Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Image courtesy of Goodreads

The inclusion of Stay with Me in the 2017 Baileys Women’s for Fiction Prize shortlist likely heightened my expectations for a highbrow literary novel, as that is the genre most often nominated for visible awards. Upon finishing the novel, however, I was slightly in dismay.

I’m sure many bibliophiles have had the experience of finishing a book and thinking ‘well, that was enjoyable. Don’t think it was particularly accomplished, though.’ If you are anything like me, the thought would be followed by a bit of guilt. No one wants to be a snob. You want to be discerning, but most definitely not a snob. Let’s hope this is a discerning review.


We begin Stay with Me with Yejide and Akin, who have been married a few years. They are a loving and happy Nigerian couple, with a modern relationship dynamic. Both work and contribute to the family finances. Their early interactions were marked by respect and reasonable discussions. #relationshipgoals basically, as the kiddos say these days.

That is, until the fateful day Yejide opens her front door to family relatives and a young woman claiming to be Akin’s second wife.

Polygamy was always something Yejide and Akin rejected. Both came from polygamous families and, Yejide especially, suffered from it. However, Akin’s family is extending immense pressure for them to have a baby. Yejide has no choice but deal with the new woman’s arrival into her household.


This is where most synopses of Stay with Me end, which was probably why I expected the novel to be a domestic drama dealing with the repercussions of polygamy while providing insights on family dynamics and the larger Nigerian culture. But Stay with Me isn’t that type of family drama. This is a very action-based novel; plot twists are abundant here – I think most reviewers stop describing the plot at the second wife’s arrival to avoid spoiling the story for potential readers. I respect the discretion and have done the same.

Suffice to say that the twists and turns in Stay with Me are relentless. They really are too much for any couple to bear, no matter how loving or happy. If your life is a constant struggle against challenges, without hope, sooner or later you’ll get exhausted, or even want to give up.

I’m reasonably sure Adebayo plotted these dramatic turns and reveals as catalysts to show Yejide and Akin’s humanity. The near soap-opera plotting should be secondary to Yejide and Akin as characters. However, for Stay with Me to work, its two elements of excessive drama and authentic humanity needed to balance each other out – unfortunately, the elements never quite cohere together.

Sure, there were moments of authenticity in Stay with Me. A near violent argument between Yejide and Akin seemed to be happening too early in the novel, until you realize that when trust is lost and words have been treated like weapons, a loving relationship degenerates in no time.

If Stay with Me had more scenes highlighting emotional devastation and relationship cracks while paring down the gothic drama, I would love the novel so much more. My favorite line came from a rare moment of contemplation, when Akin reflected on unforeseen consequences:

[A]ll the mess of love and life that only shows up as you go along.

Stay with Me isn’t winning any prizes for poetic prose, but that disarmingly simple line is so honest and true. Life is a cocktail of variables we have no control over. All we can do is do the best we can and be the best person we can, no matter how much things hurt sometimes.


If I were to say Stay with Me is a great novel to take on a red eye flight, is that backhanded praise? In no way do I advocate reading only esoteric writing. My favorite reads are books that beautifully balance the accessible and the meaty. Alas, while I am sure that was the author’s intention – Stay with Me ended up lacking enough meat to carry the raucous surface.

Despite all my caveats, I await Adebayo’s next fiction endeavor with interest. Adobayo is young, not even 30, and Stay with Me is her debut. I think she set out to write my favorite type of novel, where the readable and the thoughtful blends seamlessly together, but fell a bit short. But Stay with Me displays potential and I am optimistic she has the chops to perfect her craft.

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Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

Skim (Goodreads)

Image courtesy of Goodreads

Suicide, depression, love, sexuality, crushes, cliques of popular, manipulative peers – the whole gamut of teen life is explored in this literary graphic masterpiece.

The above is the blurb for young adult graphic novel Skim. A bold claim, to be sure. But is it accurate?

I agree with the blurb – to an extent. Skim never delves deeply into any of the promised themes. They are all within the pages, all there, but don’t expect a thorough investigation.

My evaluation doesn’t sound promising but I think it was the right approach for the story. Whenever suicide, depression, or falling in love touches our lives – whether directly or through others, whether as teenagers or as adults who should know better, we are left with far more questions than answers. Worse than that, our sense of self and established beliefs are often shaken.


The year is 1993. “Skim” is the nickname of Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a Canadian high school student with estranged parents. She lives with her mother, but the relationship is distant. She is into tarot cards, Wicca, and astrology. She’s starting to have differences with her best friend Lisa. She’s obviously a misfit at school. And she’s falling in love for the first time.

Yet her story is essentially a subplot. Katie Matthews is one of the popular girls, whose outgoing and athletic ex-boyfriend committed suicide. The overarching narrative of Skim centers on the aftermath of this boy’s suicide.

The students at Skim’s high school don’t know Katie’s ex-boyfriend (they go to different schools), but everyone has a response. From insensitivity to charging forward with ignorance (teenagers, eh?) to eye rolling at the random hysteria, everyone has a response. And in fact, what Skim does excellently is capture the voice and reactions of teenagers. A lot of stupid ideas are executed with (most likely) good intentions.

Skim herself is wonderfully realized. She is the way teen misfits usually are. Smarter, sharper, and wiser than the expectations of those around her, but not as wise and smart as she wishes she is.

I so love the page where the concerned but bungling school counselor pulled Skim into her office. Girls like Skim, with their gothic ways and “depressing stimuli”, are “very fragile.” In other words, girls like Skim are more prone to suicide.

To which Skim snarkily thinks: “Truthfully I am always a little depressed but that is just because I am sixteen and everyone is stupid […] I doubt it has anything to do with being a goth.” Oh, and “John Reddear was on the volleyball team and he was the one who committed suicide.” I chuckled. Then cringed. Skim’s inner thoughts were close to those of my teenage self, though I was never a goth and always a humanities nerd.


So ends my adventures into Groundwood Books’ graphic novels. I’ve read four so far (I’ve also read A Year without Mom, Harvey, and Jane, the Fox, and Me). While all the graphic novels share quiet, slice-of-life stories of innocence’s transition into realization after one central event, Skim is far and above my favorite. It’s the grittiest one I’ve read, which makes sense as the other three are targeted at much younger audiences.

Despite my reluctance to read young adult fiction as I often find the characters’ interests too shallow and juvenile, Skim is a winner. Sensitive topics are treated unflinchingly (though never deeply) yet with restraint and understanding. The characters and their reactions ring genuine, especially those of Skim and Katie.


I know there’s very little chance anyone from Groundwood Books would read this, but it is thanks to them that I could read these graphic novels. During the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, their representatives very kindly let me take the books I was interested in off their stand free of charge as they didn’t want to take them back to Canada. It sounds like a win-win situation, but the reps were generous. Other publishers got rid of their books by selling them at a discount. Yet one of the Groundwood reps said she is more than happy if someone took the books to a welcoming home.

Of course, the publishing world is a business like any other. Its main concern is making money and profit. But stories like the one I experienced reminds me that book lovers are united in something wonderful Loving books is often a personal matter, but the community created is tangible and passionate.

Life

I wanted to give this post a more creative title. Or at least something more specific. A basic “Life Update” would do, or “Life, Currently.” Yet weirdly, that one word, “Life”, says it all.

Life hasn’t been OK, basically. Sometimes I’m willing to go into details, but not today.

Last week’s stress-fueled and tear-fueled mini book haul

I mean, the photo caption above says it all. But while circumstances and recent events have been dire, I know with a bizarre certainty that while I’m not OK now, I will be OK. And you know what? That’s the nature of my life.

It’s certainly not the life I expected or wanted, but I’ve come to accept it.

Let me clarify – that sounds ungrateful.

What I mean is, my life has been a total roller coaster when I had always expected stability and monotony. Funnily enough, I remember praying a prayer of gratitude, in which I was thankful for my flat and solid life mere months before the dramatic ups and downs began.

I know I’ll be OK because I’ve been through other hardships and I’ve learned that things will eventually be OK. I was telling all this to my best friend earlier this week and she sent a message saying, “You would never be happy with a monotonous life. You are so full of life!”

So there we go. Life, in all its challenges and beauty and victories and discontents.

An anonymous blessing

This is one of my very favorite purchases from my New York trip in May. I am astonished that the words on a tourist-shop card, of all things, have managed to encapsulate the story of my life. I am simultaneously annoyed that I didn’t come up with such perfection.

My life has had everything: happiness, trials, successes, times when I had to be extra strong and determined, moments where I had to take a leap of faith. I just have to take this life as a compliment and a challenge because I can handle it.


Reading, sadly, has had a diminished role in my life this year (and last year, ugh!). Yet I keep buying books at an alarming rate. It’s almost as if my wallet is doing all the work in maintaining the central role of good books and content in my life.

I am trying harder than ever to jump start my reading. Currently I am in the middle of 5 books, but Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo has kept me turning the pages most. Of the reading pile, it’s the last book I’ve started, but it will likely be the first book I finish.

Finally, I also want to jump start non work-related writing. No promises, but I aim to upload two more posts this month. And just try to write an introductory segment to a fiction project. Wish me luck!

Breaking a Six-Month Hiatus, En Route to the USA

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Umm, hi there. Where to start?

Books! Let’s talk books!

2017 has been a year of paltry reading. I’ve only read 6 books so far, three of them (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Roald Dahl’s Matilda) rereads. The rereads are deliberate; these are comforting, easy to speed through, and they inject some much-needed joy to my days.

Quite sad that my own personal writing has been minimal so far this year too. Not just this blog, but I also wanted (and still want) to tackle one of the two big fiction ideas that has been knocking about in my imagination since college.

Putting aside reading and personal writing were done in favor of my day job, for which I have poured all my efforts, energy, and heart. Man, 2017 has been a roller-coaster year for my career. I work for a high-stress, high-pressure company, which demands more and more from us each passing day. My supervisor told me everyone can see my skills. Indeed, I recently got a promotion and each quarter, more responsibilities are heaved my way.

So that’s good. But I do notice that this stressful and draining office environment often breeds insensitivity. Maybe that just my idealism talking, but I can fully see that some people will eventually refuse to be pushed further and harder without positivity to balance out the pressure.

Anyway, let’s move on from apocalyptic thoughts.

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I’m on leave from the office at the moment and Shelter by Jung Yun is my airplane novel of choice.

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Look at this photo! I’m halfway through after only 3 hours. I’m a pretty slow reader but it’s been demoralizing to see that I’m only sixty pages into a book a month after I’ve started just because I’m so busy these days.

I will write a full-length review of Shelter eventually. It’s really good so far, very gripping and compulsive. I am forgoing on-air entertainment to keep turning the pages.

Shelter is a very dramatic novel, almost excessively so, which knocks it down a bit in my eyes. But such a compelling page-turner is the perfect novel to feel like an incurable book lover all over again. And the novel raises some fascinating points on family and parenthood.

More on the themes in a proper review later! For now, I’m back on the blogosphere – and very happy to be back!

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (Review and Book/Movie Comparison)

Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge

Hahaha, the last book review on this blog was uploaded in early July. I hope I’m not too rusty.

(Although the fact that I finished The Painted Veil in early July also does not bode well).

Having read this novel nearly four months ago means that I have forgotten the finer details. Overall, however, I really liked it, in spite of my inability to create neat conclusions of its message and/or themes. Yet, in a way, the lack of absolute coherence in The Painted Veil added to its charm. Especially as the novel tackles some topics that, in real life, defies easy categorization, such as: the irrationality of romantic feeling and the influence on religion on one’s character.

Kitty, a pretty and frivolous English debutante, missed her prospects in the marriage market. In a panic, she accepts the proposal of Walter Fane, a dull bacteriologist due to sail to Crown Colony Hong Kong for his post. They quickly marry and settle in the colony, where Kitty meets Charlie Townsend, a handsome, suave, and married British government official. Kitty and Charlie fall into an affair and The Painted Veil enters at the point when Walter discovers the infidelity.

At first, Kitty and Charlie dismiss Walter. He is Charlie’s inferior in the job ladder. He is far too besotted with Kitty. Instead, Walter pushed an ultimatum to Kitty: he will either file for divorce and humiliate her, or she must follow him to the cholera-infested Chinese interior, risking death. Charlie shows his true colors: craven and unsympathetic. Kitty has no option but follow Walter to the mainland.

The Painted Veil, at least the novel version, is the story of Kitty’s introspection and self-improvement. It is not a love story, which the 2006 film adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts might lead you to believe.

While I liked the film version for what it was, I much preferred the novel. The novel’s outlook on life is far less simple. Love, and the blossoming of romantic love, is never simple. In the film, Kitty sees Walter’s virtues: his devotion to patients, his kindness, his morals, learns the error of her ways and falls in love with him. Kitty’s book counterpart, however, never falls in love with her husband despite seeing and acknowledging his qualities. She grows to admire him, but eros does not strike.

I appreciated the book’s touch. The film, in a way, pushed a simplistic message: “women, be less foolish and frivolous and just fall in love with the nice guy, will ya?” Never mind the fact that one must wonder at Walter’s supposed kindness when he insisted on bringing Kitty to a region that may spell death.

(I inwardly applauded “That’s my girl!” when book-Kitty exclaimed, “It’s not my fault you were an ass!” at Walter’s misguided punishment)

Kitty’s journey towards self-betterment, almost a coming of age, really, is believable because of the missteps she makes along the way. No one can ever say that Kitty attained perfection. Despite maturing throughout The Painted Veil, she falls short again and again. But she does learn after every debacle. She becomes stronger, wiser. Yet even stronger and wiser, Kitty can still make dreadful decisions – with a particular error close to the novel’s end. But Kitty learns from that too.

At the start of this review, I wrote that I couldn’t eke out the message of The Painted Veil. But perhaps it is simply this: that we make horrible mistakes in life, then we learn and get stronger. We slip up again. But we survive.

Maybe it’s trite. But that’s the point of fiction, no? To make clichéd bumper sticker phrases fresh and true all over again.

What I’m Reading

Man, getting back to fiction reviews isn’t easy. So let’s try a fluffy post to get the writing juices flowing.

I am firmly on the “one book at a time” camp. And yet. There had been four books that I wanted to read next and I truly could not decide which one beckoned most seductively.

One of the defining traits of a perfectionist is a “should, should, should” mentality: I should have done more work today. I should be doing something productive. I should focus my attention to one book only since reading multiple books has never worked in the past.

Well, literary polyamory may have never worked for me in the past, but I am working on my perfectionism. So screw rigidity! Here are the four books that lured me away from book monogamy:

  1. Social Media is Bullshit by B.J. Mendelson

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In my efforts to learn more about marketing, especially social media strategies for modern marketing, I browsed the business shelves of NYC’s The Strand Bookstore. I ended up with two books from that section: The New Rules of Marketing and PR and Social Media is Bullshit.

I was excited to read Social Media is Bullshit, because I read a few pages of it at the Strand and found it gripping – plus, I think a contrarian viewpoint would be a refreshing antidote against the breathless thinking that social media is the answer to all your business ills.

Unfortunately, it’s not a very good book so far. I’m not finished, but I’m more than halfway through and I dislike the author’s dour and overly cynical tone. His analogies don’t always make sense and some of the math is wrong. I do hope those issues were caused by human error rather than an insidious attempt to get readers to agree with his arguments. The book wasn’t well-edited as well, I spotted grammatical mistakes here and there.

  1. Kubah by Ahmad Tohari

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Tohari wrote my very favorite Indonesian novel, the venerable Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (English translation: The Dancer), and I love his prose in general (see here), so it’s no surprise that I’m enjoying Kubah (roughly translated as Dome) very much. In fact, Kubah gets the second-most reading time after Social Media is Bullshit.

 Like Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, Kubah’s plot thread is put in motion by the infamous 1965 coup in Indonesia. While I love how Tohari treated the subject in Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk – that is, with sensitivity and complexity, I have my concerns about Kubah. The main thematic of the novel seems to be rediscovering religion and spirituality and I worry whether the denouement of Kubah will be nuanced and satisfying. Fiction that tackles this theme can end on an overly moralistic or simplistic tone. I hope I am proven wrong, though.

  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Maybe it’s time to get a new one…

I wanted a comfort read to go along with the shiny new things. I tried to fight the desire, yet whenever I attempted to stop adding Pride and Prejudice on my reading list, my inner Catherine de Bourgh threw a tantrum. In her immortal and hilarious words: “I insist on being satisfied!”

What can I say about Pride and Prejudice? Saying it is one of my favorite novels ever is hardly original. Look at the state of my copy! I once dropped it into a wet bathtub during a reading session.

There really is no point in providing a plot summary. Who doesn’t know the story gist at this point? Suffice to say, every time I pick up Pride and Prejudice again, I just feel so damned happy.

  1. Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love by Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo

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I’ve been talking a lot about perfectionism in my last two posts and this book is a big reason why. I’m only forty pages in and haven’t gotten into the strategies to utilize in daily life, but I’m impressed so far. Better than Perfect is very easy to read while still being insightful. The first segment is more about what makes a perfectionist tick, and reading the first chapters feels like multiple slaps in the face.

Dr. Lombardo includes a Perfectionist Self-Assessment in Better than Perfect. I scored 109 out of 120, which made me cringe. I mean, I obviously knew I was a perfectionist, but 109 out of 120 seems pretty extreme.

I might finish the other three books first before devoting entirely on Better than Perfect. It’s probably a good idea to focus on the self-help tactics with no distractions.

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And we’re done! I must say, I’m delighted that Kubah and Pride and Prejudice are on my current reads stack. I’m so hopelessly behind on my Classics Club Challenge.

Checklist

I’m a perfectionist. It’s an aspect of my personality that has both rewarded and cursed me. Last week, I had a performance review at work and I was described as someone who “goes above and beyond to deliver the best and most satisfactory results.”

But my perfectionism is also a source of much grief and indecision. It’s crippling, for one thing. It feeds into my depression and anxiety, makes me obsess if I feel I am perceived negatively.

Like this blog post, for instance. I dithered on whether or not it is worth uploading, as it has no valuable insight, so it can be construed as mindless fodder.

This is just a list of all the pending blog posts that I still want to write, even though some of the posts will be reviews of books I have read months ago. With some of the books, I have a contrary opinion compared to the general consensus – and I think I will enjoy the exercise of rationally arguing why I didn’t enjoy these much-lauded books as much as I had expected.

“Checklist” is more for me, so I can keep track of all the posts I still want to write and cross out the uploaded ones while providing links.

Hmm, perhaps “Checklist” itself is a manifestation of my perfectionist spirit? It always gives me much joy to strike through completed tasks.

Without further ado, the list:

  1. Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops in official English translation) by Andrea Hirata
  2. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  3. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (Review link here)
  4. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
  5. The Doll by Daphne du Maurier

USA Travel posts:

  1. San Francisco and the South Bay, California
  2. Seattle and Spokane, Washington
  3. New York City Area

Endnote: There are books I have read but will not review. A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie is a good example. It was an OK novel. Not bad, not great. I have nothing to say about it and I have no strong feelings for it either way. It did serve a good purpose: entertaining me on my twenty-hour flight to California.

And now, to work on actually writing the posts! (Insert muscle emoji here)