Lavers makes an elegant, colorful guide to the unicorn’s myth, marvel and the ties that have bound it to human progress.

THE NATURAL HISTORY OF UNICORNS

Lavers (Natural History/Univ. of Nottingham; Why Elephants Have Big Ears: Understanding Patterns of Life on Earth, 2001) ingeniously tracks the myth-making of the unicorn, a 2,500-year “windy road with many charming vistas, and many strange ones.”

The author seeks “to say a few things about the unicorn that have not been said before…to draw attention to the myth’s natural history.” He begins with Ctesias of Cnidus, a Greek physician who resided in Persia in the middle of the first millennium BCE. Ctesias gave us the first written description of the unicorn we have come to know. Building on Ctesias’s account, Lavers looks at the Indian rhino, kiang, onager, yak, oryx and the chiru of Tibet (“How appropriate that the spiritual home of the unicorn is Shangri-La”)—by most measures, creatures as magical as the unicorn—fashioning the chimera from the various fauna at his disposal. It is an enjoyable natural-history detective story, in which the unicorn becomes a symbol with weighty medical, political, erotic and religious associations. Lavers follows the creature through Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata and the Bible (including the work of Bishop Ambrose of Milan, in whose hands “a Jewish cow gradually metamorphosed into a symbol of Christ”), and examines its role in medieval tapestries and the Psalters. The author then moves on to the unicorn’s secular career as a prestige gift and Romanticism’s antidote to the confining rationalism of the Enlightenment. Lavers’s enthusiasm is infectious and nicely tempered, even when he is off on a wild-goose chase, as in his discussion of Baron Friedrich von Wurmb’s African misadventure in 1791 or the excitements bestirred by 19th-century explorers that were a poor cloak for colonial interests.

Lavers makes an elegant, colorful guide to the unicorn’s myth, marvel and the ties that have bound it to human progress.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-06-087414-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2009

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A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLES' HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

Custer died for your sins. And so, this book would seem to suggest, did every other native victim of colonialism.

Inducing guilt in non-native readers would seem to be the guiding idea behind Dunbar-Ortiz’s (Emerita, Ethnic Studies/California State Univ., Hayward; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, 2005, etc.) survey, which is hardly a new strategy. Indeed, the author says little that hasn’t been said before, but she packs a trove of ideological assumptions into nearly every page. For one thing, while “Indian” isn’t bad, since “[i]ndigenous individuals and peoples in North America on the whole do not consider ‘Indian’ a slur,” “American” is due to the fact that it’s “blatantly imperialistic.” Just so, indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by a “colonialist settler-state” (the very language broadly applied to Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians today) and then “displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated”—after, that is, having been forced to live in “concentration camps.” Were he around today, Vine Deloria Jr., the always-indignant champion of bias-puncturing in defense of native history, would disavow such tidily packaged, ready-made, reflexive language. As it is, the readers who are likely to come to this book—undergraduates, mostly, in survey courses—probably won’t question Dunbar-Ortiz’s inaccurate assertion that the military phrase “in country” derives from the military phrase “Indian country” or her insistence that all Spanish people in the New World were “gold-obsessed.” Furthermore, most readers won’t likely know that some Ancestral Pueblo (for whom Dunbar-Ortiz uses the long-abandoned term “Anasazi”) sites show evidence of cannibalism and torture, which in turn points to the inconvenient fact that North America wasn’t entirely an Eden before the arrival of Europe.

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0040-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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