Monthly Archives: February 2015

Weeds Are Flowers, Too

CBR_Logo2Weeds of North America
by Richard Dickinson and France Royer

Weeds are often ignored or despised for ruining manicured lawns, well-tended flower beds, and carefully planned vegetable patches, but many gardeners recognize weeds as plants just growing in the wrong place. Some “weeds” are beneficial, for instance, to bees or butterflies. Yet many weeds nevertheless create problems in specific situations. Richard Dickinson and France Royer have brought together more than 1,200 stunning color photographs in their encyclopedic reference Weeds of North America in order to help identify the species of most concern right now while also capturing their surprising beauty.

weeds north america ucp 9780226076447This hefty reference volume by the University of Chicago Press features “600 species from 69 plant families” chosen on the basis of current “state weed legislation.” The selection method underscores the aim of the book, which is to assist those working in agriculture, livestock farming, or horticultural industries. Nevertheless, amateur gardeners may well enjoy this book too, packed as it is with photographs, illustrations, and useful information. Plenty of the plants mentioned appear in suburban gardens. Nontechnical terms have been used “whenever possible,” and written entries are concise and accessible.

The initial section includes a basic guide to trees and shrubs, vines and climbing plants, herbaceous land plants (by far the largest segment), aquatic plants, and grasses and grasslike plants. The bulk of the book is given to striking, full-page photographs with family and species descriptions. Readers may learn, for example, that plains delphinium (larkspur) is poisonous to cattle, that the roots of lantana release toxins to kill off other plants, or that garlic mustard can give an unpleasant odor to the milk of cattle that eat it. Drawings are scattered throughout with attention given to various stages of growth. The glossary includes simple line drawings to help show the key parts of each plant, whether a bract, an auricle, a panicle, or an umbel, etc. An index to common and scientific names also is helpful.

Although the book will prove invaluable to many, some readers may find themselves wishing for more commentary. Weed management strategies are not discussed here. No remarks are made on conflicts between human industries and wildlife. For instance, milkweed is described as a host for viruses detrimental to cucumbers, strawberries, and tobacco; its “silky hairs” are “reported to plug intakes on farm machinery.” But no mention is made of milkweed’s importance to Monarch butterflies, whose population has declined dangerously low levels. Likewise, Johnny Jump Ups are listed as a cause for concern, but their presence at nurseries is not at issue. This is not a flaw in the book, but merely a sign of its focus. Readers are taught to identify particular species of current interest and to understand the basic elements of their biology. This is an ambitious identification guide laid out in the clearest possible terms.

One last group of potential readers who might enjoy Weeds of North America should perhaps be mentioned—namely, artists and designers. The book’s gorgeous color photographs of often overlooked plants make it a valuable resource for anyone wishing to incorporate unusual floral motifs into their work.

Four-Star Review

September 2014, University of Chicago Press
Science & Nature/Gardening
$35, paperback, 656 pages
ISBN: 978-0226076447

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

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Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”
—A. A. Milne


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Suburban Goodfellas and Godfathers

CBR_Logo2The Neighborhood Outfit:
Organized Crime in Chicago Heights
by Louis Corsino

The pairing “Chicago crime” is one so common it rolls off the tongue without hesitation. Not that it’s a cliché entirely without merit: Although today one might think of rampant shootings on the South and West sides, Chicago has been associated with epidemic levels of crime for a century if not longer, thanks in large part to Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio.

Of course, crime stretches well beyond the city’s borders, clawing forth in all directions, its twisted fingers reaching into the suburbs and beyond. One of the suburbs perhaps most associated with crime, particularly the type of organized crime usually associated with Capone and Torrio, is Chicago Heights.

corsino outfit 9780252080296North Central College professor Louis Corsino, a product of Chicago Heights himself, looks into the history of organized crime in his hometown in The Neighborhood Outfit, an examination of a small but integral part of the larger Chicago Outfit, the notorious branch of the American Mafia that ran bootlegged booze, drugs, guns, and women.

But beyond a mere history of the Chicago Heights connection to the Outfit, Corsino focuses in on the “boys” who ran the neighborhood, particularly the Italian immigrants who made Chicago Heights their home. Corsino, whose own family history is linked to the Outfit, looks at the connection between Italians and organized crime, using Chicago Heights as the sample for his study and examining the cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social forces that drove the Italian residents of Chicago Heights toward illicit activity. In doing so, he relies on a variety of sources, including first-person interviews, government documents, contemporary newspaper accounts, and family history to explore the connection between community, culture, and crime.

The Neighborhood Outfit is less a history of gang violence in Chicago Heights than it is a study of Italian Americans in that suburb and the perception that they somehow have an inherent predilection to organized crime. As such, the focus in the pages of this study is less on the notion of Chicago Heights as a breeding ground for criminal behavior than it is on the question of whether Italian immigrants in particular have been predisposed to living lives of vice.

In studying these questions, Corsino looks at the evolution of the Italian community in Chicago Heights, focusing primarily on the twentieth century. He provides a historical overview of organized crime in the suburb; an examination of cultural, social, and structural constraints that particularly affected Italian immigrants; and a broader discussion of the interrelationship between ethnicity and organized crime.

Corsino’s treatment of the topic hovers somewhere between an academic thesis and a popular study. At times the text reads like an objective dissertation; at others it feels like a more personal narrative. Various data-filled tables and charts are interspersed with black-and-white photographs from the early 1900s. As such, it’s difficult to tell who the author’s intended audience is: scholars and academics? amateur enthusiasts of organized crime or local history?

In the end, the book leans toward the more serious end of the spectrum: Readers looking for a rollicking history of Chicago Heights’s colorful past will not find it in these pages. Rather, The Neighborhood Outfit is a sociological study peppered with some interesting personal anecdotes. It’s more textbook than theater, which might dissuade fans of The Godfather or Goodfellas. But for those looking for a well-researched social history of a microcosm of organized crime, The Neighborhood Outfit is an informative, nuanced study that raises some interesting questions.

Two-Star Review

December 2014, University of Illinois Press
$25, paperback, 157 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-08029-6

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Read a Q&A with the author.

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