Category: MMD Book Club

MMD March: Stay With Me by Adyobami Adelbayo

MMD March: Stay With Me by Adyobami Adelbayo

I think I did believe that love had immense power to unearth all that was good in us, refine us, and reveal to us the better version of ourselves. And though I knew Akin had played me for a fool, for a while I still believed that he loved me and that the only thing left for him to do was the right thing, the good thing. I thought it was a matter of time before he would look me in the eye and apologise.

So, I waited for him to come to me.

Delinquent (Oops?)
I’m not sure I’ve been quite so delinquent on posting a book that had a sort-of-deadline built into its relevance but here we go. I read the MARCH book club selection for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club and finished timely (March 4th!) and yet haven’t felt like I’ve had a chance to really sit down and process everything that is this book.

Synopsis
Stay With Me follows Yejide, a Nigerian woman who has been unable to have a child with her husband Akin. The story follows Yejide as she takes increasingly desperate steps to have and then keep a child.

Avoiding the Spoilers
It is hard to discuss this book without spoiling the events. This was a book I experienced with no extra information besides what appeared on the flap-copy. I didn’t know what exactly Yejide and Akin were willing to try or how each of those steps would result. This will be a short review—I want to review it because it is so well done but do not want to spoil any of the little events in the middle along the way. So I apologize now for my brevity and vaguess—do not let this deter you from reading but rather take it as a sign that you should pick up the book and see for yourself why I am rating it so highly.

Loss
The most prominent and obvious theme in Stay With Me is one of loss. There is the loss of children—each loss different in its means and impact—but also the loss of relationship and self. As is common in couples who experience this kind of loss, with each step Yejide and Akin take to have a keep their children, the two are driven further apart. Steps taken to have the child that will ultimately strengthen their marriage become the wedges between them. With each loss, Yejide also loses parts of herself. A chipping away so subtle that it isn’t clear until whole sections have been sheered off that this was happening. At a apex in the plot, Yejide makes a choice to initiate the loss herself—when you have had what you love most repeatedly wrenched from you hands, at some point initiating the coming loss feels like the only way to protect yourself, to try to keep a shred of agency. I am not sure I have ever read another book that explores the myriad facets of loss and its impacts so effectively.

Structure
The book does jump around a bit in time and narrator—the bulk of the story-telling is from Yejide’s point of view, though every third or fourth chapter is Akin. The chapters are not labeled so the reader has to realize the narrator has changed—this was somewhat disconcerting at times, though it was easy enough to realize this had happened within a few sentences. It didn’t bother me and it seemed a deliberate choice made by Adebayo to deliberately disrupt the narrative and leave the reader feeling as disrupted and off-balance as Yejide and Akin. The abrupt narration change did, however, both some readers—the handful of negative reviews on Amazon mention this. The time jumps are labeled, so while they are also abrupt at times, it is clear you’ve moved forward or backwards in time.   This kind of structure almost never bothers me—I like non-standard devices and techniques and I like to see authors play with things like this. This is, however, something it keep in mind if this style is something that usually impacts your ability to connect with a book.

Characters
To me, Yejide was a likeable narrator, drawing me in. Though we have nothing in common on paper—I have never even been to Nigeria, I have never tried to have a child—her experiences and the way Adebayo has her narrator speak to the reader made me feel a connection to her. She is well fleshed out—flawed but in ways that make sense for her experiences. She makes terrible choices at times, but by the time these happened, I connected with her so deeply I understood why she made the choice and was making it along with her. Stay With Me is a fascinating character study and makes me want to read more of Adelbayo’s work.

Because Yejide is the main narrator, I had a biased view of Akin. I felt affection for him early, as he supported Yejide. But as he and Yejide few further apart, I came to pity him, to see him as weak. Here again, this speaks to the power of Adebayo’s narrator. Stay With Me manages to simultaneously present Akin in the way his wife sees him, to have her thoughts color his presentation; yet just enough of his own character shines through here and there in his chapters that you still see him as a fleshed out person. He isn’t merely a foil or a plot device for Yejide’s development. He is his own character and I enjoyed digging for his real personality under Yejide’s assumptions about his motives.

In the discussion Anne hosted with Adebayo for book club, it came up that some people found all of the characters unlikeable and they struggled to finish. I was surprised by this assessment—Yejide and Akin seemed like people to me. Real people are not always likeable. And perpetually likeable characters are boring. Adebayo introduced both Yejide and Akin so thoroughly that I understood why they were making the choices they made; I understood why they were hurt and thus why they hurt others. I didn’t find either of them irredeemable or so distasteful that I wanted to stop reading.

The other fun little note that come up during the discussion is that all Yoruba names mean some thing. For Yejide, anyone who met her would know someone died before she was born—they would assume her grandmother but in Yejide’s case it was actually her mother who died giving birth to Yejide. Akin’s name means a courageous man—an ironic touch the more you get to know him.

Highly Recommended
I feel again that I need to apologize for being so vague—I feel like I’m saying “You should read this book but I can’t tell you why! You just should!” Obvious triggers surrounding child loss notwithstanding, this is a book I highly recommend if you like character-driven books. There are also sufficient events to keep the book moving, with moments of crisis, so even those who need more heavily plot-driven books will find something here to keep them reading. The entirety of the action occurs in Nigeria and Adebayo is herself Nigerian (I believe she said she was Yoruba), making this a book for both #diversebooks and #ownvoies.

Flight Pick — Americanah and the value of listening to books by foreign writers
Anne’s flight pick to read with Stay With Me was Chimamanda Adiche’s Americanah. I actually “read” (listened) to Americanah early in 2017 so I didn’t revisit it last month. I felt like listening to Americanah last year was particularly helpful—there is a cadence to the writing that was accessible to me as a white American reader that wasn’t available if I had only read the book. Indeed, having listening to Americanah I felt like I could read Stay With Me and even Freshwater better—the speech and cadence of the Nigerian English stuck with me and aided my reading. If you haven’t ever listened to an audiobook of a Nigerian writer, I recommend your first book be one you listen to—it will make the experience of that book and subsequent books richer.

Notes
Published: August 22, 2017 by Knopf
Author: Ayobami Adebayo
Date read: March 4, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Featured Photo Credit: Alexis Brown

MMD February 2018: This Must Be The Place and Interpreter of Maladies

MMD February 2018: This Must Be The Place and Interpreter of Maladies

For February 2018, Anne Bogel chose Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place as the main book to read with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies as the flight pick.  I loved This Must Be The Place and now have a new author whose backlist I need to explore.

This Must Be The Place

What redemption there is in being loved: we are always our best selves when loved by another. Nothing can replace this.

Synopsis
In deciding how to describe this book, I pulled up Amazon to see how it was summarized. I don’t recommend you do this. This book gets billed as a love story—which I suppose it is, but if that’s your thing, This Must Be The Place will disappoint. At its heart, This Must Be The Place isn’t a love story so much as it’s a relationship story—a story of the relationship between two sets of children and their father, between a husband and wife, a son and his father, a man and the world around him that drives him to his knees.

Daniel, disappointed and alienated from his children, finds himself in Ireland retrieving his grandfather’s ashes when he stumbles upon Claudette Wells—THE Claudette Wells—famous actress/writer/producer turned recluse. As the two begin a relationship, the narrative travels back and forth in time, revealing what drove Claudette and Daniel to that back road in Ireland and what will ultimately drive them forward.

Structure & Writing
I adored This Must Be The Place. The chapters bounce around in time and viewpoint—most are straight narrative but some are correspondence, interview transcription, or auction lot descriptions. In many ways, the book reads as a series of interconnected short stories—this isn’t quite accurate since each of the chapters can’t stand entirely on their own, though many of them probably could. Because the story is being told in bits and afterthoughts from several characters introducing you to Claudette and Daniel from the side rather than head-on, the book is long. Many of the chapters had lengthy set up for what seemed perhaps like a minor payoff—some small part of Claudette revealed. And yet it was searching for these little payoffs—wondering how this chapter about adopting a child from China was going to introduce me to a piece of Claudette or Daniel’s life—that made the book so engaging for me. I searched for clues amidst the words. And yet, the writing was strong enough and the side-characters largely engaging enough that I didn’t mind the extra work. I enjoyed the ride. The comparison isn’t perfect since, as I noted, This Must Be The Place, isn’t truly a book of stories that can all stand on their own, but I found myself thinking of Olive Kitteridge. Some of the stories in Strout’s book feature Olive prominently and you learn quite a bit about her in one story. In others, she is the briefest of side characters and you read twenty pages to learn very little new about her. This is how some of the chapters were in The Must Be The Place.

This structure, however, is something that drove other readers in the MMD Book Club a little nuts. O’Farrell uses this technique well but it makes the book on long, non-standard-narrative and the payoff in some of the chapters is small. If this kind of device isn’t usually your thing, you may find This Must Be The Place to be meandering in a way that loses you. If this doesn’t usually bother you, then I highly recommend you give This Must Be The Place a try.

Characters
As I noted, the two main characters are Claudette—a famous actress who suddenly disappeared from public view one day—and Daniel, a somewhat ordinary man who stumbles upon her hiding place and becomes her husband. At first blush, it’s hard to feel sorry for Claudette—she’s a famous actress who could seemingly do no wrong in her writing and acting, beloved the world over. How hard could her life be? And yet, the farther you go, you see that the life Claudette fled was never the life she intended and it was far lonelier than it appeared on the outside. Her eccentricities are, in many ways, things she needed to do to feel a semblance of normalcy after her life grew out of her control.

Daniel seems to be the sympathetic character, the reasonable character, the character you want to cheer for. And yet, there comes a point towards the back third of the book when you realize that maybe you didn’t know him nearly as well as you thought you did. That there are things about his personality that call into question some of the earlier things he told the reader. It was a masterful change—one that was surprising and yet utterly not once the cards were on the table.

In Sum
I said it already—I adored this book. I’m glad I snapped up a copy when it was on sale on Kindle and I plan to go back into O’Farrell’s back list and read more of her work. Her writing was smart, at times funny and others pulling at my heartstrings, but never saccharine. If you know the narrative structure won’t be a distraction for you and you have time for a slightly longer (400 pages) book, give This Must Be The Place a read.

Interpreter of Maladies

…there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

Short Stories
When Anne Bogel chose Interpreter of Maladies as her flight pick for This Must Be The Place, I was pleased. I’ve owned this book and hadn’t had a chance to read it yet (#storyofmylife) and really enjoyed The Namesake when I read it several years ago. I’m glad I read Interpreter of Maladies, though I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to.

While it’s billed as a series of loosely connected stories, Interpreter of Maladies is really a series of totally unconnected stories. The common thread—spider-silk thin—seems only to be that each character has been touched (some much more so than other) by the separation of Bengal (now Bangladesh) from India and Pakistan. Otherwise, there are no common characters and the stories are set in different times and places.

Short stories aren’t usually a genre I love—they’re usually too short to get me connected to a character and then just long enough for me to find them tedious since I don’t connect with anyone in what I’m reading. I would have told you I really disliked them before reading Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Anything Is Possible last year. In some ways those stories are like reading This Must Be The Place—I’m getting glimpses here and there of the same character or characters and so the disconnect I usually feel with short stories is absent since I’m getting more common-character-payoff.   The connection was ultimately too loose for me to feel about Interpreter the way I feel about Strout’s short stories.

I can recognize that Interpreter of Maladies is incredibly written—even though I don’t usually connect with short story characters, Interpreter had more pull than I usually find, such that I cared what happened to some of the characters more than I usually do in this form. The stories are descriptive without being gushy with compelling characters whose tragedies (because…it’s almost all little tragedies when the partition of India-Pakistan-Bangladesh is concerned) pull at your senses of what is right and fair. If short stories are your thing, this is a beautiful collection and I can see why it won the Pulitzer. I’d glad I read it and I may even read some of her other short stories to see if I like them as much or better, but this isn’t going on my top-ten list for 2018.

Featured image credit: Ferdinand Stöhr

MMD January: Deep Work & Daily Rituals

MMD January: Deep Work & Daily Rituals

For January, Anne Bogel chose Deep Work for the main pick with Daily Rituals for the flight pick. I have to admit—I DNF’d Daily Rituals, though I got more out of Deep Work than I originally expected.

Deep Work
I have a bit of a bias against self-help books or books that even seem like they might be in a category at the bookstore next to self-help books. There’s not a particularly good reason for this aversion and it’s probably got roots in my aversion of books one can find on the shelves at Lifeway but it is what it is. But gosh darn it, I pay a (well-earned, well-deserved) fee for this Book Club so I’m going to read the dang book. And I’m glad I did—I’ve implemented several of the suggestions in Deep Work to start off the year feeling more productive and less stressed at work.

First, Newport defines “Deep Work” as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Shallow Work is, essentially, everything else—it is the easily replicable things that suck time not brainpower but do not contribute significantly to the furtherance of any goals. What follows after this set up is a series of rules/proposals/examples that show why arranging your time and focus to provide solid blocks of time for Deep Work is vital to maximizing your working potential.

As an attorney and supervisor of advocates at a non-profit, much of what I do doesn’t fall neatly into the Deep Work-Shallow Work dichotomy Newport sets up—I wouldn’t call editing complaints and appeals by advocates to regulatory agencies “shallow work”—It’s a skill that took years to hone and develop to know the laws and rules, the players, the right tone, the arguments to make, even how to edit in a way that leaves the original writer’s voice and in a way they learn to adopt the changes I’m making into their future drafts to be better writers. It’s a skill I’m constantly improving at myself. It is Deep Work at the time its being done but it is rarely, if ever, Deep Work that requires me to think deeply more than 45 minutes before the entire appeal/project is done, so thinking about it later or when idle isn’t really an issue. Moreover, the suggestion seems to be that Shallow Work is a necessary evil that should be minimized. I would say, however, that one of the areas I’ve had to grow in most as a manager are the soft skills—for example, being supportive and interested in my supervisees’ lives so that they feel valued. I do value the people I work with and so need to make sure I’m taking the time to communicate this—all of this time, however, would be something Newport calls Shallow Work. (Though even he uses being a better mentor and supervisor as an example of a goal. I do not think then, that Newport would suggest that we all be automatons. I think this is another example where something perhaps doesn’t fit neatly into one of the two boxes.)

Even though I don’t think the dichotomy proves a perfect fit for my work, there are strategies that Newport suggested that have made the beginning of my work year more productive and less stressful. First, I’ve changed how I used my time. I moved my regularly scheduled check-ins where I review cases and new records with my supervisees to be at the beginning of the morning or afternoon, leaving larger chunks of time available for me to get into a project. This way I’m not working on something for an hour, interrupted for an hour, and then trying to get back in where I left off. I also got an hour-by-hour planner so I can log ahead of time how I want to use my day, though I use pencil so that I can adjust based on my actual use of time (since someone’s always having an emergency that needs to become my emergency). Planning how to use my time to complete various projects has made deadlines feel less stressful so that I feel I can leave work at work, while charting how I’m actually using my time has made me better aware of where I was wasting time (so I stop—no one really wants to write “Fifteen minute Instagram break” on their planner).

Newport also emphasizes taking time to figure out what your goals are—what really matters to you both professionally and personally—and fitting your time and your use of technology (Facebook is, as expected, pretty maligned) around activities that help you maximize your goals in a way that preserves idle time. Indeed, one of Newport’s main arguments it that idle time is necessary to allow the brain to rest, reset, and thus have the capacity to do tomorrow’s Deep Work. I found this section valuable and do want to take more time to really sit with the suggestions and questions he sets out here.

My only complaint is that Deep Work has a pretty serious gender bias in the quotes, examples, and studies cited. Women were given as examples or sources of material fifteen times to men’s one hundred examples. We could certainly parse this out further—men have published more studies than women have so there were more source materials for him to cite for men. Which is, of course, indicative of a larger problem within academia of not-supporting, not-publishing women. Even as this improves, women still have a hell of a way to go before the rates are the same. So perhaps—perhaps—it is unreasonable to suggest that the rate could have been fifty-fifty. But certainly Newport could have done a better job finding studies and examples such that I wasn’t left with an overwhelming sense  that I was reading a book about men by a man. Something more than thirteen percent representation cannot have been that hard to achieve.

Daily Rituals

The flight pick was, in essence, examples of how various artists and thinkers organized their days to accomplish their Deep Work. I can see why Daily Rituals was a successful and entertaining blog concept—the descriptions of how various thinkers and artists spent their time is fascinating in the micro but gets repetitive in the macro. If I were to get one summary once a day (or even only a few times a week), I’d probably read them. But to try to get through 234 in the time I had the library book meant reading ten or more a day. The stories blended and I realized I was reading without any real comprehension or appreciation. I made it through 124 out of 234 before I called it quits and the only thing I can tell you is that Patricia Highsmith apparently smuggled in snails by hiding them under her breasts, six at a time, as she was crossing through customs when she moved to France. Also, I thought I wanted to read Look Homeward Angel, but now I’m not sure I can since I know way more than I ever wanted to know about Thomas Wolfe’s masturbation habits. (Which is to say, knowing any specifics at all is more than I want to know about anyone’s habits in that department. Knock yourself out but don’t tell me about it, please.)

Another issue I had with this read that contributed to the running-together-problem was that there was almost no context given for who the person was that was being described. Sure, some (like Freud or Benjamin Franklin) didn’t need an introduction, but the guy who I think I figured out was a Russian choreographer definitely did. Even if I’d heard a name before, I couldn’t tell you why I knew them or what their body of work was. Not recognizing the subject of the essay contributed to the disconnect and kept me in skim-only mode.

Finally, as with Deep Work, the subjects were overwhelmingly male and white and included Woody Allen. Going by my own quick count, there were 25 women to 135 men, meaning only 15.5% of the subjects were female. And while I didn’t count (since there were not pictures and I’d have had to google 234 people to confirm), I feel pretty solid in my assessment that the percentage of subjects of color is even less.

I did see how Daily Rituals connected to Deep Work and I could see how, in many ways, the assertions Newport makes in Deep Work played out—most artists/thinkers were only able to work for periods up to three hours before needing a break. Some managed to be creative or prolific in their fields without having the kind of schedule Newport suggests, though I could see how it was certainly more difficult for them to do so.

Overall, I see why the book was picked for the flight, but don’t feel bad about abandoning it. When I look back at my notes, the themes I was picking up seemed to be—“You get to sleep more than I do” or “Wow you do a lot of drugs.” Make of that what you will.