Tag Archives: nonfiction

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.


  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.


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.


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.


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.


Book review: Death in the Haymarket (James Green 2007)

Rating: 5/5

James’ Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America tells the tale of the Haymarket Affair. The introduction gives a peek into the morning of May 5, 1886, the day after the eponymous Haymarket Affair, a bombing that killed seven police officers. The first chapter begins after the death of Lincoln in 1865. We follow the labor movement in Chicago for the next twenty-one years, through massive change and upheaval. Chicago more than quadrupled in size during this time period, burned in 1871, and went through two depressions. Immigrants composed more than 40% of the population during this time, and the industrial revolution led to capitalization and massive changes in labor practices.

Death in the Haymarket contains a lot of startlingly relevant themes: police brutality, terrorism, income inequality, xenophobia, protests that sometimes contain violence, political corruption, and economic turmoil. Interpretations of the Haymarket Affair have swung wildly more than once since they occurred 130 years ago. The Haymarket bombing was the first red scare (at this time, referring to anarchists rather than communists); four men were hung for their connections to the event. Green presents a humanizing thought-provoking narrative that suggests his sympathy to the men of the 1880s labor movement, but gives the reader plenty of tools to come to other conclusions.


I didn’t know anything about the labor movement. I certainly like my 40 hour work week and my safe working conditions, but I didn’t know how they came about. Haymarket doesn’t get into those details, but it certainly demonstrates what a long and bloody fight it was.

Between criticisms of teachers unions, passage of right-to-work legislation, and the increase of anti-employee policies like contractor status and cuts to benefits, we are seeing the erosion of some accomplishments of the labor movement. I knew that people were once passionate about these issues. I wanted to step back into that time. Haymarket fulfilled this goal.


There’s a lot of great stuff to say about Haymarket. It tackles a boatload of complicated topics in a modest 320 pages. It introduces compelling and exciting characters, heros and villains and a lot of in between. It practically follows a novelistic arc; we begin with the optimism of the post Civil War labor movement, followed by political engagement, the suppression of that engagement by monied interests, the radicalization of the movement, the tragedy of police brutalities and slaughters at protests, the retaliation through terrorism, closing with further suppression following the bombing, and regrouping.

Haymarket tells a story of humans through individuals; my favorites were Lucy and Albert Parsons. Albert was orphaned a young age, raised by an enslaved woman, and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War at the age of 15. After the war, he went to Texas as a Republican enacting Reconstruction. There, he married Lucy, who appears and was believed to be African American; she always maintained that she was Native American. Albert worked for a printing press in Texas. Albert lost his job and faced violence numerous times fighting for the rights of freed slaves in Texas. Eventually, he moved to Chicago and fought for the rights of workers. He and Lucy became famed speakers. Lucy continued for over 50 years.

Haymarket tells a story of humans through the immigrant communities; Chicago in the late 1800s was second only to Prague in quantity of Bohemians. My great-grandfather came to this country from Bohemia in the early 1900s and became a coal miner in southern Illinois. These battles affected him. We know nothing of him other than the vague strokes of tragedy that made it to the public records; he was widowed, gave up his children around the time he was declared insane, and died shortly thereafter. Haymarket describes wage earners being slowly squeezed to death in a dehumanizing machine of class warfare. These were the vices that led men to face death for better working conditions.

Haymarket made me wonder how many families suffered tragedies like our family. It made me grateful for what I have today. It was a cautionary tale for how very far there is to fall.


Haymarket introduces a dizzying array of characters. I couldn’t keep track of them all. We meet politicians, police officers, German anarchists, American anarchists, various socialists, wives, rich men, judges, writers and more. Green creates such good characters, and I was annoyed to keep forgetting. A reference would have be really helpful.

Secondly, I found the early chapters spent in the 1860s and 1870s less interesting. They mostly didn’t contain the characters that occupied the later chapters. Although they were really helpful for context later on, they were slow for me.

Finally and most substantially, Green carefully tells how perception of the Haymarket Affair morphed with time, swinging back and forth a couple of times. But although Green is clear about his own contemporary feelings of the events, he does not give voice to other contemporaries. Is Green’s opinion the widely held one? If not, what faults does Green suggest in the evaluations of his contemporaries? We learn that the event is still fraught enough with symbolism that commemoration of the Haymarket Affair remains thorny today. But we also learn that the “Chicago Martyrs,” the men hung for the Haymarket Affair, are still remembered by laborers around the world. Part of understanding an argument is the refutation of counter-arguments; this is absent in Haymarket.


This is a solid, well-written book about a topic you probably don’t know well. As our country debates over the relationship between employer and employee, this glimpse into the past offers insight into today’s arguments. Haymarket is an exciting nonfiction read with a great set of characters and a strong sense of place.

Book review: Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner 1993)

Did you know that the longest waterway in California is man-made? Did you that there’s a 300 mile, $4.7 billion, canal from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson? Did you know that Tennessee’s Tellico Dam was deemed economically unsound even when it was 95% built, but it was still completed? Did you know that two bureaucracies, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, basically waged a war of influence in the west, building scores of unnecessary dams along the way? Over the objections of republican and democratic presidents, western congressmen pushed water projects, trading them like currency, trying to tame the west.

Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert exhaustively covers water management in the west from the late 1800s until its publication in 1986. A brief addendum brings the reader up to 1993. Along the way, he details the good (hydroelectric power surpluses for manufacturing during WW2), the bad (taxpayer subsidy of billions of dollars to wealthy corporate farmers) and the ugly (the failure of the Teton Dam eliminating a valley).

Cadillac Desert encapsulates the ways that US government goes bad when we let ideology stand in for sound economics. It’s a tale of bipartisan conspiracy to fund impractical projects for special interest groups. It’s a tale of ecological Manifest Destiny; if rain doesn’t follow the plow, then sheer spending will irrigate the desert into a new Eden. Cadillac Desert is one of those rare wonderful nonfiction books that reframes the world; I finished reading a week ago and I’m still thinking about it, processing it. Any American knows the term porkbarrel; Cadillac Desert reveals the gears that turn it out. It’s a tale that ought to inspire bipartisan furor—billions of dollars spent ruining pristine rivers and driving people from their homes to subsidize often ill-conceived farming endeavors. Farmers in Wyoming subsidized by millions to grow crops that eastern farmers are paid not to grow. But Cadillac Desert makes clear that water projects, at least until 1986, remained treasured in the south and west, even as they court various ecological calamities.

Reisner convinces the reader of these substantial political accusations through example after damning (damming?) example. He details the manipulations and lies that brought the Owens River water to LA via an aqueduct that had to be built with mules. He details the divvying of the Colorado River water, and the projects dreamt up by Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona simply to maintain claim on those apportions, leaving practicality as an afterthought. He describes the unbuilt Colorado Narrows Dam, which was opposed by the state engineer and water lawyer; it was thought to be in danger of collapse, unable to provide water as claimed, likely to damage ecological sites in Nebraska, and it was still almost built. It would have been five miles long and cost $500 million. For various projects, he describes the ecological effects, the hydroelectric production, the salinity challenges, the water table challenges. Several times, he describes beautiful rafting rapids that have been lost forever, buried under reservoirs. He argues that the best dam sites were all occupied by 1960, and all projects built after that have been increasingly unprofitable, pushed by local interest, horse trading, and bureaucratic power games.

So what about since 1986? Reisner’s afterword brings the reader up to 1993. He suggests that the public appetite for projects had waned. I’ve done my own reading trying to understand sentiment in the following twenty three years.

I don’t know how to compare water project lust in 2016 to 1986 or 1950. Today’s projects seem less federal. As a new westerner, Cadillac Desert was an essential read. For those further east, water management is still a nexus of bureaucracy, pork barrel politics, and ecological damage. For the dams we have today, there are questions of maintenance, updating, or removal. Like our under-maintained bridges and highways, dams are one more massive bill to pay, even if we build nothing new. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, though over twenty years old, is still important and thought provoking in a lot of ways.


Book review: What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? (Neil F. Comins 1993)

What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? is a book that asks just that– what would Earth be like if the ancient collision that led to our present-day moon never happened and the Earth had no moon? Comins, a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Maine, also asks what if the moon was closer, what if the Earth was smaller, what if the Earth was tilted like Uranus, among other questions.

This book is a must-have for science fiction writers interested in writing about other planets. Comins follows through on his initial questions in a way that science fiction enthusiasts will appreciate. If the moon didn’t exist, the moon’s tidal pull wouldn’t exist. Due to the lack of that tidal pull, Earth’s day would be 8 hours long, not 24. Which would cause much stronger winds and storms. And the tides would be lower. Which would impede the transition of  life from water to land. And that life would have to adapt to the windy, stormy short days. Would that life develop hearing, with all that wind? Would plants opt for low-surface-area needles instead of broad leaves? Assuming humans developed, how would early man tell time without a lunar cycle? Would this influence man’s scientific development? Comins asks and suggests answers to all of these questions. It’s exciting food for thought, and it made me want to go dream up worlds of my own.

What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? is over twenty years old now. I expect some of the science in it may be outdated (none that I actually noticed, but given the advances in planetary science since 1993, it seems likely). However, the logic the book employs is sound, and I still found it very stimulating. And in researching this post, I discovered two more recent books my Comins: What If the Earth Had Two Moons? written in 2011 and The Hazards of Space Travel: A Tourist’s Guide written in 2007. They seem similar in tenor and I expect to like them too.

Book review: The Electric Life of Michael Faraday (Alan Hirshfeld 2006)

Rating: 5/5

Michael Faraday is the man who showed that light, electricity, and magnetism were interconnected forces. The farad is named after him; you know a scientist is important when they’ve got their own unit. He had no formal math training or university education. He made his discoveries through dogged experimentation, humility, and curiosity. And because he was the son of a blacksmith, he almost didn’t even get the chance.

The Electric Life of Michael Faraday is an excellent professional biography of Faraday*. Hirshfeld, a physicist, details Faraday’s motivations in addition to his discoveries. We learn about the books, people and thoughts that motivated Faraday. We see how Faraday coped with the endless failures that precede an experimental success. We also see how Faraday fought for his ideas against the incorrect prevailing notions of the day. We get all this in a compact and readable 200 pages. (The Cosmos episode “The Electric Boy”, covers many of the facts of Faraday’s life, though less of the motivation, and is and excellent companion to this book. And it’s free to stream on Netflix!)

The way we are taught science as children is so different from the way science comes into being. For example, the power of the electron was harnessed well before it was discovered in 1897. Volta invented the battery in 1800; the dynamo, which converted mechanical energy into electricity, was built in 1832. Scientists like Humphry Davy isolated and named elements decades and centuries before we had any idea what made elements different. When a scientist does science today, they also have incomplete information. We learn science as a set of facts and rules, rather than the procedures for learning those facts and rules. The Electric Life excellently illustrates the difference. This book, accompanied with some simple experiments and videos, could make a rich and beautiful teaching example.

Hirshfeld also touches on a social issue that’s as relevant today as it was in Faraday’s time: scientific literacy. Speaking about the Victorian pseudoscience of table-moving, Faraday said

I do not object to table-moving itself… though a very unpromising subject for experiment; but I am opposed to the unwillingness of its advocates to investigate; their boldness to assert; the credulity of the lookers-on; their desire that the reserved and cautious objector should be in error; and I wish, by calling attention to these things, to make the general want of mental discipline and education manifest.

In Faraday’s day, there was no science education. Today, I would argue that while we teach scientific fact, we still don’t teach enough scientific reasoning. The above statement could apply to vaccines, global warming, GMOs, evolution, among others.

I would have liked to learn more about Faraday’s personal life. We learn almost nothing about Faraday’s wife Sarah, or anyone else in his family, or whether he even had children (he didn’t). But again, the book is short, and does such a good job with its chosen issues that this is more of an observation than a criticism.

I whole heartedly recommend this book to anyone, scientist or not. You’ll learn about an interesting man of history. You’ll learn how science happens now and two centuries ago. And I think you’ll simply enjoy it.

* I should note that my copy was an advance reading copy from a used book store, so it may vary from the final book in small details.

Book Review: Train (Tom Zoellner 2014)

Rating: 3/5

In Train, author Tom Zoellner rides the rails of the world. He discusses the history, the current state, and the future of rail. Growing up in suburban St. Louis, I rarely saw trains. Now I live 100 feet from active rail tracks and walk along them every day. I take the Amtrak to DC and Baltimore and New York. This summer, I went to the O. Winston Link rail photography museum in Roanoke, Virginia. So I was eager to learn more about the history of rail– such a backbone to our economy, but often viewed as an anachronism.

I was disappointed by Train. It was a pleasant enough read; I didn’t have trouble turning the pages as I basked at the pool. But it felt like junk food.

At its best, the book gave interesting perspectives on the psychology of rail: how we have stories of hero sea captains, drivers, and pilots, but not of train conductors. That we both love and hate the rail, such an engine of commerce, but also hugely representative of collectivism that’s been dominated by robber barons.

I enjoyed the chapters on foreign rail much more than the ones about the U.S. and Britain. The chapter on India was fascinating and horrifying. Some rails in India corrode ten times faster than normal because the tracks are constantly covered in human excrement. This is because the trains don’t have storage tanks for the toilets, but also because people living by the tracks preferentially potty on the tracks.  As you can imagine, the job to replace the tracks isn’t nice; Zoellner’s conversations with the workers are interesting. Zoellner suggests that India wouldn’t be a single country without the railways installed by the British. This chapter solidified my view that I would rather read about India than visit it.

Overall, too much of the text was devoted to Zoellner’s conversations with random train passengers, upon which he congratulated himself loudly and often. I didn’t care about the guy taking the train to West Virginia hoping to find work in a coal mine, nor did I care about the young man reuniting with his estranged mother. I would have tolerated some of this, but the chapter on American rails was a bloated 90 pages, compared to 30 pages each for Russia, China, and Peru. The chapter on America wasn’t more informative; it was more pointless. The chapter on Britain was also packed full of useless conversations.

When I was preparing to write this review, I noticed that Zoellner is an English professor. And that’s what the book feels like: an English professor waxing nostalgic about the majestic railways and their heroic riders, with sprinklings of historic details. I hoped to read something more focused on history. Train passes the time nicely, but I found it unsatisfying. Maybe it would be a better read for someone who already knows the history and wants to read the stylish praises of another rail enthusiast.