Happiness Reads--Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier

May 10, 2024

It’s been a while since I read a new book about happiness. When I saw the title of this one, I had to pick it up since my word of the year is build: Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, by Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey (2023, Portfolio/Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC). I’m always drawn to the idea that we can do something to create a happier life.

An overview of Build the Life You Want

I think this is a good basic book about happiness, and it’s a pleasant, easy read. While there’s nothing especially new and ground-breaking, it contains some great reminders about ways we can influence our own levels of happiness.

Build the Life You Want is broken into three parts:

1. Understanding happiness and unhappiness.

2. Managing your positive and negative emotions.

3. Building a happier life by focusing on four pillars: family, friends, work, faith.

The book concludes by encouraging readers to “become the [happiness] teacher,” since “The best happiness teachers are the ones who have had to work to gain the knowledge they offer, not the lucky ones who fall out of bed every day in a great mood.” (This one sentence sums up my mission and motivation for creating Catching Happiness!)

A few takeaways that resonated with me

You can have high happiness and high unhappiness at the same time. The two can coexist. You don’t have to wait until all unhappy feelings are gone before you start to get happier.

The “macronutrients” of happiness are: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. Enjoyment goes beyond pleasure by combining it with communion and consciousness—sharing a pleasurable activity with someone else and making a memory together. Satisfaction is the thrill of accomplishing a goal or something you have to work for. And purpose, or meaning, helps us face our struggles with hope and inner peace.

Regarding emotions: “Your emotions are signals to our conscious brain that something is going on that requires your attention and action—that’s all they are. Your conscious brain, if you choose to use it, gets to decide how you will respond to them.”

I loved the suggestion to “choose a better emotion.” You don’t have to accept the emotion you feel first. You can substitute a better one that you want. Use gratitude, humor, hope, and compassion to find and feel more positive emotions.

I’d recommend Build the Life You Want if you want a refresher course in becoming happier.

What are your favorite books about happiness?


Inspiring Discoveries--Morgan Harper Nichols: “I believe art is a form of communication”

November 03, 2023

During this past hard year, another writer/artist whose work has helped me manage my emotions and stay (relatively) positive and calm is Morgan Harper NicholsI thought you might enjoy Nichols’ work, too, so I’m sharing a little about her in today’s post.

Several years ago, I started following Nichols on Instagram, where I frequently bookmarked what she shared because it resonated with me. I read her book Peace Is a Practice when it came out in 2022 and greatly enjoyed it.  Recently, I’ve been checking out her other books, including You Are Only Just Beginning (2023) and How Far You Have Come (2021). There is something very soothing about the combination of her art and words.

Nichols posts frequently to Instagram, and I’ve especially enjoyed her daily affirmations (see below for links). Sometimes just one sentence is all you need to quiet your thoughts.

Nichols is a mixed media artist from the Atlanta, GA area. In 2017, she began creating art and poetry in response to messages she received on social media. In part, her artistic endeavors have come out of struggling with neurodiversity—she was diagnosed with autism at age 30, and diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and SPD (sensory processing disorder) at age 31. As noted in her bio, “Her work features themes of creating room to breathe and how to recognize the ways you are learning and growing in daily life.”

I’m sure you can see why I enjoy her work!

Here are two quotes I copied from Peace Is a Practice:

“What I have learned in writing poetry and making art about peace over the past few years is that peace is a practice. The world practice means ‘to carry out,’ and peace is a way of living that we can carry out each day—maybe not everywhere all at once, but we can learn to find peace and live in its presence.”

“But to fill the page and to pour out, I must first open myself up to inhale it all. I openly witness everything around me, allowing my senses to experience the world fully, what I can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. And furthermore, I don’t try to make sense of it all right away.”

I’m so grateful for the artists and writers whose work has comforted, encouraged, and pushed me not just over this past year, but throughout my life. How dull and sad would it be without the people who share their artistic gifts.

Are there any other writers or artists whose work you especially enjoy? Please share in the comments.

Where to learn more about Morgan Harper Nichols:



Storyteller “daily encouragement” Instagram account (Click here to see October’s daily affirmations) 

November affirmations

And speaking of gratitude…it’s November, and you know what that means: the annual Gratitude Challenge, sponsored by Dani at Positively Present. I plan to post on Instagram and Facebook as often as I can. Join in, or just follow along by following me on Instagram or Facebook. I’ll also have a wrap-up post on Catching Happiness at the end of the month.

Amber Rae

Some Books That Saved My Sanity

July 14, 2023

If you’ve read Catching Happiness for any length of time, you know I love to read. I do it to learn, to be inspired, to be entertained, and to be comforted. Over the past few months, I’ve sought out books that would help me deal with the emotional upheaval and grief I’ve been coping with. I thought I’d share three of the books I turned to for comfort and strength to keep going when my heart is hurting and I feel unequal to the task of living.

1. Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be: Lessons on Change, Loss, and Spiritual Transformation, Lama Surya Das. Talk about the right book at the right time! I bought this on a whim at my library’s used book sale, and I’m so glad I did. I read a few pages every day during the sad time leading up to my mom’s death. Surya Das is the highest trained American lama in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, and practically every page held food for thought.

Takeaway quotes:

“When we lose people we love—and we will all lose people we love—seekers are immediately confronted by a spiritual conundrum: Even though our hearts are breaking, how can we search inward and continue to know and feel the love we all carry at our core? Being separated from those we love invites us to take a fresh and deeper look at the meaning of love itself. This is the major challenge of love.”

“Mourning is a necessary process as well as a deep and significant spiritual experience. It brings us closer to the ground of our being and our felt sense of authenticity. We need to intelligently process our most difficult experiences in order to regain balance, harmony, and inner peace. But there comes a time when it is helpful to seek and find ways to release the pain. Yes, certain losses remain with us; they are part of our history and our karma. But that doesn’t mean that it is appropriate for us to spend our lives grieving. We need to find ways to peacefully coexist with our sadness. We can embrace our pain and our losses and be greater and more authentically real for doing so.”

2. Choose Wonder Over Worry: Moving Beyond Fear and Doubt to Unlock Your Full Potential, Amber Rae. I frequently do battle with fear and worry, so when I heard of this book on The Lazy Genius podcast I almost immediately ordered a copy. According to Rae, Worry says things like, “Am I good enough?” “Does my voice matter?” and “What if I fail?” Wonder says, “How can I get better?” “What do I have to say?” and “Failure=Learning.” A slight alteration in viewpoint, but a powerful one. She discusses the myths of worry and how to combat them, and how wonder and worry can work together when wisdom “runs the show.”

Takeaway quote:

“When Wisdom runs the show, Worry and Wonder respect each other, move as allies, and walk hand in hand in the direction of what is most aligned and true. It’s called The Union.

“The Union is when we welcome fear, sadness, grief, shame, joy, heartbreak, vulnerability, and unworthiness to all have a seat at the table of our heart. It’s when we invite every part of us that we’ve denied, repressed, or abandoned to come forth and join us. Not so that we can ‘fix it’ or ‘make it better’ or ‘overcome it,’ but so we can acknowledge it and embrace it lovingly for what it is: an aspect of who we are. When we do this, we tap in to a wellspring of creativity, connection, vitality, and flow. This is the place from which our greatest contributions, deepest connections, and most profound experiences emerge. This is the place from which we return home to who we are.”

3. Microjoys: Finding Hope (Especially) When Life Is Not Okay, Cyndie Spiegel.  The last two weeks of my mom’s life, when I was staying at her house and visiting her daily in a nursing home, I tried to do one nice thing just for me every day. One day I walked in a botanical garden before seeing my mom. One day all I could manage was a glass of wine and comfort food on the couch. And one day, I had a copy of this book mailed to me at my mom’s address so I could read it while MY life was not okay. Reading these short essays gave me pleasure and helped me become aware of microjoys around me, because as Spiegel wrote, “Amidst everything, these moments of contentment teach us how to hold heartbreak in one hand and stillness in the other.”

Takeaway quotes:

“Microjoys aren’t small. Instead, they are easily accessible, and they don’t require that we reach too far from where we are (in any moment) to discern them. They’re called microjoys because seeking any semblance of great joy in the midst of sorrow simply wasn’t accessible to me when going through the most difficult things.”

From the essay titled “Busy Being Busy”: 

 “Right after my mom died and only months after the death of my nephew, I took to painting walls, making and doing anything that I possible could to avoid sitting with the hardest things. I knew the moment I sat still I would fall apart. And I also knew that I wasn’t yet ready to fall apart.”

[Same! Even though I say I want to rest and recover, I still find myself busy.]

These aren’t the only books I’ve found comfort in over the past few months, but they’re ones I’ve returned to when I’m in need of inspiration and encouragement. Writing this blog post, I’ve felt more like myself than I have in a long, long time. I hope, if you’re in need of some encouraging reading, that you’ll check out one or more of these books.

If you have any favorite comforting and encouraging reads, please share in the comments!


Bookish Plans for Summer 2021

June 04, 2021

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

My favorite thing about summer is more reading time. It’s too hot and humid to do much outside, so why not put my feet up, have a cold drink, and read a book? I have a lot more fun compiling a summer reading list than I do a summer fun list—all those luscious books waiting to be read! My problem is I always choose too many books to get through. But that’s OK, there’s always fall, and winter, and spring, and NEXT summer!

While my usual and very scientific method of choosing my next read is “it sounds good and I feel like reading it,” for my summer reading lists I sometimes add a couple of specific types of books: a writer’s biography, a classic, a comfort reread, a long book, and so on. I’ve also started mixing in a couple of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading Guide recommendations when I can get my hands on them (click here to get your own free guide). Since I tend to read mostly older books, the Reading Guide helps me stay in better touch with contemporary authors.

My summer reading list is not intended to be hard and fast—it’s just supposed to help me expand my choices a little from what I typically read. A gentle nudge rather than a push, so to speak. Here is a tentative list of books I’m thinking of dipping into this summer (all book titles are links if you’d like to learn more):


For my long book, I’m thinking of reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I’m not sure how to describe this one, except that it involves magic and the politics of the Napoleonic wars (?)  People seem to love it or hate it.

I’m very interested in Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin for my writer’s biography. I also just received a copy of May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep, which is more of a journal/memoir than a biography. It appeals to me because I loved Journal of a Solitude and The House by the Sea. Of course, I could kill two books with one stone (long book and writer biography) and tackle my still-unread Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 (clocking in at more than 600 pages of dense type and footnotes)!

A friend gifted me Tirzah Price’s Pride and Premeditation and we’ll be reading it together. This “clever retelling of Pride and Prejudice…reimagines the iconic settings, characters, and romances in a thrilling and high-stakes whodunit.” Sounds fun!

This year, I’m throwing some poetry into the mix with Arias, by Sharon Olds.

I’ve been very slowly rereading Agatha’s Christie’s books in order, so I’ll probably pull The Man in the Brown Suit off my home library shelf to serve as my comfort reread.

I’m undecided on reading a classic. At the moment, I haven’t got one lined up, but that may change. 

I’m in the hold line to read Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me, a Modern Mrs. Darcy recommendation. Many people are ahead of me, so I hope I get to this one before summer’s end. 

In the meantime, I’ll likely pick up another Modern Mrs. Darcy rec that I already had on my radar: Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. 

Between my own shelves and my excellent local library, I’m spoiled for choice. No matter how hot it gets this summer, my reading chair and a stack of good books will be waiting.

Have you read any of my summer book choices? What are you particularly looking forward to reading this summer? 


My Reading Year

December 21, 2020

I’ve been reading everyone else’s end-of-the-year favorite book lists, and OF COURSE I have to chime in. Because reading has been, and will always be (I hope and believe) a constant comfort and joy for me, even when real life is kind of a train wreck.

I’m looking at you, 2020.

So let’s talk books, shall we? Settle in, it might take a while.

The Unread Shelf Project

As of this writing, I’ve read 110 books this year! Many of them from my own stash as I participated in Whitney Conard’s The Unread Shelf Project. While I often try to read from my own TBR shelf each year, if only to keep the books from taking over, The Unread Shelf Project made it more of an adventure to read from my own stacks. One of my favorite devices was “Unread Bingo”—genius! It helped me finish the year strong, as well as choose books that I normally might pass by just so I could get a bingo. I’m finishing a book right now that I’m loving—but it has sat on my shelf for FIVE years. I also “unshelved” a few books, after giving them a shot and determining they were not of interest to me anymore. Whitney just unveiled the 2021 Unread Shelf Project, if you’re interested in joining in. 

Monthly favorites and more

Every month in the Happy Little Thoughts newsletter (sign up here), I share my two favorite reads (see below), but of course there have been other books I’ve read that have made an impact that deserve a mention.

I finished Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi, back in September. This was a thick book on difficult subject matter, but also well-written and very interesting. I have a lot to learn about racism and the experience of people who are not white, and this was a good place for me to start. 

The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss. My mother-in-law gave me this book because of the horse connection. What I discovered was a beautifully written, gentle story, and an author I’d like to read more of.

Educated, by Tara Westover. This sometimes-harrowing memoir of growing up in a survivalist Mormon family was one of the most gripping books I read all year. 

The Stranger Inside, Lisa Unger. I’ve read several of Unger’s books, and they are twisty page-turners. I went to hear her speak in Tampa on one of my last public outings before the pandemic changed all our lives. 

I discovered a couple of new-to-me series I want to keep reading: Susan Wittig Albert’s The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and Jodi Taylor’s The Chronicles of St. Mary’s. 

For comfort, I reread several of the Anne of Green Gables books, a few Agatha Christie mysteries, and Paris Letters, by Janice MacLeod. (I’m surprised I didn’t do more comfort rereading this year.)

Monthly favorites from Happy Little Thoughts:

Jan.: Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman; The Sidetracked Sisters Happiness File, Pam Young and Peggy Jones

Feb.: The Hazel Wood, Melissa Albert; The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman

March: This Must Be the Place, Marrie O’Farrell; Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin

April: A Better Man, Louise Penny; Marry Your Muse: Making a Lasting Commitment to Your Creativity, Jan Phillips

May: Venetia, Georgette Heyer; Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten Path, Erin Loechner

June: The Stranger Diaries, Elly Griffiths; The Muse Is In: An Owner's Manual to Your Creativity, Jill Badonsky

July: Before the Coffee Gets Cold, Toshikazu Kawaguchi; Broken Places & Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected, Nnedi Okorafor

August: Love Lettering, Kate Clayborn; L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, David Leibovitz

Sept.: The Two Lives of Lydia Bird, Josie Silver; Look Alive Out There, Sloane Crosley

Oct.: All the Devils Are Here, Louise Penny; Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett

Nov.: Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry; The Dance of Intimacy: A Womans Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships, Harriet Lerner

As usual, my reading was all over the place, since mostly I read at whim whatever sounds most interesting to me at the time. In 2020, I think that was just the right approach to take.

What did your reading year look like? Did you read more or less than usual? Any books that especially made an impact? Do share in the comments below. Because my TBR list isn’t long enough…

Agatha Christie

Celebrating 100 Years of Agatha Christie

November 11, 2020

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

― Agatha Christie

This year marks an important anniversary for those who love Agatha Christie’s books: the 100th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring her famous Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. Remarkably, even now, 44 years after her death, versions of her books are still being adapted for film and television, like Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming Death on the Nile or Amazon Prime’s Crooked House. In addition, with the Christie estate’s blessing, author Sophie Hannah has written four “Poirot continuation novels.” (Has anyone read these? I haven’t yet, but I’ve heard good things.) 

Agatha and me

In the mists of my memory, it was my mom who introduced me to “Aggie” as we affectionately called her. I took it from there, devouring her entire collection of novels, including the non-crime books she wrote as Mary Westmacott (I wrote about my favorite of these here) by the time I was in my 20s. I believe I own every mystery novel and American collection of short stories she wrote, or close to it, mostly in secondhand paperbacks, some of which are beginning to show their age. Even though I’ve read all of them, sometimes more than once, I don’t always remember whodunit. 

I often turn to Christie for a comfort read. Her stories are interesting, her characters are memorable, and in general the books move briskly along. Most of the puzzles confound me, but I don’t mind. I just sit back and watch the fun, without trying to solve the crime. Her books don’t trigger anxiety or give me nightmares, so they make good before bed reading. The solutions are satisfyingly tidy, in a world that is unsatisfyingly messy. Somewhat to my surprise, I don’t have a favorite of her novels, possibly because there are so many to choose from!

She was a lover of dogs, food, travel, and an intensely private person. I admire her for her adventurous spirit and incredible imagination and productivity.

The secret notebooks

One of the most interesting books I read was Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making, by John Curran. Curran had access to the 73 surviving notebooks Christie used to jot ideas about plots and characters. As Christie said, “I usually have about half a dozen (notebooks) on hand and I used to make notes in them of ideas that struck me, or about some poison or drug, or a clever little bit of swindling that I had read about in the paper.”

Some of the notebooks, from the endpapers of Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks

Curran wrote, “The process of production was…random and haphazard. And yet, this seeming randomness was transformed into an annual bestseller and for many years into more than one bestseller. For over 50 years she delivered the latest ‘Christie for Christmas’ to her agent; for 20 years she presented London’s West End with one box-office success after another; she kept magazine editors busy editing her latest offering. And all of them—novels, short stories and plays—flow with the fluid precision of the Changing of the Guard.”

Curran also noted, “During the height of her powers publication could hardly keep pace with creation—1934 saw the publication of no fewer than four crime titles and a Mary Westmacott, the name under which she wrote six non-crime novels published between 1930 and 1956. And this remarkable output is also a factor in her continuing success. It is possible to read a different Christie title every month for almost seven years; and at that state it is possible to start all over again safe in the knowledge that you will have forgotten the earliest. And it is possible to watch a different Agatha Christie dramatisation every month for two years.”

Here are a few tidbits I found interesting about the woman and her writing (much of the following information came from, where you can also find quizzes, film recommendations, and much more about Agatha Christie’s life and work):

  • Her father was an American, Frederick Alva Miller, from a wealthy, upper class family.
  • She was educated at home by nurses and governesses and never went to school.
  • She sang and played the piano, and considered becoming either an opera singer or a concert pianist. Her voice was deemed not strong enough for operatic roles, and her crippling stage fright when playing the piano made her temperamentally unsuited to being a concert pianist.

  • She worked in a dispensary during World War I where she learned all about poisons.
  • Her first marriage, to Archie Christie, ended in divorce in 1928. They had one daughter, Rosalind. In 1926 after a quarrel with Archie, Christie vanished for 11 days, eventually turning up at Harrowgate Spa Hotel, registered under the name of Theresa Neale. She claimed amnesia, and never spoke of this time with friends or family.
  • Her second, very happy marriage was to Max Mallowan, an archaeologist who was 14 years younger than she. She once said, “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.”

  • Christie was also a successful playwright. Her play The Mousetrap is the longest running play in the world. It had been running since 1952 until shut down in March due to the coronavirus. My family and I saw it in London in 1989!
  • That first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was written on a dare from her older sister Madge. It was rejected by six publishers before Bodley Head took it on, and published it in 1920.
  • Christie’s maternal grandmother and her friends inspired the creation of Miss Marple, Christie’s other well-known sleuth.
  • More than two billion Christie books have been published. She’s outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare.
  • One of Christie’s most popular titles, The A.B.C. Murders, was one of the first books to feature what has become a staple of crime fiction, a serial killer. That phrase did not exist at the time.
  • She wrote her autobiography over a period of 15 years (1950-1965), but it wasn’t published until a year after her death.

And those are just a few of the interesting facts about this remarkable woman! If I’ve piqued your interest, check out, or one of the books from the list below.

Have you read any of Agatha Christie’s books? Which one is your favorite?

Recommended reading (click on book titles to learn more):

Any of her crime novels (click here for a list) 

The non-crime Mary Westmacott novels  

An Autobiography, Agatha Christie

Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir, Agatha Christie Mallowan

Agatha Christie: A Biography, Janet Morgan. Reading this right now!

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making, John Curran. Probably too much minutiae for the casual fan, but I enjoyed the peek into Christie’s handwritten notebooks.

The Grand Tour: Around the World With the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie. I’ve borrowed this from the library but haven’t started reading it yet.

Agatha Christie At Home, Hilary Macaskill. Photos and information about Christie’s favorite home, Greenway, in Devon.



In Honor of My First Library Book Checkout in More Than Two Months

May 29, 2020

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

“Books are more than doctors, of course. Some novels are loving, lifelong companions; some give you a clip around the ear; others are friends who wrap you in warm towels when you’ve got those autumn blues. And some…well, some are pink candy floss that tingles in your brain for three seconds and leaves a blissful void. Like a short, torrid love affair.”
—The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George

As I posted on Instagram yesterday, my local library system is gradually reopening, and one of my library holds came in and I picked it up via appointment. We're not yet allowed inside the library itself, so I’m eagerly awaiting the day I can indulge in the simple pleasure of wandering the stacks, breathing in the smell of books, and choosing a new read at random from the shelves. 

Artist's dates

Field Trip Friday—Books and Bites with Author Lisa Unger

February 21, 2020

Lisa Unger with yours truly

It’s been far too long since I allowed myself either an artist’s date or a Field Trip Friday, so today I rolled them into one and headed to Tampa for a Friends of the Library event featuring bestselling author Lisa Unger

Unger is the author of 17 novels, her books have been published in 26 languages, and she’s been nominated for multiple awards, notably two Edgars* in 2019, an honor only a few authors can claim. She describes her work as “character-driven psychological suspense,” and I can attest that her books are hard to put down. I've only read a few of them, so I was excited to see how many I have left to enjoy. My next read will be the signed copy of her most recent book, The Stranger Inside, that came home with me! 

After we enjoyed lunch provided by local restaurant La Segunda, Unger shared some of her background and her writing process. Then she took questions. After her talk and the question and answer period, she signed books and chatted with attendees. Her husband kindly took the photo of us together that you see above. 

A few things that I found especially interesting:

Her family moved a lot and Unger was frequently the new kid. “The page was my first home,” she said. (Me, too!)

She’s been a writer all her life (“I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t define myself that way,” she said), though she didn't think she’d be able to write for a living, a belief influenced by her engineer father who didn’t think writing was a job.

She inherited her love of story from her librarian mother, who shared all types of books and movies with her daughter as she was growing up. Of her mother’s bookshelves, Unger said, “If I could reach it, I could read it.”

After attending college in New York, where she studied all kinds of writing from poetry, to screenwriting, to journalism, Unger took a job in book publishing, because it was the closest thing she could find to her dream. She worked in publicity, helping authors with book tours and planning events, and was so good at it that her time available to write kept shrinking.

Eventually, she had an epiphany. “I was in the wrong job and I was with the wrong guy. I wasn’t doing the thing I wanted to do. I’d never even tried.” She decided she could live with failure, but not a “slow fade to nothing.” She kept her job (but broke up with that guy), and started writing every day, making it a priority to work on a novel she’d started at age 19.  One and a half years later, at age 29, she finished.

When Unger completed her novel and went about trying to find an agent for it, she admits she was scared. It wasn’t just her book that was on the line, it was her identity: “Who am I if I am not this?” she said. Fortunately for all of us, that book found an agent, and that agent got Unger a two-book deal. Angel Fire, the first of four books in the Lydia Strong series, was published in 2002. (Miscione is Unger’s maiden name.)

It takes her nine months to a year to complete a first draft, followed by several more drafts, as well as “the second part of the creative process,” which she explained is the discussion and incorporation of notes she receives from her husband, editor, and agent. These help her manuscript to become the best possible book. It takes another year between when the book is first turned in until it’s ready for publishing. She never opens the finished book, because by then there’s nothing she can change about it!

She met her husband at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West. It was love at first sight, at least on her part, she said. They’ve been married for 20 years, and have a 14-year-old daughter.

On writing books:

A lot of people want to write a book, even make plans to write one. It’s an accomplishment just to finish a manuscript. Whether or not it gets published.

You should do it because you cannot not do it. Getting published is beside the point. It’s always about the work, the writing.

I’ve been feeling very blah about writing lately (witness the lack of entries on this here blog), and while I’ve been making it a point to sit down to write something nearly every day, I’ve definitely been lacking a spark. I’m so glad I took the time to go to this author talk, because not only was Unger herself charming, warm, and easy to approach, she inspired me to come home and sit down in front of my laptop. It’s a start. 

*Edgar Allan Poe Awards, presented annually by the Mystery Writers of America

To learn more about Lisa Unger and her books, please visit, or her Amazon author’s page.


Summertime and the Reading Is Easy

July 22, 2019

Nearly every day I find myself drenched in sweat—we’re talking “wring out your t-shirt” sweat (too much information?). That’s because Florida has experienced record-breaking heat since May. Not only am I avoiding the outdoors as much as I can, on the days when I do have to go outside (the dog needs walking, the horse needs tending to), the heat drains my energy so much that after taking a swig of an electrolyte drink, I often plop myself down to read…and sometimes I drop off into a nap, but we won’t tell my husband that. Except he reads the blog, so I guess I just did. Oops.

Anyway, I digress. Blame it on the heat addling my brain.

I’ve been zipping through my summer reading list, and I’ve also been enjoying a couple of the books I found on this blog post by Modern Mrs. Darcy. Do not read her blog unless you want your TBR list to explode. From my own shelves, I finished Ride With Your Mind, and read Vanishing Point, by Patricia Wentworth, a very enjoyable mystery featuring Miss Maud Silver.

My library holds did all come in at once as I suspected they would, but I was able to read the ones that had to go back because other people were waiting for them, and hold on to others for a longer period, so it’s all worked out OK so far.

Here are some of my favorites:

The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa See (Scribner, 2019) was not at all what I expected and at times it was an intense read. Set on the Korean island of Jeju, it followed the lives and friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja, and the forces that draw them together and tear them apart. I really loved the peek into a culture I know nothing about. Well worth reading.

Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog, Dave Barry (Simon & Schuster 2019). One of the library holds. I’ve loved Dave Barry’s writing for 30 years—he’s made me laugh out loud hundreds of times. This book, while still funny, is more thoughtful than some of his previous work. He’s 70 now, and his college-age daughter experienced a life-changing illness that clearly shook him up. The dog doesn’t die in the book, so that’s always a plus!

Wolfpack, Abby Wambach (Celadon Books, 2019). This slim book was based on Wambach’s viral 2018 commencement speech to the graduating class of New York’s Barnard College. Her vision of leadership inspired me, and I copied out several quotes from the book, including:

“Imperfect men have been empowered and permitted to run the world since the beginning of time. It’s time for imperfect women to grant themselves permission to join them.

“Perfection is not a prerequisite of leadership. But we can forgive ourselves for believing it is.

“We have been living by the old rules that insist that a woman must be perfect before she’s worthy of showing up. Since no one is perfect, this rule is an effective way to keep women out of leadership preemptively.”

The Year of Pleasures, by Elizabeth Berg (Random House, 2005) was a Modern Mrs. Darcy suggestion. It follows a recent widow, 55-year-year old Betta, as she begins a new life without her beloved husband, John. An easy and pleasant read, if a little too “neat.” One of my favorite things was minor character Jovani’s mangling of the English language.

I’m two-thirds of the way through another Modern Mrs. Darcy suggestion, Celine, by Peter Heller (Vintage 2017). So far I’m loving it, especially the descriptions of nature. Heller often writes for Outside magazine and National Geographic Adventure and it shows. Celine is a private detective who specializes in reuniting families. She’s also a 68-year-old woman with emphysema—not your typical PI!

What’s next? I’ve just started to read Mansfield Park and the Autobiography of Mark Twain over the weekend. Mark Twain is intimidatingly large, but I’m going to do my best to finish in the next few months. I’m not as familiar with Mansfield Park as I am with other Jane Austen titles, so I plan to take my time getting the most out of it.

And a couple more library holds just came in. Thank goodness I have plenty to read, because it’s going to be summertime here for the foreseeable future.

What have you been reading lately?


It’s Sooooo Hot and All I Want to Do Is Read

June 10, 2019

Last week a friend asked me what I planned to read this summer. Um, everything, and never go outside again until December?

Sadly, that will not happen. I have been mulling over what I want to read this summer, though. I often make a summer reading list, if only to try to get a few books off my TBR shelf/list. (Click here or here for previous lists.)  I’m a highly distractible reader, always diverting into unlooked-for paths (newest obsession: Lucy Knisley’s graphic memoirs), constantly seduced by unexpected reading tangents. 

Here is my tentative summer reading list for 2019:

I like to read the biography or autobiography of a writer every summer, so this year my major reading goal will be the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1. It looks like there are three volumes, but for now I’m only tackling the first. At 679 pages, it should take me a while.

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen. Looks like the Kindle version is free, but I have a pretty print hardcover version that is part of a set. This will be my summer classic.

At least one book from Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading Guide, perhaps The Island of Sea Women (one of my library holds, see below) or The Mother-In-Law

My library holds. I currently have eight books reserved, and even though I’m in varying positions on the hold list, sure as I’m alive, they will all become available the same week and I’ll have a mini nervous breakdown trying to read them all within the time allotted.

From my own TBR shelf:

Ride with Your Mind, Mary Wanless. Already in progress.

The Foundling, Georgette Heyer. I have several of her books on my shelf, but I’ve already started this one. If you’re looking for a fun, light read, you can’t go wrong with Heyer.

An art or creativity book, possibly The Journal Junkies Workshop, or The Muse Is In.

Though it’s likely I’ll go off on other reading tangents, I hope to finish these books this summer. Since “summer” here lasts until November I have a pretty good chance.

What do you plan to read this summer?


Catching Happiness Inspiration—Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance

March 18, 2019

In 1995, Sarah Ban Breathnach published Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. I don’t remember how I heard about it, or even if I bought my copy soon after it was published, but I expect I did. Even then, I was attracted to its concepts, and I loved the daybook format, where I could read little bits of inspiration in bite-sized pieces. In 1995, I was a young mother, my son less than a year old, and that first year was tough for many reasons. I can easily see myself turning to a book like this for encouragement.

Her message of appreciating the small and simple joys of life may not seem unusual to you now, but in the 1990s it was almost revolutionary. As Jesse Kornbluth wrote in a piece for the Huffington Post, “In today’s radically different America, we hear this message all the time. Live small. Cook slow. Back then, it was a fire bell in the night—and the start of a new media phenomenon.”

A little about Sarah Ban Breathnach and Simple Abundance:

  • Her name is pronounced “Bon Brannock.”
  • Simple Abundance has sold over five million copies in the US and topped the New York Times Bestsellers list for two years.
  • Simple Abundance is responsible for introducing two concepts—the “Gratitude Journal” and the term “authentic self" into the American conversation.
  • She’s the author of 13 books. In addition to Simple Abundance, she wrote Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self, Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Path to Financial Serenity, and she created The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude
  • Ban Breathnach has weathered some serious ups and downs, including failed marriages, an accident that left her bedridden, and losing all the money she made from Simple Abundance

My copy of Simple Abundance boasts faded yellow highlighting on many pages. Here are a few of the highlighted passages:

“Today I want you to become aware that you already possess all the inner wisdom, strength, and creativity needed to make your dreams come true…. When we can’t access our inner resources, we come to the flawed conclusion that happiness and fulfillment come only from external events.” 
(“Simple Abundance: The Inner Journey,” January 3)

“What is missing from many of our days is a true sense that we are enjoying the lives we are living. It is difficult to experience moments of happiness if we are not aware of what it is we genuinely love.”
(“How Happy Are You Right Now?” January 7)

“But only we can make sure we will be fulfilled. If we feel empty, no amount of water can fill our well. It has to come from within, from the underground springs and streams.” 
(“Job, Career, or Calling?” September 5)

I had forgotten how many of the suggestions put forth in Simple Abundance I’ve experimented with. For example, I have an “Illustrated Discovery Journal” (January 28), take the occasional “Creative Excursion” (February 1), and have, at times, possessed a “Comfort Drawer” (March 7).

I suspect her influence lurked deep in my heart when I created Catching Happiness with its focus on simple pleasures and everyday adventures. It’s also my secret ambition to write a book similar in format to Simple Abundance—a daybook to which readers could turn for a little inspiration and encouragement. Perhaps it’s time to start writing, and to start mining Catching Happiness for material to be included.

I’ll reread parts of Simple Abundance this year for inspiration. I think Sarah Ban Breathnach would approve.

Have you ever read Simple Abundance, or any of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s work? What did you think? Is there another daybook or author you’ve found inspirational or encouraging?

Aesthetics of joy

The “Aesthetics of Joy”—Creating an Environment That Boosts Happiness

January 28, 2019

While it’s true that a good measure of our happiness depends on internal factors like attitudes and beliefs, it’s NOT true that our environment has nothing to do with feelings of joy and happiness.

Designer Ingrid Fetell Lee’s 2018 book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, (Little, Brown Spark) is all about how the “seemingly mundane spaces and objects we interact with every day have surprising and powerful effects on our mood.”

Lee calls these the “aesthetics of joy,” and they are: energy, abundance, freedom, harmony, play, surprise, transcendence, magic, celebration, renewal.

Joyful is one of the most intriguing books on happiness I’ve read. It was interesting to read the scientific reasoning behind why certain objects and spaces lift the spirits while others depress them. Lee’s thorough examination of the factors that contribute to joy was thought-provoking—from the questions (on page 10) that help you determine if your surroundings are joyful or not (including “How often do you laugh?”, “What emotions do you feel when you walk into your home at the end of the day? How about when you enter each room?”, “Who are the most joyful people in your life? How often do you see them?” and “What are your ‘happy places’? Are any within ten miles of your home? When was the last time you visited one?”) to her statement that, “At the heart of this book lies the idea that joy isn't just something we find. It’s also something we can make, for ourselves and for those around us.”

She continues, “You can use this book as a field guide to spotting and savoring more joy in your surroundings, to help you gain a better understanding of why certain things and places light you up inside. And you can also use it as a palette, to design and craft more joy into your world.”

You can also download a “Joyful Toolkit” at Lee's blog, These worksheets will take you through exercises to discover what brings you joy, as well as what activities, people, and places kill your joy. 

I’ve unconsciously been pursing the aesthetics of joy through what I call simple pleasures and everyday adventures. My penchant for pretty notebooks and painting my home office lavender are just two small examples. Now Joyful has given me a whole raft of things to think about and experiment with in regard to what places, people, and activities bring me joy. I definitely recommend it if you want to find simple, doable actions that will make you feel more joyful.

What would add joy and happiness to your life today? 

Armchair travel

J’aime Les Livres Sur Paris*

September 17, 2018

Photo courtesy Sierra Maciorowski via Pixabay

For the past six months or more, I’ve been reading Paris…novels set in Paris, collections of essays and excerpts from larger works on Paris, guidebooks about Paris…

Did I mention, I’m going to Paris?

If you’re going to Paris, too, or even if your travel is of the armchair variety, here are a few of the most interesting livres I’ve come across:


Paris By the Book, Liam Callanan. This was one of my favorites, though it got mixed reviews on Amazon. Protagonist Leah moves with her two daughters to Paris after her “eccentric novelist” husband vanishes, leaving behind plane tickets for Paris hidden in an unexpected place. When Leah discovers an unfinished manuscript her husband was writing, set in Paris, she and her girls “follow the path of the manuscript to a small, floundering English-language bookstore whose weary proprietor is eager to sell.” (Amazon) Books, exploring Paris, a little mystery (Is Leah’s husband dead or alive?)—I found it delightful.

13, Rue Therese, Elena Mauli Shapiro. Another intriguing story, following American academic Trevor Stratton as he sifts through a box of artifacts from World War I related to the life of Frenchwoman Louise Brunet. As he imagines what her life was like, he begins to fall in love with his alluring French clerk, Josianne.

The Light of Paris, Eleanor Brown. The intertwining stories of Madeleine, trapped in an unhappy marriage and reconnecting with her own essential self and Madeleine’s grandmother, Maggie, whose youthful diary Madeleine discovers reveals a completely different woman than she remembers.

The Little Paris Book Shop, Nina George. Monsieur Perdu prescribes novels for the hardships of life from his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine. I’m possibly the last person alive to read this, but I picked up a copy at my library’s used bookstore for a dollar last week.

Hunting and Gathering, Ana Gavalda. “A winning portrait of a group of misfits who band together to form their own family,” according to Booklist. This sounds so good to me, I’m going to try to squeeze it in before I leave. 

Paris: The Novel, Edward Rutherfurd. I’ve never read anything by Edward Rutherford, but several family members have recommended him, so I loaded this chunky historical novel onto my Kindle to take with me. Gotta have something to read on those long plane rides.


A Paris All Your Own, edited by Eleanor Brown. All-new Paris-themed essays written by best-selling writers of women’s fiction. Not only did I enjoy the essays, I added a number of books to my TBR list while reading this.

A Paris Year, Janie MacLeod. I reread this (I wrote about it here) and jotted a few notes. 

Paris in Stride: An Insider’s Walking Guide, Jesse Kanelos Weiner and Sarah Moroz. I’m probably taking this one with me—not only for the recommendations, but for the inspiration of the charming watercolor illustration.

Paris in Mind, edited by Jennifer Lee. I’m reading this right now. Excerpts from writings by everyone Thomas Jefferson, Sylvia Beach (who writes about opening the Shakespeare and Company bookstore), Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, David Sedaris, Dave Barry, and many more.

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City, Joan DeJean. Notably, I haven’t read anything about the history of Paris, so I put this book on my TBR list. Likely won’t get to it before I leave, but there’s plenty of time to read when I get home.

The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, by Edmund White is another for the TBR list. “A collection of impressions” (Publisher’s Weekly), it sounds intriguing.

When I type “Paris” into Amazon’s search bar, it returns 50,000 results, so I know I’ve just barely scratched the surface of Paris-themed books! Which of your favorites did I leave out? Please share in the comments!

*“I love books about Paris”