Nonfiction: Economic Inventions, False Confessions, Natural Philosophy, Punk Rock Women, Jewel Heist | Xpress Reviews

Week ending October 20, 2017

Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art. Historicana. Oct. 2017. 240p. ed. by Irvin Ungar. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781911282082. $54.95. FINE ARTS
This volume includes adulatory but not terribly perceptive essays by Michael Berenbaum (Sigi Ziering Inst., American Jewish Univ.), Tom L. Freudenheim (American Federation of Art); blogger Steven Heller; and art historian James Kettlewell and a lengthy retrospective of artworks by the artist. Polish-born, then naturalized American citizen Arthur Szyk (1894–1951) is best known for his political cartooning during World War II and for his intricately worked miniatures, which in composition and choice of color mirror medieval painting and illuminated manuscripts. A prolific worker, he illustrated biblical stories, literary classics, and panels praising American and world heroes such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Simón Bolivar. The four essayists argue for Szyk’s greatness, but it isn’t apparent in his featured work, which is overcrowded, overfussy, and, for someone whose stated goal was to attack social wrongs, overly allegorical. He was certainly no Daumier or Grosz, not even a Ben Shahn. In tastes and style, he seems a closer match to Norman Rockwell, a competent draftsman and part of our history who was severely limited as a creator.
Verdict This is a lot of money to spend on a second-rate artist, no matter how popular he once was.—David Keymer, Cleveland

Harford, Tim. Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy. Riverhead. Aug. 2017. 336p. notes. index. ISBN 9780735216136. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780735216150. ECON
Journalist and economist Harford (The Undercover Economist) strikes again with easy-to-understand economics in this exploration of inventions that impacted our modern system. While his list does include some of the usual suspects, e.g., robots, paper money, and batteries, Harford also examines the contributions of innovations including seller feedback, tax havens, and the Billy bookcase (a flat-pack bookcase sold by IKEA). The inventions are organized thematically, and the author discusses the role and impact of each with his signature humor and simplicity. The book is anything but dry, and Harford connects the social, technological, and economic aspects of these concepts that have changed modern life and, in effect, have shaped the economy. Harford concludes with a look at the lightbulb, as an innovation in itself, but also as a platform for future creativity.
Verdict A great book for the general reader as well as for those with a background in business or economics.—Elizabeth Nelson, McHenry Cty. Coll. Lib., Crystal Lake, IL

Lowenstein, Thomas. The Trials of Walter Ogrod: The Shocking Murder, So-Called Confessions, and Notorious Snitch That Sent a Man to Death Row. Chicago Review. Apr. 2017. 368p. photos. notes. ISBN 9781613738016. $28.99; ebk. ISBN 9781613738047. CRIME
Journalist Lowenstein (founder, New Orleans Journalism Project), whose own father was murdered when the author was a child, originally intended this unique book that looks at false confessions to be about the death penalty from the viewpoint of all involved on both sides. The case he chose was the murder of a four-year-old girl who went missing one summer afternoon in 1988 from her own neighborhood in Philadelphia. Later that same day, her dead body was recovered nearby. The police investigated, yet it was years later, in 1992, that a suspect named Walter Ogrod was arrested and put on trial. What follows is a quagmire of a drawn-out case that ends up before a jury not once but twice, after an initial mistrial. Ogrod, the suspect, ultimately gets convicted and is still in jail, but the writer makes the argument that this is a case of a false confession and poor police work.
Verdict An important volume about how the criminal justice system does and doesn’t function.—Krista Bush, Shelton, CT

Maxwell, Nicholas. In Praise of Natural Philosophy: A Revolution for Thought and Life. McGill-Queen’s Univ. Mar. 2017. 352p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780773549029. $110; pap. ISBN 9780773549036. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9780773549050. PHIL
Per Maxwell (emeritus, philosophy, Univ. Coll., London), the road from early modern natural philosophy to the empirical physical sciences took a wrong turn with Isaac Newton: the famous scientist boldly—and incorrectly—stated that science was purely objective and owed no debt to philosophical metaphysical assumptions. Despite modern science’s astonishing ability to produce great technological wonders, it fails to account for value, the good, and thus to help direct humans toward the kind of society science could help create. Maxwell calls for a revolutionary return to natural philosophy in which science replaces “standard empiricism” with an “aim-oriented empiricism” that aims toward ever more satisfying comprehensions of reality and toward the good, a good rooted in philosophical awareness of its metaphysical assumptions and values. The revolution is both partially happening (as he admits) and unlikely to come from his own manifesto. While Maxwell presents an engaging summation of his work over the decades, he is too much in dialog with his past output, insufficiently engaged with other philosophical traditions (pragmatism; process), and unacknowledged by scientists who want to see mathematical equations to substantiate his speculations in quantum theory.
Verdict Recommended for philosophical and scientific enthusiasts.—Steve Young, McHenry Cty. Coll., Crystal Lake, IL

Russo, Stacy. We Were Going To Change the World: Interviews with Women from the 1970s and 1980s Southern California Punk Rock Scene. Santa Monica. Sept. 2017. 312p. photos. index. ISBN 9781595800923. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781595807953. MUSIC
In interviews, 37 women recall their connection to 1970s and 1980s punk rock in southern California. Russo (library technology, Santa Ana Coll.; Life as Activism: June Jordan’s Writings from The Progressive; The Library as Place in California) skillfully elicits candid stories and reminiscences of the punk scene: the how and why of their involvement, the music and the groups (from the Dead Kennedys to Black Flag), memorable clubs and events, political and social attitudes, and the lasting impact of this youthful experience. All felt a sense of belonging, empowerment, freedom, and creativity. However, the scene’s darker side, including substance abuse, gave them much to contemplate. Russo wisely chooses a cross-section of women and allows them to speak for themselves: performers (Alice Bag, Phranc), journalists (Kristine McKenna), photographers (Ann Summa), fanzine writers/creators (Kathy Rodgers), and audience members. Although personalities and individual perspectives differ, together they present a richly textured whole. In a thoughtful and well-written introduction, Russo defines the scope and components of her project—a fine preamble to this sensitive account of the punk rock phenomenon that also reflects the larger social fabric of the time.
Verdict Those who are familiar with punk rock will find this work absorbing and illuminating as will musical, cultural, and women’s studies historians. A foreword by musician Mike Watt (fIREHOSE, the Minutemen), photos, and a helpful glossary nicely supplement the text.—Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ

Simone, Daniel with Nick Sacco. The Pierre Hotel Affair: How Eight Gentleman Thieves Orchestrated the Largest Jewel Heist in History. Pegasus. May 2017. 408p. ISBN 9781681774022. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681774701. CRIME
Simone (coauthor, The Lufthansa Heist), along with lone surviving thief Sacco, tells the story of the robbery at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan in 1972 that netted nearly $28 million in cash, bonds, and jewelry. These thieves were very conscientious and actually called 911 to have an ambulance show up during the robbery to save a hostage from having a heart attack, although none of the emergency crews noticed an actual robbery taking place. The oddities of the theft itself, which were numerous, along with the nearly instantaneous betrayal afterward, leading to murdering one another, bribing a judge, and heading to Europe, make this a fantastic concept for a book. Simone’s narrative nonfiction work, though, is decimated by the strange, invented dialog that pulls the reader away from the story line. To make matters worse, much of the dialog is inappropriately sexual and misogynistic. Nearly all references to women relegate them to a figure with “cans” or “meaty thighs” wanting to have sex with the men of the story.
Verdict For fans of real-life burglary stories, jewel heists, and true crime addicts.—Jason L. Steagall, Gateway Technical Coll. Lib., Elkhorn, WI

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