on November 14, 2010
I'm an avid reader and certainly don't mind books by and/or about men, however, I've always wished there were more books about dynamic, interesting women. "Cleopatra: A Life" more than fulfilled this wish. What I knew about Cleopatra before I read this book came from long ago college classes, the movie with Elizabeth Taylor, and a viewing of the play about her and Antony at a Shakespeare festival. I had the vague impression that Cleopatra was first and foremost a woman who would cast an unbreakable sexual spell on any man who was convenient for her to control. I'm so glad and thankful that Stacy Schiff shows us that Cleopatra was so much more than a seductress; Cleopatra had wit, charm and superlative intelligence.
The fact that Cleopatra lived through her 20's is a tribute to her intelligence alone, as I simply could not believe just how commonplace murder was for those with power in the ancient world. Then, to maintain her position as Egypt's sovereign, Cleopatra's circumstances dictated that she had to ally herself with the Romans, the world's greatest power at the time. For a time, Cleopatra maintained the upper-hand in the power relations with two of the most powerful Romans, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony; with both men she had much written about sexual relationships. In the end, Rome became her enemy, and they also became her biographer. After reading "Cleopatra: A Life", I get the sense that the patriarchal Romans couldn't bring themselves to write a narrative showing that two of their greatest leaders were outwitted by a woman. Imagine what a biography of Monica Lewinsky would be like if it were written by ardent supporters of Bill Clinton.
Now, on a separate note, I've read all the reviews thus far for this book, and I've noticed a trend in some of the negative reviews. Although "Cleopatra" was written more for a general audience than Schiff's prior biographies, this is still a work of serious scholarship. I doubt this is a book that most people could easily read at the beach. So with this in mind, if you love the intriguing stories of antiquity, but a book that will demand your attention, then this book is for you. If you want a historical version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" then you probably won't like this book.
In closing, I loved this book. I hope Stacy Schiff's next book is about an overlooked, or misunderstood woman.
on November 5, 2010
Stacy Schiff took a great risk when she wrote "Cleopatra: A Life." Can a woman branded a "whore" by the Great Bard himself, ever really have a reputation as anything else? Directly challenging 2,000 year old assumptions that were enhanced by the likes of Dante, and director Joseph Mankiewicz, is a tall order for even the most accomplished writer. Ms. Schiff brilliantly rises to the task.
Ms. Schiff brings to vivid life a very different Cleopatra from the one depicted to us by playwrights and movie directors. Instead of a wanton seductress relying solely upon her looks, Cleopatra was one of the most authoritative rulers in the history of humanity, inheriting at the age of 18 one of the greatest kingdoms ever known, during a time in history when women had about the same social stature as farm animals.
Furthermore, Ms. Schiff is a wordsmith extraordinaire. In beautifully constructed prose that reminded me more of Nabokov than your typical biographer, Ms. Schiff paints a lovely, nuanced portrait of a great and vastly misunderstood woman. And what life the author brings to ancient Egypt too! The descriptions of the ancient world in which Cleopatra lived were so vivid that you would think the author was Cleopatra's contemporary, and not her 21st century biographer.
Ms. Schiff had a tough act to follow with herself; all her previous books have won, or been nominated for, just about every pretigious literary award you can think of.
I wouldn't be surprised if she at least gets on the short-list for the Pulitzer with "Cleopatra: A Life."
2 stars for the first half; 4 for the second half -averaged out to 3
"Cleopatra: A Life" is not the book one wants it to be. A new biography of one of the most fascinating women in history who had liasons with two of the most fascinating men in history should, at least, entertain us. After all, she was Isis personified, the Queen of the Nile, the last Pharoah of Egypt, the end of the 300-year Ptolemaic dynasty, the woman who held the keys to the granaries that fed Rome, a legendary beauty of great charisma, the wealthiest woman on Earth, the symbol of all that was exotic and enticing about the sensual East--surely a biography of Cleopatra has got to be great. Stacy Schiff's book, however, disappoints. Certainly a good deal of that disappointment stems from the fact that there is simply very little information extant about Cleopatra, and much of what is "known" is questionable. There are no primary sources except her enemies, who wrote what served their purposes, while the three main secondary sources, Plutarch (writing primarily about Antony), Appian, and Dio lived well after her lifetime and all contradict one another. Even Caesar himself only mentioned her briefly. Her capital city, the Alexandria she knew, lies under the sea or has been destroyed by war and modern building; other than the profiles on her coins, there isn't even a portrait of her. Ms. Schiff acknowledges the almost total lack of reliable information right from the start, but can't quite overcome the enormity of that obstacle. Her prose is often stilted as she fills pages with everything but Cleopatra's life. We learn what her education probably consisted of, what the people of Alexandria ate and therefore what Cleopatra probably ate, how they partied (and they really partied); we get lots of sentences beginning with "she probably," "she may have," "she might have," "we can guess she..." This becomes both frustrating and tedious to read. We do get a good picture of Alexandrian life in the 1st century B.C., and lots of incidental details (the importance of the great goddess, Isis, the racial and religious make-up of the city, a great deal of detail about the wealth and importance of Alexandria at this time, even birth control methods), but there is very little justification for filling the first 150 pages with so much that sheds no light on Cleopatra or her life. That which is known about her background, her early life, and her relationship with Caesar takes little time to relate, and the author gets bogged down in irrelevant information. It becomes further mired as we are forced to listen to Cicero whine about Alexandria, Antony, and his favorite object of scorn, Cleopatra herself (who apparently upset him over a book). One can't help but wish that Ms. Schiff had decided to get through this material more quickly in order to bring us to the moment of Antony's appearance in Cleopatra's life, for his effect on the book is much as his effect on Cleopatra's life: things get much more interesting.
The second half of the book is dedicated to the exploration of that most intriguing of relationships, though Ms. Schiff doesn't seem to subscribe to the idea of theirs being a great romance. She doesn't really seem to have a point of view about many things, including the source of Cleopatra's great power over two of the greatest men of her age. Instead, she presents various accounts about all the major events of the last ten years of Cleopatra's life, during which she was Antony's faithful lover and mother to three children by him in addition to her son, Caesarion, by Julius Caesar (his only son and only living child), and Antony's eldest children by an early marriage. The details of their life together--as much as can be known--are covered well, and the tension mounts as they plummet headlong into war and the final, fatal, showdown with Octavian. All of this is well-written and exciting to read; clearly, when Ms. Schiff has something to write about, she writes vividly. And this is a story worth telling--whether Cleopatra and Antony partnered out of passion, or politics, or both, it is certainly one of the great couplings of all time. The bewildering and disastrous Battle of Actium, Cleopatra's building of her own Mausoleum, Antony's botched suicide and subsequent death in Cleopatra's arms are the stuff of high opera. Octavian's cold, ruthless gamesmanship versus Cleopatra's determined, intelligent survivalism made for a dramatic end-game, regardless of the veracity of the varying accounts (poison or an unlikely, very handy, cobra? Cleopatra's suicide or murder by Octavian?).
The chief problem for any biographer of Cleopatra is that she is primarily known as the mistress of Caesar and Antony--she really had no "life" of her own as far as history is concerned, unlike Elizabeth I or Eleanor of Aquitaine whose lives stand on their own merits. While she was allowed to rule Egypt on her own, unlike the other "client kings" of Rome, apparently no one chronicled her life during the periods when she was not having a direct impact on Rome and its leaders. Rome had a unique problem on its hands with Cleopatra. She was more than just an expendable dragon sitting on a great pile of treasure--she was a beautiful woman, able to insinuate herself into Caesar's life sufficiently to end up carrying the greatest card of all: his son. With that Ace up her sleeve, she couldn't be paid off or killed, and she certainly couldn't be ignored. She became a force to reckon with, and as such, a major player on Rome's stage (despite its resistance to this disquieting reality); for this reason we know more about her than we likely would have ever known about some other Ptolemy who just happened to be the nominal Pharoah under Rome's jurisdiction. Her story, for all its gaps and mythologized elements, has inspired artists and writers for more than two thousand years; that will just have to be enough for us.
on January 14, 2011
Reading an excerpt of this book I came across this passage on page 5 : " Cleopatra's was a world in which you could visit the relics of Orpheus'lyre, or view the egg from which Zeus' mother had hatched (it was in Sparta)."
I did a double take and read it again, I hadn't misread. Sorry? Zeus' mother was Rhea and had no connection with an egg whatsoever. The egg that, according to Pausanias, was visible in a temple in Sparta was believed to be the one from which Helen of Troy was born.
I am no specialist historian, just someone familiar with Latin and Greek from studying both languages for 5 years in high school, just the fact that such an egregious mistake hasn't been spotted and corrected in the writing or editing stage makes me very distrustful of an historical work that relies heavily on knowledge of and familarity with the Greek and Roman world.
on January 12, 2011
Let me get the signal flares, flags, and maybe sound off some klaxons to get you to NOT read this book, or at least not without a big fat caveat. There is nothing new in this very flawed and rushed book, and other authors have done both Cleopatra and the others in her life far greater justice without stooping to poor historical methods, supposition, revisionary sexism, a lack of editorship, and blatant contradictions. For a balanced look at Cleopatra's live or one with a true feminist discourse, look elsewhere.
Being a historian, and a history teacher, I love historical non-fiction. It can be an at times dangerous field full of sensationalism for book sales and NYT bestseller's lists, but it can also be full of gems that catalogue things in new ways or are just much more pleasant reads than textbooks and more serious and academic publishing. I have nothing against them. Schiff seemed a very promising author. She's won a pulitzer, and the book sounded good. Her writing has been eclectic and I thought that the book about Cleopatra would be an interesting read or reevaluation.
Schiff's work is highly speculative. If I had a dollar for every time I read the words "would have been" and "would be" or "could have been" and "could be," I would be taking my fiancé out for a nice dinner. Schiff does some fine research on what life was like during the reign of the Ptolemies and describes street scenes of Alexandria, feasts, Cleopatra's childhood education and life in the palace, and quasi-ceremonial quasi-vacation trips down the nile with vivid language. She would have done well writing historical fiction for the elaborateness of her scene setting. But all these instances come with a familiar line at the beginning: the word would. When I count up the massive amounts of pages lovingly devoted to scene setting and find that nearly every one is prefaced by a "would have" statement, significant trust in the authorship is lost and it's clear that she is speculating. If you excised her biography, you'd still have half a book worth of this! What worries me is that speculation is repeatedly used in a biography and some aspects are left clearly open and unsourced.
This tells me that, at minimum, her research may be spotty in some places, but she chooses to include opinions as facts anyways. Regardless of their plausibility, treating possibilities as cold hard truth is a sin that historians have committed since the days of the people Schiff writes about. Today, we have better guidelines for historical practices and much greater review. To commit the same sins is one of two things: dishonesty or ignorance. I'm not sure which is worse.
Now that I've cut out half of the book, here's about the biography half:
Something I've found that plagues the book as a whole is what I am guessing is poor editorship. I've seen a variety of typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors that should have been flagged in proofing. Schiff jumps around a lot. Many of Schiff's sentences are unclear and confusing. For example, she often will refer to multiple people in a sentence without showing who the subject clearly is, and then follow with a sentence using only pronouns, making it difficult to tell who the new subject is. These are things that should have been caught prior to final printing for distribution, but clearly weren't. Why is that? Common culprits are rushes on time and money leading to poor editing quality. There shouldn't be excuses for them in a high profile book.
Oddly, many of the more controversial points treated as facts are not sourced while many points that are taken as common knowledge are regularly sourced, sometimes sourced multiple times. The points that are not sourced really should be. As a historian, I can't tell if she is getting them as facts from some other work or they are matters of opinion. What is clear is that Schiff is no historian; she frequently shows misunderstandings in the historical record or sources from the Ancient world. True, she does point out that some sources are clearly more trustworthy than others, and some have reasons to pick bones, she takes some others at pure face value without explaining why. Take the examples of Herodotus. Schiff seems not to know that Herodotus was a satirist (sort of like a Roman Jon Stewart) and should not be taken too literally - yet she does take him literally to prove Roman historians "wrong."
Schiff has a running theme of strong women and weak men. The Ptolomies are ripe for this interpretation. Cleopatra and her sisters were assertive and fought for power while her brothers are treated as weak and, sadly, dispensable. Ptolemy XIV and Caesar are under Cleopatra's control, as is the rest of Egypt. The derision for most of the Roman historians is palpable. And she refuses to call the Emperor Augustus Caesar anything but his boyhood name of Octavian. Schiff continually demeans the men in her book while Cleopatra is continuously the woman in charge: she "presumably collaborated," "engineered," and "was behind" Caesar's actions. And yet Schiff later notes that she contributed nothing to Caesar's endeavor. Schiff's text is not only subtly sexist (not feminist, but sexist) but also contradictory.
In her introduction, Schiff paints a picture of tarnished stories where "myth runs in" and that most, if not all, ancient historians were more concerned with painting Cleopatra out to be a villainess, unable to separate propaganda from Augustan wars from facts and retellings. We get how she was likened to Queen Cleophis, the "royal whore" of India but not how she had been likened to Dido, the strong but tragic Queen of Carthage. It would undermine Schiff's retelling if a kind word was ever written about the Egyptian Queen. Schiff makes it out like a feminist revision of Cleopatra's story is new. It's not. We've known for quite some time that you should take Catulus with a large grain of salt, that Virgil had Augustus for a patron, and that Dio, while using more sources, has some things to say in his own opinions. We know that the propaganda machine during the Civil Wars and later Augustus' battle against Marc Anthony was legendary and all encompassing. We also know that Cleopatra was admired more for her brain than her beauty, though with how she acted, beauty from confidence and attitude is nearly guaranteed. We also know of unrest against her within Egypt, not that dissent against the queen is very popular with Schiff. The point is, that what Schiff derides and casts down into the fire have already been there for years. Her book is a rehash of old ideas, and with the glaring issues in her book, there are far better reads (and ones that are written by women) that are far more accurate, that should replace Schiff's on the bookshelf. There is nothing new in this text and Schiff is hunting the already condemned.
on June 28, 2011
Last night my book group of twenty women met to discuss this book. These are intelligent, discerning readers who enjoy serious discussions about a wide variety of reading material.
Only two members of the group had managed to finish this book. The rest of us sheepishly admitted that we could not slog through it. I myself read two hundred pages only by forcing myself - but it was out of duty, not pleasure. This is not an easy or satisfying read.
I found the author's "stream of consciousness" and chatty, conversational writing style to be distractingly unprofessional. Her long, disjointed paragraphs jumped among so many details that it became a challenge to follow her train of thought. I grew annoyed as I read, yearning for the intervention of a wise editor. Schiff's own voice is too intrusive here, her own (too witty) attitude omnipresent. And yet somehow she lacks the most critical quality a biographer ought to possess, which is authority.
It is exhausting to read a book dense with minute details, constantly negated by qualifying statements such as "We cannot be certain...." or "it may have been that...." or "we can only guess that....." or "it seems that." The reader is perpetually in limbo. If so much of this book is conjecture, then which if any part of it is reliable truth? The line is so blurred that the author loses the good will of the reader, who (at least in the case of my book group friends) will probably put the book down in frustration.
on January 23, 2011
Yes, this book is about a fascinating subject, and yes, I often found myself absorbed in the story. But this is a classic example of post-Pulitzer syndrome. Her editors were apparently too overawed to edit her. Nobody took out the pencil and pointed out all of the passages that are overwritten, impossible to support or simply don't make sense.
Here's one example, from page 159, about Cleopatra making a grand entrance into Tarsus:
"In the annals of indelible entrances -- the wooden horse into Troy; Christ into Jerusalem; Benjamin Franklin into Philadelphia; Henry IV, Charles Lindbergh, Charles De Gaulle, into Paris; Howard Carter into King Tut's tomb; the Beatles onto Ed Sullivan's stage -- Cleopatra's alone lifts off the page in iridescent color, amid inexhaustible, expensive clouds of incense, a sensational, simultaneous assault on every sense."
Where should an editor have started? Maybe with, "How about we just choose one -- let's say Henry IV -- for Paris. And, I'm not sure, but was Ben Franklin known for his 'indelible' entrances? And that Beatles thing - weren't they already just sort of, standing there on stage when Sullivan introduced them? And even if there was a Beatles grand entrance I'm forgetting about, do we really need to drag the Beatles into a book about an empress on barge 2,000 years ago?"
This passage is not an isolated example. There's an eye-roller on almost every page, at least in the first half. Even a Pulitzer-winner needs a tough editor -- especially if she wants to ever win another one.
on March 26, 2011
Stacy Schiff may be a Pulitzer Prize winner, but this book was a disappointment. I sense that she was aiming for a breezy, cool feminist biography. In fact, the strongest aspect of the book is its analysis of how views about women and women's roles have shaped the telling of Cleopatra's story.
But aside from this much of the text is simply descriptive. It can be unfocused and confusing: the second chapter's review of Ptolemaic history is just one example.
Throughout the book, ideas can take pages (Kindle pages) to develop, not because they are nuanced and carefully argued but because Schiff seems to struggle to connect the narrative. There are stretches of description that, though helpful in bringing the times alive, feel like filler.
The effort to use modern idioms is sometimes clumsy--"For much of 57 the hot potato business of the day was how, if at all, to handle the deposed king's appeals"--or glib--""Berenice enjoyed the support of the native population but suffered from the consort problem..."
All in all, this book left me wanting to read a well written biography of Cleopatra.
on December 21, 2011
This book is simultaneously over- and underwritten. It's overwritten in that the prose is showy and prolix -- lots of padding and useless rhetorical flourishes. It's underwritten in the sense that there is very little that is actually about Cleopatra herself in it. There's quite a lot of (ostentatious) "contextualization" and speculation, but the book does a terrible job of actually conveying who Cleopatra was (or even might have been) as a person. I almost never quit a book before finishing but I did with this one. Disappointing.
on February 15, 2011
With her combination of meticulous research and vivid writing, Stacy Schiff takes you straight into the Alexandria of Cleopatra. Schiff is a superb scholar but also has a way of making an emotional connection with the subjects of her books, and this is no exception. Here is Cleopatra seen, not through the eyes of Rome, but in the context of her own legacy and family; in her own kingdom, in her own time. Schiff does not sugar-coat the actions of the Egyptian queen or cast her as the victim of nefarious men; she shows her as a capable, strategic ruler, making decisions that seem shocking to us but were appropriate for her time. The book does not engage in the cheat of "novelizing" or creating motives for characters when those motives are not known, but Schiff's homework is so perfect that, when you read of Cleopatra's sumptuous banquet for Mark Antony in Tarsus, you will smell the food and swear you feel the rose petals brushing your ankles. This is a fresh look at a famous woman, the two famous Romans who loved her, and the end of an era.