Tag Archives: biography

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.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Invention of Everything Else (Samantha Hunt 2008)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 5/5

I absolutely adored “The Invention of Everything Else”. I’ve always meant to read more histories and biographies than I do, but sometimes they can be dry. This book, in many ways, is a fictional biography of Tesla, a famously eccentric inventor who first pioneered AC electricity and radio. To learn more about Tesla, check out this awesome Oatmeal cartoon, which has a lot more detail than I’ll include here. The book also has rich and lovely descriptions about historic New York City. And most of all, this book is a romance of eccentric people, whom I feel get far less respect than they deserve. The characters are pigeon-enthusiasts and hoarders and dreamers and inventors.

The book opens with Tesla as a very old man, broke and largely forgotten. He was a brilliant inventor, but not a businessman like Edison. He lives in a dreamlike state, remembering past glories and failures, and seeking his beloved white pigeon (see the Oatmeal cartoon). The other main character of the story is Louisa, a young vibrant woman who works at Tesla’s hotel. She likes to listen to radio dramas and to study people, so she is naturally fascinated by Tesla. Over the book, we learn a lot about Tesla and Louisa as they orbit one another.

The language of this book is wonderful. The descriptive passages evoked touchable images in my head although the descriptions were fairly brief. I could imagine being in bygone New York, and the distractions and wonders of the characters in that setting. The dirtiness of it, and the perpetual motion of it. Here is a quote from the first chapter that captures some of the loveliness of the language:

“Drawer #42. It sticks and creaks with the weather. This is the drawer where I once thought I’d keep all my best ideas. It contains only some cracked peanut shells. It is too dangerous to write my best ideas down. ‘Whoops. Wrong drawer. Whoops.’ I repeat the word. It’s one of my favorites. If it were possible I’d store ‘Whoops’ in the safe by my bed, along with ‘OK’ and ‘Sure thing’ and the documents that prove that I am officially an American citizen.”

If you are a lover of hard science fiction, this one might not be for you. The genre of this book is subtle, with the fantasy element of dreaming maybe most prominent. It seemed like every character in this book took a jump off of something, imagining they could fly. But if you love characters and setting and eccentricity, then you should like it. I loved it, and I really recommend it.

Beautiful Books: “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie”

I first saw “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” in an expat bookstore in Belgium. The book is vibrant and colorful and intriguing. After I got back, the book was still on my mind, and I purchased it. The book is an art-collage biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, and their Nobel-prize winning work on radiation. Their work is so influential that they named several elements (radium and polonium). A unit of radioactivity, a Curie, bears their name, and the element Curium was named for them.

Every page of this book is truly beautiful. The colors are deep and wonderful. Somewhere in the book, the author describes the techniques she used, and how they were specifically inspired by radioactivity, but I have not found this description on the web. This book is much more beautiful than most graphic novels, and I love that it is about science. The book makes Marie Curie especially relatable. She’s still the most famous female scientist a century after her great discoveries. She comes across as driven but human.

Here, then, is the big caveat in my review. The author relates a mostly negative view of radioactivity and nuclear advances. The damage to Marie and Pierre’s bodies, as well as their daughter, is given in detail. The bombing of Japan, the three-mile island incident, and Chernobyl are covered in great detail.

I found it incredibly saddening reading about Marie Curie, the most recognized female scientist perhaps ever, and then to read essentially a condemnation of the outcomes of her work. I also think this condemnation was unfair. To write the story of coal or gasoline would be to include tales of mesothelioma, ground water pollution, and air pollution bad enough in many parts of the century as to blot out the sun. The motors of wind power require mining for difficult-to-acquire materials, which comes from messy mining. No form of power comes without its evils just yet. That’s why we have scientists like the Curies, to keep stabbing away at the problem. Nuclear energy frightens people more than other forms of energy, but I think this is mostly an irrational fear. A simple Geiger counter reveals any stray radiation. Do you know when there are trace amounts of benzene about (a common hydrocarbon in oil)? Or other carcinogens? Hundreds of Superfund sites exist across the USA, many of them from hydrocarbon contamination. These sites can take decades to remediate.

Nonetheless, this book is beautiful and worth reading. The writing about Marie and Pierre Curie as people was wonderful. For those unfamiliar with the science of radioactivity, perhaps it will be a more inspiring read than it was for me.