This is me doing what I would have been doing if I had not been taking this month’s self-portrait: reading.

Roughly three weeks ago I bought some daffodils. I bought two pots and put one outside, just next to the entrance, and the other in the south-facing kitchen window.

Look what’s become of them in these weeks. It’s hard to believe that these two looked identical to begin with.

The ones in the kitchen flowered fast, and then they were done. A few days ago I tidied away the last withered flowers, and that seems to be it. The plants threw all their energy into growing leaves instead. I now have a scraggly green bush.

The daffodils that stood outdoors got wind and shade and a good dose of snow. And yet they are all still flowering, and there are still new buds coming up. The leaves are about a third as tall compared to the other pot, but much thicker and fleshier. The whole plant just looks stronger and sturdier.

To quote the back cover:

At a suburban barbecue one afternoon, a man slaps an unruly boy.
The boy is not his son.
This single act of violence reverberates through the lives of everyone who witnesses it happen…

In each chapter, we get a snapshot of the life of one of those persons. The man who gives the slap; the boy’s mother; their friends and relatives. Every chapter broadens our picture of their relationships, backgrounds, characters.

They’re all connected by more than that one event, of course. They wouldn’t have been at the barbecue if they didn’t know each other. Some are cousins, husbands and wives. Some are childhood friends, some are colleagues. So some parts of their lives overlap. But we also see the aspects of each life that are private, that they don’t show to their friends. And of course we see how differently two people can view the same things.

It’s an interesting idea, but I found the actual contents disappointing. It’s all one giant soap opera. Everybody does drugs; everybody is an adulterer; every relationship dysfunctional. (Oh, look, it’s even been turned into a TV series.)

It’s also a cruel, merciless, loveless book. Almost everybody in the book is miserable, full of contempt and anger against the others. And I absolutely believe that it is possible to write a great book about ugly people – but basically I just don’t like this author’s world view, and don’t enjoy reading a book like this.

What is the point of this book? What did he try to achieve? It sure doesn’t feel like he wants to tell a great story. The story-telling and the writing are pretty bland and mediocre. The characters are predictable and, in fact, all very similar to each other. I don’t care about any of them. There are no surprises.

Makes me wonder how much of the book is attention seeking, banal “like whoring”. Start with slapping a child, and then put in as much drug use, alcoholism, adultery, swearing, racism, everyday violence, teenage sex etc etc as possible, so as to shock (which seems to be almost required of modern literature). Slap your readers in the face.

Or maybe that’s what life in Australian suburbia is really like. Good thing I’m not living there.

I read the first few chapters and then just skimmed through the rest. I have no idea how it ended up on the short-list for the Man Booker Prize, or why anybody would describe it as a modern masterpiece.

More here, if you’re interested (and do read the comments as well).

Last spring we put up a nesting box for birds in the cherry tree outside the kitchen. A pair of blue tits promptly moved in and nested there.

This year both blue tits and great tits have been interested in the box, flying around, inspecting, trying to crowd out the others. It seems the great tits won – the blue tits haven’t been around for a week or so.

Today Ingrid found a broken egg on the ground, about the size of the tip of my finger. Unfortunately it very much looks broken rather than hatched. I wonder what happened to it, and I hope the parents have better luck with the other eggs (which I hope are still there in the box).

The kids are gradually growing up and even Adrian is leaving the messy toddler phase. Washability is no longer the primary criterion when I buy new casual clothes for myself. I no longer rush to change out of my work outfit into child-proof clothes the moment I get home – I now allow myself to wear nice-looking things at home, too, including the occasional white item, and even wool cardigans that cannot be machine washed.

We went to our usual Estonian playgroup on Sunday. The kids had fun. Myself, I almost snapped, from too much exposure to Estonian-style parenting. Parents who tell their 4-year-olds how crappy their painting is; who constantly demean and humiliate their kids; whose parenting skills go no further than “stop that right this minute” and “why are you such a whiner”.

Not all Estonian parents are like that, of course. But this kind of attitude towards children (and husbands and wives, and other people in general) is sufficiently common that you cannot really avoid it. The general undertone is that other people do not deserve your respect, that really they’re irritating idiots, and you see no point in hiding that opinion.

During our annual trips to Estonia we live in a cocoon, only spending time with friends and family. I have no wish to go outside that cocoon.

I remember so sharply an episode from one of our previous summer trips. We were at a roadside eatery. We sat outside, and when Ingrid was done eating she went to the little playground they had. There were two other girls there, maybe a year or two older. She cautiously tried to make contact, and got instantly, sharply, snippily put down. I don’t think they even spoke directly to her but one of the girls said something mildly but clearly scornful about Ingrid to the other. Ingrid was totally confused and had no idea how to respond. Like, why would they do that?

How do you explain that in Estonia people are like that? Tell her to not go around trying to make friends? I don’t want to need to explain things like that.

Another thing that I always notice in Estonian playgroup is that almost all of the other kids are super reluctant to ever answer any questions from the teachers. Even when the question is something that you cannot fail at, like “can you come and pick one of these stuffed animals for the next song” or “what’s your favourite food”, they don’t. They cover their faces, they squirm, they hide behind mum’s back, they just won’t.

It’s not an age thing, not a phase. The ones older than Adrian and the ones younger than him all do the same.

A deep-seated reluctance to get noticed? Because odds are, you will only get criticised for it? Or maybe I am totally over-analysing this.

To close on a happier note, here’s a totally unrelated photo of two tired kids happily playing together.

Adrian is not angry. Not much. Sometimes he actually lets Eric do something he really wanted me to do (such as serve him porridge). Perhaps we’re in a trough between two anger waves. We’re enjoying the experience.

The one thing he is most often angry about is nursery. In the morning he is angry about having to go to nursery; in the afternoon when I pick him up he is angry about having to leave. He is also quite angry about not getting to play with his best friend Sigrid as often as he wants. Playing at nursery doesn’t count; he wants to play at her home or possibly at ours. But really at hers.

Mornings are worst. Adrian is so not a morning person. He is often tired and usually starving hungry. Somehow the two reinforce each other: the more tired he is, the more keenly he feels the hunger. So on weekday mornings our top priority is to get food into Adrian, but on weekends, when he wakes at his own pace, he can go downstairs with Ingrid and watch a movie on the iPad while Eric and I snooze a while, and he can manage that without going nuts with hunger.

A slow, cuddly start helps. So actually the very first thing we do when we go downstairs is read a book, while Eric makes porridge. Those 5 minutes can make a huge difference for his mood.

Porridge is Adrian’s favourite food. Some months ago I would have said potatoes, or maybe bread; now it is definitely porridge. He eats porridge almost every morning, and sometimes asks for it in the afternoon as well.

And he eats a lot: his normal breakfast is one standard adult serving (1 dl grains, 2 dl water). Sometimes he eats that and then asks for more. I guess he might be going through a growth spurt.

We’ve had some discussions at home about the importance of eating vegetables. Especially after he last was ill (because he’s had a lot of sick days recently) we talked about the vitamins in vegetables and how they help keep you healthy. He was totally up for it in theory, but in practice he still usually takes one bite or two and then says he doesn’t want any more.

One thing he has suddenly learned to eat/drink is fruit smoothies. That was one of those things that he used to just refuse to touch. Now suddenly smoothies are OK.

So if he keeps adding around 1 food item to his repertoire every month, he should be eating like a normal human being in a few decades or so…

Favourite game: mummy daddy baby. He is daddy and I get to be the baby. My main job is to lie down (in our play tent, or on the sofa). He then “reads” for me (which mainly means that he looks at the pictures in a book and I do nothing), and puts me to bed (lies next to me for a while), and then fetches another book (pappa kommer snart, “daddy will be back in a moment”) and tells me to close my eyes if it’s too scary. And sometimes feeds me, too. He can keep this up forever.

But he can also join in in more and more of Ingrids games and activities. I used to set up an alternative activity for him, next to Ingrid’s, but now he does his own version of the same thing. Bowling, painting, marbles… And games. He can understand and follow the rules of “go fish”, for example.

Today we played a tabletop game called Brainstorm. It’s sort of related to this one but the process is quite different. In our version there are question cards and a timer. You play five rounds. In the first one each player has to come up with x answers, in round two with x+1, and so on. We usually have x=3 for Ingrid and x=5 for adults, to even out the field. The faster you reach your goal, the more points you get.

Today Adrian joined in with a fixed goal of 4, and (with a fair amount of prompting) managed it quite well. He could come up with 4 fairy tales (well… if Kalle Anka counts as a fairy tale), 4 round things, 4 fruits etc., before the time ran out. The fruit he did in about 2 seconds and didn’t even need any hints or prompts.

He has also started listening to the same books as Ingrid. Our bedtime story for the past week or so has been Guldmysteriet (a LasseMaja book). We also read the various Alfons books a lot.

Adrian likes books and letters and reading and writing. He reads letters. He sees letters in things. (The other day I got him to eat strips of bell pepper by showing him how they looked like the letter J.) He picks out letters from words: olika… oli K a. At nursery they’ve made letter shapes with their bodies on the floor. He draws letters in his porridge, and on his pancakes, and with his fork on his napkin. Mostly he draws A’s.

Favourite movie: Frozen, a.k.a. “the snowman movie”. Olaf is his favourite character.

Favourite item of clothing: dresses. I’ve had to buy more because we were always running out.

Not favourite item of clothing: socks. Given the choice, he almost never wears any.

Ingrid has been ill twice this month, which is quite unusual for her. She is usually very healthy but this winter she’s clocked up 7 sick days. I don’t think she’s had this many ever before. Admittedly this is the first year for which we have official records (since all absence has to be reported to the school) so my recollections may be faulty for previous years.

The sick days also included her first ever ear infection.

Normally Ingrid’s most common health complaint is stomach ache. She complains about stomach aches in all sorts of situations, and for all sorts of causes, and she can generally not differentiate between them. It can be anything from feeling nervous, eating too much too fast, hunger, needing to go to the toilet, tiredness etc. Physical causes and psychosomatic causes all get lumped together.

I’ve long suspected that sometimes what she feels is not even a stomach ache, not even a psychosomatic one. For example, after she once complained about stomach aches after going on a merry-go-round, we figured out that she reports nausea as “stomach ache”. She truly doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference.

Now I’ve started a project to try and train her to recognise the different kinds of stomach aches. Whenever we manage to identify the cause, she will try to remember what that kind of stomach ache feels like.

The other day she had a “stomach ache” after dinner. Where, I asked, and Ingrid pointed to the upper part of her chest. That’s not your stomach, I said, that’s your chest. Oh, I call everything “stomach” that’s not my arms or legs or head or back, she replied.

I tried to explain the benefits of using words within their generally accepted meanings rather than making up definitions of her own.

New interest: marbles. The kids at school were playing marbles this Friday. (It was “take a toy to school” day, which they have occasionally.) Ingrid loved the game but was still very sure that she would not bring any marbles to school to play, because she could lose some to the other kids in the game. This despite having about a hundred marbles, none of which she normally plays with.

She continues to enjoy the riding lessons and does pretty well at them. It’s just enough of a challenge for her. It is a good way of learning that others will not always do what she wants, and that some ways of trying to communicate with them will work better than others.

Favourite movie: a kids’ game show named Labyrint which involves green slime, puzzles, and robot-like monsters. Also Horseland and Frozen.

Favourite books: LasseMaja. Last time we visited the library we were lucky; someone must have just returned a pile of LasseMaja books. We borrowed six. Usually they’re all out, or maybe you can get one or two. Ingrid has been reading them back to back since we got home.

Favourite collection: bottles of Danonino strawberry yogurt, shaped like a little blue creature in various professions (doctor, firefighter, farmer etc).

Making the most of the season’s last remaining crumbs of snow, we went sledding today at a ski slope nearby, together with Ingrid’s classmates. Some actual sledding took place but also just general hanging around, eating roast hot dogs, and a trek up and down the slope. It felt quite weird to be sledding dressed in rubber boots and rain pants, but those were absolutely necessary because the snow was rather wet.

In the world of Graceling, some people have “graces”, unique and extraordinary talents. Katsa (teenage female protagonist) has the Grace of killing.

The Graced belong to the king, and so does Katsa. The king, her uncle, uses her for his purposes, which are mostly unpleasant. Most Graced are feared and despised, and Katsa of course doubly so because of the nature of her Grace. Naturally she comes to also despise herself.

She has no friends, hasn’t had any for a long time, and doesn’t even know how to have friends, since her grace manifested itself at the age of eight. But then she meets someone who sees something else in her and actually becomes her friend. Although one has to wonder why, because Katsa is childish and immature, usually angry, and often lashes out in anger at everyone around her (verbally or physically).

She goes on a quest of a kind (solve a mystery, save some innocents and destroy some evil people, the usual stuff). En route she gradually comes to see her grace and her self with new eyes. And of course she finds love as well, and the future is bright etc etc.

With its simple heroics and simple romance, Graceling solidly falls in the YA category. Katsa is a strong character, easy for teenage readers to like and identify with. It plays to every teenager’s feeling of being an outsider and not fitting in. And unlike most teenage heroes, Katsa has a teenager’s feelings (perhaps more strongly than most). She is passionate, often angry, storming. She searches for her place in the world and for her own identity.

We have a strong character and strong feelings, some really strong scenes and a few very strong ideas. But the rest of the book is pretty weak. The plot veers from predictable to making no real sense. All supporting cast are clichés, with stereotypical evil kings, good-looking princes and sassy urchins.

It isn’t really bad, but I really wouldn’t say it’s a good book either. It kept me reading all the way to the end, but as soon as I took a step back, the flaws became glaringly obvious. I don’t mind reading about teenagers, but I do mind that the book almost feels as if it was written by a teenager. It may be that Kristin Cashore grows up and learns to write more maturely; in the meantime I won’t be looking to read any more of her books.