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

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. 

Fall break

We're at the tail end of our fall break. I'm so thankful we've had this week off.

We spent Tuesday night tent camping by Fenqihu, a little village near Alishan. It rained almost the entire time, but I loved it. (Our inherited, almost 40-year-old tent held up to the water surprisingly well.) Fenqihu is definitely worth a visit; there's a traditional market down an alley leading to a train station and the village is bordered by breathtaking cedar forests. 

Yesterday evening, we headed to Tainan, less than an hour's drive from where we live. Tainan is remarkably charming; there are rows of historical buildings mixed in with newer architecture. We particularly loved Shannong St., chockful of old residential buildings converted into stationery stores and cafes. 

I love Taiwan.

Lilies

I've said this before, but I feel so lucky that I get a second chance at living and appreciating Taiwan. 

I didn't really discover Taiwan's natural beauty until I was about to graduate from high school, and I've always regretted not seeing more of the island. It's amazing to do so now. 

 Looking down over Taimali, on the east coast of Taiwan.

Looking down over Taimali, on the east coast of Taiwan.

Last weekend, we decided to drive out to Taimali (about 4 hours away) to see the famous lily-covered hills. Some of our friends think we're crazy for driving so far for a day trip, but Paul and I both love long drives and spontaneous adventures. 

It was totally worth it. Check it out:

Throwback

After talking about it for (literally) a decade, we finally bought ourselves a record player.

I love it.

I love the challenge of hunting down stores that sell vinyl in the city. I love that it'll take us a while to build a collection. I love listening to WHOLE ALBUMS again (after years of listening to Spotify playlists and not knowing the names of bands and songs I like). And of course, I LOVE how vinyl sounds.

What's in my bag?

There's no excusing the triviality of this post. I'm posting this because I really enjoy seeing what's in other people's bags (and the light is really good right now).

 Purse from Zara. Pouches from various stores in the Philippines. Pencil bag and notebook from Muji. Glasses case from Daiso.

Purse from Zara. Pouches from various stores in the Philippines. Pencil bag and notebook from Muji. Glasses case from Daiso.

 Here is everything all lined up. The green pouch holds miscellaneous stuff like wet wipes, sunglasses, and my charging cable. The orange pouch holds health-related items (like my kids' inhaler, ibuprofen, and anti-bacterial gel). The purple pouch holds feminine necessities. The denim pencil bag holds my favorite pens (Pilot V5 and Frixion), washi tape wrapped around cards, and a tiny notebook. The grey pouch holds receipts, which are the single thing that clutters my purse and wallet. Not pictured: my phone, wallet, and keys.

Here is everything all lined up. The green pouch holds miscellaneous stuff like wet wipes, sunglasses, and my charging cable. The orange pouch holds health-related items (like my kids' inhaler, ibuprofen, and anti-bacterial gel). The purple pouch holds feminine necessities. The denim pencil bag holds my favorite pens (Pilot V5 and Frixion), washi tape wrapped around cards, and a tiny notebook. The grey pouch holds receipts, which are the single thing that clutters my purse and wallet. Not pictured: my phone, wallet, and keys.

 The bag opening is really wide and has bright linen lining, which makes everything easy to find.

The bag opening is really wide and has bright linen lining, which makes everything easy to find.

Better late than never

I had two books on my to-buy list when I arrived in the Philippines: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Euphoria by Lily King. The problem is, none of the five (five!) bookstores within walking distance carried them. Eventually, one of the bookstores ordered the books for me, but in the meantime, I decided to refocus my efforts on finding and purchasing novels written by Filipino/a authors.

 Working my way through my pile as I track down and purchase books (newly acquired books still wrapped in plastic!). Not pictured: the book that started it all (for me): Mia Alvar's In the Country. Also not pictured: Lysley Tenorio's Monstress, which I bought, read, and loved soon after I wrote this post.

Working my way through my pile as I track down and purchase books (newly acquired books still wrapped in plastic!). Not pictured: the book that started it all (for me): Mia Alvar's In the Country. Also not pictured: Lysley Tenorio's Monstress, which I bought, read, and loved soon after I wrote this post.

My new fascination with Filipino/a literature started with Mia Alvar's In the Country, a collection of short stories by a Filipina-American author. I was particularly intrigued by her historical/political stories from the Marcos/Aquino era, a time I vaguely remember but don't really understand. Reading Alvar was a revelation to me — minus one romance novel I stumbled upon as a teenager, I had never read anything by a Filipina author. I, frankly, cut my teeth on books by white men: first John Grisham, later Michael Chabon, Graham Greene. The literary characters that have filled my mind are war correspondents, college professors, cops, lawyers — by and large, white males. (Sometimes Filipina characters do make cameos in these books — as maids, nannies, entertainers.) To be fair, I have encountered books about the immigrant experience that hit close to home (by Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri), but I have never read anything that touches on my Filipino heritage.

In the couple of weeks I've been here, I've been building a collection of books by Filipino/a authors, based on recommendations and reviews. Several purchases in, I was pleasantly surprised to realize all but one are written or edited by women authors. I'm noticing Filipino literature tends to be more subversive, feminist, political, and gritty. This is the stuff I had no exposure to as a student in a Western school system.

Funny story: after reading a few books, I picked up a book by an older white male (the kind of book I've always read, the kind that gets a lot of attention from the media outlets I read) and I was astounded by how alien it is, how far it is from my reality. It's startling to realize so belatedly how the loudest (and most powerful) voices from my literary journey represent a largely homogenous perspective that is not my own. 

Happy to have my eyes (and world) opened. Better late than never.

 

Vietnam!

It’s been a few weeks and I’m just now sitting down to write about our 10-year-anniversary trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. To be fair, the past few weeks have been CRAZY. Paul took off for Tanzania (he's gone for almost a month!) the day after we returned from Vietnam, which was also the start of my last week of school.

So yeah! We went to Vietnam for our anniversary! Paul surprised me by purchasing tickets and planning the trip. The intention was to keep the destination a secret until we arrived at the airport (!) but I accidentally ruined the surprise (as usual) about a week before. Nonetheless, I was blown away by Paul’s thoughtful planning.

  Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

Paul picked Vietnam because he had just read one of my favorite books, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Paul ended up booking a room at Hotel Continental Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest hotel, where Greene actually wrote the book. I’ve never been on a “literary” trip before and it was pretty thrilling to hunt down locations from the book.

 We stayed at the Hotel Continental Saigon, where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American and where a good bit of the book is set.

We stayed at the Hotel Continental Saigon, where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American and where a good bit of the book is set.

Of course, being in Vietnam was also sobering. It was hard not to think about the Vietnam/American War with every step we took. It’s chilling to see how easily we rewrite history for our own benefit and terribly frightening to think that this dehumanization of the “other” is something that humans have always done and continue to do.

IMG_0462.jpg

We found Ho Chi Minh City extremely charming and picturesque. The architecture is a fascinating mix of new and old. There are red flags, yellow stars, and pictures of Ho Chi Minh everywhere. Hotel Continental is located right at the heart of the historic city and we spent many hours wandering the neighboring streets and stopping for coffee every couple of blocks.

Coffee! Vietnam is chock-full of cafes! And — even better — the home of so many “secret” cafes! We went to a number of cafes and restaurants that required walking through dark alleys and climbing flights of stairs in what look like residential buildings. 

 A little hint to let us know we're on the right track, three flights in on our journey through a dark residential building.

A little hint to let us know we're on the right track, three flights in on our journey through a dark residential building.

Vietnam is one of the leading global producers of coffee beans and the local culture certainly reflects that. We picked up a coffee dripper (my favorite kind of souvenir — local coffee gear!) and had our share of super strong coffee + sweetened condensed milk.

  All of those lit spots are cafes and boutiques. We picked a cafe on the 8th floor--it was quite an adventure to get there (a walk down a dark corridor then 8 flights of stairs through a residential area).

All of those lit spots are cafes and boutiques. We picked a cafe on the 8th floor--it was quite an adventure to get there (a walk down a dark corridor then 8 flights of stairs through a residential area).

The food was, of course, incredible. We ate and ate and ate and EVERYTHING was good.

 I had three bowls of noodles for breakfast one morning.

I had three bowls of noodles for breakfast one morning.

All-in-all, we loved Ho Chi Minh City. It made for a fantastic weekend trip and we can’t wait to go back for a longer visit.

  Downside of going on an anniversary trip somewhere hot:   Paul: Sorry, I didn't mean to touch you.

Downside of going on an anniversary trip somewhere hot:
Paul: Sorry, I didn't mean to touch you.

 

 

Taking stock

I’m sitting at a coffee shop on the mezzanine of the mall directly beneath my parents’ apartment. This is surreal for so many reasons: 
1) I finished my first year of teaching and I’m on vacation for the next two MONTHS!
2) I’m at a coffee shop blogging with my KIDS — Lucy’s playing a game and Anna is reading and listening to music. So weird to enter this new (awesome) parenting stage. 
3) I’m in the Philippines! 
4) Paul’s not here — he’s been in Tanzania teaching a college program for the past 2+ weeks and won’t join us here for another 10 days.

There’s so much to reflect on at this moment, halfway though a calendar year and at the end of a school year. I feel a great sense of accomplishment for making it through a year as a teacher — everyone says the first year is the hardest — but now that I have this time under my belt, I’m also well-aware of all the things I want to do differently (better!) the next time around. 

I do think some parts of teaching have come naturally — caring for the students, being excited about the subject matter, showing kids the real-life relevance of what we do in class. But other parts of teaching are HARD and, I think, not things I’m naturally good at — class management, organization, keeping my cool when things feel out of control. It’s hard to celebrate the successes instead of dwelling on the failures.

Oh, and remember my equanimity goal? Hahaha. Let’s just say I’ve failed in so many ways.

But! We love Taiwan. I still sometimes get choked up doing run-of-the-mill things like going out for a Taiwanese breakfast. It still feels like such a gift to be back after missing Taiwan for most of my adult life. 

We love our community. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think living in staff housing is just fantastic. In my years living in America, I had so many conversations with friends about how awesome it would be to live in an intentional community, where kids go outside to play tag after dinner and you can still do things like run across the hall to borrow a cup of sugar. That’s totally the life we’re living now and I LOVE it.

I also love that I have a job with a natural end and beginning. I love the idea of a fresh start and I’m glad for a break so I can reflect, rest, and recharge.