Book Review: Santa Anna of Mexico (Will Fowler 2007)

Rating: 4/5

Will Fowler’s Santa Anna of Mexico is about Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the six-time president of Mexico. Santa Anna partook in most major events in the first 40 years of Mexican independence. Americans might know his as the cruel Mexican general of The Battle of the Alamo in Texas. He was a charismatic and wily man, entwined with and representative of the problems of early Mexico. He is hated today in Mexico, with no roads or statues to his honor; Fowler presents a complex man living through complex times.

WHY THIS BOOK?

  1. Santa Anna pops up in southwestern history. He was the general at the Alamo. He lost a leg in the Pastry War. He conned James Polk during the Mexican-American War. Eventually, I had to read his biography.
  2. Although the United States has only two neighbor countries, I know almost nothing about the history of either.

THE GOOD

Go look at the heads of state of Mexico on Wikipedia. For the first 30 years, only one lasted his whole term. 19th century United States sometimes seems dysfunctional; we’ve got nothing on Mexico. How did Mexico turn out so differently? This book helped me understand that a little.

Santa Anna’s biography is a great way to learn the (ridiculously complex and confusing) early history of Mexico. Santa Anna’s personal history parallels his country’s history. Fowler splits Santa Anna’s career into four stages: Hope (1821-28), Disenchantment (1828-35), Disillusion (1835-47), and Despair (1847-53).

Fowler portrays a complex Santa Anna. Santa Anna is blamed as the man who lost Texas, the man who lost the Mexican-American War (ceding half the country to the US), and the man who signed the humiliating Gadsden Purchase (ceding some more land to the US). He was also the Hero of Tampico, fending off a Spanish invasion, and the hero of the Pastry War, in which he lost a leg. In the Mexican-American War, he returned from exile in Cuba and valiantly fought when all others seemed paralyzed by infighting. The man had more lives than a cat. He was incredibly opportunistic, but he was also brave and believed in Mexico.

Fowler also describes Santa Anna as a caudillo. The caudillo, or strongman, is a political tradition in Latin America tracing to Spain’s colonial policies. The caudillo amassed money, land, and influence regionally; if his region was nationally influential enough, he would be nationally influential. Santa Anna became the caudillo of Veracruz, the large and crucial port of Mexico.

Donald Trump has been called the “Yankee Caudillo” in Latin American press. There are parallels. Santa Anna attacked the political parties as corrupt; he claimed to stand apart from the evils of partisanship and to fight for the people. Santa Anna stayed relevant with his wealth in Veracruz; likewise Trump stayed relevance with his global brand. Both men were constantly near power, but able to claim a mantle of purity. Like Trump, Santa Anna preferred to campaign (this time in the military sense). Santa Anna rarely held power for more than six months because he didn’t care to govern. (This is in contrast to other caudillos who held power for extended periods of time.) My understanding is admittedly superficial, but learning about Mexico’s politics gave me another perspective on American politics.

THE BAD

I struggled with the first few chapters. I was constantly consulting Wikipedia or a map. If you know little Mexican history, this book is absolutely readable, but it’s challenging.

OVERALL

Santa Anna is absurd, but Fowler explains him well. Santa Anna’s antics are so intimately a part of Mexico’s early struggles for democracy.

Santa Anna, like Mexico’s early failure, is so tragic. What could Mexico have accomplished if only they had achieved the stability of the early United States? Were the United States lucky to have achieved stability from the very beginning?

Finally, the caudillo concept provides insights into much of Latin America, and perhaps into the United States.

Black History Month Reading List

One of the joys of science fiction is imagining life through other lenses. Until recently, I had overlooked the richness of lenses present in contemporary society and history. In the spirit of that joy, I challenged myself to a reading list for February’s Black History Month.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (nonfiction)

The Warmth of Other Suns details the Great Migration, when over 6 million African Americans migrated from the American South to the north, looking for opportunity and fleeing oppression. From 1915 to 1970, this quiet movement reshaped our country; before the migration, 10% of American blacks lived in the north, after, 50%.

This 530 page book (over 600 with the post matter) sat on my shelf for months, looking intimidating. Finally I picked it up for Black History Month. In 4 days, I’m already over 400 pages in. It’s so well written and relatable.

Binti by Nnedi Orakafor (science fiction)

Science fiction has long been a bastion of white dudes, as demonstrated by the Sad Puppies tantrums of 2015. In addition to being exclusionary, this is unfortunate because it goes against the calling of the genre to explore the human condition. The genre has shortchanged minority protagonists and it spends too little time in the vast non-white areas of the world.  A new generation of science fiction authors has brought great stories to these underserved settings and perspectives.

Nnedi Orakafor is part of the afrofuturism movement in science fiction. I read a short story by her several years ago, and it stuck with me. I’ve been meaning to read a longer work of hers, and now is the time.

American Uprising by Dan Rasmussen (nonfiction)

America’s largest slave uprising is largely forgotten today. Well-rated and about an unfamiliar topic—sounds perfect.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola (folk tale)

Amos Tutuola is a famous Nigerian writer of folk tales. This book has been on my shelf for years. I started it once, but then got distracted and set it down. The style is a little challenging, as it’s unfamiliar, but it’s time to read Amos Tutuola.

 

Book review: A Midwife’s Tale (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich 1990)

Rating: 4/5

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812 tells the tale of midwife Martha Ballard in 18th century frontier Maine. Every day for 35 years, Martha Ballard detailed the weather, her travels, her housework, her community, and her deliveries. If not for her diary, history would only have known Martha’s date of birth, the day she married, the day her children were born, and the day she died. Thanks to her diary, we have insight into her life and into the lives of frontier women in this time period. A Midwife’s Tale discusses rape, family conflict, the role of women in medicine, a family annihilation murder, women’s housework, sexual morays, and frontier life, among other things.

For content, this book is 5/5, it details a unique and wonderful document. For readability, I give A Midwife’s Tale a 3.5/5. Most of the difficulty of the book is inevitable; it has lots of original quotes.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Most history is written by rich older white men. In Martha’s town of Hallowell, Maine, two other diaries of the period survive, written by such men. Although she mentions the authors of these diaries multiple times, she barely appears in theirs. Her diary has roughly even numbers of men and women; theirs barely mention women. The wife of one of these men was a hatmaker; we know that from Martha’s diary, not his.

Martha Ballard’s diary is an ideal historical source. It’s a day to day documentation of her life, without narrative. It wasn’t written to entertain or titillate. It was private. To the extent that one person’s perspective and recording of the days can be honest, her account was.

THE GOOD

A Midwife’s Tale covers a range of topics. That’s part of its difficulty; it’s very broad. We learn about birth, medicine, illness and death, as one might expect from the diary of a midwife. We also learn about economics, debtors’ prison, family, the religious and political conflicts of colonial New England, sexuality, and crime.

Women of Martha’s era were tough. They had babies every other year, and said births typically kept them in bed for a week. They managed their own money, managed gardening and cloth making. Martha continued deliveries until her death at age 77, staying up long hours and traveling through all weather. She didn’t even begin her career until she was 50.

Colonial Maine is full of family squabbles, politics, and trysts. History is less chaste than we imagine when it’s recorded honestly; 38% of firstborns that Martha delivered were conceived out of wedlock. A few women even have multiple children out of wedlock, failing to marry at all. Unlike The Scarlet Letter, they are part of society too, and the fathers of their children are on the hook for support.

Martha moved to Hallowell at the beginning of the American experiment, and her life was full of changes from this. Her landlord had to flee to Canada for being a loyalist. She switches from shillings to dollars in her transactions. The town of Hallowell grew continuously while she lived there; it gave her much of her work. And the economics of her region changed with time. Her nephew was part of the Malta War, caused by economics conflicts of the Plymouth Company owning massive amounts of land and people chafing under this yolk.

THE BAD

This seems to be a recurring complaint for me, but there were too many people to keep track of. Is it too much to ask for a glossary of characters? This was especially bad in A Midwife’s Tale; people were referred to by more than one name or, with Martha’s tenuous grasp on spelling, said name could be spelled half a dozen different ways. Also, Martha had a large family and I totally lost track of who was related to her. A family tree would have been an asset.

A Midwife’s Tale is a slow and challenging read. Because Ulrich has to make (extremely well-researched) inferences, the details are presented with qualifications and caveats. While I appreciated the insight into the process of teasing  out the truth, it impacted the narrative flow substantially. This is less of a “bad thing” and more of a warning–this book makes the reader work.

 

OVERALL

This isn’t a book that tells you the narrative of a single event; it gives perspective on the lives of ordinary people as they traversed the many events of this time period. Life was complicated, but in many ways that are still recognizable today.

If you ever wonder about time travel, this book is probably one of the closest things we have to living a woman’s life in colonial Maine. It’s a unique work on a unique document and seems likely to be as timeless as the source document.

New Mexico History: The Battle of Columbus

Last week was the 100th anniversary of the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram (1/19/1917), in which Germany encouraged Mexico to attack the United States to keep them from participating in WW1. Ironically, the interception contributed to the United States entering the war in April. When we learned about the telegram in school as a child, the idea of Mexico attacking the US sounded laughable. In fact, Pancho Villa had attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico nine months before. At the time of the Zimmermann Telegram, General John Pershing was hunting Villa in northern Mexico in the “Punitive Expedition.”

At the time of the Battle of Columbus, Mexico was several years into the Mexican Revolution. After 35 years, the presidency of Porfirio Díaz collapsed in 1911. A string of leaders followed; Francisco Madero ruled from 1911 until his assassination in 1913. Victoriano Huerto and Venustiano Carranza controlled different parts of Mexico in 1913-1914. In 1914, the United States assaulted the port of Veracruz, with Wilson stating his desire to overthrow Huerta. The United States then supported the presidency of Pancho Villa’s rival, Carranza.

The reasons for the Battle of Columbus aren’t fully clear, but they were probably partially motivated by Villa’s need for munitions and by his irritation that the United States was supporting his rival. Early on March 9, 1916, Villa attacked Columbus with 500 men. The raid didn’t go well for Villa. 90-170 of his men are estimated to have died. President Wilson sent General Pershing into Mexico to hunt for Villa for nearly a year. He evaded capture and entered pop culture fame. At the close of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, he agreed to retire to the country. He was assassinated in 1923 after re-involving himself in politics.

Book review: Whipping Girl (Julia Serano 2007)

Rating: 5/5

Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl details the author’s perspectives on gender. Serano describes her journey from awkward teenage boy, through crossdresser, and through her transition to a transgender woman. She discusses what gender means to her personally and her experiences in society. She discusses gender roles, myths about trans people, and the role of trans people in the feminist movement.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Transgender lives are political. 2016 saw the passage of North Carolina’s  HB2, the “bathroom bill”; 2017 started with 5 more states proposing similar legislature. These bills say that individuals born with male genitalia endanger people in the women’s restroom. I never believed that, but discussions of trans people made me realize how little I knew. With Whipping Girl, I sought the transgender story.

THE GOOD

Whipping Girl is a fabulous book. I read Whipping  Girl because I wanted to better understand life as a trans person, but it makes so many great points about gender for the rest of us. Part of the strength of Serano’s narrative is the fact that she has lived on both sides of our gender divide. Sometimes the success of Jewish entertainers has been attributed to their ability to be both insiders and outsiders; perhaps transgender women like Serano have an analogous experience with womanhood.

I can’t possibly cover all the things I liked about this book. It’s the rare book that makes me consider my own life differently.

Serano asserts the societal belief: most believe that men and women are equal, but many do not believe that masculinity and femininity are equal. We consider masculinity strong, natural, and unpretentious. Because masculine and feminine are opposites, we believe femininity to be weak, artificial, and pretentious. It’s a restatement of familiar arguments; masculine women are penalized for failing to fit the model of a woman, and feminine women are penalized for being feminine. I realized that I hold some of these beliefs. I have congratulated myself for rarely wearing make-up; I have sneered at female friends that dress up. I heard these messages growing up a lot. They are rooted in seeing femininity as a failing.

Serano describes how these societal beliefs complicate gender transition. She describes how mtf transgender people are viewed with suspicion. If masculinity is superior, someone who “trades down” voluntarily must have suspicious motivations. She describes how media shows many more mtf people than ftm. I hadn’t noticed, but it is true. Many of the roles with mtf people show them either as succubi seeking to entrap and damage men or as pitiful, funny failures. She cites a bunch of examples that I don’t know. My media experiences are with Orange is the New Black and Transparent. Hopefully that’s a sign of progress in the decade since this book’s publication.

Serano discusses nature versus nurture. Some believe that men are born masculine and women are born feminine (and thus, gender is nature). Some believe that we only exhibit gendered behaviors due to societal influences (and thus, gender is nurture). Serano argues that women are more likely to be feminine and men more likely to be masculine, but with a distribution of traits. In her model, gender expression is like height; on average, men are taller than women, but many individual women are taller than many individual men. Women, on average, gravitate towards stereotypically feminine behaviors like chattiness, but many individual men are more naturally  chatty than many women. Femininity feels natural to most women, and masculinity feels natural to most men, but not all.

Serano talks about the process of seeing herself as transgender. Since childhood, she had experienced feelings that she was a girl. She calls it gender dissonance. She experimented with a lot of different gender expressions, eventually leading her to the trans identity. When she started taking hormones, that felt right. She describes it as her brain believing her body to be female. We don’t fully understand the relationship between brain and body, but to me, this seems similar to the so called “sixth sense” of proprioception, the awareness of one’s body in space.

Serano also discusses the horrifying history of transgender people and medicine. It’s full of icky stuff like doctors rating their patients’ attractiveness, and seeing society’s comfort, rather than their patient’s, as the most important outcome of transition. Trans people were forced to leave home and assume a new life to make others comfortable, meaning that they were forced to leave their families and support networks. Today’s bathroom bills fall into that history of putting society’s discomfort above the health of an individual.

 

THE BAD

The book is a decade old. Although mine is a 2016 second edition, the guts haven’t changed much. Whipping Girl is still super informative, but a decade changes much. For example, DSM V was published in 2013; it’s treatment of transgender issues vary substantially from the DSM IV discussed in the book.

The second half of the book discusses trans theory and feminist theory. Some other reviews of the book suggest that she is unfair to the feminist movement; I have no idea. Still, the first part had a real immediacy that the second part didn’t. It probably would be well-suited to the classroom, but didn’t add much for me as a reader  just wanting to understand a different perspective better.

OVERALL

Whipping Girl is an essential read if you want to understand trans people better. It’s also a great dissection of gender in society. I came away from the book wishing that people could be more supportive of one another. Trans people aren’t bathroom predators, they’re people in a tough spot. We are obsessed with men being men and women being women, and we mostly don’t even notice. Trans people challenge that obsession, and we see that some people would rather punish others than question their assumptions.

Book review: Forty-Seventh Star: New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood (David V. Holtby 2012)

Rating: 3.5/5

David V. Holtby’s Forty-Seventh Star is about New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. The land of New Mexico (mostly) entered the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. (The southernmost chunk of the state was acquired in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase.) New Mexico petitioned for statehood in 1848 and 1850, but waited until 1912 to be admitted into the union. In the intervening 64 years, 15 states joined the union. By contrast, California, also obtained at the end of the Mexican-American War, became a state in 1850 (gold helped); Colorado became a state in 1876. So why was New Mexico’s wait for statehood among the longest?

After reading about the Mexican-American War, I would have guessed racial issues. Even by the time of statehood, New Mexico was not majority Euro-American. Forty-Seventh Star argues for a variety of causes—petty politics at the national level, bad luck, local corruption, incompetent petitioners, and racial and religious issues all contribute.

Forty-Seventh Star is rife with scoundrels of New Mexico. There’s Thomas B. Catron, member of the powerful and corrupt Santa Fe Ring. Catron, “the largest individual landholder in the history of the United States,” fought for statehood on the theory that it would raise land prices; highly indebted, he needed that land to grow in value. Republican Catron was long suspected in the death of Francisco Chávez, the former sherif of Santa Fe and powerful Democrat. Albert B. Fall is another jerk from New Mexico. Most famously, Fall was Warren Harding’s secretary of the interior responsible for the Teapot Dome Scandal, which concerned the corrupt leasing of federal land for oil extraction. Before Teapot Dome, Fall busied himself with shenanigans in New Mexico; for three months, he was the state attorney general until President Roosevelt insisted upon his removal. He also served as a judge, a state representative, and another stint as attorney general. When New Mexico became a state in 1912, the august persons of Catron and Fall became its first two senators.

President Taft and his Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock deserve the most credit at the federal level for bringing statehood to New Mexico. Taft was willing to cajole and convince senators to see his point of view. Roosevelt, who wished for statehood,  didn’t confront senators who opposed admission for political reasons. Taft is not particularly well-remembered today, but the more I read of him, the more interesting he sounds. Taft went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which was his true passion. His passion for the law shows in his handling of New Mexican statehood.

WHY THIS BOOK?

As a new resident of New Mexico, I want to learn more of the history of my new home. I read Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War about the Mexican-American War and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, about the history of water in the west.

THE GOOD

Holtby is the former editor in chief of the University of New Mexico Press. Forty-Seventh Star is a meticulously researched and well-sourced book, relying on primary documents in both English and Spanish. Holtby takes pains to include the Nuevomexicano perspective on statehood, and addresses the lives of natives, blacks, and asians in the territory as well.

There’s a ton of interesting tidbits in Forty-Seventh Star. As I mentioned, there are plenty of 19th century schemers and scoundrels. The role of various federal figures in the fight is interesting as well; there’s McKinley and Roosevelt, each with New Mexican counties named for them, and Taft, who despite bringing statehood has no namesakes in the state. There are senators like Albert Beveridge of Indiana, who hammered against New Mexican corruption not for ethical reasons but for partisan gain. There’s Nelson Aldrich, grandfather of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, Republican Rhode Island senator who had grown tired of his political power being diluted by the admission of often-Democratic western states.

I particularly enjoyed the section of the book devoted to nuevomexicano and minority interests in the territory. We learn about Chinese workers who are smuggled across the border at El Paso in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. We learn about the ghost town of Blackdom, founded by Francis Boyer, as a town for black people in southeastern New Mexico; it’s so lost to history that it doesn’t even appear on my 2 foot by 3 foot map of New Mexican ghost towns. We learn about nuevomexicano settlements in the Rio Puerco Valley, which fulfill McKinley’s exhortation for more people and more irrigation, but probably not with the people he’d imagined.

We also get a peek into turn-of-the-century partisan squabbling. The more American political history I read, the more I understand its ubiquity. The tools and individuals vary, but the goals and motivations are essentially the same.

THE BAD

There is one tremendous flaw in Forty-Seventh Star—it’s hard to read. The timeline is a veritable zig-zag, following one story for three years, then jumping back two years, then following that for 15 years then jumping back 12 years. If I were more familiar with the players of the story, I might not have minded this so much. But one contentious senator in 1894 is much like a contentious senator in 1905 to me. Keeping track of senators and New Mexicans and newspapers and litigants as the narrative zig-zagged across the decades was frustrating. When it came time to summarize this book, I had to review pretty extensively; I ended up having to make a narrative for myself because the author didn’t provide one, he provided several dozen. Holtby is clearly a knowledgable editor and historian; perhaps this is closer to historical academic writing. As a casual reader, it was not a plus.

Contributing to the first flaw, Holtby’s characterizations of the players in his story could be stronger. Scoundrels like Catron and Fall are memorable because Holtby gives them time on the page. I remember little about the more neutral individuals such as Miguel Otero, Solomon Luna, George Curry, and others. Many of Holtby’s quotes come from local newspapers, but again, I had trouble remembering which was which and what they stood for, and thus they blended together.

OVERALL

Forty-Seventh Star is a worthwhile read if you have an interest in statehood, New Mexican history, or historical politics. For these topics, it’s excellent and meticulously researched. Otherwise, it probably isn’t worth reading. I’m glad to have read it, but I’m very glad to be done; it took me over four weeks. This is not a poorly written book, it just lacks a narrative for the novice reader and it covers a variety of really challenging topics.

NM public lands: San Lorenzo Canyon

Of the 121,000 square miles that form New Mexico, roughly 21,000 of them are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. This land gets used a lot of different ways. Some of it is part of national monuments like Tent Rocks or Rio Grande del Norte. Land is leased for grazing, woodcutting, helium production, and oil and gas production. Land is used for hunting and fishing. Western ecologies are fragile and must be managed. Too much grazing and too much plowing lead to broad consequences, as demonstrated by the dust bowl. The BLM manages these uses, working to allow economic use of the lands without exhausting them. When we hiked in Bisti Badlands, we dodged dried cow patties from previous grazing; I was glad we could both use the land.

New Mexico BLM manages several dozen recreation sites, offering rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, camping, and more. Saturday I visited San Lorenzo Canyon, which is near Socorro. We drove several miles up a wash into a canyon. We enjoyed hiking and a little rock climbing. December hiking in New Mexico can be pretty great. See for yourself!