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Where the Wild Things Are

CBR_Logo2City Creatures
Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness
by Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian (Eds.)

Parakeets in Hyde Park, skunks on the Northwest side, alewives in Lake Michigan, bison in Batavia, frogs in Wheaton … city slickers and suburbanites might not often think about the various flora and fauna that call the country’s third-largest metropolitan area home. But home the area is, to myriad species large and small, common and uncommon.

city creatures 9780226192895In more than a hundred essays, poems, photographs, illustrations, and stories, editors Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian have amassed a thoughtful collection of musings on the wilderness that is Chicagoland. From Evanston to Oak Park to Wheaton, from the Calumet River to Lake Michigan to Bubbly Creek, the vastness of the natural beauty in and around Chicago is described lovingly and at times reverentially. From the quotidian—squirrels, sparrows, wasps—to the unusual—coyote, wolves, rattlesnakes—the many contributors to this collection share stories and experiences that mark the Chicago area as one rich in wildlife for those who take the time to notice it.

In these pages, readers will learn about strange experiences with opossum, odd coincidences with dogs, and almost-mystical encounters with hawks. They’ll learn about taxidermy and frog monitoring and urban insect collecting. Throughout these pages, readers are afforded an opportunity to look at Chicago in a different way, to look beyond the concrete, glass, and steel, to look up from their smartphones, cast their gaze beyond mobile devices, and see the wild world that exists around them, from the tiniest mite to migrating birds to stealthy mammals who sneak around city streets in the middle of the night.

The pieces in this collection ask us to pause for a moment and consider our relationship in, among, and to the natural world that surrounds us. As Nora Moore Lloyd writes in her essay “Visits From a Messenger,” we, every day, have the chance to consider our connection with the creatures around us as a gift:
“… especially those brought by animals and other beings in the natural world—[such gifts] often also offer a lesson, and can arrive unexpectedly. Moreover, the recipient of a gift also has a responsibility to try to understand the message or lesson that it brings.”

We can, for instance, treat the sighting of a coyote walking down the driveway as a potential menace, a nuisance that threatens our domesticated pets. Or we can consider such a sighting as a gift of wonder, of a fortunate connection to the mystery that is nature, as many onlookers recently did with the sighting of a coyote who had taken up residence in an empty lot in Streeterville.

Each piece in this collection is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Some essays are more lyrical than others, some more academic than others, but all of them are honest, and it’s clear that the contributors have crafted their entries with care and love. Poems, photographs, and illustrations break up the essays, some of which are rather long. As with any collection, the pieces come together in a mixed bag—some pieces will be loved by readers, some not. Not every entry will be of interest to every reader (reading about bison—cool! about mites—not so much. But maybe that’s just me.). Either way, as a whole City Creatures is a feast for the senses. It is an unusual, unexpected tour through Chicagoland, proffered by docents clearly in love with the natural world that surrounds us. It provides a view of the city and suburbs that is all too often easily overlooked, and, as such, it is a gift in and of itself.

Three-Star Review

October 2015, University of Chicago Press
Local Interest/Science & Nature
$30, hardcover, 377 pages
ISBN: 978-0-226-19289-5

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


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Picture Perfect Focus on Polaroid

CBR_Logo2A Triumph of Genius:
Edwin Land, Polaroid,
and the Kodak Patent War
by Ronald K. Fierstein

In an era when selfies are ubiquitous and everyone is taking pictures on all manner of mobile devices and posting them instantaneously for the world to see, it might be difficult for readers of a certain age to identify with the wonder that was the Polaroid.

But it wasn’t so long ago that photos were developed on film, requiring a trip to the drug store and a matter of days before a batch of prints revealed what images the photographer captured. For Edwin Land, that wait was excruciatingly too long. One imagines that he would have loved digital cameras, smart phones, other mobile devices, and all the various apps that today function as photographers’ tools (even if, as it happened, the company he launched failed to keep up with changing technology). Alas, that technology would be years in the future, and so Land instead had to triumph of geniusfocus on the science and technology of his day and age in order to bring one-step photography to life.

The Polaroid camera, which to many today is a relic of anachronistic kitsch, was at the time of its invention a true wonder, an awe-inspiring invention that rocked the worlds of science, technology, photography, and business. Polaroid and Edwin Land were in the twentieth century what Apple and Steve Jobs became in the twenty-first.

Ronald Fierstein relates the amazing and captivating story of Land and Polaroid in A Triumph of Genius, which is a work of near genius in its own right. Tightly written and thoroughly researched, this wide-ranging book is a true page-turner, full of tension and emotion.

Fierstein, who as a young lawyer with the law firm of Fish & Neave worked on the “epic patent battle” between Polaroid and Eastman Kodak, provides keen insight into both companies, the people behind them, the inventions that catapulted them to success and fame, and the protracted legal fight that pitted the two companies—once collaborators—against each other.

A Triumph of Genius looks at Land’s tireless inventive spirit, which drove him to secure 535 patents during the course of his life, second at the time only to Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson. It looks at the evolution of photography, an evolution in which Land, a brilliant, reclusive man, was instrumental. It looks at the roles science and technology played in that evolution. It also looks at the business of Polaroid and of Eastman Kodak, both of which were at the forefront of the science, technology, and business of photography. And, then, it looks at the connection between Polaroid and Kodak and the patent lawsuit that destroyed their relationship.

Much is at play in this riveting story, and Fierstein handles it all deftly and with panache. A skilled writer, he lays the foundation with a look at Land’s early life and career. He carefully explains in understandable terms the science and technology behind Land’s inventions and related patents. He provides a balanced view of the relationship between Polaroid and Kodak. And he clearly outlines the legal issues that resulted in a landmark patent case that still resonates today.

ronald fierstein

Author Ronald K. Fierstein

As an insider on Polaroid’s legal team during the battle that ultimately lasted well more than a decade (Polaroid first filed suit against Kodak in 1976; Kodak finally settled, for $925 million, in 1991), Fierstein could easily have focused solely on that company’s experience. Instead, A Triumph of Genius provides a balanced view, sharing insight and information from both sides of the legal battle. Fierstein could easily have portrayed Land as an amicable genius who, in trying to protect his intellectual property, was forced to go after big, bad Kodak. Instead, he shows Land not only as a genius but as someone who could be abrasive, thoughtless, and relentlessly determined. Although told mostly from Polaroid’s point of view, it is clear that Fierstein has done much to be as balanced and objective as possible. As a result, the material feels even-handed, even while engendering sympathy for Polaroid, which was clearly the underdog in this David-and-Goliath story.

Although a truly remarkable book, it is not without a few minor flaws. Some of the descriptions of the science and technology behind the various inventions and patents at issue can feel like dense minutiae and are skimmable without losing much meat. Too, some of the author’s attempts to add contemporary context to the story can feel a little clunky, as when he writes, “America was a troubled and distracted country in early 1971. Richard Nixon was starting the third year of his first term as president and continued to pursue the war in Vietnam rigorously. Protest grew …” and continues on for a lengthy paragraph before concluding with “It was in this environment that Edwin Land continued to work toward realizing his almost thirty-year quest to provide the world with the ultimate instant photography system.”

However, these are but minor quibbles in such an engaging story, especially for one with such a wide scope. A Triumph of Genius spans nearly a century and covers myriad topics. Readers with an interest in business, history, law, photography, science, or technology will find much of interest in these pages. This nuanced, absorbing book reveals a story with lasting implications and enduring lessons. It is as multifaceted as Edwin Land, the reclusive genius, was himself.

Four-Star Review

February 2015, Ankerwycke/ABA Publishing
$35, hardcover, 640 pages
ISBN: 978-1-62722-769-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen
(it should be noted that the reviewer once worked at ABA Publishing, although she does not know the author)

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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

Learn more about the book.

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

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