Book Review: The Heirs by Susan Rieger

The Heirs by Susan Rieger.

The Heirs by Susan Rieger.

I wasn't terribly interested in reading this book, based on the subject matter alone — it's about a wealthy, WASP-y family (with five sons who refer to themselves as — and I quote — the "Five Famous, Fierce, Forceful, Faithful, Fabled, Fortunate, Fearless Falkeses" — that moniker alone made me want to put the book down). We've established that an inordinate percentage of lauded "literature" revolves around the trials and tribulations of privileged white men and frankly, at this point, I'm just tired. The thought of reading about SIX privileged white men (the Five... Falkes + their dad) made me feel really tired. 

But — but! — I decided to give the book a shot and, lo and behold, I was rapidly hooked, despite myself. Rieger writes with spare — even brusque — sentences and the pace leaves no time for weariness. After the first few pages (in which we immediately discover that patriarch Rupert Falkes is dying, and then get a high-speed account of his blue-blood wife Eleanor's back story) I found myself thinking, "She's just telling us everything, straight up! How in the world is Rieger going to keep this up for 254 pages?"  

But she does! We soon find ourselves immersed in the kinds of conflicts rich people encounter, like a posthumous paternity claim, unrequited love, mid-life crises, anti-Semitic in-laws (almost all of which can be solved by $$$). To me, the magic of the book is that I loved reading it, even though I didn't truly care about anyone's problems, and that's simply a credit to Rieger's clever writing. I love her way of taking any overwrought drama out of the soap opera-worthy storylines; the cool absence of emotion is, remarkably, delightful. Rieger just tell it like it is, tongue firmly in cheek. 

It's not a perfect book. Most notably, the Five Famous... Falkes are faintly ridiculous two-dimensional stereotypes. To be honest, I still can't tell you which one Tom is. (The trumpet player? The nice one? Or is that Will? There IS a Tom, right?) I didn't care enough about them to keep the characters straight, not did I particularly want to hang out with any of them. I definitely didn't want to hang out with oldest-child Harry. But Eleanor and Rupert — and their marriage — are endlessly fascinating. I loved that no one really understands Eleanor, but no one can help but admire her. She reminds me of a warmer take on Clarissa Dalloway (a good thing, in my book). 

All in all, The Heirs is fun but smart  — high-brow summer reading, the perfect pick for the beginning of summer break. Recommended! 

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.

Design Mom Living With Kids House Tour

I love Design Mom (Gabrielle Blair seems like she would make an excellent friend — she is so smart and thoughtful) and it is very cool to see our humble-but-beloved Taiwan apartment featured this week! I am especially happy about this little tribute to our home because we'll be in a different apartment next year.

Working on this post reminded me, yet again, to be thankful for our home and life here. 

Enjoy! (Warning: it's long.)

Catching up

SPRING BREAK

We decided a mere four days before break to head to the Philippines for Easter vacation. I'm so glad we did! It was a very relaxing week. My parents live in a high rise apartment building right in the middle of a shopping district. It's such a change of pace to live an elevator ride away from a mall. In the week we were there, we got to go out for coffee every day, swim in a rooftop pool, and — best of all — spend time with family.

The sunrise from our apartment window our first day in the Philippines.

The sunrise from our apartment window our first day in the Philippines.

ORCHID ISLAND

The school asked Paul and me to be chaperones for the 9th grade biology trip to Lan Yu (Orchid Island). I was mostly excited to spend time with my former students, whom I love and miss, but it was also really cool to get to explore a new place. Orchid Island is a two-hour ferry ride away from Kenting. I was blown away by the island's relatively untouched beauty. We had an amazing time! Highlights for me were snorkeling in the Pacific, hiking a steep and muddy path to a crater lake, and yes, hanging out with the students. I feel so lucky we got to go.

A panoramic shot of Orchid Island from the outgoing ferry.

A panoramic shot of Orchid Island from the outgoing ferry.

RECENTLY READ

It's been a while since I checked out books my students are reading — I figured spring break would be a good opportunity to do so. I read all three of Stephanie Perkins' "name" books (they're pretty much exactly what I expected by judging the books from the covers) in quick succession. While I normally eschew these types of books, it's hard to deny that they're fun. They also remind me of how it feels to be a teenager, which doesn't hurt since I am surrounded by teenagers every day.

I randomly wandered onto Powells.com and saw they're having an Earth Day sale (buy two used books, get one free). I made a large purchase in record time: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love & Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed, Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, Aimless Love by Billy Collins, All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren, Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, and The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay. I got all of these for the price of roughly 3 books here.

MOVING!

We'll be in a different apartment next school year! There are always housing shuffles when staff come and go. We decided to move when a first floor apartment in the neighboring building opened up. We LOVE our current 7th-floor apartment (it's so bright!), BUT there's much to anticipate about the new apartment. Our talented photographer friend Michael kindly agreed to take some photos of our current apartment for memory's sake. Here's one of our record player/map wall.

Taken by Michael Chang. 

Taken by Michael Chang. 

Polaroid Zip Photo Printer Review

I recently ordered a Polaroid Zip. I've had it for about two weeks now and have gone through a pack and a half of film (there are 10 sheets/pack). 

Things I Like:

  • Paper is inexpensive, especially compared to Instax.
  • It doesn't use ink! The "ink" is in the paper.
  • The prints are stickers! I love that I can peel the back off a shot and immediately stick it in my journal.
  • Since the photos print without a frame, you can print two (or more) images on one sheet and cut them up. For example, I printed six (tiny) images of book covers, cut them out, and stuck the images in my journal.
  • The printer prints quickly.
  • It is rechargeable via USB! (Most Instax cameras and printers run on a CR2 battery.)

Things I Dislike:

  • The app is SUPER buggy. Seriously. I can't believe I didn't think to look up app reviews before purchasing because you are 100% reliant on the app to print pictures.
    • As mentioned in many iTunes reviews, pairing is not intuitive. The app makes it look like you should pair the printer with your phone within the app, but really, you first need to manually pair through your phone's bluetooth settings.
    • Cropping and resizing are buggy. For some reason, you have to click into the edit tool to see how the image will print and often, the app will automatically zoom into your image (and you can't zoom back out). It's hard to explain, but the sizing is really weird.
    • Even worse: sometimesonce you have the image sized/cropped the way you want, the printouts don't match what's on the screen. It will at times print correctly; other times, it will print the zoomed-in image (see below).
L-R: 1) This is what you see when you first select an image. You’d THINK this is what would print if you hit the print button, but instead… 2) This is what will print. If you want to print the WHOLE image, you can rotate it, like so… 3) SOMETIMES (like what’s pictured), the app will keep the image zoomed out and it looks great. Other times, it will zoom in again when you rotate and your picture will print all wonky.

L-R: 1) This is what you see when you first select an image. You’d THINK this is what would print if you hit the print button, but instead… 2) This is what will print. If you want to print the WHOLE image, you can rotate it, like so… 3) SOMETIMES (like what’s pictured), the app will keep the image zoomed out and it looks great. Other times, it will zoom in again when you rotate and your picture will print all wonky.

  • The print quality is meh. I don't expect much from an instant printer, but the print color IS always off — often there is a reddish tint. I know Instax prints always come out a little off, too, but I expect that and consider that part of the charm. I think it's easy to expect Zip prints to equal that of your home inkjet printer, but they don't come close. If I think of the Zip printer as a novelty item and not an actual replacement for professional photo printing, it's fine.
Here's a comparison between original images and how they look printed out.

Here's a comparison between original images and how they look printed out.

Verdict:

Even though my "dislike" list is longer than my "like" list, I don't regret my purchase. For my purposes (journaling), photo quality isn't a huge priority. The app is annoying, but it (mostly) works and I can generally figure out how to get my desired outcome. It is really, really convenient for printing mini pictures and I've loved what it's added to my journal.

We the People

We happened to discuss the First Amendment guarantee of the freedom of assembly in Government class last week. We were reminded that so much of the good that America stands for is a result of peaceful protest (and at times, civil disobedience) and the willingness to STAND UP. Thankful for and proud of all my friends who marched for their convictions. ✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿

Image by Ana Gambuto via Cup of Jo

Image by Ana Gambuto via Cup of Jo

Wellness

Last year's word was equanimity

I had many moments of discouragement and outright failure in 2016, but I think my family, friends, and students would agree that I am more equanimous this year than last. I don't know if it's simply because I'm no longer a first-year teacher adjusting to life in a new country... I don't really care! What matters is I no longer completely feel like a slave to my emotions. 

Things that helped:

  • better planning/organization at work
  • better habits: I work like crazy at work and try NOT to work (too much) when I'm at home
  • NOT TEACHING 7th GRADE (ha!)
  • therapy: identifying and treating anxiety
  • more sleep (I charge my phone in the living room and bring a book to bed between 9:30 - 10:30 every night)
  • discussing struggles with the right (positive, level-headed) people

Last year's word leads right into this year's word: wellness.

I don't have any interest in starting a major health/fitness regime, but I do want to establish (and continue) better habits. 

Specific goals:

  • continue getting at least 8 hours of sleep every night
  • actively exercise for at least 20 minutes every day (starting small here)
  • continue NOT taking my phone to bed
  • continue limiting work to work hours (as much as humanly possible)
  • start eating breakfast every day
  • keep personal spaces (desk, closet, etc) organized
  • perhaps... blog more? I am trying to decide if some sort of regular journaling would be helpful

That's it. 

My previous years' words/goals tended to be more philosophical, but 2016 wore me out. I am happy to focus on practical actions and hope that leads to an overall sense of wellness. 

The best books I read in 2016

Published in 2016:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This should become required reading for all Americans.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I escaped to this book the week of the US presidential election. It was the best kind of immersive experience. The titular character is one I'll never forget.

The Nix by Nathan Hill
I picked up this book during Thanksgiving break and promptly devoured the 600+ pages in two days. So much fun.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
This is the best-written book I read this year. Wow. 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
It is hard for me to believe Gyasi is a first-time author. This is a beautiful and devastating book.

In the Country by Mia Alvar
I loved this collection of short stories particularly because it is about the Philippines (and I am a Filipina), but I would recommend it to anyone.

Published prior to 2016:

Silence by Shusaku Endo
This rocked my worldview, very much like Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory profoundly affected my faith. This is a book you read once and think about for years after.

Between the World and Me by Te-Nehisi Coates
I read this book in conjunction with The Underground Railroad, Beloved, and Homegoing. This set of books completely changed my perspective on America's history and legacy, especially as a newly-minted American.

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
This is another extremely well-written collection of short fiction by a Filipino author. 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I know not everyone felt the same way, but this totally lived up to the hype. It was the perfect book in which to lose myself during a vacation — long and rambling, but also extremely compelling. 

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
I read this for a book club and it surprised me in so many ways; it's funny, subversive, and dark.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
Gorgeous, haunting, and worthy of every bit of acclaim it has received.

Honorable mentions:

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
This reminded me of The Great Gatsby, except (dare I say it?) I found it even more enjoyable.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
I didn't love this as much as Bel Canto or State of Wonder, but you really can't go wrong with Ann Patchett. This book feels like a modern take on Anne Tyler, which is a very good thing. 

You can see a comprehensive list of all the books I read here

My kids are with her

While my closest friends would have no trouble telling you where I stand politically, I'm pretty skittish about talking politics in public. I think it's because I used to be a journalist (and now I'm a government teacher). In both roles, it's necessary to be nebulous about personal beliefs.

That said, I wanted to share this:

My daughters woke up early before the second presidential debate to make Hillary signs. While I am certainly with her, my kids actually told me later they have no idea who I'm voting for (somehow, outside of conversations about race, immigration, war, poverty... my husband and I have magically been able to refrain from talking politics with our kids). I say this to assert they didn't make the Hillary posters for me. All they know is a woman is running for president and by golly, they're rooting for her.

I know there are a million arguments against voting for a candidate based on sex (I asked myself the hard question today — would I vote for Sarah Palin just because she's a woman??) and I'd be happy to talk nuances in person... but all I want to say here is that it's hit me again just how important it is for my two daughters to know that IT IS, in fact, possible for a woman to be president of the United States of America. Because before this election, I really did wonder — it's been 240 years of male presidents, so... is it?

It is important to see yourself in your leaders. During my first year at this international school, my boss was Chinese-Canadian. It was crazy how much it meant to me to have an Asian boss because guess what? I'd never had one before. I cried when Obama was elected president in 2008 because he, too, is a minority. And now, you better believe I'm thrilled a woman might very well be president. 

(Lucky for us, Taiwan just elected its first female president this year, so the precedent is already there for my kids. In fact, when a boy told my older daughter he should be the leader of whatever game they were playing because he's a boy, my kid said, indignantly, "Girls can be leaders, too! Taiwan's president is a girl! And America's next president probably will be, too!" See? This is so important.)

All by myself

Paul's job takes him back to the US twice a year and this time, his parents asked if the kids could join. The girls are so excited about seeing their old stomping grounds and, of course, friends and family. 

It just so happens that their departure date coincided with MY departure date for a professional workshop in Hanoi, Vietnam. So we went up to Taoyuan Thursday, stayed the night at a hotel, then parted ways in the morning.

I KNOW so many moms crave time by themselves (and the thought of a week alone would be amazing) and I've definitely had periods when I would've LOVED it, too, but I think working full-time for the past few years has taken away much of that desire and I am just genuinely sad (and a little anxious) to be on my own.

That said, this weekend in Hanoi has been fantastic! I'm here for a professional workshop so (sadly), aside from two dinners out, I've pretty much been in a conference room or the hotel... but it's fun to be back in Vietnam (and I've certainly LOVED the delicious food). 

Last night, we were all so exhausted from the meetings that my colleagues and I said goodnight at the insanely early hour of 7:30. I promptly crawled into bed with a tub of strawberry gelato and started a new TV series. It was pretty wonderful.

Now it's back to reality; I'm just about to board my flight to return to Kaohsiung. Will arrive home around 11:00 PM — and then it's back to school in the morning! 

My favorite pen: Frixion Biz Slim

I enjoy nothing more than spending an afternoon browsing stationery stores. Nowadays, however, I skip the pen section entirely; I'm convinced I've already found the perfect pens (for me).

Paul's language school teacher introduced him to Pilot Frixion pens — erasable pens that put the erasable pens from our childhood to shame (as in, they actually erase). I grade SO MANY papers as a teacher and being able to erase my inevitable mistakes is AMAZING. (I guess I should note that they also write beautifully. So smooth!)

I started off with the entry level Ball Clicker, which I liked just fine, although the clicker moves around and makes an annoying rattling sound. Then I found the super slick Biz Slim: silver, topped with either purple, blue, or black. Gorgeous and so nice to hold!

I now have one in each color. I've replaced the ink in two with red and blue ink, respectively. These pens are all I use now.