A suitable box

Apply craft knife, scissors and lots of duck tape

Plus pointy teeth

Finally spray-on paint, eyes and tongue

Ingrid needed a dinosaur costume.

The costume was so effective that it scared poor Adrian witless. When Ingrid and her friends turned up at our door, he screamed in utter terror.

Ingrid needed a scarf.

Pattern: Moss Stitch Loop Scarf. Yarn: Drops Delight.

Now that I have two kids:

  • Running errands with just one kid feels like vacation
  • Nursing while eating dinner seems like an excellent use of time and scarce resources (such as adult arms)
  • Barbie dolls, pencils and toy china tea sets turn out to make pretty good baby toys

Cover art for Windup Girl

Imagine a future where climate change has had near-catastrophic effects. Sea levels have risen by several metres. Carbon emissions are strictly rationed and petroleum is longer used: there is no electricity, cooking and lighting is done by compost-generated methane, and all other energy needs are provided by muscle power, human or animal. Muscles move cycle rikshas, windup radios, lifts, fans, etc. (I couldn’t help wondering why solar and wind power aren’t used.) Genetic engineering has also advanced and the effects are almost as bad as those from climate change: global corporations engineer pests to kill all useful plants except those of their own design, and engineered diseases run amok.

Thailand, proud as ever, is surviving in this new world, pushing back against these changes. Bangkok is kept from drowning by seawalls and massive pumps; Thai specialists revive old varieties of plants from their seedbanks and forbid imports of seed or produce from the agribusiness giants. The ministries of Environment and Trade are the most powerful forces in the country, guarding it ferociously. Entire villages can be razed and burned when a genehacked pest is found.

The atmosphere is bleak and unpleasant, not only because of the dystopic changes but because of what has happened to the Thai people. Corruption and bribery is everywhere, as is hatred of foreigners – the Westerners with their agricultural corporations, as well as the Chinese refugees from Malaysia’s ethnic cleansing.

The windup girl of the title is only one of a number of key characters, who get roughly equal weight. None of them is particulary sympathetic but I still found myself sympathizing with them. Anderson Lake: a corporate spy from one of the agricultural corporations, trying to find Thailand’s seed bank, while running a battery research company as his cover. Tan Hock Seng: illegal Chinese refugee, Lake’s right hand man at the battery company, plotting to steal Lake’s blueprints, dreaming of becoming rich again. Jaidee: the head of Thailand’s environmental army, a thug who revels in destroying the illegal imports and unlicensed methane he finds and terrorizing anyone whom he finds breaking the rules. Kanya: Jaidee’s second-in-command, a Trade ministry mole in the very heart of the Environment ministry’s army. Emiko: the windup girl of the title, a woman genetically engineered by the Japanese to be the perfect geisha and given dog genes for servility, who unknowingly sets big events in motion.

The world is great, vivid, detailed, all implications of his imagined future are covered. The characters are multifaceted and well-drawn.

The story… not so much. There is no clear beginning and no clear procession from there on (although there is a clear end). Much of it is slow, wordy, and weighed down by a lot of detail. There is much scene-setting, and little happens for a long time. The plot wanders from character to character, which makes the book unfocussed but at the same time gives equal attention to all sides of the ongoing conflicts. In the second half the pace picks up and by the end we’re racing along, with political intrigue giving way to riots and revolution, with a lot of graphic violence.

It’s a bleak book about struggling to survive, remaining human, making difficult choices in difficult situations. Tough times bringing out the worst and the best of humanity.

The book was good enough that I didn’t want to give up on it, but not engaging enough to compel me to pick up the book. It was hard to get into and took me weeks to get through. Impressive, fascinating, thought-provoking, but not a joy to read. I’m glad I read it but I’m also glad it’s over.

PS: One final quibble. I can’t help wonder, why did he pick Thailand? It is a bit of a cop-out to set the story in one of Western writers’ standard go-to countries for exoticism. (Japan for high-tech exoticism, India and Thailand for sweaty, teeming masses.) There is nothing specifically Thai about the story; all of this could have taken place in any low-lying seaboard country in the world. Is it more acceptable to make an Asian country poor and ridden with corruption, than to do the same with, say, Holland (to pick another low-lying country)?

An excellent review over at Strange Horizons.

Amazon US, Amazon UK, Adlibris.

There is so much going on in Adrian’s life right now that I don’t know where to begin.

The most practically useful development is that he can now eat pretty well with a spoon. In the beginning of the month he liked forks best, but now he’s focused on spoons. He can dip his spoon in the food in his bowl so that food sticks to the spoon, and then put it in his mouth. Sometimes he even manages a scooping sort of movement. It only works with thick, sticky food – anything loose will fall off because he often turns the spoon this way and that, inspecting it before he puts it in his mouth. The oatmeal porridge I’ve been making for breakfast for myself and Ingrid has been a particular favourite, so now I make a little bit extra for him.

We’ve also started mashing our food for him, which we’ve never done before, just so he can eat it with a spoon. Sometimes mixing our food with some binding agent also works, e.g. some tomato paste to make the rice stick together better. He isn’t interested in eating squishy gooey food with his hands. And he is by now familiar with both spoons and bowls so he no longer turns the bowl upside down to look at it from all angles. On the whole both he and his surroundings are often surprisingly clean after a meal – except for the back of his head, because he often touches it with his hands.

While one of us is cooking, Adrian is now almost invariably sitting on the kitchen counter. He absolutely wants to be where the action is, and to do what I do. The kitchen cupboards and drawers have lost most of their charm. Instead he sits on the counter and plays with the utensils in the jar, or the dish cloths, or whatever ingredients I leave within his reach. Today, for example, he had three small chunks of pumpkin, two or three large spoons or spatulas, one small plastic wrapping, one large wooden jar, one cutlery holder, one tea sieve and probably other odds and ends.

He has learned that the knife block and the salt cellar are absolutely off limits, and that he isn’t allowed close to the stove.

The two most common activities – both during today’s dinner preparations and in general – are putting things inside other things and then tipping them out again, and dropping things on the floor. Spoon in jar. Pumpkin piece in cutlery holder. Turn cutlery holder upside down; pumpkin piece falls out. Spoon in compost bin. Spoon in sink. Cutlery holder in sink. The combinations are endless!

This is pretty much all that Adrian does with toys, too, so his favourite “toys” are things such as the chestnuts that Ingrid gathers, fridge magnets, and other smallish items that can be put inside things. For a while he also liked picking apart knob puzzles but I think that has lost its charm. He likes things with lids, too, such as the Lock N Lock food storage boxes we have everywhere in our kitchen, and the jar with beeswax salve I use. When he sees them with the lid off he grabs for the jar or box and tries to put the lid back on.

He also likes putting magnets and chestnuts in his mouth, so we’ve had to confiscate all the small ones.

Things that roll or spin are also fun, for example a plastic mug or a water bottle that rolls around on the floor, or a wooden disk from his stacking tower that I set spinning on the floor.

When he drops things on the floor he does it with great attention. Takes spoon, holds it over the edge of the counter, drops it. Puts both hands down on the counter and peeks over the edge to look at the spoon on the floor. Points at the floor and says “päääh!”. Repeats this with two or three more utensils. I pick them all up, and we start all over again.

Adrian is using pointing very deliberately now in his communication. Sometimes he wants things. (Food, for example, that he cannot reach.) Sometimes I think he just wants to show us stuff – and then I usually say the name of what he’s pointing at, and say something more about it. He can also communicate by taking things in his own hands. When I’m holding him he sometimes takes hold of one of my hands and moves it away.

He understands waving and good-bye. I make a point of waving and saying good-bye when I leave in the morning, so he knows that I’m going. He doesn’t wave back immediately, but after considering the situation for a while he waves, too. Today he waved good-bye when our cleaner left, when the only clue was us shouting good-bye: none of us waved, and we weren’t even in the same room as her.

Adrian reacts very clearly to his name. Usually I have to repeat it a few times but then he turns towards me and looks at me.

He likes mimicking me, and finds it even more amusing when I mimick him. One day when I was scraping off old glue from the leg of chair, he grabbed a table knife of his own and poked at another leg of the same chair. He found it inordinately amusing when I once mimicked him by taking the other end of the wooden spoon he was chewing on, and putting it in my mouth. But then HE tried putting it in my mouth, which was not very comfortable, so I’m not doing that again. Sometimes he tries to put his dummy in my mouth, and he likes to play on my lips.

He has shown very little interest in walking or standing. When he is standing, holding on to my hand, and wants to go somewhere, he lets go of my hand, drops and crawls. But a few days ago he tried a baby cart walker at playgroup and since then he’s been slightly more likely to take a few steps while holding on to the side of a chair or a cupboard. He is most likely to try standing on his own when he is standing on a chair or a stool.

He’s started using his dummy at night again, sometimes: sucks on the breast but seems dissatisfied, and when I give him the dummy he turns the other side, snuggles up close to me and quiets down. In general he goes to sleep very easily. He may object while we’re on the way up the stairs with him (makes me think of Ingrid’s “I’m not tired at all!”) but once we’re in bed he is happy to go to sleep, and often does so very quickly.

It only takes long when he is too wound up, when there’s too much activity and excitement just before bedtime. Then he can spend 10 to 15 minutes just getting all the energy out: sits up, waves his arms, lies down, kicks his legs, and repeats that 25-second cycle again and again. Then he finally realizes he is tired, lies down, and is asleep within seconds. Motion is also his tiredness signal: when he starts crawling around, climbing up, climbing down, asking to be picked up, etc etc at an increasing pace, we know it is time to put him to bed.

We’ve turned his stroller to face forward because he very clearly prefers it this way.

He is one size ahead of Ingrid at this age: Ingrid’s first boots were too small for him and he is now wearing the shoes Ingrid wore at 18 months. And the jacket and hat that Ingrid had during her second winter (in London) are almost too small for him.

I think his first molar is on its way.

Birthday morning

Ingrid is five years old. Such a big girl.

She is so mature in some ways that it is easy to forget she is really just a small child. She is very verbal and forward and in some ways very smart, reads and writes. But then she does something that reminds me how young she is.

She is mature in her planning. She can think many days ahead, and plan for those days. She saves her finest plate and cup (with princess pictures) for special days, such as a Sunday, or when her best friend will come to visit. She saves the best part of a meal till last, “as dessert”. With sushi, for example, she first eats all the rice, then the salmon, then finally the prawn.

She is immature and naive in her worldview. She believes in fairies and in falling stars, believes that your wish will come true if you see a falling star and whisper your wish. (Disney’s The Princess and the Frog put that idea in her head, while Shrek and Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella “taught” her about fairies.) She wishes for a pair of wings, “two real wings that you can put on and take off, that fly for real, and they should be white and silver and pink and turquoise”.

She is immensely immature in her relationships with other people, both kids and adults. She bosses around her friends and is then puzzled and upset when they object to following her directions. She is pretty bad at reading others’ emotional state and at putting herself in their position. Very self-centred and very anxious to be in control. She absolutely has to keep an eye on which colours of candy friend M chooses, and make sure that she herself gets the same or better. She insists on opening the refrigerator when friend E wants to get a yogurt, not because she wants to help but because she wants to keep an eye on E and see what she does at that fridge. Millimeterrättvisa, “millimetre fairness”.

But at the same time she can draw pretty reasonable conclusions about what facts other people should know. She is much better at figuring out what others know than what they feel. The other day Eric said something about a friend of hers (that her friend T had been in a bad mood during Ingrid’s birthday party because she’d gone to bed very late the day before). Ingrid immediately wondered how Eric could know that. (The answer: He’d spoken to T’s father on the phone.)

She has difficulty judging the passage of time. At a meal she can ask us, “is this lunch or dinner?”, not noticing that it is dusk outside – or not realizing that only a small part of the day has passed.

The games she plays with her friends center on simple relationships. It’s often mother and big sister, mother or baby, or two neighbours, or perhaps cat owner and cat, or maybe doctor and patient. She often turns real life into a game. When we’re about to eat she may tell me “you’re my neighbour and now I’m calling you on the phone and then I will ask if I can come and have dinner at your place”.

She continues to impress me with her reading ability. She reads fast and with ease, except for the lowercase letters b, d and h. They look too similar. She can read fast enough to actually read the lyrics of a semi-familiar song while she is singing it.

Tights and dresses have become her favourite clothes; she rarely wears anything else.

I was going to write my 60-month post about Ingrid. I had even sat down at the computer and opened the file with the notes I’d taken during the month. But instead of writing I got into a discussion with Eric about what Ingrid is like, what life with Ingrid is like, how our relationships with Ingrid work and don’t work, and so on. It was a good and deep and useful discussion but it took an hour. With nothing written, and the time at eleven PM, I am going to bed and leaving the month post for tomorrow.

Today I ate my first cheese sandwich since I went milk-free last November. It was good.

Now Adrian is sleeping like crap, waking all the time. Either it’s because of the cheese, or it’s because of all the commotion here today because of Ingrid’s birthday party.

To be continued.