January 8th, 2013

Cohabitational Reading Project 2: The Information, by Martin Amis

Longtime readers will recall that after we moved in together, my now-husband and I thought it might be charming to read the same book at the same time–dinner table and long drive conversation fodder. We also thought it would be cool to revisit books we had read separately in our unformed youth, the reassess their merits in the cold hard light of maturity (ha!)

The first read was A Prayer for Owen Meaney last summer. This winter’s read is The Information by Martin Amis.

Some background: I first read the book as an 18-year-old naif on my first (and so far only) trip to Europe, pretty shortly after it came out. Like anything cool I read in those days, a member of my family had hand-picked it for me–in this case, my younger brother, though my mom ended up reading it too so we could all discuss. Making the original read “cohabitational,” too, though I was technically on another continent for a chunk of it.

Reading the first few chapters, I am stunned at how much I liked the both in my naif-hood–how did I even know what was going on? This is an extremely cynical, caustic book, and if you think I’m saccharine now, you should’ve seen me on that art-student trip I’d waitressed so many hours for, off to see instructive European art and not drink any alcohol or talk to strangers.

*The Information*’s protagonist is Richard Tull, a novelist with 2 published novels behind him and 3.5 unpublished. He also works at a vanity press 1 day a week, and is an indifferent husband to Gina and father to small twin boys Marius and Marco. He’s also a terrible person, constantly drunk, taking any drug he can find, financially dependent on his wife, adultrous, and mean. His “oldest and stupidest friend,” Gwynn has in the past few years decided he wants to be a novelist too, and been monstrously successful at it.

Richard’s failure as a writer coupled with Gwynn’s success coupled with Richard’s general loathesomeness means that he is undone by Gwynn’s success. He actually strikes one of his little boys upon finding out that Gwynn’s second novel is on the bestseller list. He sets out, amid the ruins of his own career and his marginally less ruined life, to “fuck Gwynn up.”

I’m not accurately portraying how *funny* this all is–Richard’s loserishness and self-pity, Gwynn’s self-aggrandizement, the always looming spectre of London weirdness that pervades all of Amis’s writing–so much fun to read.

Of course, when I was 18, it barely even registered that these men were writers. To me, they were just old people doing stupid stuff. I wrote all the time, too, and even published a few things in high school, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer or having anything in common with these deluded gents.

Now, of course, I realize I’m only a few years younger than Gwynn and Richard, who both turn 40 in the first few chapters. I know all about little magazines, slush piles, vanity presses, agents, advances, PLR, and all the other writerly in-jokes Amis makes. I wonder what I was laughing at before, because despite the dreadful earnestness of me in my youth, I did realize the information was supposed to be funny.

Probably it’s the narration–Amis makes very VERY good on Thoreau’s comment that it is always the first person that is speaking. The narrator wanders the line between writing the book and living in it, and at this point in the narrative we aren’t sure how real the characters are to each other. As a youth, I was obsessed with narrative devices (no, I didn’t date a lot, actually) and this was and is one of my favourites.

But I’m not even 100 pages in and a *lot* more happens, I know. In fact, Mark’s already written a kickoff post and an update, and is out in the living room reading right now.

Have you read *The Information*? Do you read along with your co-locataires? Feel free to share experiences in the comments!

November 21st, 2012

Power Couple

People who describe Mark and I as a “power couple” are, almost without exception, kidding and/or drunk. But this week we get close because Mark is poetry champion of The Puritan Magazine’s Thomas Morton Prize and will thus be reading at their Black Thursday issue/anthology launch/celebration on Thursday night right here in Toronto. And then, a scant two days later, I’m reading in Ottawa at the Carlingwood library on Saturday afternoon. I highly encourage you to come out to whichever event is geographically possible for you–I think both will be stellar.

Naturally, we will each be in the audience for the other, cheering and holding coats. Because that’s what good power couples do.

September 17th, 2012

What Is Pirate Cake and How Do You Make It?

So here’s a post that has nothing to do with anything that’s been going on on this blog. On Saturday I made a Pirate Cake for my husband’s birthday and, when it went horribly wrong, I asked for help on Facebook forgetting that Pirate Cake is not an actual thing and people would be confused. They were, along with very supportive (and the cake survived, though it was darn ugly) and curious. So here is what Pirate Cake is and how you can have one too if you like, for anyone from Facebook or anywhere else that cares.

I grew up in a house without “bought cookies,” so though I learned about–and pined for–Oreos in the schoolyard, I am not familiar with some of the more esoteric brands. My husband, on the other hand, is obsessed with Pirate Cookies and when we got together they were often in his cupboards. They are flat dry oatmeal cookies sandwiches around peanut-butter frosting–same general idea as Oreos, but different flavours. They’re really good.

I like to bake, and once he suggested I *make* Pirate Cookies. This made no sense to me because they are so good in their manufactured form, but I did it anyway, and they’re also really good. The big advantage to making them yourself is that you can have as much frosting as you like.

Then we made Pirate Cookie Blizzards (and will be drafting a letter to DQ shortly) and, for a birthday a while back, I invented Pirate Cake. I bet you can guess what it is–an oatmeal layer cake with peanut butter frosting.

It’s delicious, and pretty easy, and if you’re not a moron like I am you’ll make sure the bottom layer is level so that the top layer doesn’t slide off at an angle and endanger the whole operation. This is not a healthy recipe, but I guess it does have more fibre (oatmeal) and protein (peanut butter) than your average cake.

WORD OF WARNING: Remember that I am a person who did *not* take the above precautions about the level cake base, and therefore should not be trusted to give advice. And yet, people did ask, so here you go–caveat emptor.

Oatmeal Cake
(This is a low-fat version I found that is identical to the one in Joy of Cooking except for slightly less fat. I’ve made both and they taste the same, so you might as well use the lighter one and have more frosting instead.)

1 cup quick-cooking oats
1.25 cups boiling water
6 tablespoons margarine (I use butter)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 eggs (I use egg substitute because it’s both lighter and pasturized–you can eat the dough without fear of salmonella)
1.33 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
0.5 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
0.25 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch cloves
(I always omit the cloves, and next time I think I’ll omit all the spices–doesn’t completely jibe with the peanut butter)

1. Mix oats, boiling water and margarine/butter in a large bowl, stirring until margarin/butter is melted; let stand 15 to 20 minutes. Mix in sugars and eggs. Mix in combined remaining ingredients.
2. Pour batter into greased 13×9 pan (or in this case, two round layer pans) Bake at 350 degrees until a toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean, about 35 minutes (way less for the layer pans–start checking at about 20 minutes). Cool on wire rack 10-15 minutes.

When the cake is completely cool, you can ice it (if you don’t know what a mess you can make icing a warm cake, consider yourself lucky).

Unfortunately, my recipe for peanut-butter icing isn’t a real recipe with measurements or anything, since I invented it. You just kinda eyeball and taste until you feel confident. You’ll always end up with too little or too much, too, unfortunately–try to err on the side of too much.

Take a tablespoon of butter and 0.25 cup of peanut-butter, and leave them at room temperature until they are soft. I use the all-natural peanut butter, but you can use whatever–if you get the processed stuff, you might not need the salt mentioned later. Obviously, smooth pb would work better here, but if you make a mistake at the grocery store (I have) it can still work out ok.

When they are soft, squash them together with the back of a spoon. Add a bunch of icing sugar–half a cup–to the mixture, and squash that in. Then when you can’t add any more sugar, add a splash of milk (I use skim, but whatever will work) until it gets really runny. Then add more sugar until it gets really powdery. When you get close to what you perceive as the right amount of icing, taste, then throw in a dash of salt and taste again to see if you are happy with that. Then try to balance out the milk/sugar ratio until it looks like the consistency of icing.

Ice the cake. Decorate with whatever. Keep in mind that the icing will be beige, and not attractive, so you’ll want to decorate as much as possible. It’s occurred to me that I could use cocoa to dye some of the icing a richer brown, which I could then pipe onto the cake to decorate it, but I have never actually bothered to do that.

As you can see from the photo above, I tried to write “Mark” in chocolate chips, and it took me two lines for 4 letters, and also part of the R slid over the side when the top layer started drifting. This is basically as ugly as a cake can be and still have people willing to eat it, but Mark loves me and I love peanut-butter icing, so we tried it.



August 22nd, 2012

I dos done!

We did it–we got married. And once we had, we looked like this

This was a very good day. (photo courtesy of my friend Kimberly)

And then we went to Costa Rica on our honeymoon, where we did a whole lot of reading on the beach (4 books and assorted magazines!) and swimming in the ocean. And met this really nice cat

EDIT: You can see my wedding ring in this video (when I pet the cat)!!

And then came back and retrieved our own cat and did a bunch of laundry and went back to work and started planning a bridal shower for someone else (the cycle of life continues).

You see why I warned you there’d be no Rose-coloured in August?

But I’m back now and hoping to complete a bunch of posts on here soon, and maybe even kick off some new series. Thanks for your patience during this hectic–but very happy–time.

May 9th, 2012


Having Evan the kitten at home for the past few months has made me thing about things in strange ways. I think it’s because my partner and I are solely responsible for this little being and if we neglect our responsibilities long enough or severely enough, he could perish. Just like that, no more Evan, because we forgot to feed him (that could never happen) or let him out on the balcony where there’s a slot available for a small kitten to hurl himself 9 stories (that could happen, because he’s fast and slippery, and I worry about it all the time), or some other horror I don’t even want to think about. For the first time in my life, I am responsible for the well-being of another creature in the long-term. It’s one thing to baby/catsit for a little while–it’s easy to be hyper-vigilant for a brief intense period.

I know this is not like parenthood or any type of human care–he’s a cat, and fairly autonomous, and a *cat*, but it does make me think about kids in the world and how not everyone has someone to take care of them and make sure they don’t chew on the fan cord or bite paint of the door hinge and then eat it.

So I’m really trying with my new tiny set of responsibilies. Tiny, because really, caring for a kitten isn’t so arduous, unless that kitten likes to roll around in the bathtub right after someone has taken a shower, until he’s nice and wet, and then go in the litter box…only to emerge with litter stuck all over him and run through the house leaving a little trail and then settle on the bed right when Rebecca is trying to leave the house.

I would, of course, have liked to simply continue out the door and get where I was going on time, but that meant Evan would eventually have to groom the litter out of his fur, thus consuming quite a bit of it and making himself sick. So I picked him up and put him in the sink to wash him off. As he squirmed and bit me, I told him, “This is what happens when you get really dirty; someone puts you in the sink to clean you off.”

And then I was overwhelmed by a wave of sadness, because not even every child–let alone every cat–has someone to put him or her in the sink in times of dirtiness.

It’s a funny thing about care–it’s extrapolatable. Caring for Evan has, in a tiny way, showed me how it works, and doesn’t. Even when he loses his ball and looks at my wide-eyed until I move the chair and find it for him, it’s kind of a jolt–without me, that ball would be gone for good and Evan the sadder for it.

I’m not sure what this post is really about–put your loved ones in the sink and wash them? But it’s an interesting phenomenon, anyway–what’s a blog for if not sharing random thoughts?

February 14th, 2012

Be Nice to Everybody Day

I got over my Valentine’s Animosity years ago, and I’ve been liking it more and more. It’s a great day to be loving towards people you don’t always remember to treat that way–people in the grocery store, fellow highway drivers, the bus driver. Sure, why not do the traditional Valentine’s things (eat red foods and dessert with frosting on it), but also remember to extend the love beyond the warm glow of the people you’re generally nice to anyway. I do worry about our societal presumption that the people we won’t have to see again, we don’t have to be kind to.

I just realized that last year’s V-day post was almost verbatim this one, but with a quotation, so here’s one for this year:

“And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the light and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.”

Guess what that’s from? Under Pressure by Queen–not sure how that bit connects with the rest of the song, but I think the isolated sentence is true–loving one person a lot should make me more generous, more caring, kinder, even to those far from the spotlight of romantic love. Definitely the best couples I know, the ones I know are terribly happy with each other, are also better for it in other ways, and they share their good fortune with those around them in their warmth and kindness. I hope my relationship is like that; I think it is. It’s certainly something to strive for.

August 23rd, 2011

The End of the Cohabitational Reading Project

Mark has really covered the wrap of the Cohabitational Reading Project: the boredom, the improbability, the strangely tepid wind-down of over 600 pages. The second half–well, latter two-thirds, really–of this book reads like a sad sophmore follow-up to a brilliant first novel. Only in this case, the “first” novel is part of the same book. The beginning of Owen Meany really is wonderful and deserving of much praise. I had wondered why I remembered the early bits 10 years later with such vibrancy, but couldn’t recall anything from the later sections. It turned out I remembered the good stuff.

On the topic of the Project itself–good fun. I did sometimes feel bad when M was 50 pages ahead of me and urging me to catch up when I wanted to nap, but by and large it was really nice to be sharing the experience and talking it over every day. I think we’re both happy to be choosing our own reading matters for the next little while, but I’m sure while try a sequel CRP at some point.

Anyone who has thoughts or opinions on Owen Meany, John Irving, reading with your partner, etc., feel free to share!

August 11th, 2011

Update on the Co-habitational Reading Challenge

Well, Mark and I do agree that Irving is starting to rely more heavily on contrivances to make the plot work, but who cares when it is so funny? I was lagging behind in the reading, so when Mark was chortling away at my favourite scene in the book–the Christmas Pageant, of course–I wasn’t there yet and he couldn’t read to me. So when I finally got there, he made me read it to him, though he’d just read it to himself an hour before. So great, at few places I couldn’t speak, I was laughing so hard (mainly to do with the cows and donkeys). The kitten seemed to enjoy the read-aloud too; at least, he fell asleep without biting anyone, which is positive for him.

I’ve also been carrying the book around town and mentioning that we’re reading it, and reactions are always the same–everyone’s read this book, and everyone loves it. How amazing! My reading tastes aren’t avant-garde or anything, but I’m usually reading something most people haven’t heard of, or have *only* heard of but not read. It’s a rare pleasure to be able to have a fairly in-depth conversation about my current read with almost everyone.

A few people have made comments on how neatly Irving straddles the literary/commercial fiction line. One friend put it most succinctly when she said it wasn’t stressful to read, but she didn’t feel dumber afterwards. Actually, when I stop to analyze, I find the book pretty complex, especially th222222222 (kitten interference) the time structure. But as I read happily along, I’d don’t usually think about structure–I think about Owen, Johnny, Tabby and Dan, Grandmother Wheelwright, Lydia and Ethel and Germaine, and all the rest of them.

August 7th, 2011

The Co-habitational Reading Challenge

My partner, Mark, and I are both writers and voracious readers; we say, “What did you read today?” with the same frequency as weather commentary or requests for popsicles (near constant at my house). It’s obviously a much livelier conversation if the other person has read the book you’re commenting on; there’s only so much I can contribute to rantings or ravings if said comments are my only information on the book.

We’ve read a lot of the same material, but not hardly a majority. One book we both loved long ago was A Prayer for Owen Meany, but sadly now we forget a lot about it. The moving-in process has given us two copies of the novel, so we’ve decided to both reread simultaneously–hopefully the book is as a good as we remember, but either way we’ll get some good book chats out of it.

We’ll try to post the recaps of said chats, and invite any who likes to play along at home, either by (re)reading Owen and sharing your own thoughts on the novel, or by reading any book at all in tandem with your house-mate, and seeing how the conversations go.

Happy book-talking!

February 14th, 2011

Be Nice to Everyone Day

I’ve mellowed on V-day over the years–if you dig pink cupcakes and mylar balloons, for yourself or a friend or significant other or anyone at all, I say go for it. I wish deli counter in my grocery store weren’t covered in such things, but in general I find them benign at worst, kinda sweet at best.

However, I am still not convinced we need a whole day to remind us to be nice to those, by most definitions of romantic love, we are already usually nice to. I see a much greater need for a “Don’t grunt at the bus-driver; say thank you!” day. Or a “Don’t let the door slam in the guy behind you’s face” day. A “Don’t shoot the messenger” day or a “Help out your colleagues!” day. A “Turn down the stero without the neighbours banging on the wall” or “Take out your earbuds at the cash register!” day. Sometimes I worry that Western society places such a great emphasis on couple-dom because that’s where the greatest return on investment is. Eternal love and happiness? Sure, I’ll make you that odd dessert you like. But a waitress I might never see again? Where’s the return on being civil to her?

So, I hope you have an awesome day today, and whatever your plans are this evening, I hope they are lovely. I’m going to try to make everyone’s day as nice as possible, people I love, people I just like a little, and total strangers.

Ok, and in case this is insufficiently romantic for Valentine’s, here’s something I found in Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, which I find entirely apt and lovely:

“And I believe people are wrong who think love prevents one from thinking clearly, for it is then that one thinks very clearly and is more active than before. There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as between and unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and it was a good lamp, but now it sheds light too, and that is its real function. And love makes one more calm about many things, and so one is more fit for one’s work.”

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