Monday, September 30, 2013

357 (2013 #41). Cleopatra: A Life

An acquaintance gave my husband this book about three years ago after we'd observed him reading it over a number of weeks, and I finally got around to reading it myself.  I've always wanted to know more about this famous woman, beyond Shakespeare's play and Liz Taylor's portrayal in the movies. 

Cleopatra: A Life, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff, is a nonfiction biography, despite the (beautiful) cover's implication that it might be historical fiction or a fictionalized biography.

On the other hand, since so little was written about Cleopatra during and just after her lifetime (and what WAS written has to be taken with a grain of salt, given that her enemies were the historians), Schiff has to speculate and make assumptions quite often throughout this book.  I felt Schiff was fair and did her best to present both sides on Cleopatra, pro and con.  Forty-one pages of end notes show that Ms. Schiff certainly did the research to back her conclusions.

The book sustained my interest, probably mostly because I was very intrigued by the subject.  Schiff's writing style did not always help.  There were times when her phrasing was awkward, or she used dozens of words when half that amount would do.  I have to wonder if the fact that she'd won the Pulitzer made editors less likely to suggest changes in her prose.

I'm also not too crazy about the cover, despite its beauty.  It reminds me of the fictionalized accounts of other queens and historical women by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir.  I would have rather seen a more early-Egyptian cover design - although it is true that Cleopatra wore pearls woven into her hair.

I'm glad I read the book as I learned a lot about Cleopatra (she was a clever and powerful leader), and especially about the Egypt and Alexandria of her day.  It's definitely not a light read, but I would recommend it to anyone wanting a serious biography about this fascinating woman.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[My husband received this book as a gift.  After he reads it, it will be donated to my university library.]

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