Sunday, February 28, 2010

Farewell, Nifty Rotating Quote

We at Simon and Ivan decided we needed to (1) spruce ourselves up a bit, and (2) communicate our position on space travel, which is to be staunchly blasé. This new design kills two birds with one stone. It also, unfortunately, kills the nifty rotating quote, which was a serious accomplishment when it originally appeared. Alas, something about it gives Blogger indigestion. I may try to resuscitate it at some point, but I have done enough cursing at the html editor today. I saved only Kurt Vonnegut. Mainly to remind myself to read that book some time.

There are some nice new things, however. You can now search the blog, if you feel compelled to do so. The search box is at the very bottom of the sidebar. And the link in the header, which I broke years ago, has finally been restored. You can now click on "Simon and Ivan went to Saturn" and get back to the main page from any post you happened to have wandered off into. You can also e-mail any post to all your pals using the link at the end. However, it will apparently only send a link to the post, not the text of the post. Bah!

AND, the header is finally centered! I may have been the only one who was sincerely bothered by it being two millimeters off, but oh, was I bothered.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

That boy needs therapy!

There should be a part in Oklahoma! where the entire cast surrounds Jud Fry and does a rendition of "Frontier Psychiatrist." It could take the place of "Lonely Room" which is a boring song. At least I'm pretty sure it is. I always fast-forward through it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

::grumble:: stupid ::mutter:: weather ::argh::

This afternoon, wading my way through a 35 degree rainstorm, I passed a window display full of flip flops. Go ahead February, pour a little more salt in the wounds.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010


A hapax legomenon is a word that appears only once in a document, a corpus, or the entire written record of a particular language. For example, Shakespeare uses honorificabilitudinitatibus only once, making it a hapax legomenon of his corpus. They are an interesting thing, particularly since they can be difficult to define if they are the kind that only appears once, period. But that is not the point I would like to make here. Once I ran across honorificabilitudinitatibus, I of course wanted to know what it meant. It means "the state of being able to achieve honors." But that is not the point either. The point is that, in the process of looking it up, I happened to discover that James Joyce used it in Ulysses. In honor of this literary feat I officially declare James Joyce to be obnoxabilitudinitatibus, which means, "the state of being able to achieve every subsequent writer in English hating your guts."

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Blog Post Long and Strange

I have finally finished a book I wanted to read for more than a year: A Voyage Long and Strange, by Tony Horwitz. It covers the history of North America from the landing of the Vikings in Newfoundland around the year 1000 to the establishment of Plymouth in 1620. What made me want to read it was a review in which it was mentioned that Spanish conquistadors got as far into the continent as Kansas. Kansas! That was a new mental image for me and I was curious what else I did not know about the settling of this continent. Also it has a great cover design.

The book is a mix of diverting historical anecdotes and diverting modern anecdotes. Horwitz talks to a lot of people about what they believe their history is and how they feel about it. Park rangers and museum interpreters are usually sane and therefore full of sarcasm about local residents and tourists, who are not interested in a nuanced view of history -- people who still think the Fountain of Youth might exist. The general theme is that there are two categories of history: (1) what actually happened as far as anyone can tell, and (2) the convoluted, often selective, and sometimes plain wrong interpretation of those facts that suits any particular group.

Although the book itself does not impugn our educational system, the marketing for the book, and some of its reviewers, do suggest that everything you were taught about American history is wrong. My entire knowledge of North America from 1000 to 1620 comes from my eighth grade history textbook, which I happen to have next to me right now, because my mother owns it. (Bet you wish your mom was a tutor so you could do awesome blog posts about your eighth grade education! Ha!) I was curious to see whether I had been taught the simplistic version of history, in which Columbus nobly sails the ocean blue, Pocahontas saves John Smith, and the colonists and Native Americans join together for a happy Thanksgiving; or the complicated one, in which Columbus is a first class jerk, Pocahontas goes over to the dark side, and one day ninety Native Americans show up to a colonial feast, uninvited.

Well! Maybe Tony Horwitz had a crappy eighth grade textbook, but mine was a masterpiece! The reason I don't know anything about what happened between Columbus and the Pilgrims is simply that I clean forgot it all, not that I was never told. Every person Horwitz says has been forgotten by history is in this textbook, right down to Estovico, a Moroccan slave who served as an interpreter between the conquistadors and Native Americans, and whom I would have sworn I'd never heard of in my life. The only major detail it's a little spotty on is the degree of violence to which everyone was propelled. Europeans massacred Native Americans, Native Americans massacred Europeans, Europeans massacred each other, Native Americans massacred each other, heads were put on spikes, eyeballs were used as projectiles, and a colonist during the "Starving Time" at Jamestown killed and ate his pregnant wife. I really can't blame the textbook writers for leaving that out. I'm not sure I'm ready to deal with that last one even now.

Not only does this textbook mention all the "forgotten" historical figures, it justly ignores things that don't deserve attention, like Plymouth Rock. According to Horwitz, the idea that the pilgrims somehow first stepped on that one rock comes from someone's childhood memory of an old man weeping over his own recollection of his father telling him a story he had heard second-hand. For all we know, some dope once told his little brother quesadillas come from quasars, and after a hundred years of the game of telephone, we got a famous rock.

So the textbook is astonishingly well-done; why then did I forget everything I ever read in it? I will tell you. It is because of the distinct lack of diverting anecdotes. Here are some things I would have remembered:

1. What Columbus thought was the native name for San Salvador probably meant "iguana." Speaking of iguana, he thought it tasted like chicken.

2. After being abandoned by the ship he came on, Cabeza de Vaca and a few others spent eight years wandering over half the continent, helped and harbored by Native Americans on many occasions. Later, as the governor of Paraguay, he tried to enforce laws to protect them. He was arrested and sent back to Spain and nearly ended up in a penal colony for it.

3. Spanish conquistadors were required, before attacking Native Americans, to read the "Requerimiento," which essentially said, "If you do not submit to us, we will kill you, enslave you, or otherwise make you miserable, and it will be your own fault." It was typically read out of earshot, to people who could not understand the language anyway. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican priest, said at the time that he didn't know whether to laugh or to cry about it.

4. Some of Coronado's men discovered the Grand Canyon. Underestimating its size, they attempted to climb down into it. They did not succeed.

5. One Spaniard told the Native Americans that he had come from the sun. According to him, they then "took corn and other seeds in their mouths and sprayed me with them, saying that was the kind of offering they made to the sun."

6. Soldiers who went out hunting the flat grassland of the midwest sometimes got lost and never returned, even though their companions tried to draw them back with noise and bonfires.

7. The Spanish had never seen buffalo before. One wrote, "No one could be so melancholy that if he were to see it a hundred times a day he could keep from laughing heartily as many times."

8. William Brewster spelled Europe "Ewroopa." Haha.

9. Squanto (short for Tisquantum), without whose help the colonists at Plymouth probably would have starved to death, was only able to help because he had been kidnapped five years earlier and spent the intervening time in Europe, where he learned English. When he eventually escaped and went home, he found that his entire tribe had been killed off by disease.

Admittedly, these are not all diverting in a nice way (and nor are they all technically anecdotes, come to think of it). Obviously, this book is pretty depressing from any angle. The Native Americans suffered, the explorers suffered, and the early settlers suffered. I don't really know what to make of it. I don't think Tony Horwitz figured out what to make of it, either, as he ended with a baseball analogy and a quote from Stephen Jay Gould about the "psychic need for an indigenous creation myth." But that's the thing. Few of us are indigenous. If you go back far enough, nobody is permanently indigenous to any piece of land. If we want a creation myth that somehow gives us a right to be here, we're not going to find one without convoluting selected facts until our collective memory is all wrong. In spite of the best efforts of eighth-grade textbooks, we seem to be well on our way.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Suspicions Confirmed

arriving for lunch wearing boots and a toggle coat:

M: You look so cute! Just like Paddington Bear!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I charge double if you want a rhyme for "olympic"

In ancient Greece, when winners of the Olympics returned to their hometowns, poets would make up odes praising them, for money.

I am open to this kind of arrangement.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Spice of Life

C: What happened to your thumb?
I: I cut it on a spice jar.
C: What kind of spice?
I: I think it was thyme.
C: So it's not true?
I: What's not true?
C: Thyme doesn't heal all wounds?
I: Apparently not.

Monday, February 15, 2010

I made a lot of cookies this weekend.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Snail Mail

Only one person has asked me for my address this week, so it wasn't super secret... Getting a Valentine makes February so much better.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I believe "humidifier" is, if anything, a dochimus. It is very difficult to fit one of those in a limerick.

There once was a humidifier from Nantucket.
With occasional replenishment of bucket,
It snortled all night
And glub-glubbed through daylight
Thus rendering my sinus unstuckit.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Day

Cannot contain excitement. Feels like Christmas. Going back to bed now. Life: it is good.

This is Why I Will Never Have an Empty Inbox

I cannot bear to archive the article "NZ man 'used hedgehog as weapon'". Nearly two years later it still makes me laugh.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


I've had a headache for many days now. This tends to happen in the dead of winter, when the air has been dry for a long time. My sinuses swell up like an emergency raft and cause me great pain and misery when I do things like move my head and use my eyes. I tried decongestants, nasal rinses, an increased consumption of liquids, and putting a blanket over my head while I drank a cup of tea, but my sinuses laughed in the face of these feeble efforts and upped the ante by repeatedly threatening me with bloody noses. This reminded me of The Lord of the Flies, when Simon hallucinates about talking to the pig head and then goes unconscious gets a bloody nose. That was something I wanted no part of, so I went to the store and brought home the big guns: a humidifier.

This was the humidifier I really wanted.

This is the one I actually got.

This is how I made up for it.

I would like to thank my sister for pre-preparing the googly eyes, which originally appeared on a Christmas present. We really like anthropomorphic Christmas presents in our family. Also anthropomorphic humidifiers. I shall call him Steamy and he shall be mine and he shall be my Steamy.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Sell By

Should I be concerned that I live in a city where milk spoils seven days earlier than anywhere else in New York state? Also, I feel like having a Wegman's in Brooklyn would solve this problem.

Friday, February 05, 2010


Have headache, can't form sentences, will be either short post or strange post.

Recently went to local planetarium. Vivid memories of being eight years old. Fantastic.

South Star Ball. Don't know what that means. Southern sky? Southern hemisphere? Don't care. Cool.

Cosmos-oriented exhibit. Half-moon! Mounted on wall! Lights up when touched! (Not true of real moon.) (So I am told.)

Inside dark tunnel of dated alien planet landscapes. Best part of planetarium.

Jupiter? Probably seen from one of its gaggle of moons? Is it gaggle of moons? A clattering? An unkindness? Hmm. An Unkindness of Moons. Good name for a bad poem.

Flash in dark tunnel ruins mystery. No more flash.

Don't know what this is. Before application of Enhance Creepiness button in Photoshop, the big round thing was red. So, possibly Mars. Or a moon seen from a planet that has an earthlike system of erosion that would create that apparent rock formation. Or an early concept drawing for Armus, strange goopy murderer of Tasha Yar. It's good to remember Tasha Yar every so often. Keeps things in perspective. How did those complete sentences get in there? No more complete sentences. But really, can you have erosion without an atmosphere? What other planets have atmospheres? I think I knew more about this when I was eight. That's disappointing.

Caption for this one: "We are not alone." Vision of future and/or alien life not updated since 1968. So cute.

While in tunnel, listened to teenager tell blatant lies to sibling. Not only blatant, but poorly sold. "Hey, I've been to Jupiter. Yeah. It was great." It was great? You went to Jupiter and it was great? Clearly Jupiter was wasted on you. Also: "Oh look, a quasar. Did you know they invented quesadillas? It's true." No. It's not true.

Next! Stained glass. Sciencey stained glass. Better than Tiffany.

Accompanying plaque:

Dante is so critical. EVEN BEATRICE LOOKED AT THE GROUND SOMETIMES, DANTE. Headache makes for sensitive Simon.

Planetarium exhibit over. Wave goodbye.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

A Project

When I am done with this mess, it will be something grand. Something that will keep Simon from catching fire.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Thing I Wish I Thought About Less


Mostly I wish I didn't think about them so much because I find the subject boring. But I read a lot of agent and publisher blogs, and if they don't all mention e-books at least once a day, then it means they didn't post.

I have a lot of not-quite-legitimate reasons to dislike the very idea of e-books. They mainly stem from my reluctance to give up the tradition of books that are, like, real. I like to bring them home. I like to put them on my shelf. I like to rearrange them. I like to look at them. They're integral to my idea of interior decorating. I don't know why people want their books to take up less space. If you have enough you can just build furniture out of them, so I don't see a problem. I also happen to think that reading a book with footnotes on an e-reader would be torture, and call me crazy, but I want to have one thing in my life, just one thing, that doesn't need to be plugged in.

My deeper problem with e-books, one that do I think is legitimate and overlooked, is design. I first thought about this seriously when I started using Google Reader. Since it basically transfers the text of blog posts into a generic format and lets you read lots of different blogs in the same place, I realized that half the time I didn't know which blog I was reading because I had no visual cues. (Sadly, a lot of agents do not have distinct writing voices.) I started pondering what a difference there is between reading the same text in two different formats. For example:

Blog as viewed through Google Reader.

Blog as created by blogger.

As far as I can tell, e-books are to print books what Google Reader is to individually-designed websites. There's something lacking in the Google Reader version. It's not a perfect analogy because for blogs, I'm willing to make the sacrifice. They're kind of like newspapers. They look the same every time, and I already know what the quality of the content is going to be. It's never earth-shattering. I'm already acquainted with it, and it doesn't need to set up an atmosphere or communicate to me what it is before I read it.

But books are different. Because every book is different. There are new books, there are old books. Hardcovers, mass market paperbacks, and trade paperbacks. There are Norton Critical Editions that are heavy with slippery pages, which mean you are reading Literature. There are fat genre novels with rough paper, which means it cost $6.99 and spent three weeks on the best seller list. There are friendly, compact, 4x7 books, and there are nice, spacious 6x9 books. There are books with covers that are shiny with texture, books with dust jackets, quality paperbacks with French flaps.

All of this tells you what kind of book you're picking up, and then on the inside, the font and the spacing and the margins and the clarity of the type are telling you things about what kind of text you're reading. These things influence your experience. There's a physical difference between reading a Penguin Classic and a Harlequin Romance that registers in the reader's brain, which will disappear when the print texts are distributed electronically. This isn't to say anyone is going to confuse The Awakening with The Forbidden Bride (although actually there are probably similarities), or that there is necessarily a problem with being unable to visually discriminate for or against whatever kinds of books you do or don't like to read. What goes missing are the trappings of the sort of book you read, whatever it is. And I like the trappings.

I think books that aren't oversized, four-color, glossy-paged studies of Flemish tapestry (or whatever book of your choice would require fancy illustrations) are overlooked as pieces of art, except by those who design them. You would think that as a writer I would put all of the emphasis on the words, but my experience has always been that presentation is rather important. Good books usually have type that looks like a fascimile of a fascimile of the first edition. Sometimes they have a painting on the cover that you may run into out in the world some day and get to say to yourself, hey, what is Jane Eyre doing in the National Gallery of Scotland? And sometimes the lines are very close together because it's so full of colorful detail that there just isn't enough space on the page to fit it all in. Not to bring up Dorothy Dunnett again or anything, but when I think of the pages of the editions I read, I imagine the text sparkling at the places where the extenders of the letters are practically touching from line to line, it's that crammed full of stuff. Until I can plug books into my brain and absorb them instantly, I'd like to preserve these little benefits that I get from the act of reading. Each book is an individual.

The state of e-books is basically a big mess right now, and I think that it'll be some time before questions of design are addressed. At the moment, they can't even decide what an e-book should cost, or what format it should be in, or what you should use to read it with. There aren't really any standards. Recently, Amazon suspended selling new print copies of books published by Macmillan, because of a struggle over the pricing of electronic copies. It is ridiculous, the nonsense that has been going on over this stuff in the past few years, and the new iPad has basically terrified everyone. I would not use an e-reader right now if someone handed it to me for free, just because of all the issues that are still being sorted out. But even once they are, unless they find a way to make reading an electronic book an exact replica of reading a print book, I don't see myself ever choosing the one over the other. Which is why I am so very tired of everyone writing about them all the time. Unfortunately this now includes me.

One thing I will say in favor of e-books is that if they ever make one that runs on solar power, the hypothetical scenario of having to choose one book to bring to a desert island would disappear, and we could all stop lying about picking the complete works of Shakespeare.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Let There Be Light

While Simon was reading an 800 page Gothic Romance, the Brooklyn half of the hedgehogs was also making good use of literature.

My lightbulb blew on Sunday night and instead of knitting by scented candle, I decided to do what any self sufficient girl in 2010 would do-- weep and faint. No, just kidding-- I decided to change the bulb. Sadly, every chair and piece of furniture stable enough to stand on left me six inches shy of the fixture. And then, a stroke of genius-- I would call Jonathan Strange, Mr. Norrell and Harry Potter (circa Goblet of Fire) to the rescue! Stacked on top of the bed, I was just tall enough to ever so delicately unscrew the dead bulb. And after shattering several 75 watt candidates I perfected the process, successfully installing my new light source.

Sure beats weeping and fainting. Simon-- let strongly recommend you move Udolpho to the home maintenance and repair section of your bookshelf... perhaps it can assist you with the sloping kitchen floor of doom (<--- also a good title for a book).

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Mysteries of Udolpho: The Good Parts Version

I recently finished Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. It was published in 1794, which accounts for about 45% of what drove me nuts about it, and it is a Gothic romance, which accounts for the rest. Before I go on to mock it mercilessly, I should point out that there are many ways in which it is a solid piece of writing, and it helped make writing an acceptable occupation for women, and Anne Radcliffe got a notably large sum of money for it, and the parts toward the end that I did not skim (I believe I read only half of pp. 100-450) were engaging enough.

Please allow me to summarize the book in a way that accurately reflects how it translated in my head. I plan to spoil all the mysteries, so skip this post if you ever want to read it.

Emily St. Aubert lives in a lovely modest little cottage in France with her lovely parents. They are aristocratic, of course, but not showy. Their cottage probably only has twenty-five rooms, tops. Emily is very beautiful and a paragon of femininity, which means she weeps and faints twice per page.

Incidentally, as soon as any English writer before a certain date takes you to Europe, you know you're going to run into some real creepsters, because Europe is where all the Catholics are and everyone knows Catholics are suspect. Anyone with an Italian name is doubly suspect. The fact that Emily should probably also be Catholic is quietly ignored. Also of note: in spite of supposedly taking place in sixteenth-century France, every single French character does a perfect impression of an eighteenth-century Briton. The Italians, of course, are evil regardless of time period.

Early on, Emily's mother dies. Emily weeps and faints. She and her father decide that the best thing to assuage their grief is an arduous journey across half the continent (okay, to Italy, but it is decribed in such detail, it really seems like they travel long enough to get to Russia) by coach, stopping at all the beautiful spots so that they can weep and faint over the late Madame St. Aubert.

On this trip they meet this fellow called Valancourt who is literally wandering around the forest for fun. I imagine him in green tights. I think that's accurate. Emily and Valancourt hardly say two words to each other but they are soon deeply in love. Then Valancourt leaves. Then Valancourt returns, but Emily's father mistakes him for a robber and shoots him. Valancourt has bad luck, as we shall see. Valancourt gets better, but Emily's father gets ill and dies, after the longest and most verbose deathbed speech ever. Emily weeps and faints.

They happen to be near a castle called Chateau-le-Blanc (unfortunately not a French burger joint). More on that later.

Emily gets handed over to her Evil Aunt, who for some reason insists on believing Emily is a tramp. I wish Emily were a tramp, she'd be much more interesting. Valancourt makes another appearance, but Evil Aunt forbids the lovers to be together. Emily weeps and faints. Valancourt weeps and faints. Valancourt weeps and faints so much throughout the course of this book that at one point Emily asks him to please tone down his "transports." I gather this is the 1794 equivalent of feeling smothered. After a while, Evil Aunt sends Valancourt away for good. She then marries Evil Uncle, and they all move to the castle Udolpho in Italy where he can pursue his nefarious schemes. Emily weeps and faints.

In spite of the promising title, not that much happens at Udolpho. It becomes clear that Evil Uncle runs with a nasty crowd of murderers, and some doors open and close mysteriously, and some rumors are spread, but that's about all. I guess also there is also a dead soldier and a genuinely bizarre wax statue of a decaying body, but whatever. If there's no cannibalism, it could be worse. Evil Aunt dies and passes on her fortune to Emily, who is afraid Evil Uncle will murder her for it. Emily weeps and faints.

But eventually Emily escapes with her trusty maidservant, Annette (who is clearly meant to be stupid but is in fact the most relatable character in the book) and Annette's fella, Ludovico. Also with them is a captive from Udolpho, this guy named Du Pont. He serves no purpose whatsoever and to a modern reader seems a whole lot like a stalker. Anyway, they end up back at Chateau-le-Blanc, the castle near where Emily's father died, and to which he seemed to have some strange connection. A nice family lives there now and of course they all love Emily because she is so pretty and agreeable and weeps and faints and all the appropriate times, as a lady should.

This castle, too, seems to be haunted. Literally the only thing that remotely interested me in the entire book was this: at one point Ludovico spends the night in some remote section of the house to prove it isn't haunted... and disappears! It's really very troubling -- until it is later revealed that he was, I am not joking, kidnapped by pirates. Don't worry, it works out for the best, and he and Annette live happily ever after.

The problem now is that Valancourt has returned, but during his time away from Emily, he has grown terribly corrupt. He has . . . gambled. He also may have . . . flirted. Emily, who has a stricter code of ethics than GOD, weeps and faints. Valancourt weeps and faints, and for some reason fails to explain the very good logic behind his behavior. It is all very strange. Even the help are perplexed as to what the big deal is.

In the meantime, Emily visits this raving insane nun at a nearby convent, and discovers that long ago, this nun was the mistress of Udolpho, and she conspired with her former lover, who owned Chateau-le-Blanc, to kill his wife. His wife was Emily's aunt, which is why her father was so affected by seeing the castle where she had been poisoned. The nun goes through an agonizing death, and Emily weeps and faints.

Let me stop a moment and say this: all along is it vaguely hinted that Emily's mother might really have been the woman in that castle. I realize you can't have a heroine who is the bastard daughter of a pair of adulterers, but I really think it would have made a better story. And then maybe Emily wouldn't have been so high and mighty about Valancourt's little gambling problem. I hate Emily.

After much drama, Emily and Valancourt are eventually reunited when the gardener mistakes Valancourt for a robber and shoots him. (You have to wonder: what is it about Valancourt that looks so suspicious?) It's just a flesh wound, and finally Valancourt explains that he got into debt trying to pay other people's debts. He was also providing a living for the lady who took care of Emily's little cottage in France after she was taken away by Evil Aunt. He isn't really an inveterate gambler with a degenerate soul. Also, getting shot twice for Emily's sake has to count for something. I believe there's a double wedding with some other characters, everybody weeps and faints, and then they shoot Valancourt again just for laughs. The end.

The plot is absurd, but it's really no more absurd than Jane Eyre, which I love. The problem is that the characters are insipid and there's no memorable dialogue and we are subjected to far too many descriptions of trees and mountains. Also, Emily is always writing exceedingly bad verse, which is unforgivable.

To sum up: this is not, as someone said at the time, "the most interesting book in the English language." It is a book, though, and except for the word "controul," it is written in English. The only other thing I'll say for it is that it justifies the existence of Northanger Abbey. Previously, I only understood why Jane Austen kept that one in a drawer; now I understand why she wrote it to begin with. Anne Radcliffe begs to be lampooned.