I won’t be giving away too much of the plot by saying that the book is about a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian London. Unusually for young women of that time, she reads books and thinks and intends to get a decent life. She gets started on that route through the owner of a perfume business who falls in love with her.

While she is the heroine, somehow the world of the book revolves more around him. The key persons are his wife, slowly going mad from an undiagnosed brain tumour, his brother, his friends from student days. I’m not sure if this is intentional, but it seems suitable, given how it reflects the order of Victorian society.

The book is based on very thorough knowledge of Victorian England – half of the reviews on the web kept reminding me how 20 years of research have gone into this book. The result is a story full of vivid and believable detail about the lives of low-class prostitutes, the household of a well-to-do businessman, street life, dirt and sounds and smells.

There was dramatic tension enough to keep me gripped all the way through the book. I found some turns of plot a bit hard to believe, especially in the context of a Victorian society, but was willing to overlook them (and a few other technical weaknesses, such as the rather annoying first-person “dear reader” sections) in an otherwise well-told story. And yet somehow something was missing.

There is no purpose to all this wealth of detail and drama. I got no real insight into the characters, and they remained curiously distant. Neither did I really get any deeper insight into the society or times they lived in. And yet there is so much that could have been explored. Class prejudice, to begin with. Or Victorian sexual repression, which makes women into either prostitutes, or ladies who even as grown-ups don’t know where children come from, and are outraged by any hint of body shapes showing through the dress. Or the faint beginnings of a new era, when women are taking a more active role in society, and the importance of aristocracy wanes in favour of businessmen. All of these themes are occasionally hinted at, but never given any real attention.

This reminds me of a curious feature of the book, or rather, its characters. They also lack depth in their thinking, and are all surprisingly shallow. They don’t look further than the surface in others or themselves, and never attempt to understand or explain their behaviour. Judgements are based almost exlusively on prejudice and conventions: men’s prejudices about women’s ability to think, everybody’s prejudices about prostitutes’ weak morals and characters, etc. Life decisions just happen, without much thought of any kind. Admittedly this was a time before the birth of psychology, so I wouldn’t expect the amount of analysis that a modern person would naturally undertake. But surely people of above-average intelligence in any time period would exhibit some independent thought, some attempts to question, to understand?

The most disappointing part was the ending. The story is simply cut off, rather than brought to a conclusion. The author even felt it necessary to add another one of those “dear reader” bits to say that this is the end – otherwise I guess the reader would be wondering if perhaps some pages were missing from their copy of the book. Loose threads are left loose; the main characters’ lives are either destroyed or left in limbo. Nothing is resolved. Nobody grows or develops, nobody is left with a hope for a better life. Even the characters who hadn’t had much misfortune happen to them in the book, were sent off with hints of how they will suffer in the future. Such a bleak and heartless ending was truly depressing, and almost made me wish I hadn’t read the book. In a way the book does have a theme, I guess: “bad things happen to good people”, or “life isn’t fair”.

Reviews tend to describe this book as one of two things: a “Victorian epic” in the tradition of Dickens (of which it falls far short) or as a “bawdy, bold, and lusty romp” (which I find a more accurate description, if you disregard the end). It’s a period piece that never rises above its story. It could have been a really great book, given the effort and knowledge and skilful writing that have gone into it. It’s a bit sad to see that promise unfulfilled. Knowledge and dramatic skills may make a bestseller, but not a great work of literature.

Best review of “The Crimson Petal and the White”: in Salon.

As Blump grows in size and strength, s/he also learns new things. A week or two ago, I felt odd rhythmic movements – sort of like heartbeats, but far too strong and too slow for a real heartbeat. I couldn’t figure out what Blump was up to, but then a while later I read that babies can have hiccups even before birth, so I guess that’s what they were.

Blump has also learned to express his/her dissatisfaction through vigourous kicking. Occasionally I’ve lain on the wrong side or at the wrong angle, which has somehow made Blump uncomfortable. Maybe s/he has ended up lying on an arm, or with a leg in a twist… don’t know. But the feedback has been very clear: Blump thrashes around so the position becomes really uncomfortable for me as well, at which point I turn the other side and we’re both happy again.

The movements have also become a lot more distinct. Sometimes I can look at my belly and see one side bulge out, and then see the bulge move across the belly, or see the belly stretch with a kick or an elbow jab. It really does look just like the Alien movies.

Given that I write a blog, it should come as no surprise to you that I read blogs as well. There’s about twenty that I read regularly – not daily, but a steady rotation through the list ensures that I see each one at least twice a week. The blogs range from the very techy to simply enjoyable writing.

There’s quite a lot of turnover in that list. One single very interesting post may be enough to get a blog onto the list. Then I keep checking the blog for a few weeks to see what else they come up with. If a month goes past without any posts of value, they’re thrown out, no matter how good that first post was. There’s enough cross-linking among good tech blogs to make sure that I don’t miss anything really astounding.

The blog that I’ve been reading the longest is Jeff Atwood’s Coding Horror. I have read every single post since at least the beginning of 2005 (when I started doing .NET development). With other blogs, I might skip what they wrote while I was out on vacation, but not with Coding Horror.

What makes it so good? Interesting content is the primary factor. Most of it is about “.NET and human factors”, as the blog byline says, or about general software development issues. He makes me think of things in a new light, or think of things that I hadn’t even stopped to consider before. While I don’t always agree with his views, he is clearly a man who thinks, and there aren’t too many of them out there! The issues he writes about are so general that most would be relevant or useful even if I worked with COBOL. At the same time, the range of topics is wide enough that he doesn’t get boring or repeat himself. I haven’t found any other blog or magazine out there that is so consistently interesting.

Which brings to mind another important component: consistency. He posts regularly, and consistently about a single topic. There are no posts about his vacation, or photos from his latest night out, and no long gaps – bad habits that ruin many other programming blogs. A programming blog should be about programming; private life belongs elsewhere. Few readers are likely to be interested in both. (I don’t follow this rule myself, but on the other hand I never aspired to a large audience for this blog.)

There is also consistence of quality, both in content and in presentation. Jeff’s blog is not the kind that gets the whole blogosphere’s attention for a few days, only to be forgotten after that. Instead there is a steady flow of interesting, thought-provoking, enlightening, well-written commentary.

Finally, his blog is a pleasure to read because it looks good. It is clean, clear and easy on the eyes. Compare, for example, the CodeBetter blogs: large and noisy header, blinking ads, colourful links, a gazillion reminders to “Share this post: Email it! | bookmark it! | digg it! | reddit!| kick it!”, and a side bar longer than my arm.

If I had a tech blog, I would be really proud and satisfied if I could make it as good as Jeff’s.

This is the book that claims to be “the zero tolerance guide” to punctuation, a call to action to all those who have an “inner stickler”. It is nothing near the former (I guess an overzealous editor took liberties with the truth when writing the back cover text), and while I guess it could serve as the latter, it misses its target there as well, because – as various reviewers have already pointed out – the punctuation in the book occasionally ignores the rules it so praises.

“Eats, Shoots & Leaves” is really more aimless and lighthearted than the cover promises, which is probably why it’s sold so well. It doesn’t require the reader to actually engage much of their brain. It’s a series of ramblings on the topic of punctuation, with each chapter devoted to one punctuation sign. Each chapter generally contains an overview (but a rather cursory one) of rules applicable to that sign, and lots of anecdotes about its history and its use and misuse. All this is mixed with generous amounts of personal musings about the sign’s character, worth and importance. Generally the anecdotes and personal views get more space and attention than the rules – she positively revels in listing cases of apostrophe misuse.

The constant wittiness and jollity was on the border of becoming annoying, but didn’t quite cross that line. However it did overpower the contents – a case of favouring style over substance, definitely. I would have preferred more substance and less prancing around. Even the nuggets of knowledge that were there were spread out without any structure or framework. As a result I can’t remember any of the facts that I found interesting while reading it. An author with real expertise in any of the subjects covered could have done a much better job of presenting the information. A book about the history of punctuation marks could be really interesting – or one about various writers’ idiosyncratic use of punctuation.

The book does succeed in whetting appetites. It definitely brings home the point that punctuation matters and is worth paying attention to – not just by schoolteachers, but by everyone who cares about clear communication or wants their writings to have character and life. But if someone already cares enough to buy the book, do they really need a book to confirm their opinion? It is preaching to the converted and making them feel better about unleashing their “inner stickler”. Well, it might actually be of use as a gift from parents to older children: funny enough to keep them reading, so they might soak up some slight passion for commas without noticing that they’re learning things.

Serves well as light entertainment, but won’t make any lasting impact.

Indoor temperature in our living room, as I got home about 7 pm today: 31°C. I am not enjoying this. At all. Tempted to stay longer and longer in our nice air-conditioned office.

Best for cooling: ice cream and cold showers.

Best for rehydrating: apple juice diluted with water (50/50), or weak cordials (elderflower is good) with extra lemon and salt, or just a lemon/sugar/salt drink.

My best pregnancy buy, by a mile, is a big V-shaped body pillow. Well, it’s also just about my only pregnancy buy (apart from clothes and a couple of books) but never mind that.

The joints around my pelvis have gradually loosened and become more achy. Nothing too bad, really, just a bit uncomfortable. But about two weeks ago it suddenly got a lot worse, so I was spending a large part of each night twisting and turning, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt too much.

Then one night when Eric happened to be away, I finally achieved a reasonably comfortable sleeping position by arranging all the three pillows in our bed in a carefully shaped long mound. That was a relatively good night. But of course Eric was going to come home and want his pillows back, so I needed a more long-term solution.

Eric had reminded me a few days earlier that there are long body pillows I could try. I thought I’d simply buy one of these, but when I went to look for one on Ebay, the search brought up some more interesting results as well: huge V- and C-shaped pillows. They were three times as expensive as simple bolster pillows, but, well, they looked so funky that I just had to try one. I bought one straight away – anything to get a good night’s sleep! – and it was delivered two days later, just in time before Eric was to come home. There were some big eyes in the office when my parcel arrived!

That night I had my best and deepest sleep in weeks, maybe more than a month. The pillow keeps my hips in a good position and provides some support for the upper body and/or the back as well, depending on how I lie. The only downsides are that it takes up half the bed, and that changing sides (or rather, extracting myself from the pillow) is a bit of a project. But balanced against the comfort of sleeping in it, those are minor points.

If I had known that it would feel this good, I’d have bought one weeks earlier.

There are way too many useless pretty things circulating in the world. You know, glass bowls, candlesticks, that sort of things.

Today I wanted to clean out some clutter that has accumulated in our home over time: things that we never use that just take up space. The most obvious candidates were some so-called “decorative items” that we’ve been given as gifts years ago, that have only been sitting somewhere gathering dust since then. There’s nothing wrong with them – they are just not our style.

I thought I might try and sell them on Ebay – they may be useless to us, but perhaps someone else wants such things. But when I looked on Ebay to see what category to put them under, I realised that this was completely hopeless. There were hundreds of unsold candlesticks there, with no bids. There are far more candlesticks in the (Ebay-connected) world than there are people who want candlesticks.

I gave my things away to a neighbourhood charity shop instead. I cannot be sure that anyone will ever buy them there, either, of course… It feels like such a waste. I wish no one would ever give me another useless vase again. I’d rather not get a gift, than get another dust-gatherer. Give a gift voucher instead. Or buy an acre of rain forest – at least it won’t take up space at home!

Real whales!

One of the most exciting things we did in Iceland was whale-watching trip out of Húsavik. We spent several hours in the bay of Húsavik in a wooden boat, looking for whales – and getting quite close to them!

The whales we saw were humpbacks. We found a pair of them who seemed to be feeding – making short dives of maybe 5 minutes, and staying close to the surface between dives – and followed them around for a while. The first sign of their surfacing was often a spout of water. After that they tended to swim close to the surface for a while, so we could see the top half of their body, one part at a time. When they were about to dive back down, they often flicked the tail (fluke) up high.

The head was as knobbly as it looks in the picture, and true to their name, they had a humped back (see photo #3). The long white flippers were very also very distinctive. All in all a very satisfyingly whale-like whale. Interesting factoid: the white pattern on the fluke is different for each humpback, like a fingerprint, so scientists are now able to identify and track individual whale by photographing their flukes.

Finding the whales turned out to be a matter of patience, experience and good eyesight. Many times our guide would announce a whale “11 o’clock, 1 km out” and none of us could see anything until the boat got to within a few hundred meters. Spotting was made harder by the fact that whales only stayed on or near the surface for a short while, and then disappeared, after which it could take anything from a minute to five minutes for them to come back up. Once she had spotted a whale, we would aim in that direction and try to get as close as possible.

When we were really close, the challenge was no longer to spot the whales, but to predict where they would come up next time. Since we were so close, even 100 metres could put the whales on the other side of the boat, so all sides had to be covered. And if we went in opposite directions, we could quickly lose our “close contact”. The captain seemed to have a sixth sense for predicting the whales’ direction. On several occasions, the whale submerged, and the ship puttered in what appeared to be a random direction – yet when the whale came up again we found ourselves in exactly the right spot.

Iceland used to have a whaling industry, but a moratorium was put in place in 1989. The whaling industry adapted quickly, and is now making good money out of whale-watching instead. (Our boat was a converted whaling boat.) According to our guide book, flags were at half mast in Húsavik when the moratorium was lifted in 2003 to allow whaling for “scientific purposes”. Apparently whalers have agreed to stay away from whale-watching routes, so as not to kill or scare away the whales who have gotten used to human presence.

Eric took the first 2 pictures (I need to get a faster camera!). And rather than edit picture #3 to straighten out the horizon, I left it the way it came out, as a reminder of how much the boat swayed when we were standing still, facing the waves.

(“Let the right one in”)
A friend of ours works in the Science Fiction Bookshop in Stockholm, and occasionally gives us surprising books that we would probably never have found ourselves. This one is one of them. Her description, as far as I remember it, was that the book is “about vampires in the suburbs of Stockholm – not as silly as it sounds”. Having read the book, I can’t think of a better way to describe it myself.

There is a boy, about 12 or 13 years of age, in the western suburbs of Stockholm. Not the kind of suburbs with gardens and villas, but the kind with concrete blocks. There is a girl of about the same age who moves in to the flat next to where he lives, and they sort of tentatively become friends. All very ordinary… But then there is also a man who kills a young boy in the woods. And the girl smells like something dead. And things take off from there.

The premise may sound absurd, but it is treated so calmly and matter-of-factly that as pages go by, it becomes more and more believable. The characters live their ordinary lives in an ordinary part of Stockholm, and under the cover of this ordinariness, stranger things are presented to us as well, almost sneaking in unnoticed. Really, when you think about it, wouldn’t a dull suburb be a great place for vampires? And wouldn’t ordinariness be the best way to survive, instead of black cloacks and striking hairdos?

The book is beautifully written, with an easy yet sparse flow of words, and a great feeling of realism. Grips you and won’t let go – sucks you right in.

Doesn’t quite have the same ring as the “faster, higher, stronger” Olympic motto, does it… But that’s what I’m getting.

The bump has suddenly passed some magical threshold. Last week all sorts of people commented on how visible it had suddenly become. Even the lady holding our pregnancy yoga classes, who’s seen me weekly for quite a while now, mentioned it.

Remember when I said I couldn’t see all of my belly any more? Now I’ve come to the point where I can’t even see my toes without bending forward a bit. If I stand facing a wall and move forward until I just touch the wall, the part that touches it first is the belly. And when I sit at my desk, the bump has started hitting the edge of the desk.

Bigger also means heavier, of course. I’ve gained about 11 kg now, which is over 20% of what I weighed before I got pregnant. Most of the time I don’t notice the weight much; it’s not like a rucksack weighing down heavily on the shoulders. But it is definitely noticeable when I have to walk uphill or upstairs, especially when I’m carrying bags of groceries – I’m huffing and puffing hard by the time I reach our second-floor flat.

Walking in general has become a lot less comfortable. First of all there is all this weight to carry around. Second, the stomach muscles can’t work as well as they used to, because they are so stretched out. Fast walking is out of the question because the muscles then cannot manage posture and breathing at the same time. I’ve always relied more on the stomach than the back muscles to keep me straight (my back is weaker, for some reason) and now that I can’t, my lower back has started hurting somewhat. One of the hormones that the pregnant body produces is called relaxin, and its most obvious effect, as the name promises, is to relax various muscles around the pelvis and the uterus. The result is a “floppy” pelvis that has a tendency to sink out of shape and thus hurt while I walk, unless I take small steps and focus hard keeping the pelvis straight.

Cycling, on the other hand, causes no discomfort whatsoever. And even though the going is slower than it used to be (probably because of the weight again) the slowdown isn’t as marked as when I walk. So I still cycle to work every day, and to the supermarket, and to the hospital, and everywhere else as well. I hope to be able to continue cycling for a long time still – I am not looking forward to switching to public transport.

I took the bus home on Friday (had a large parcel that I needed to take home) and back on Saturday to pick up the bike, and it was, above all, so terribly boring. Even though the route is about the same as when I cycle, and it takes about the same time, it felt a lot slower. When I’m cycling, I am active all the time: I am thinking of the potholes and pedestrians to avoid, keeping an eye and an ear out for cars, watching the traffic lights. On the bus I just sit there. No wind in my hair, no sun in my face. And it’s not even as comfortable as cycling!

Yoga also still feels good, so I am doing both my usual Tuesday night class and a special pregnancy yoga class on Thursdays. The Tuesday class is ashtanga-inspired and therefore quite a good workout, without any of the jumping or bouncing that more energetic classes tend to have. I’m still able to do most of the exercises with the rest of the group, just more carefully. Other asanas have to be modified slightly: in forward bends such as padangusthasana and paschimottanasana, the legs need to be further apart to leave space for the bump. Still others have to be replaced with something else completely: upward dog and anything else that involves lying on the front or strongly arching the back is out of the question. But most of it works well, and it is pleasant to be able follow the familiar routine.

The pregnancy yoga class is quite different. It is a lot gentler and slower, mostly because it needs to be accessible to women with no previous experience of yoga (or of any sports for that matter), so it isn’t much of a workout. I’ve never worked up a sweat there. The focus is almost entirely on the back, pelvis, hips and shoulders. It wouldn’t be enough to keep me in shape, but it is a good complement, and has taught me some nice back stretches.