Darth Vader’s Day

The Atlantics editors and writers share their favorite titles—new, classic, or somewhere in between—from a year of reading.

The Atlantic’s editors and writers share their favorite titles—new, classic, or somewhere in between—from a year of reading.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Harry August, the narrator and protagonist of Claire North’s 2014 novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, is an “ouroboran,” gifted and cursed with a sort of immortality: Death, for August and others like him, is merely a reset button. When he dies, his life begins again from birth. On top of that, August’s memory is cinematic; he remembers in vivid detail everything that’s happened to him after infancy throughout all his lives.

In less deft hands, this recursive reincarnation could have easily made for a messy, thematically incoherent plot. (Though from Groundhog Day to Life After Life, it’s worth noting, this certainly isn’t the first well-crafted run at the conceit.) But this book is a marvel of plotting—intricate and fast-paced, yet lucid and digestible. Best of all is the novel’s thematic richness; this is a book about many, many things. To me, it was a striking portrayal of aging—the way an earlier stage of life can come to seem like a different life altogether, how the emotion of an intense and abruptly ended love affair gradually and unexpectedly softens, the process of coming to terms with death. To you, this book will likely be about something quite different. And perhaps it will acquire yet more meanings in the lives we have ahead.

The Fight Against Bullfighting

The Colombian case is just one example of a worldwide decline. Spain’s Catalonia region banned bullfights in 2010; Panama did the same in 2012, as did the state of Sonora in Mexico in 2013. Ecuador hasn’t banned fights altogether, but the capital city of Quito no longer permits killing the bull as part of the event. France, too, has stopped short of banning bullfights, but in June a French court ruled that bullfighting should be taken off the country’s cultural-heritage list.

How one reader responded to the piece:

I am not a bullfighting fan, but I think that it would be more than fair that all people that condemn bullfighting and want to forbid it should first stop eating meat and wearing leather shoes, belts, purses, etc. otherwise it would be just hypocritical. What’s the number of bulls killed in bullfighting in relation to the number of cows that are slaughtered every day in the beef industry?

Another reader called that comparison “false equivalence”:

It is not that the animal dies solely for human consumption, it is that it is tortured for entertainment, then killed (oftentimes clumsily), then finally consumed. Humans will eat other animals, period. But that should not require the animal’s mistreatment or torture.

Brent McCluskey, writing for us in 2013, addressed the issue of systematic desensitization that he experienced at his first bullfight, where mentally disabled people and children “will have a greater degree of difficulty differentiating between fictional violence and real-life violence.” The desensitization was how he managed to find the sport entertaining:

My empathy for the bull led to feelings of revulsion over how I perceived it was being treated. And like all subjugates of this method [systematic desensitization], I had to make a choice. The process only works if the participants willingly submit themselves to it. While I could have objected to the bullfight, walked away or even closed my eyes, I instead chose to watch with morbid fascination. I knew I didn’t like what was happening, but the more I saw, the less I cared.

Is there an ethical alternative to the blood sport? A reader of The Dish said yes:

My family is of Portuguese ancestry; specifically, my grandparents were all born in the Azores Islands, landing on American shores around a century ago. Most Azorean-Americans have settled in Massachusetts and Central California. I’m not certain about Massachusetts, but here in California you can find legal, Portuguese-style, “bloodless” bullfighting.

You see, the Portuguese do not kill the bull. We actually find the blood sport of slaughtering the beast in the arena to be disgustingly cruel and wasteful. Portuguese bulls are put back to stud, where in the U.S. and the Azores they live the life of an average farm bull (and sometimes reused in the arena). And in mainland Portugal they’re pampered stud animals, with the best commanding the highest fees for their services. In fact, the bullfighting industry in Spain often uses Portuguese bulls for stud since they’ve wasted their own.

California bullfights are not allowed by law to spill a drop of blood, so a Velcro pad is placed over the bull’s shoulders where the Velcro tipped bandarilhas (small spears) attach. This is done primarily by cavaleiros or cavaleiras (horsemen or horsewomen) riding beautifully adorned horses skilled in dressage. In Portugal, some blood is drawn this way, since a small dart is stuck into the fatty hump between the bull’s shoulders. It looks messy, but it only serves to piss the bull off and make him all the more dangerous. Personally, I prefer the Portuguese-American Velcro method.

After the cavaleiros, traditional matadores finish tiring the beast out, it’s time for the most amusing part: forcados, or the “suicide squad” as we call them here in Central California.

Eight young men, usually in their late teens and early twenties, often slightly sauced-up on some liquid courage, line up single file facing the bull. It’s the job of the lucky first in line to coax the bull into charging where he takes the full force of the hit with a pega de cara (face plant), wrapping his arms around the horns and riding backward into his buddies who pile on. One will grab the tail, and often hands full of bullshit, while they all try to bring the animal to a full stop for a few seconds to declare victory. If they get scattered like bowling pins, they were not successful. But they can still lick their wounds and be happy they survived to risk their lives all over again at the next occasion.

Believe me, it’s the forcados who get injured, not the bull.

See for yourself, in this video of forcados training in Portugal:

If you’ve got anything to share on the subject, drop us an email. Update from a reader, who quotes a previous one:

[During a bullfight] is not that the animal dies solely for human consumption; it is that it is tortured for entertainment, then killed (oftentimes clumsily), then finally consumed. Humans will eat other animals, period. But that should not require the animal’s mistreatment or torture.

Animals in the meat, egg, and dairy industry are tortured—for their entire lives. Atrociously. And often killed clumsily. (Don’t fall for the deceptive “humane myth” labeling.) And it is also for entertainment. Humans absolutely do not need to eat animal products. The fleeting taste experience is just entertainment.

I find that being vegan is easy and highly rewarding. But anyone who is not interested in that approach can help tremendously by merely taking one step for animals.

Do it for Mom!

What happens when a father, alarmed by his 13-year-old daughter’s nightly workload, tries to do her homework for a week

Memorization, not rationalization. That is the advice of my 13-year-old daughter, Esmee, as I struggle to make sense of a paragraph of notes for an upcoming Earth Science test on minerals. “Minerals have crystal systems which are defined by the # of axis and the length of the axis that intersect the crystal faces.” That’s how the notes start, and they only get murkier after that. When I ask Esmee what this actually means, she gives me her homework credo.

Esmee is in the eighth grade at the NYC Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies, a selective public school in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. My wife and I have noticed since she started there in February of last year that she has a lot of homework. We moved from Pacific Palisades, California, where Esmee also had a great deal of homework at Paul Revere Charter Middle School in Brentwood. I have found, at both schools, that whenever I bring up the homework issue with teachers or administrators, their response is that they are required by the state to cover a certain amount of material. There are standardized tests, and everyone—students, teachers, schools—is being evaluated on those tests. I’m not interested in the debates over teaching to the test or No Child Left Behind. What I am interested in is what my daughter is doing during those nightly hours between 8 o’clock and midnight, when she finally gets to bed. During the school week, she averages three to four hours of homework a night and six and a half hours of sleep.