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Books I enjoyed the most in 2015

In chronological order of reading:

Beautiful Ruins (Jess Walter)
I found a copy of this novel in our Little Free Library. I tried reading it several times and kept putting it down… but it had so many positive reviews splashed on the cover (notably, a plug from Fresh Air’s Maureen Corrigan, whom I love) that I felt like I couldn’t give up. Once I got past the first chapter, I was sucked in. It’s witty and entertaining while still being smart. The chapters alternate point of view and even genre — there’s a romance that spans decades, a contemporary tale about a screenwriter attempting to Hollywood-ize the grisly Donnor Party story, a chapter from a war novel. After I read the book, I discovered it was actually the Centre County Reads novel of the year, and Jess Walter came to town for a talk! My colleague interviewed him. He was witty and entertaining and smart. ❤

I pitched in to help my colleague record this event for her interview show and there were so many technical difficulties. Walters was so down-to-earth and kind. And he was so generous with his stories. He told one about how he caught his wife sneak-reading Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto instead of his own manuscript. Ha!

Station Eleven (Emily St. James Mandel)
I can’t remember how I first heard of this book — maybe from one of the blogs I read. This may be the book I recommend the most widely. It’s a dystopian novel that isn’t caught up in its own drama. I found the unraveling of the world as we know it believable and thought-provoking.

The Martian (Andy Weir)
My brother-in-law, Luke, recommended this to me. Then one of my best friends from college visited us for a couple of days over the summer and she spent an entire night holed up reading this book instead of hanging out with me. When I read the book myself, I got it. It is so FUN. I love how inside-baseball Mark Watney gets about space botany. This would be the book I would recommend most unreservedly if not for 1) the profanity, which some people would not enjoy and 2) the fact that many people have probably already watched the movie.

State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)
For years, I had this book confused with Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, which I had already read. When I finally figured out my mistake, I downloaded it for a plane ride and ended up reading it from cover to cover. It’s a literary thriller that sucks you into its foreign — and feverishly surreal — world. When I finished, I almost felt like I needed to come up for air. As a former intercultural studies major, I got a kick out of the anthropological angle. While I’d recommend it, it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Fates and Furies (Lauren Groff)
I read this tome on a plane ride back to America and I wasn’t tempted by the seat-back entertainment once (not that that’s a surprise to anyone who knows me. I hate watching movies on airplanes). This is dark, disturbing, and brilliant. Lauren Groff writes beautifully (if a bit self-consciously. So many new vocab words!). The first half of the book tells the story of a husband; the second half of a wife. Although I liked one half of the book much better than the other, I have a feeling that was the point. I would recommend this carefully and with reservations. (Again, it’s dark.)

Wonder (R.J. Palacio)
I read this in one sitting after school when several students recommended it to me. It’s a lovely book that teaches empathy. Recommend to all, young and old.

Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
Some friends and I started a book club (something I’ve dreamed of doing my entire adult life) because we all wanted to read this book. I’ve actually owned and given away at least five copies of this book over the years (odd when I never read it myself, I know). The four of us in the book club had strikingly different perspectives on it (and liked it in varying degrees), which led to a lively discussion. The themes were quite moving to me and I found the writing, at times, profound. I’d recommend this with the caveat that it is not a page-turner in the traditional sense of the word.



A friend asked me today which of our previous homes I like best.

I feel really lucky — we’ve lived in so many wonderful homes and I’ve genuinely loved them all.

Here’s a timeline, in photos (of varying quality), of all the places we’ve lived since we got married. Brace yourself. This is long!

Our First Apartment
Leonard Ave. — Summer 2006  

Our first place was a one-bedroom, “railroad” style apartment in the tiny town of Houghton, NY. It’s such a small, safe town, we never got a key from the landlord. The living room flowed right into a kitchen (the previous owner painted it sage green, mustard yellow, and burgundy — very 00s coffee shop), which flowed into the single bedroom and single bath. The best part was a giant front porch accessible through the front window. There was much to hate about the place — drop ceilings, old rotting windowsills, crazy paint jobs… but we loved it because it was our first married home.

We got the crock by the front door as a wedding present, but it didn’t come with a card. We never figured out who it was from.
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Classic first apartment: storage trunk coffee table, unframed map poster on the wall.
We painted the walls in the bedroom even though we only lived there for a couple months! Also, I have since learned to hang frames at eye-level. 🙂
I really wish we had kept that rug.


Thatched Cottage
Masumbo, Southern Tanzania (Fall 2006 – Spring 2007)

We moved to Tanzania two months after we got married. Paul worked for Houghton’s study abroad program and I worked as a tutor for a staff family (and moonlit as a resident advisor for the college students). We first lived in a tiny thatched cottage. Moving into this house felt like such an adventure! I can still vividly remember how the place smelled like wood varnish and our vanilla Yankee candles. I have great memories of hosting groups of students in the tiny living room.

So charming, right?
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Those chairs were not very comfortable.
Note the mosquito net — I never got used to sleeping under one!

Continue reading “Homes”

Poetry challenge

Anna and I challenged each other to write a poem.

My criteria for her: it has to be about life and it has to rhyme.

Random Words

I was born and I will die.
But everybody loves my pie!

I will come and I will go
But my wishes go a-flow.

My family loves everything.
But to my friends I will sing.

by Anna Shaffner, age 7


Her criteria for me: it has to be about a giraffe who travels the world. At one point he has to get on a hot air balloon. And it has to rhyme. Continue reading “Poetry challenge”



That’s my word of the year.

Brace yourself while I channel middle school essays (of which I am now an expert) by leading with a definition: an online dictionary (ha) defines equanimity as “mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain; calmness; equilibrium.” 

One of the things I like most about myself is my passion. I champion causes. I give satisfying reactions when I hear good news (or so I’ve been told). I genuinely give a damn. The ugly underside is I am terribly emotional, and my emotions rule me. One terse word can send me into a funk for a day. One perusal into Trump’s Twitter feed can leave me despairing. I take it personally when my kids —and students — have bad days.

I don’t want to change who I am, per se, but I do want to grow up a little. I want to choose what I let affect me. And that’s the key with this word of the year — I’m not resolving to be calmer all around (that might get boring). I’m resolving to react with… equanimity.

I also want to have grace under the pressure of grading, paperwork, schedules, and all the details that drive me crazy every day. (Basically, I want to be more organized. This doesn’t really relate to equanimity, but whatever.)

Here’s to an even-keeled, organized, cool-under-pressure Kate in 2016. 😉 I think my studnets

Here’s a nice, relaxing photo of Hehuan Shan from our recent vacation to start the year right.


Boxing Day = Grading Day

We had a lovely Christmas with new friends and new traditions. (More about our vacation later.)

Today, I’m camped out in my classroom frantically trying to finish grading and report card comments before we embark on our round-the-island adventure.


One thing about being an English teacher I’ve found 100% true = the grading never, ever ends.

But the thing is, after a week of vacation, it’s (shhhhh…) actually kind of nice to be back at work for a while.

Quick update

  • Paul is back in the US for 10 days. Every time he leaves, I’m reminded of what a GREAT husband and father he is… Sunday morning, I found myself thinking: “Wait, does this mean I have to make my own coffee?” 🙂
  • I turned 33 this month. I had a great birthday weekend. It was busy and wonderful: I got time with good friends, a little adventure involving a train and a new-to-me city, a swim at a waterfall, and some sweet presents.IMG_8649
  • I’ve really been enjoying Spotify’s Discover playlist. Whatever data-mining they’re doing is working. It’s pretty great. I only skip maybe 1/4 or 1/5 songs.
  • I read this NYT article about the “modern family” and wow, it really hit home. That’s how we used to feel all the time. Which leads me to…
  • We really love it here. We feel so fortunate that we get to live the roles we like — I’m working full-time and Paul works part-time and takes care of home responsibilities. I looooooove having a house husband (ha ha) — and Paul likes being one! Paul and I often joke (darkly) that our personalities aren’t super compatible (we have completely different senses of humor and our communication styles are laughably at odds), but our desired lifestyles sure are compatible.
  • The best part of living here is the community.  Playdates, which used to be stressful and time-consuming, happen organically (and often — we have kids knocking on our door every weekend). When I’m in need of human interaction, I take the elevator downstairs and sit in the common area, where I chat with various passing neighbors. It’s like we’ve traveled back in time to an era when kids had freedom to run around on their own and neighbors were friends.
  • Surprise — I really like teaching! My kids are great. They are so fun. And middle school is such a crazy and hilarious age.
  • I really miss audio. I haven’t had many opportunities to listen to anything but music lately, but the other night, a friend sent a link to a podcast so I checked it out. The actual piece was fascinating, but what really got me was the craft of the audio — I ache for the particular challenge of “gathering sound” and piecing together a story.
  • All of this seems pointless and slightly insane in light of all the tragedy and despair around us. I am often bewildered by the fact that life can go on in all its triviality here while someone is in unimaginable pain there. Peace on earth — that’s the cry of my heart.