The Medici Giraffe [And Other Tales of Exotic Animals and Power], authored by Marina Belozerskaya and released a few weeks ago, is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It's billed as a primer about the role animals have played throughout the ages in the rise and fall of political fortunes and even civilizations, but it's really a history book that uses exotic birds and mammals as hooks to get the reader engaged in business to which he or she would never otherwise give a second thought.
Each of the seven stories deals with a specific period of history and a discrete set of characters -- beginning with Alexander's quest 300 years before the birth of Christ to acquire elephants to cement his war strategy and ending with publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst's acquisition of more exotic animals for his San Simeon estate than most zoos of the time could boast -- and each does have its fair share of animal-related plotlines. But with few exceptions, the animals are peripheral to the main stories.
That's not meant as a criticism, however. Belozerskaya has created a well-researched and beautifully written history book that will both educate and entertain the most finicky reader. The accounts are liberally laced with the kinds of details that bring history to life. For example, here's how the author describes Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon's wife, a woman who built an impressive collection of exotic animals and who is credited with introducing Australian black swans to Europe:
Other historical events in the book include general Pompey's ill-fated attempt to ascend to the head of the Roman empire, CortÈs's conquest of the Aztec realm, the political intrigues of 15th century Italy as seen in the life of the Medici patriarch Lorenzo (the tale from which comes the book's title), the 16th century machinations of King Rudolf II, and a fascinating epilogue documenting the "Panda Diplomacy" that occurred -- and which is still ongoing -- between China and the USA.
The book's premise -- that wild and unique animals have been used throughout the ages as effective tools in diplomacy, conquest, and political intrigue -- is shaky, and is sometimes imbued with more significance than the facts seem to warrant. But if books with historical themes seem like unpleasant medicine to you, this premise will be just the right sweetness to make The Medici Giraffe go down pleasantly, and you'll be surprised at the enjoyable results.
Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by the good folk at Hachette Book USA.