Quentin seems to have everything he needs to be happy: good friends, smarts, looks, sensible parents. But he’s not. Real life just isn’t enough. If only it could be more like Fillory, the Narnia-like magical land in the fantasy books that every child has read and dreamed about. But while other children stop dreaming about Fillory before their teenage years, Quentin secretly still longs for it.

Then suddenly he finds out that magic is real, and he can learn to be a magician. Instead of going to a normal college, he goes to a magical one, and does indeed learn magic. But magic has no magical power to make him happy. Magic gives you power, but without anything meaningful to apply that power to, a magician’s life can feel as meaningless as anyone else’s.

Ordinary people given magic remain ordinary. They make stupid decisions, make messes of their lives, make nothing of the opportunities they’re given. They long for something, and when they achieve it, realize it’s made them no happier.

This may make a great truth but it does not make a great book. Or perhaps it makes a great book, in some literary sense, just not one that’s fun to read. In fact, despite all the magic, it was ultimately a depressing book. Or perhaps it was depressing because of the magic? We expect fantasy literature to show us something magical, something different from this world. And here’s a so-called fantasy book that tells you that you ain’t gonna get it. Because of this, I suspect that people who don’t normally read or like fantasy are more likely to enjoy this book than fantasy readers.

I also found the storytelling in The Magicians unsatisfying. There is a lot of “tell, not show”. The world, the characters, the action, all remain at a distance, and I never get that sense of being transported into a different reality. A charitable interpretation would be that Grossman makes the book mirror Quentin’s state of mind. Just like Quentin always feels that he’s never really part of the world, that surely there should be something more to life, the reader feels the same about the book. Unfortunately I don’t think this is the case: indulging in weak writing just to make a point would be going too far. So I think it’s just a case of slightly weak writing.

There are some great ideas and some excellent scenes, and I kept hoping (like Quentin) that something would turn the whole thing around, but it never happened. A promising but unsatisfying book.

Amazon UK, Amazon US, Adlibris.

I’ve posted a selection of photos from our Beijing trip in the photo gallery.

On Midsummer’s Eve we finally moved into the upstairs rooms.

Downstairs has a kitchen, a living room, a large bedroom, a bathroom, a weird room behind the bathroom, and two hallways. Upstairs has two smaller rooms and a toilet. Until now we’ve really only lived downstairs. One of the upstairs rooms has served as a library, with bookshelves along all walls, and also housed many of the plants that we brought with us from London. The other room has basically been a transit warehouse for unpacking and sorting books, but it’s occasionally doubled as a guest bedroom. (We tend to refer to it as “the room with the boxes”.)

We know we will have to vacate the downstairs bedroom for the refurbishment some time later this year. It’s not imminent (we haven’t even got planning permission yet) but it is certain to happen some time within the next half a year. We also think that Ingrid might get more and better sleep if she doesn’t have to share a bedroom with a (possibly rather noisy) baby.

Circumstances led to it all happening on Midsummer’s Eve. We were recently given a child bed that Ingrid’s cousins have outgrown; we recently found time to sort through the last few boxes of books; we had guests coming for a Midsummer barbecue whom we could ask for help carrying the beds upstairs.

Unfortunately carrying our king-size bed upstairs turned out to be impossible: it just won’t fit up the staircase. Eric and I ended up sleeping on our guest mattresses instead. It all felt like a makeshift camp: us sleeping on mattresses on the floor, Ingrid sleeping next to piles of boxes and a bunch of plants that we haven’t gotten around to moving yet.

And, after bravely promising she’d sleep on her own in her own room, Ingrid tottered into ours at about 2 o’clock. Then she proceeded to toss and turn and climb around for what felt like an eternity. I guess everything felt strange and out of place. After a while Eric gave up and moved out to Ingrid’s room; after about an hour Ingrid finally settled in, too. All in all, it was the worst night’s sleep we’ve had in many months.

Tomorrow we’re going emergency bed shopping. (IKEA was closed today because of Midsummer’s Day.) Then we’ll do some cleaning up in Ingrid’s new bedroom, to make it feel less like a warehouse. But the new master bedroom is going to feel like a camp for the next half a year, or however long the refurbishment will take. After all, we will have to squeeze in all the important parts of a bedroom in addition to all the bookshelves that are there now.

Does anyone need/want a wooden base spring mattress (resårbotten)? IKEA Sultan something or other, 160cm, medium hard, bought in 2002, only rarely jumped on.

Michael Pollan is the author of the best advice about food I’ve ever read or heard:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

He first expressed this in Unhappy Meals, an essay in NY Times Magazine back in 2007. I found myself agreeing so strongly with everything in the essay that I bought the book. Then I read the book, and again I found myself vigorously agreeing with every single page. This is such a sensible book that I wish it was mandatory reading for everybody. In fact just skimming through the book now while reviewing it makes me want to re-read it.

Part 1 of the book talks about “the age of nutritionism”: how food was reduced by scientists to collection of nutrients, which we’re always told to eat more or less of. Great news for the producers of processed foods – and bad news for us, since instead of just enjoying our food, most people are confused, obsessed and worried about what they eat. Unfortunately all this advice rests on a very weak foundation – the last few decades’ prevailing advice to “eat less fat” was essentially a huge experiment, and is now looking like a failure.

Part 2 talks about “the Western diet”: how our relationship to our food has changed over the last 150 years. We’ve gone from whole foods to refined, from complex food chains of wide variety to simple monocultures, from quality to quantity, from leaves to seeds, and from food culture to food science.

Part 3, “Getting over nutritionism”, goes back to those seven words of advice and expands them into more tangible pointers. What does it mean to “eat food”? How can you help yourself not eat too much?

For a contrarian viewpoint, check out In Defense of Food Isn’t About Nutrition (a review), according to which Pollan’s book is mostly “the desire to show off beating out scientific thinking”.

Amazon US, Amazon UK, Adlibris, Adlibris (Swedish translation).

Being pregnant is much less exciting the second time around. It is a bit of a hindrance in my daily activities, and that’s it. I don’t feel any need to take photos, or to even say much about the pregnancy.

Back starting to ache? Check.
Fast walking starting to become difficult? Check.
Baby kicking around like a nutter? Check.
Body starting to look a bit less bony? Check.

Been there done that.

I am an underbuyer. When in doubt, it’s easier for me to decide that I don’t really need the whatever-I’m-considering. I’m more likely to feel bad about buying something that I then don’t use, than to feel bad about not buying something that I could have used.

Whenever I have to buy something expensive, I have to overcome a slight internal resistance – even though I know that we need it, and that we can afford it, and that it’s not worth buying a cheaper alternative, because you get what you pay for (most of the time).

Spending money is a little bit easier when it feels like a long-term investment, like a bicycle, or winter boots, or a computer. Even then, though, it takes a bit of an effort. The hardest for me is to buy things that seem frivolous, that I like but don’t really need. One winter scarf is perfectly enough, so even if I see another really pretty one, it’s unlikely that I will buy it.

Or fruit. There is a part of my brain that insists on telling me that apples for 19.90 SEK/kg are perfectly good fruit, though slightly boring, and there is no need to splurge on grapes for 49.90.

Lately, though, I have begun to train myself to ignore that part of the brain. If there’s one thing in my everyday life that I really enjoy, it is simple, fresh, good-quality food. Often when I look back at my day and think about the highlights, it’s the freshly baked bread, or the cereal with fresh strawberries, that comes to mind.

And it’s not like we cannot afford it. For various reasons, we do not spend money on a car, or eating out, or alcohol and cigarettes, or movies and such. We run a not insignificant surplus every month.

So now, when I feel like eating the season’s first Swedish strawberries, 60% more expensive than the Belgian ones, I just do it. (I’ve nothing against Belgians, but their strawberries are a poor substitute for the real thing.) When the veggie stand down at Spånga Square has in-season Pakistani mangoes at exorbitant prices, I barely hesitate. (They keep a few of them in a small box right next to the cashier, with a hand-written sign describing them as “the best fruit in the world”.)

Some fresh bookmarks from delicious.com

The general tone of this month has been positive. The endless stream of NOs has abated, and she no longer feels that she has to decide everything. Eric described it like this: a few months ago she discovered the concept of deciding, and now she’s understood how it really works. She understands that in some cases adults will decide, and children can decide over some things but not everything. It’s made our everyday life a lot smoother.

There has been a lot of drawing and writing going on this month. Almost every day she has a few drawings to take home from nursery. Her drawings are very much based on schemas and symbols. She copies things that she sees the other kids draw. She tells me, “look, this is how you draw a hand”. She asks me, “how do you draw a tree”? (My first attempt at a simple tree was too complicated, with roots and branches. “I can’t draw that,” she said, so I simplified it to a green ball on a brown stick. Plus red blobs for cherries. That was accepted.) When the first attempt at copying is not close enough, she aborts and tries again.

She likes drawing the same things again and again: mostly people, but also cars, houses – and traffic lights. Often she draws them the same way, too, with just the most essential parts, but sometimes she adds details. The people sometimes get fingers, or hair, or bags, or glasses (in which case they are daddy), or eyelashes. I don’t think they ever have bodies, though – the arms and legs are attached directly to the head.

The drawings are often accompanied by writing. And whenever I write something (a note, a shopping list), she wants to join me. She asks me, “How do you write ’rubber boots’? flower? leek? milk? eggs? traffic lights?”

The letters are more and more letter-shaped, and almost always in a row. However the row can go either left or right or snake around in any other direction. Occasionally, they’re of reasonably equal size, but that seems to be a matter of chance.

Most recently she’s discovered the concept of the alphabet. She’s been singing snatches of the alphabet song (from nursery I guess), and found it at the back of an ABC book we’ve read.

Not all the stuff that she learns from the older kids at nursery is equally useful. She’s learned to whine: please, please! She’s learned to talk with a silly babyish lisp. She’s learned to mock others, ranging from the superior “ha ha!” to such mature terms as bajskorv, fisbajs, fegis and dumma dumma bajskorv (delivered to the tune of “na na na na naah na”). In english that would be “poop turd”, “fart poop”, “coward” and “stupid stupid poop turd”.

Pott, kann, pirn, kork, porrulauk

We’ve spoken a bit about not saying such things to others because it tends to make them upset. At some point I happened to tell her that it was OK to say “ha ha” to me, that I didn’t mind. She then generalized that to all the mocking, and I now get called “poop turd”. She says it with such joyful innocence that I really can’t get upset and have to laugh instead.

She remains an intensely social creature, and she is totally unwilling to do anything on her own. It’s not that she needs someone to entertain her – she just wants company. That someone no longer has to be me. But whatever she is doing, she wants to talk about it, share it, do it together. When she is with a friend, she is good at taking initiative to come up with activities: “Come, Majken, let’s paint! Majken, do you want to take a bath with me?” and they can entertain each other for a long time. But on her own, she’s lost.

As a result, she is quite good at social relationships and social language: taking turns, sharing, finding activities that both enjoy, resolving disagreements.

Last month it was very important for Ingrid to “win” at everything, i.e. be the first. First up the stairs when coming home, first to wash and dry her hands after going to the loo, first everything. That’s still there but less markedly.

The cycling and swinging continue. And it seems the cycling has generally made her more active. Some days she’s even run all the way to nursery. Even on the days when she wants to take the stroller to nursery, she’s likely to walk and run on the way home. (The latest game: running ahead of me and stopping, arms and legs wide apart, to make a “gate” to block my way. Initially the gates could be opened by a button on her nose. Then some required a coin, or a key. For some, just saying “please, gate, could you open” worked. Lately some gates were broken and had to be climbed over or around.)

Favourite books: the 1-2-3 series, and fairy tales.

Favourite item of clothing: her new brown Scooby Doo Crocs. Otherwise her taste in clothing is weird, tending towards a lot of layering. Shorts over trousers, tank top over dress, dress over skirt… you name it.

I love having a garden. I love our garden. Even though I don’t spend much time there every day (because our evenings tend to be busy, and because we have no evening sun in the garden), I love having it nearby and around me.

I love being surrounded by greenery rather than houses, cars or people. Looking out through the kitchen window during breakfast and seeing green grass, trees and blooming lilacs. Being met by growing things when leaving the house in the morning, and when coming home in the evening.

I love the quiet. Which is not a direct effect of having a garden, really, but a neighbourhood with gardens mean less dense housing, which in turn means more quiet.

I love the air and the smells. I like to end my day by walking out onto the balcony when brushing my teeth and just inhaling the garden. Just a few moments’ exposure makes a big difference.

The people in our group had apparently not done much travelling before, and did not know much about the world outside their home. Some had no idea what kind of writing they used in Japan, others were shocked by the squeaky clean hole-in-the-ground toilets in Beijing; several were cautious about the foreign food.

At first I thought this might not be the right group for us. I’d have preferred to stay longer at every temple, have more time to take pictures, see and hear things in more depth. But then again Ingrid wouldn’t like such delays anyway, so actually the pace was quite right for us after all.

Beijing toilet, extreme version

A bit more about the toilets. Beijing is abundantly supplied with public toilets – a boon for tourists, especially when travelling with a three-year-old. Many but not all were squat toilets, and some places even gave you a choice, with a pictogram on the door of each stall telling you what’s inside – seat or squat. The toilets would not have surprised anyone who’d grown up in a Soviet country – except that the Chinese ones were always spotlessly clean. You could argue (and perhaps they do) that the seated version is less hygienic – you’re sitting where other people have put their bottoms. When you squat, on the other hand, you’re at a safe distance from any germs, as long as you can aim. Western tourists, lacking the required technique, sometimes miss, which makes for wet floors, but all the toilets we saw were very frequently cleaned. (Like every 10 minutes, literally.) The cleanest ones I saw were in the hutongs, where there were no tourists.

Travelling with a three-year-old turned out to be quite doable. It took some extra planning, effort and attention (I think I missed half of what our guide told us because was busy with Ingrid) but nothing hard. The following worked for us:

  • Choose the right trip. No long bus rides (no two-week tour of Morocco). Lots of variety. Best to have a trip where we’re based in one place rather than moving every day, so we have the option to take a day off if needed.
  • Make sure there is entertainment at hand for the slow moments – story books, drawing materials, etc. For Ingrid, Ingrid also borrowed our cameras quite a lot.
  • Carry snacks (fresh and dried fruit) and tasty drinks at all times. Ingrid hardly ate any “real food” and hardly drank any water, but consumed a lot of sandwiches and fruit.
  • Not all normal rules need to apply. We allowed a lot more snacking between meals than we normally do, and were more willing to carry her on our shoulders than we ever do at home.