Friday, June 28, 2013

We moved

Emily and I moved to a new place at the beginning of June. We didn't go too far--only about 2.5 miles--but we're much closer to the ocean, and the weather is much cooler. Naturally, we were worried that the cat would freak out. (We have decided to keep the cat, by the way, after my allergies became manageable with antihistamines and a few cat-free zones in the house.) The cat has not freaked out. Our new yard doesn't have grasshoppers or butterflies, which he liked to hunt in our old backyard, but he finds ways to keep himself entertained.

At our old place, I didn't have any stuff up on the living room walls. Since I moved in after Emily and Robin had lived there for almost a year, all the common room wall space was already taken. Here, though, about half of the stuff in the common rooms is mine, and half is Emily's. Part of my half is this:

It's a collage of maps and brochures from historical sites (mostly Civil War stuff), a tiny slice of all the junk I accumulated during my trip in 2011.

I've taken a few long walks around the new place, and there's some cool stuff nearby. We're at the west end of the mesa, and the canyons around us carve the streets into weird shapes and sizes. I've already learned some amazing local history involving an old graveyard and its forsaken headstones. Yikes! I'll post something detailed about that next week.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Looking Backwards at the Civil War

Tony Horwitz had an article in The Atlantic last week. I'd recommend it for anyone looking for a quick, entry-level primer into both the Civil War and one of the persistent difficulties of history: reading the past with knowledge of the present, it's easy to use the present to justify the past. In other words, it's easy to break causality when telling a history.
Gary Gallagher, a leading Civil War historian at the University of Virginia, argues that the long-reigning emphasis on slavery and liberation distorts our understanding of the war and of how Americans thought in the 1860s. "There's an Appomattox syndrome--we look at Northern victory and emancipation and read the evidence backward," Gallagher says.
Can a war be called "good" or "bad," judging results alone? In the case of the American Civil War, very few might have predicted that the conflict would end slavery. The casus belli of the ACW was the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter (though some might place the beginning of the war later), a reaction to the stress of a secession brought about by a southern desire to protect the continued expansion of American slavery into new territory. Did contemporary southern whites (and black slaves) believe the ACW was a war to decide the ultimate fate of slavery? Maybe. But northerners did not. The North went to war because it had been attacked, to quell a rebellion, and restore the Union. Emancipation came later, and the abolition of slavery later after that. Shouldn't the "goodness" or "badness" of the war for each belligerent be measured by the quality of their goals versus the potential cost in lives and property value?

Horwitz makes another excellent point at the end of the article.
Looking backwards, and hitting the pause button at the Gettysburg Address or the passage of the 13th amendment, we see a "good" and successful war for freedom. If we focus instead on the run-up to war, when Lincoln pledged to not interfere with slavery in the South, or pan out to include the 1870s, when the nation abandoned Reconstruction, the story of the Civil War isn't quite so uplifting.
Horwitz hints here at the real trouble with most stories about the Civil War: they end when the war does. In truth, the Civil War is somewhere in the middle of larger story about racial justice. The Emancipation Proclamation is a beginning. There are hundreds of historical sites and museums dedicated to the Civil War. Where are the sites and museums for Reconstruction?

A highly recommended article. It's a big topic, but Horwitz manages to cover a lot of ground with few words.

Monday, June 24, 2013

What I read in May

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Non-fiction, on the morality and practicalities of raising, killing, and eating animals. The book is primarily an argument against factory farming, and in that capacity it succeeds. I think this is less because the book is well-argued and more because factory farming is such an easy target. There are some striking passages, however. For example: Foer relates the (near science-fictional) account of his night break-in to a turkey farm to provide the chicks--which are only fed, watered, and medicated only enough to prevent general death--with food and water. He finds that the farm is a locked warehouse, the floor covered with densely-packed chickens suffering from all manner of deformities and ailments. His partner, the animal activist who let him tag along, mercy-kills a chick she finds which is beyond help.

In the end Foer concludes that eating animals can be moral, so long as the animals we kill and eat have good and happy lives. Note that this standard, that the lives of eaten animals be good and happy, is a step beyond the criteria that their lives not be inhumane.

I read the book because I thought I'd find something about the philosophy of eating animals, but I didn't. What I found was more about the morality of raising animals, and a call to action for people to stop purchasing factory farmed meat. Even so, I found myself agreeing with the general bent of the ideas in the book, which, generally, spring from a desire to treat animals compassionately.

Jagannath by Karen Tidbeck. A collection of very weird short stories. I felt the stories were kind of slight after reading my first few of them--that there wasn't enough in them to really make them worth my while. By the time I'd finished all of them, I felt differently. The stories have stuck with me, especially their settings, and their feel. Tidbeck is really good at evoking the feeling that something strange and wonderful and frightening is happening, just beyond knowing, especially in stories like "Pyret", "Brita's Holiday Village", and "Reindeer Mountain".

I think I missed how good the first few stories were because of the prose. The prose is clear and simple; something like the opposite of Cathrynne M. Valente. Even though I know better, sometimes I get caught up in how complicated the prose is as a measure of how good the writing is, when I know that (usually) the opposite is true--complicated writing makes stories worse, not better. Really, Tidbeck's prose is one of Jagannath's best attributes. The tones, settings, and characters of the stories are never obscured by overwriting.