In the first page, the first paragraph, we learn that there are “carers” and “donors”, but are not told what it means. There are pretty strong hints, though. We go on to hear Kathy, a carer in her 30s, tell about growing up in a boarding school in the countryside, and about her friendships with Ruth and Tommy. There are more hints that something is special about the children there, but not what. The meaning of “donors” is revealed a third of the way into the book, but we have to wait even longer to find out the real reason why the children are different, and how they are used.

The scary thing is uncovered so gradually that its full impact isn’t felt. Only in the end do you realise how scary that thing is that no one has mentioned out loud. It’s a spooky book, similar to A Handmaid’s Tale in feeling.

Throughout her childhood Kathy herself wonders about what is going on, but with no real urgency. Because we hear the story from her, we only know what she knows and what she finds important. That which is obvious to her when she is adult, is not revealed, but has to be read between the lines. The big picture is kept hidden; small things are shown with great detail.

Kathy and the other children never leave the school grounds while they are there. Neither does the story, and we learn almost nothing about the wider world. Instead Kathy tells about the children’s social life – the usual childhood cliques and conflicts, discovering relationships and sex. Kathy’s relationships with Tommy and Ruth occupy centre stage.

And when the children leave school, they remain / are kept apart from the world, looking at it with fascination but without understanding. For some strange reason they never try to get closer to it even then.

Perhaps it is because they never quite grow up. As their childhood is spent in a very small and confined world, exposed only to what their guardians allow and with very little interaction with other adults, they and their relationships remain childish. So does their motivation: being good, doing what you’re supposed to, comes naturally to them even to the very end. It almost goes too far: Kathy and the others seem placid, tepid. They almost appear unaware of the horror of their lives and what is done to them. No one questions their fate, rebels, or tries to run away. Is it all because they are afraid to find out too much? I found this rather unsatisfying.

This lack of life is also apparent in how Kathy tells her story. The reviewer in Slate (warning for plot spoilers!) observes:

The reluctance of Kathy H. and her pals to really confront what awaits them may account for the curious lack of physicality of Kathy’s descriptions of their life. Nobody eats anything much in this book, nobody smells anything. We don’t know much about what the main characters look like. Even the sex is oddly bloodless. But landscapes, buildings, and the weather are intensely present. It’s as if Kathy has invested a lot of her sense of self in things quite far away from her own body, and thus less likely to be injured.

The book is well-written and interesting, and I enjoyed reading it, but it ends up being vaguely unsatisfying. I found the foggy approach to storytelling kind of gimmicky: self-consciously clever, and a bit too clever for its own good. And the premise upon which it is all built does not really work; it is implausible, no matter how much one wants to make sense of it for the sake of the good writing.

And why, oh why do all reviews have to reveal so much of the plot? Here’s a particularly egregious example (from The Economist) – don’t read it if you haven’t read the book but plan to. The reviewer seems to be completely unaware of what s/he is doing:

As Kathy says: “I can see we were just at that age when we knew a few things about ourselves – about who we were, how we were different from our guardians, from the people outside – but hadn’t yet understood what any of it meant.”
For a long time, the reader feels the same confusion. And then, about halfway through the book, the truth begins to dawn.

And then, wham! the reviewer continues to tell us that important truth in its entirety, leaving the reader no chance to discover it halfway through the book. Argh.

Amazon US, Amazon UK.

The NY Times has a long article titled “What’s wrong with Cinderella”, where the author bemoans the monoculture of princesses and pink things for girls. I found the article a bit hysterical, although I can sympathise with her point. It’s hard to find baby clothes that aren’t baby pink or baby blue. But I’m not going to worry about the whole princess thing yet – it’ll be a few years before Ingrid will have opinions about the colours she wears, or be able to demand princess toys. Right now she has no choice, ha ha!

One side note that I found really interesting, about girls and pink colour:

Girls’ obsession with that color may seem like something they’re born with, like the ability to breathe or talk on the phone for hours on end. But according to Jo Paoletti, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, it ain’t so. When colors were first introduced to the nursery in the early part of the 20th century, pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, was thought to be dainty. Why or when that switched is not clear, but as late as the 1930s a significant percentage of adults in one national survey held to that split. Perhaps that’s why so many early Disney heroines – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Wendy, Alice-in-Wonderland – are swathed in varying shades of azure. (Purple, incidentally, may be the next color to swap teams: once the realm of kings and N.F.L. players, it is fast becoming the bolder girl’s version of pink.)

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when amplifying age and sex differences became a key strategy of children’s marketing (recall the emergence of “ ’tween”), that pink became seemingly innate to girls, part of what defined them as female, at least for the first few years. That was also the time that the first of the generation raised during the unisex phase of feminism – ah, hither Marlo! – became parents.

This is, I think, our most low-key Christmas ever. We have the important ingredients: a tree, masses of gingerbread cookies, and julmust. But celebrations have been small and spread out. Most years we’ve celebrated either with my mother (who also lived in England for about 5 years) or Eric’s family in Stockholm. This year my mother is back in Sweden, and we thought Ingrid was a bit too young for long-distance travel, so we’re on our own and hadn’t planned anything particular for Christmas at all. Not even a Christmas dinner: a large part of our evenings is occupied by getting Ingrid ready for the night, which makes it hard to fit in any major dinner preparations. My father visited us a week before Christmas, so with careful organising we managed to have a Christmas-style dinner then (roast veg, a veggie loaf and homemade cranberry sauce – yum). I enjoyed cooking it – the first time in about 2 months that I cooked a proper meal – but that required a fair amount of planning, and right now I’d rather relax than undertake a project like that.

For Christmas Eve we were invited by a couple of friends to a Glöggfest in Brockenhurst outside of Southampton. Brockenhurst is 2 hours by train from London, which made it by far our longest trip yet with Ingrid. We’ve only been to Central London a couple of times. The trip there went well – she slept well in the sling, and ate well, even though she seemed to be quite distracted by the landscape rushing past.

The moment we set foot inside our friends’ house, Ingrid started screaming. Not crying, but screaming as if she was in terrible distress. She really, REALLY, didn’t want to be there. Since she got upset so immediately after we entered, we guessed it must have been the smell of incense in the house. And the only way to calm her was to take her outside… so Eric spent the first hour and a half standing outside in the front garden, with Ingrid asleep in the sling.

When Ingrid had woken and eaten, and the incense smoke had dispersed, she was content and social for half an hour, even smiling at the other guests! But then something went wrong again, and the screaming came back. This time she agreed to almost calm down in a quiet room far from everybody else, but even then she wasn’t happy. So we gave up and headed home pretty soon. She calmed down after only 10 minutes outside, and was perfectly happy on the train home. She was probably simply overwhelmed by the new sights and sounds and smells.

Conclusion: Ingrid doesn’t mind travelling, but is no more fond of noisy crowds than I am.

But the best part of this Christmas holiday has been having Eric at home for almost two weeks. I am so glad to not be alone all day, and immensely relieved to have someone to share the work of taking care of Ingrid. Eric’s been taking care of Ingrid’s long midday nap, which has given my back (and my patience) a very welcome break. Even though I’m not working, I get a Christmas vacation! I feel rested, and actually enjoy my time with Ingrid now.

I was getting worn out by the endless slinging (tired knees, tired shoulders and back, and tired of the whole thing) so last weekend we started to teach Ingrid to fall asleep in the pram, while we bounce / jiggle / rock it. In a way we’re just exchanging one prop for another – falling asleep in the pram that way is still nowhere near falling asleep independently. But if this works, I think it will be a step in the right direction: towards falling asleep in a bed. In the pram she will be further away from us, and she will be lying down instead of upright, as she is in the sling. So the pram is “closer” to a bed than the sling – an intermediate step.

Another good thing about the pram is that anyone can do it. Any generous friend or relative can take her out in the pram, whereas using the sling takes some practice – and willingness to wear a baby close to your body for hours, possibly.

And if nothing else, the pram will give us an alternative, for when the sling isn’t an option (for example in case of a back ache).

Right now it sort of works, but not as well as the sling. It takes longer for her to go to sleep, and she doesn’t sleep as long. Quite frequently she’s woken after about half an hour of sleep, which is not enough for her. When she is in the sling and starts wriggling, I notice it very quickly and can soothe her back to sleep, but when she starts to wake in the pram I rarely succeed with that. So we’re sticking with the sling for the important occasions (long midday nap, and evening sleep) and using the pram for the smaller naps in the morning and afternoon.

Ingrid is better and better at sleeping, though. Most encouragingly, she has started wriggling and almost-waking in the pram and in her Moses basket, but then gone back to sleep on her own. She’s very rarely managed that before. So perhaps she is now maturing (if one can say that about a 10-week baby) to slightly more independent sleep.

In the evening I try to move her from the sling to her Moses basket, but when I go to bed I give her a last feed and move her to our bed for the night. Initially, during her first month, I kept her in the basket all night, but that meant both of us were wide awake after each feed and had to somehow go back to sleep. Now I feed her without either of us being fully awake, and sometimes we both drift off to sleep before she’s done. I think that change – from basket to our bed – instantly gave me at least 2 extra hours of sleep per night. True, much of the time I don’t sleep very deeply with her right next to me – but light sleep is way better than no sleep!

Most nights she wakes 3 times for food, and sometimes half-wakes for other reasons (mostly wind). A while ago (maybe a month) she only woke twice in the night, but that passed – I suspect she wakes more often than she would if food was further away, perhaps because she can smell it (or me).

There was also a brief period when she would wake and be completely alert and awake for 2 hours, kicking and playing in her basket, but that was a temporary thing, luckily.

While Ingrid’s sleep is still my primary preoccupation, day and night, I think we are not doing too badly at all, and are slowly moving in the right direction. Fingers crossed.

From the back cover (which is well-written, for once):

Arthur and George grow up worlds apart in late nineteenth-century Britain: Arthur in shabby-genteel Edinburgh; George in the vicarage of a small Staffordshire village. Arthur becomes a doctor, then a writer: George a solicitor in Birmingham. Arthur is to become one of the most famous men of his age, while George remains in hard-working obscurity.

Arthur is a famous Arthur whom you will certainly recognise after a while; you will never have heard of George before. (By the way, I really liked the way Arthur’s identity was slowly revealed, but most reviews sadly reveal it straight away. Luckily this is not essential for enjoying the book.)

The two men are very different. Energetic, confident, imaginative, always-active Arthur marries, has a kind of a love affair, and rises through society. Shy, impassive George has no friends and no wife, but he does have an unshakeable belief in reason and in the legal system, and he proudly works on a book titled “Railway Law for the ‘Man in the Train’: Chiefly Intended as a Guide for the Travelling Public on All Points Likely to Arise in Connection with the Railways”.

Their two lives run their separate courses, until after many years they intersect – for a relatively minor event in Arthur’s life, yet life-changing for George. That central event is a criminal trial for a vicious crime, where circumstantial evidence and subjective interpretations of one man’s looks and behavior are all that determine his innocence or guilt. The book is fictional, but the trial was real, and even led to important changes in the British judicial system.

The trial, as well as other, minor events, are used to convey the somewhat too obvious message of the book (from the back cover again):

… a profound and moving meditation on the fateful differences between what we believe, what we know and what we can prove.

Personally I found this message a bit too heavy-handed, and likewise the discussion of racism and what it means to be English. But it does not take up too much space or attention.

Barnes has chosen an interesting structure for the book. The two lives are initially told as parallel stories, through alternating short sections that show how the two men grow up. Then we follow George for an intense and long chapter that brings us to the main event. After that attention turns to Arthur to trace his way to the point where the two meet. The middle section – where Arthur’s story is left aside for a long stretch – felt a bit long, and abandoning one of the lives for so long felt uncomfortable.

Despite following two lives for many decades, one of them a very active life, the book is not action-filled. Especially the first half proceeds at a slow pace, and it remains quiet and restrained even when it is at its most suspenseful. (How very English that is, and how suitable for a book that explores Englishness!) While some reviewers found the book too slow, even sluggish, I wasn’t bothered by this at all. The events are interesting, but ultimately secondary to the men themselves – their characters carry the whole story.

The slow pace also left me more time to enjoy the absorbing, intelligent, beautiful prose. Many sentences were worth savouring one by one. They all flow so naturally, yet stand out and almost ask to be read aloud, or at least re-read a few times.

I really, really enjoyed this book – it was a pleasure to read. I was sorry when it ended, and even sorrier to learn that Barnes’ other books are nothing like this one. I do hope he writes more like this in the future.

For other reviews that are more than just plot synopsis, try Salon, Gothamist (both of which contain significant spoilers) or Agony Column. (And what the heck is a book review doing in an Agony Column, anyway?)

Amazon UK; Amazon US.

Remember I said that Ingrid prefers to turn her head to the left? She still does that all the time. I try to encourage her to look to the right as well. I turn her head that way when I put her down, or put her in her chair. I’ve turned her the other way in the bath, so that I am on her right. I place her chair so that she has a window or a lamp or blinking Christmas lights to the right, and nothing interesting to her left. But none of this really works. She turns her head right back to the left and stares at nothing. Even when she has a choice between staring at a white tiled bathroom wall, and looking at me, she takes the wall – as long as it is to her left!

The one and only thing that she finds head-turningly interesting is her own reflection: if I put her down in front of the mirror and turn her to face that way, she is happy to remain there and make faces at herself.

What a vain creature!

Goodness – Ingrid weighs over 6 kg! She used to be in the 75th–91st weight percentile, but has now shot up into the 91st–98th. (I started keeping track because I wasn’t sure if she was getting enough milk, but then kept weighing her out of curiosity.)

But, as my father rightly pointed out, no matter how fast she grows, she won’t beat her performance during the very first weeks of her existence, when one cell becomes many within just a few days.

At least she’s putting all that milk to good use.

Two months (yesterday).

From Ingrid’s point of view, the second month was not much different from the first. She still spends most of her time sleeping, and much of her awake time eating. But she is awake slightly more than before – sometimes even an hour and a half at a time – and she no longer falls asleep instantly in the pushchair. She is definitely more alert when she is awake. Some sort of consciousness is developing in that little head!

Her activity is still limited to looking at things, waving her arms and legs around, and making faces. She frequently gives her tongue a thorough workout, moving it in all possible directions, and thus drools over half her face. Lamps and windows are still interesting, but she also looks at faces, including her own (in a mirror). On good days she even smiles at strangers.

Ingrid is a lot stronger than she was a month ago, and can hold her head up with no help, when she wants. So she is much happier in upright positions than she used to be. She has come to like her bouncy chair, which she really disliked initially, and has even spent some time in the pushchair with the seat in a semi-reclining position, rather than totally flat.

After a 10-month absence, I have spent some time at Xtreme VB Talk again. I felt my brain needed some exercise, but I wouldn’t have the time or energy to focus on any substantial project, so some foruming should be just the right thing. It felt like coming home. I used to spend a lot of time there.

We used to get so many questions about automating Excel that we (myself and another user) wrote a tutorial about that, and I used to refer others to it daily. So much so that I knew the thread ID by heart, and – as it turns out – remember it even now, 10 months later. (The thread ID is 135815.)

Out of curiosity I checked how many other people have been reading that tutorial, and my other big tutorial (about Excel userforms). Both turned out to be among the top 5 most popular tutorials on the site – #2 and #4, respectively. I am really pleased and proud!

This all makes my fingers itch… for code, and for writing, too. Perhaps I should write some more tutorials?

In Sweden there are floods. And in Estonia as well. North London had a tornado. Why am I never there when exciting things happen? Give me a good thunderstorm at least!