Things they don’t tell you before you start breastfeeding: how absurdly, mind-bogglingly hungry it makes you. Whenever I’m not feeding Ingrid, I’m feeding myself. I could eat constantly, if I didn’t need my hands for other things occasionally. Now I limit myself to four solid meals a day (porridge for breakfast, two lunches, one dinner), frequently followed by a dessert, plus an unknown number of snacks between meals. Before I learned to breastfeed while lying down, I even ate after each nightly feeding session.

There are no cravings and no preferences. Anything goes, as long as it’s vegetarian and sufficiently calorie-dense. (Soup is bad. Cheesecake is good.) Eric still occasionally asks me whether I would like to eat, or what I would prefer for dinner. The answers are always the same: “Yes!”, and “Anything!”. The bare question is enough to make me hungry enough to really not care about what I’m eating!

Food goes in, milk comes out. I transform adult food into baby food.

Ingrid’s life revolves around my breasts. Therefore, so does mine. Hardly an hour goes by without thinking about breasts. (“I defy anyone who is breastfeeding a five week old baby to go a whole 10 minutes without saying boob or breast. I honestly feel like that’s all I ever say anymore.”)

Breastfeeding must be the world’s cheapest and most effective breast enlargement method. Mine – not particularly large to begin with – grew by 2 cup sizes. Seriously, they must have at least doubled in size, if not more. And that’s when they’re empty: let one go un-sucked half a night, and it inflates to the point where it no longer looks like it should be a part of me. I think Eric looks at them with cautious fascination… I myself am starting to view them as alien objects, belonging to Ingrid, not me. She’s just stuck them on me so she doesn’t have to carry them.

For the first time in my life, I have a cleavage. Overrated, I think, this whole cleavage thing… sweaty and itchy.

Size is just half of the story, of course. There’s the milk, too. Breasts, unfortunately, don’t come with a screw cap… the closing mechanism is a bit loose. Basically, they leak. A lot. They leak through everything: the nursing pads (which should, and do, absorb most of the leakage), the bra, the t-shirt, and sometimes the sweater too. Black has turned out to be the only practical colour for t-shirts and tops: everything else looks like I’ve painted two bulls-eyes on my chest.

And I leave wet stains on the bedclothes. Eeuw!

On a more serious note, I think both Ingrid and I have more or less figured out how this breastfeeding thing works. I’ve also found positions that allow her to eat without gagging and choking on the milk when it flows too fast (which it often does – we had some unpleasant days last week when she was really struggling: sucking once, then spluttering and gagging, letting go of the breast, and then crying because of both discomfort and hunger).

Ingrid can now latch on pretty well on her own, without me going through a whole procedure. Most of the time I just need to point her mouth roughly in the right direction and she takes care of the rest. She hasn’t yet learned to look for the target herself: she tends to keep her eyes closed while eating (for concentration?) and tries to suck whatever she can reach… which is rarely the right thing!

I saw the play Arcadia years ago… it must be 10 years at least. By now I remembered little of the story. I just had a very strong memory of finding it fabulous – one of the best plays I have ever seen. (I still think that.) My verdict after reading the play is that it’s simply brilliant.

Arcadia is set in a large country house in England, switching between 1809 and the present day. It is almost a kind of detective story: the present-day inhabitants and visitors are researching different aspects of what was going on in 1809. For example, one visitor, a garden historian, is interested in the transformation of the garden from a classical Capability Brown-style to a romantic “gothic” or “picturesque” style, complete with ruins and a hermitage. Another attempts to find proof that Lord Byron stayed in that house and was involved in a scandal or two. A third studies the dynamics of grouse populations, based on old records of game shot at the estate.

As they do this, the provide a sort of living commentary on the nature of truth and knowledge. They are all fitting together incomplete information. Sometimes they overlook pieces of information, because they see what they want to see. Other times, some of their unfounded guesses later turn out to be right.

Another central theme is the differences between the classical and the romantic world views – science vs. art; facts vs. intuition. Sometimes the two are in opposition, and sometimes one inevitably contains the other. But the play also contains discussions of garden history, thermodynamics, chaos theory, iterative processes etc. – all of them echoed in the events of the play.

The plot is impressively well-crafted. It’s not set of threads running in parallel, but rather a whole intricate web: almost everything touches everything else, and the ends are tied together very neatly. The story is very “tight”: no line is superfluous, and there is never a dull moment.

These ideas and the plot structure get a lot more attention than the characters. The characters do all have quite distinct personalities, and Stoppard gently shows us their loves, joys and frustrations. But in the end this play is far more intellectual rather than passionate. (There’s that classical vs romantic dichotomy again.) I got as much out of reading it, as I did from seeing it. (I couldn’t say that of Shakespeare in Love, the only other work by Stoppard that I’ve seen – although not read.)

To really enjoy this book, it needs to be read with great attention. While the book isn’t complicated as such, there are lots of things going on, and lots of small but important things are said and done. Ignore a detail, and you’ll miss a later joke. I read the first half twice and found it more rewarding the second time. (On the other hand, the book is only 130 pages, so it won’t take too long to read even with maximum attention.)

The language also rewards attentive reading. Stoppard is witty in a very pleasing way: the play is full of subtle jokes, puns, and double entendres. Yet it is all done with such grace and good judgement that there is never a feeling of forced jollity or excessive comedy.

To top it all off, Stoppard’s language is a joy to read. Every line is elegant; every phrase worth savouring. It’s hard to do describe it in a way that does it justice… and likewise hard to find a representative line to quote, because each one is so much better in its proper setting. Here is the very beginning of the play. Thomasina is the precocious 13-year-old daughter of the lady of the house; Septimus her tutor.

Thomasina: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?
Septimus: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.
Thomasina: Is that all?
Septimus: No… a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well hugged, an embrace of grouse… caro, carnis; feminine; flesh.
Thomasina: Is it a sin?
Septimus: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh, QED.

Mythago Wood is a highly-praised, award-winning fantastical novel, and it’s built on an interesting idea. Behind a man’s house, there is a small wood – I guess you could call it a magical wood – where archetypes and myths from mankind’s collective subconscious become real, and get physical form. For example, the myth of Robin Hood would give rise to an actual Robin Hood figure in the wood.

Holdstock then explores what happens when the myths in a man’s subconscious come to life, and start interacting with him. And what if he himself enters the wood, and becomes part of a myth?

An interesting idea, but hard to present as believable. Once you start thinking about it, you realise how untenable this is. What would this Robin Hood live on? How can he be Robin Hood without nobles to steal from, and peasants to give the spoils to? Does his entire world materialise? And how come his world doesn’t collide and conflict with the worlds of other myths who also exist in the wood? And so on.

The people in the book all accept this idea of myth-made-real far too easily. If I told you that my mind generated a real Robin Hood in the wood behind my house, how much time, and how much evidence, would you require before you believed me? More than one day and one person’s word, I think!

In other ways as well, the characters’ behaviour is often not entirely believable. Major changes in some characters’ behaviour are never quite explained – they “just happen” – and major decisions likewise “just happen” with little preparation or build-up. The characters seem to lack a real inner life, and simply feel flat and 2-dimensional.

The writing itself is also flat. Through much of the book, the language is stiff and cliched. People actually say things like “Oh my god, no!” (as I thought they only did in bad movies) and the book abounds in phrases such as “Then darkness began to close about me. My lips moved but I could utter no sound…”.

Holdstock shifts into a different gear for retelling some of the myths that live in the wood. He tells these in a simple, matter-of-fact manner, in the kind of voice that an old-time story-teller might use. And as a result, these myths are a lot more gripping than the rest of the book. Too bad he didn’t stick to this simplicity throughout the book.

All in all, the book was a bit of a disappointment to me. An interesting idea, as I said, and some intriguing developments of that idea, but neither the characters, nor the wood, nor the story never really come alive.

I am always glad when a reader takes the time to comment on any of my posts – whether it’s a casual or veteran visitor. I’ve been getting slightly more comments recently (sometimes even several comments in a week!) which is great.

As a response, I have made comments more visible by adding a “Recent comments” section to the side panel on the main page. This way you can also see if I have replied to your comment, without having to go back to the original post. In the same place there is also a link to a longer and more detailed list of comments.

I get an awful lot of spam comments: over 1000 (yes, that is one thousand) in the first three weeks of November already. Most of them peddle medicines, porn or ringtones. Interestingly, two sources (two widespread Trojans, I guess) alone stand for 50% of all junk comments. Luckily both use very predictable commenter names so they are easy to filter out.

I don’t want to make all comments moderated – I want your legitimate comments to be published straight away, without waiting for me to moderate. Instead I’ve turned up filtering to quite strict levels. If your comment contains any links at all, it will not appear until I have manually approved it. If your comment contains any dodgy words at all (for example, names of certain drugs, or mentions of non-standard sexual acts) it will go automatically to the junk pile.

If your comment does not appear, you may inadvertently have used an innocent-seeming word that has featured frequently in comment spam (don’t ever mention ringtones, for example!) or fallen foul of some other filtering rule. In that case please let me know and I will un-junk your comment.

Inevitably some junk gets through. I clean them out once a day or so. Apologies if you happen to read any offending comments before I get to them.

Half a year ago I saw a play based on the novel Embers by Sándor Márai. Now I’ve read the book.

Somewhat to my surprise I didn’t enjoy the book as much as the play. Perhaps because I saw the play first, and therefore approached the book with too specific expectations?

Plot-wise, the play was a very faithful adaptation of the same book: the same story, told in the same manner. I found the presentation of the story, the gradual uncovering of facts, as impressive and skilful as I did when seeing the play. Some episodes had been cut, of course: mostly background story about how the two men grew up together. These helped build the story, but were not essential.

I thought the pacing of the book was uneven and at times annoyingly slow. From time to time, Henrik makes a pause in the “real” story in order to deliver a lengthy lecture (I can’t think of a better description) about some deep and important concept such as friendship, revenge, or loyalty. The lectures were irritating interruptions in the flow of the story, and I frequently found them uninteresting and too wordy. I cannot remember whether these were present in the play as well – if they were, then they must have been delivered in a manner that made them interesting in a way that words on a page couldn’t achieve.

Reading allows a slower pace than listening, so as I read the book, I had time to notice some of Márai’s linguistic mannerisms. He shows a great fondness for far-fetched, almost absurd, similes for describing peripheral, unimportant objects. Important objects and people, on the other hand, are barely described.

For example:

In the castle courtyard there was an incredibly ancient fig tree that looked like some oriental sage who only had the simplest of stories left to tell.

Why an oriental sage, of all things? And what on earth does the simplicity of stories have to do with it – how would a fig tree with complicated stories differ from this one?
Also, neither the castle courtyard, nor the fig tree, are important at all, even as a setting. The sentence sits in between other, more interesting ones, without fitting in. It does not contribute to my understanding of what is going on, or to convey a particular atmosphere. It is just unnecessary, in my opinion.

Once I had noticed a few of these similes, I kept seeing them everywhere, and after a while they became really grating.

Yet on the whole I have to say that these two complaints are minor, and due to my personal preferences. Another reader might disagree completely. And the book is well worth reading despite them, because the story is interesting and very well told. (Do read my review of the play for more about that, if you’re interested.) Not everybody can see the play, after all.

… much better than movies, and why I don’t like TV at all.

But the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.

(Zadie Smith quoted at Orange Crate Art, found via BoingBoing.)

A book requires attention, and you have as much time as you want, to give it that attention.

A movie or a TV programme goes on in its own pace, and all you can do is try to absorb as much as possible. You cannot easily re-read a paragraph or compare two sections side by side. Well, technically you can, but in practice it doesn’t work.

Waking up

It’s one month since Ingrid was born. Time flies.

(Actually it was one month yesterday, but yesterday was a day with much fussing, and lots of trouble falling asleep, so I never got around to writing this.)

Ingrid has focused her efforts on growing, i.e. eating and resting. She has gained about 800g, which – given that she started at 3950 – is a pretty good rate. It took me about eight months to gain 25% of my body weight, and she did it in one!

She has also started to develop a personality. No longer a generic newborn bundle, she now has her own voice and face, and her own gestures and facial expressions. She likes turning her head to the left when given a choice (lying on her back, for example) and to arch her back really really far back when waking up.

She likes looking at lamps and windows, but is not particularly interested in faces. She does not react much to sounds – she does not find them interesting, but is also not alarmed by loud or sharp noises.

She doesn’t mind clothes being pulled over her head, but is very annoyed by the process of getting arms into sleeves.

Her hands are learning to grip things: when something grippable happens to touch her palm, she often grabs hold of it. (Remarkably often this happens to be the sleeve that I’m trying to get her arm through, or the front of my t-shirt.) But I don’t think there’s any intention behind it yet.

This weekend we bought Ingrid her first development tool. Hers is from Mothercare and not Fischer Price, but it does vibrate! She hasn’t done much productive work with it yet, but that is just a matter of finding the right incentives, I’m sure.

The zombie-like state of the first three weeks has passed: this week I have actually felt like a human being again. I hadn’t really realised how tired I was before – I only see it now, looking back.

Suddenly there is room for other sensations than tiredness in my brain. During the first two weeks I often ate and drank only because Eric reminded me to. (I think I lost 3–4 kg during those 3 weeks. Oops.) Now I feel hungry again, and eat almost as often as Ingrid does. And as an interesting side effect of breastfeeding, I feel thirsty during the day. This is a new sensation for me; previously I have only been thirsty due to hot weather or physical exertion.

Most importantly, though, not being exhausted means that I now finally have energy for positive emotions. During the first weeks Ingrid was mostly just a chore, and sometimes a very frustrating one.

It is a lot easier to feel loving kindness and show love towards her now that I am not so tired.