always makes me smile and fills me with just a little awe.  The photos are artful and whimsical and precious.  And often chuckle-inducing…

Now it’s your turn.  What small pleasures help you manage all the stress?

Small Pleasures: March 2017 Edition

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I’m going to go ahead and say this has been the most unusual (in a good way) March of my life.  My husband and I just returned from French Polynesia where we spent fifteen magical days celebrating our 25th anniversary.  Without a doubt, the trip was filled with big and unique pleasures (i.e., scuba diving for the first time, watching performers from the Marquesa Islands, waking up in an over-the-water bungalow to a turquoise sea and an unobstructed view of Moorea, etc.).  I want to talk and talk and talk about all that.  But not today.  Instead, I’m remembering those small things that made my big adventure that much more delightful.  Here are my small pleasures of March…

  1. Word Trek.  This phone app takes the word search to a whole new level by using every single letter of the search format to form words.  The game tells you how many words to look for and the number of letters in each word and you have to discover the rest on your own.  As you move through the levels, the number of letters in the search and length of the words increases.  I downloaded the game before we left on our trip and Jay and I chewed up hours of airplane and yacht downtime trying to decipher the puzzles.  It’s fun and I feel smart when I play it.  That’s a first class win-win in my book.
  2. The Body Shop’s Coconut Body Butter.  In my humble opinion, this is the creamiest, most delicious smelling lotion ever.  It comes in a jar, which also makes it a smart travel choice.  It’s the perfect accoutrement for sailing around tropical islands.  I polished off one whole container on our trip so it was a small pleasure I indulged in with abandon.
  3. Chocolate croissants.  French Polynesia is an interesting amalgamation of Polynesian and French cultures and I was surprised by the large population of French people who lived throughout the islands we visited.  Perhaps that’s why the croissants were so good.  I consumed a ridiculous number of big, flaky chocolate ones while on vacation which I always spread with an embarrassing amount of butter.  They were something wonderful to wake up to each day.  (Now my mouth is watering.)
  4. The Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny.  Cruising around French Polynesia provided plenty of opportunity for reading.  So did 28 hours of airplane time.  In total, I finished five books over 15 days.  Two of those books, A Fatal Grace and The Cruelest Month, are part of a murder mystery series by Louise Penny that I am really enjoying.  The setting for the books is the area in and around a small, picturesque village in Canada near Quebec and the characters are singular and likeable.  The murders aren’t graphic and end up being a catalyst to delve deeper into the worst (and best) of human nature. I’m currently reading the fourth book, A Rule Against Murder, and will definitely continue with this somewhat fluffy but well-written and satisfying series.
  5. Snorkeling.  Because snorkeling is something I only get to do when I travel, I could label it as a big, special pleasure.  But the act is so simple and has such a high happiness quotient for me that it feels more like a small, intimate joy.  Every time I put my face in the water and get a peek at the vibrant world under the waves, I get a thrill.  And yet, there is also something meditative and mindful about snorkeling.  I breathe deeply and regularly, I float languidly, and I am forced, because of my mask, to look closely at what is directly in front of me.  I slow down and am able to see details I might otherwise miss (like a blue-spotted boxfish resting at the base of some coral or a single clownfish hanging out in an anemone).  Snorkeling almost always ends up being a spiritual experience for me.  I am so thankful for the opportunities I had to indulge in this pleasure this month and I’m sure it’s one of the reasons I came home feeling so rejuvenated.

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{ Double-Saddle Butterflyfish – Taha’a  (photo taken by Jay Yoder) }

So tell me, what small or not so small pleasures have you been enjoying lately?

 

Small Pleasures: January 2017 Edition

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In many ways, January has been a struggle.  I freely acknowledge this truth but have no interest in dwelling on it.  Instead, I’m focusing on the little things in my life that made January even the tiniest bit more pleasant.  When life feels hard, I seek out ways to soften the edges and my January needed a lot of softening.

  1. Winter twilight.  I’ve been wondering lately if there is any beauty comparable to the quiet, muted loveliness of dusk in January.  These evenings always lift my spirit and draw my heart into worship.
  2. Books.  Well-written, entertaining books which don’t require monumental mental effort have been my escape of choice lately (i.e., Journey to Munich, I Let You Go, and Everything I Never Told You).   Me, finding pleasure in books? -Shocker, I know. 🙂
  3. Hot tea.  Sipping a cup of steaming tea is a pleasure I’ve been indulging in with abandon this month.  As a matter of fact, I’m having a cup of my favorite, Harney’s Christmas Tea, as I type.  Delicious!
  4. Victoria.  PBS’s Masterpiece Theater is working it’s magic once again and my daughter, Julia, and I have fallen under the spell.  Every Sunday evening we settle in to experience the early reign of Queen Victoria as she navigates the intrigues of Court and the complexities of royal responsibility and love.  Starring Jenna Coleman as Victoria, Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne, and Tom Hughes as Albert, Victoria is a dependable bright spot in my week.  I’ll be sad when it’s over; we’ll have to check out The Crown on Netflix next to get our royal fix.
  5. Anticipation.  My husband and I will be celebrating our 25th anniversary this year by traveling to the Society Islands of French Polynesia in March.  We will spend most of our time on the Wind Spirit sailing between the islands  and are hoping for gorgeous scenery, spectacular snorkeling, and sublime relaxation.  It’s summer there this time of year so the weather will be hot, humid, and perhaps a bit rainy – all the things winter in Pennsylvania is not.  I can’t wait for this trip and the anticipation of it has helped me endure the rough spots of this month.

Well, January is almost over and thankfully so.  Here’s to a February that is healthier, saner, and much less stressful.

What small pleasures are getting you through?

Book Consumption: The Sleeper Hits of 2016

My reading experiences tend to run along four main trajectories:

1) I expect a book to be exceptional and it meets or exceeds my expectations (i.e., All the Light We Cannot See or The Poisonwood Bible).

2) I expect a book to be good (entertaining or informative, etc.) and it generally meets my expectations ( i.e., A Walk in the Woods or Ready Player One)

3) A book doesn’t meet my expectations, whatever those expectations happen to be (i.e., The Awakening or The Art of Fielding).  I rarely continue along this path once I realize I’m on it…

And, perhaps the best of all reading experiences,

4) I expect the book to be good/great and it turns out to be much better than I anticipated.  I call these books my sleeper hits, hence the title and content of this blog post.

Of the 83 books I read in 2016, I found 8 books and one series that surprised me in the best possible way.  These sleepers encompass several genres, are a mixture of old and new releases and just really tickle my fancy.  I can’t help myself – I have to share.

My Sleeper Hits of 2016

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The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly.  The premise of the story – an angry, grieving boy finds a portal to a magical kingdom and strange adventures ensue – was enough to draw me in.  Beautiful writing, the unexpected and satisfying growth of the main character, and an insightful look at the complexities of “good versus evil” elevated my reading experience substantially.  Plus, I loved all the fairytale references.  It’s a rather dark and sad, but ultimately redemptive story and reminds me a bit of Neil Gaimen’s books.

 

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The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Audiobook read by Bob Neufeld (free at Loyalbooks.com).  I chose the Loyal Books audiobook of The Hound of the Baskervilles to fulfill the murder mystery requirement of the 2016 Popsugar Reading Challenge.  I expected this book to be enjoyable simply because of its classic status.  What I was not expecting was how much I would enjoy the writing and the characters.  The setting is so atmospheric and the mystery has a very spooky, supernatural feel to it.  I will definitely be reading more from Sir Arthur based on my experience with this book.

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Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger.  The more I read the more I realize how much I enjoy murder mysteries.  Ordinary Grace is one of my favorites of the year.  What elevated it above expectations is the nuanced sense of time and place, the perspective of the narrator (the younger brother of the victim), and the way faith impacts the thoughts, behaviors and interactions of the characters.  I cared deeply for the main players in the story, especially the narrator and his father. Is it weird to say a murder mystery is beautifully written?  Probably, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway.  Ordinary Grace is a beautifully written murder mystery.  Read it.

the-girl-with-all-the-gifts

 

The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey.  Audiobook read by Finty Williams (Audible.com).  Apocalyptic scenarios with zombie infestations are not generally my genre of choice but this audiobook was a crowd pleaser for our family trip to the Adirondacks this past summer.  Not only was I surprised at how much I enjoyed the story, the caliber of the writing and the philosophical considerations that undergirded much of the tale caught me completely off guard.  And Melanie, the girl with all the gifts and the main character in the story, is an absolute pleasure to hang out with.  You can read more of my thoughts about the book here.

joyland

 

Joyland by Stephen King.  I think most people, myself included, associate Stephen King with horror.  He does write other stuff and Joyland, which was written for Hard Case Crime, is a great example.  It’s touted as a murder mystery with a bit of a supernatural component, but honestly the scare factor is about 2/10 and played a very minor part in the plot.  What I really loved about Joyland: Devin Jones (the main protagonist), all the interesting supporting characters, the beach and the boardwalk carnival setting, the storyline, and the skillful writing.  I was sad to say goodbye to my Joyland friends.  Full review here.

attachments

 

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell.  Romantic comedy is another genre I tend to skip but I came across Attachments as a BookBub deal and decided to give it a try.  What a delightful story! The format is fun (partially epistolary) and the characters are amusing and engaging.  The romance, which develops very slowly and is an awkward one-sided one for most of the book, isn’t the main focus of the plot.  Instead, Rainbow Rowell spends most of her time on twenty-nine year old Lincoln O’Neill and his difficulties with moving on from a broken heart and growing up.  The characters are the best part of this story – I loved meeting them and experiencing them becoming better humans. I never thought I would be writing “quality” and “fluff” in the same sentence but here goes.  Attachments  is entertainment fluff of the highest quality.  I highly recommend it for a happy, satisfying escape from reality.

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Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart.  This book is a fictional account of the real life adventures that propelled Constance Kopp into the position of America’s first female deputy sheriff.  She takes on Henry Kauffman, a silk factory owner, whos runs over her buggy and refuses to pay for damages.   Constance doesn’t back down even though she lives in a time when women are considered fragile and unable to care for themselves.  The eccentric Kopp sisters, the peek into the real gender inequalities of the 1910s, and the suspenseful plot make this a surprisingly gratifying read.  I understand Amy Stewart has a second book out about Constance and her sisters.  I’m curious to see what else they get up to.

before-the-fall

 

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley.  The catalyst that starts this story rolling is a private plane crash that kills all but two of the passengers.  The book uses the mystery of the cause of the crash to investigate the lives of the people who died in it and the survivors who are left to deal with the aftermath.  I enjoyed the slow unraveling of the mystery, the detailed development of the backstories of the people on the plane, the journey of the main character towards self-acceptance and integrity, and the relationship between the main character and the little boy he saves.   Significant character development and growth, solid writing, and the believable resolution of the mystery made this a sleeper hit for me.  See my review here.

 

cuckoos-calling   the-silkworm  career-of-evil

The Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J. K. Rowlings).  These murder mysteries are reading entertainment of the first order.  They are well crafted, suspenseful stories with a very strong narrative drive. What surprised me the most, though, was how invested I became in the main characters, Cormoran and Robin, and their working relationship. I binged on the whole series of three books last September and can’t wait for the next book to be published.  A bit of good news – the BBC is making a mini-series out of the first three books which will supposedly air in 2017 on HBO.  I can’t wait!

Well, that was a fun walk down memory lane!

Do you have any sleepers you’d like to share?  Tell me about them in the comments…

 

 

 

Small Pleasures: August Edition

August threw me from the heights of unstructured leisure to the rude awakening of a tightly scheduled existence with barely enough time to catch my breath.  Now, in the middle of September, I realize I never took the time to review the best small pleasures of last month.  They were delightful and deserve the proper amount of recognition and gratitude so I’m posting them without guilt even though summer vacation is long gone.

  1. Stargazing.  Light pollution makes for a very disappointing stargazing experience in my neighborhood.  When we camped in the Adirondacks in early August, I was thrilled to find a visible swath of Milky Way and a glittering mass of stars filling the clear night sky.  My experience was the same as Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman when he sings, “When I look at the stars, I see Someone else, when I look at the stars, I feel like myself.”
  2. Sitting around a campfire on a cool night in the Adirondacks.  This includes hanging with family and making s’mores.  No other explanation needed.
  3. Listening to The Girl With All the Gifts audiobook with my family.  The Girl With All the Gifts is a great book that generated a bit of communal gagging and several stimulating discussions.  There is nothing like vicariously battling zombies to bring a family together.  (Book review can be found here.)
  4. Vistas.  I’m talking about the view from Mount Defiance looking across Fort Ticonderoga and Lake Champlain and the panorama of wilderness from the fire tower on top of Snowy Mountain.  Nothing was much higher than four thousand feet but the views were spectacular and all the more rewarding if effort was required to get my middle-aged, sadly out-of-shape body to the lookout spot (i.e., the 7 mile Snowy Mountain butt-kicking haul).
  5. Kayaking on a perfect summer evening.  Simply sublime…

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