Animal lore and history have rarely been treated so delightfully.




A lively account of how exotic animals have helped further the political ends of princes and potentates, from the Ptolemys to Chairman Mao.

“In our world of easy travel and global media,” writes Belozerskaya (Luxury Arts of the Renaissance, not reviewed), “we tend to take [exotic animals] for granted.” It was not always thus. Alexandria’s Ptolemy Philadelphus sponsored arduous and costly expeditions to capture war elephants, camels, bears, giraffes, even a two-horned white rhinoceros, to demonstrate his resourcefulness and intimidate rivals. Pompey the Great personally financed stupendous death matches in the Roman arena featuring leopards, baboons and rhinos, seeking to wow the crowd. (Politically tone deaf, he approved the slaughter of a group of terrified, howling elephants that had unexpectedly won the spectators’ sympathy.) Lorenzo the Magnificent brought honor to his Florentine family by arranging a trade agreement with Egypt, from whose sultan he received a giraffe that inspired a sensation throughout Renaissance Italy and further enhanced Medici prestige. Almost contemporaneously, Montezuma demonstrated his power by maintaining a menagerie comprising creatures drawn from the far reaches of the vast Aztec empire. Later, Cortés would use these same jaguars, ocelots, monkeys, parrots and armadillos to dazzle the Spanish court and shore up his tottering position as governor of New Spain. With his aviaries, menagerie and cabinet of natural-history specimens, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II turned 16th-century Prague into an intellectual capital. The Empress Josephine achieved the same for Paris under Napoleon, filling the grounds of her chateau in Malmaison with plants, birds and animals from all over the world. Media mogul William Randolph Hearst channeled his emotional neediness, political disappointment and genuine love of animals into his San Simeon estate, creating the most extensive private zoo of the 20th century. Belozerskaya acknowledges that her perspective on long-ago events could be viewed as overly precious, but these intriguing and little-known stories easily justify themselves.

Animal lore and history have rarely been treated so delightfully.

Pub Date: Aug. 21, 2006

ISBN: 0-316-52565-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2006

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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.


A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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