Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Thoughts: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
published 2010

Synopsis from publisher:

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff 's is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

My thoughts:

One of my favorite memories of college was taking a class with my sister - Humanities II, basically a survey of ancient history, philosophy, and writing. We had one of those professors that you either love or hate, and we both loved him. He was quirky, and completely passionate about his material, and a wonderful storyteller. He made the ancient world come alive, and I would go on to take another class from him - The History of Ancient Rome. He ignited in me an interest in the period that hasn't yet been quenched. So when my sister gave me this book as a birthday gift, I was pretty darn excited.

April 19: It's hard to tell exactly where in the book you are when reading on Kindle, because there are no pages to look at and judge - it tells me I'm 12% of the way through, for whatever that's worth. But already I feel like I'm learning so much! For example:

~ Cleopatra's family was not Egyptian at all, but Macedonian, and claimed ancestry to Alexander the Great.

~ The Egypt of her time was one of the few inclusive societies - women had virtually equal rights as men, including the right to divorce. And Cleopatra's family had it's share of strong women - she came by her assertiveness and bravery naturally.

~ Even in a remarkable family, Cleopatra stood out. She was the only one of her ancestors to actually learn the language of the people she ruled, so when she was dealing with them she could speak directly to them, instead of through an interpreter.

~ History is written by the winners. Cleopatra's story comes to us from the Roman historians, who hated her because she was a woman, and a powerful foe. So their descriptions of her as a wanton seductress have to be taken with a whole shaker full of salt.

In addition to being a fascinating story, Schiff's writing style is great. She has the knack for making history come alive - I am already making plans to read her previous work.

May 10 - Had to take a break for Dune, but now I'm back and still enjoying this biography very much. I am roughly 40% through the book, Cleopatra is still less than 30 years old, and the list of her accomplishments is remarkable. Just reading all the things she does in a day is tiring. I have a very romanticized view of what kings and queen should do - sit around, eat grapes, get fanned by their minions. I'm not sure Cleopatra ever had time to sit and do anything - she could never rest in the precarious world she lived in.

May 14 - Well, apparently I was much further than 40% done with the text - I just finished, and it still says I am only 73% done. Whew, this book must have a LOT of notes! (I will admit that I am not going to read through all of them.) I am a bit disappointed that I can't see the illustrations - apparently my technology is already antiquated. =)

It is a shame that the histories of Cleopatra's remarkable life are written by men so clearly focused on making her seem the enemy. In this biography, Schiff does an excellent job of sifting through the exaggerations, false claims, and nuggets of truth, to paint a picture of a complex and multifaceted woman. She was not always likable - often she behaved with cruelty, or arrogance, or selfishness. But she was indeed a woman like no other, who ruled independently for over 20 years in a time when women were hidden at best, and imprisoned at worst.

Shiff's narrative is entertaining and well-researched - I enjoyed her attempts to impart humanity into this woman who was often likened to a goddess. One of my favorite lines -

"She sounds no seductive notes, which indeed appear to have been added later, when all kinds of chroniclers had Cleopatra throwing herself vigorously at all kinds of feet. Certainly she flings herself around more in literature than she did in life."

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think it might feel like a bit of a challenge to readers who don't already enjoy biographies in general - it has a more scholarly feel than some might desire, with quite a bit of historical detail included throughout the narrative. If you are interested in the story of a powerful, fascinating woman who lived life on her own terms, you can't go wrong.

Finished: 5/14/11
Source: Kindle - gift from my sister
MPAA Rating: PG-13 - lots of adult situations hinted at, but solely through a historical lens, so much like watching a History Channel documentary
My rating: 8/10


bermudaonion said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this. I started it last year and found it to be very dry. When my dad's health declined, I set it aside for lighter reading and have never felt compelled to pick it back up.

Carolynn said...

Dang, no pictures on the kindle!? Sorry! I loved Bob's humanities class too... So glad this book was interesting! :)

Zibilee said...

I am looking forward to reading this one soon. I have come to understand that it's not exactly what I had been expecting when I picked it up, but I am looking forward to it nonetheless! Glad that you found it such a great read!

Anonymous said...

This sounds so amazing! I've always been enchanted with historical powerful females (Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, etc.) so this seems right up my alley. Thanks for the great review

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I've been wanting to read this. I've always been fascinated by her life, so this sounds perfect. said...

First, I love the title of your blog. I'm in the same boat. :-) Secondly, I want this book. I love the excerpts you chose. And the cover is breathtaking. Thanks for the review. And I found your blog through Michelle of Armchair BEA. Glad to have a new blog to follow and connect with in this book review circle.