Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy SchiffCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Published by Back Bay Books ISBN: 0316001945
on September 6, 2011
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 432
Format: E-Book, eBook
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four-half-stars

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. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and—after his murder—three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. 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.

I think Cleopatra can best be summed up in a line from the immortal Beyoncé’s song “Formation.”

Beyoncé Gif

In all seriousness, this is a great biography, and I learned a lot. Schiff argues that Cleopatra’s legacy can be summed up by the fact that “in two thousand years only one or two other women could be said to have wielded unrestricted authority over so vast a realm.” Unfortunately, her story was co-opted by her enemies, and so she is known to history as a wily seductress, an ambitious temptress, and a deviant whore. Schiff explains that she was none of those things. What she was, however, was a smart, capable, formidable woman—a total badass. Shiff says that “her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy” and asserts that “the turncoats wrote [her] history.”

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence—in her ropes of pearls—there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.

Yes, QUEEN! Preach! Shiff’s appropriate eulogy is that Cleopatra “convinced her people that a twilight was a dawn and—with all her might—struggled to make it so.”

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

This biography is well-written and engaging. Schiff’s research must have been difficult since history has been so unkind to Cleopatra. She must have had to do a great deal of reading between the lines to uncover a more balanced portrait. If Schiff’s account of Cleopatra’s life attempts to tip the scales in the great woman’s favor rather than to take the Roman historians at face value, I can’t fault her. The only reason for me that this book doesn’t earn 5 stars is that I didn’t have any trouble putting it down for stretches of time. I wanted to finish it, and I was definitely not bored, however, so I would not argue that it doesn’t captivate. The chapters are really long, and I would have liked more breaks. I think the prospect of opening the book on my Kindle app and seeing that the chapter would take over an hour to read may have been too daunting on a few occasions. I’m not a fan of stopping the middle of a chapter, but I had to sometimes when reading this book. On the other hand, Schiff’s writing style is eminently readable and at times waxes poetic. Schiff paints a fascinating portrait of a much-maligned, highly intelligent, and incredibly ingenious woman.

four-half-stars

Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson

Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill BrysonShakespeare by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0061555347
on October 23, 2007
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Length: 5 hours 28 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.

Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.

Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air," "foregone conclusion," "one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

If you’ve seen my most recent reviews, you might have noticed I’m on a bit of a Bill Bryson kick right now. I had been wanting to read this book for a while, but for one reason or another, I hadn’t moved it from my TBR pile to my reading pile. The other day, I had to put a hold on an audiobook I wanted from the library, and I figured I’d see if I could listen to this one instead, especially as it is short. Yesterday, the book I had put on hold became available to check out, so I thought I should try to finish this book up.

Did I learn anything new here? Well, not really, but that’s only because I’ve read a lot about Shakespeare. I’m no expert, but I have been teaching his plays for over 20 years, and I have taken coursework in addition to the reading I’ve done. I think the average casual reader would learn quite a bit.

Bryson is by no means a Shakespeare scholar, but what he writes in this slim book corresponds with what I have learned from others. The book’s brevity and humor might make it more accessible for some people interested in learning more about what we can know definitively about William Shakespeare. The truth is, we know quite a lot, particularly for a man of the sixteenth/seventeenth centuries. He’s one of the most dissected people to have lived, and unlikely new discoveries are sometimes made. Bryson recounts a few of these in the book. He carefully veers away from speculating when we don’t really know—which is refreshing because people fill in the gaps of our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life in some really strange ways. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for what it was meant to be: a brief biography based entirely on what we know about William Shakespeare.

five-stars

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex HaleyThe Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X
Narrator: Laurence Fishburne
Published by Audible Studios on September 10, 2020
Genres: Biography, Memoir
Length: 16 hours and 52 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

One of Time’s 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Experience a bold take on this classic autobiography as it’s performed by Oscar-nominated Laurence Fishburne.

In this searing classic autobiography, originally published in 1965, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and Black empowerment activist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Human Rights movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American dream and the inherent racism in a society that denies its non-White citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand the African American experience and America as a whole.

©1965 Alex Haley and Malcolm X, © 1965 by Alex Haley and Betty Shabazz (P)2020 Audible, Inc.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book I had been meaning for years—perhaps as long as a decade. I admit I was a bit daunted by the length, and I had only seen the mass-market paperback version with tiny print. I can’t really read mass-market paperbacks anymore. I’m sure there were other, more accessible versions available, but for whatever reason, I never crossed paths with one. I was thrilled to discover this new audio recording narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne.

Malcolm X led a fascinating life. I was really intrigued by his stint in prison and the education he was able to obtain while incarcerated (check out this list of books he mentions he read while in prison). He clearly repudiated his life before prison in the book, in spite of the fact that one might argue that Malcolm X had been dealt a particularly difficult hand: not only was he essentially an orphan as a teenager when his father was killed and his mother was hospitalized, but he was also brought up in a racist society that devalued his intellect and talents. He describes telling a middle school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up only to be discouraged from pursuing that career by this racist teacher who insisted, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—–. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a n—–.” This from a teacher Malcolm X admired, too. Honestly, after reading this book, the first thing I thought is that Malcolm X would have made an excellent lawyer. He knew how to craft an argument, and he had a fairly stunning intellect.

One area where I would push back against Malcolm X is his misogynoir. That might not be the right term. I don’t think he hated women. I don’t think he respected them very much, either, however, and he definitely viewed them as inferior. One might point to his religion, but I’m not sure it’s entirely related to Islam because he seemed to feel that way before he converted as well (and Islam is not the only patriarchal religion—I hear many of the same anti-woman ideas from many corners). It does not follow that just because one knows and understands what it is like to be part of an oppressed group that one naturally empathizes with other oppressed groups, and I would argue this is true of Malcolm X. The most troubling argument he makes is that societies crumble when their women have what he’d describe as loose morals. He describes a case study of “Westernized” women in Lebanon versus women in Saudi Arabia (whom he deemed more properly in their place), and he makes a pretty poor case if you ask me.

It was disheartening to read of Malcolm X’s betrayal by the Nation of Islam, an organization he had done so much to promote. It was also chilling to read Malcolm X’s insistence that he expected to die by violence. One thing that struck me especially hard was that Malcolm X and my grandfather were born in the same month and year. You couldn’t have identified two more different people if you had tried. Their lives and experiences in society couldn’t have been further apart. Perhaps my favorite passage of the Autobiography was Malcolm X’s description of improving his reading comprehension by copying out the dictionary.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet—and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

Malcolm X’s ideas have been so widely influential. Modern anti-racist, anti-bias movements owe much to Malcolm X’s thought. I have heard so much about Malcolm X, much of it controversial, fear-mongering lies, unfortunately, and I felt it was important to read his story for myself. For example, many people believe Malcolm X to be biased against White people, and while this was true (and not without good cause, I might add), he later changed these views after experiencing the Hajj and meeting fellow Muslim pilgrims who were White. He viewed Islam as a unifying force. Malcolm X wrestled honestly with his life in this memoir. This is an important book that I think many people should read in order to better understand our American society.

five-stars

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren ZanesPetty: The Biography by Warren Zanes
Narrator: Warren Zanes
Published by Audible Studios on December 15, 2015
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Length: 13 hours 57 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
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five-stars

An exhilarating and intimate account of the life of music legend Tom Petty, by an accomplished writer and musician who toured with Petty

No one other than Warren Zanes, rocker and writer and friend, could author a book about Tom Petty that is as honest and evocative of Petty’s music and the remarkable rock and roll history he and his band helped to write.

Born in Gainesville, Florida, with more than a little hillbilly in his blood, Tom Petty was a Southern shit kicker, a kid without a whole lot of promise. Rock and roll made it otherwise. From meeting Elvis, to seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, to producing Del Shannon, backing Bob Dylan, putting together a band with George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, making records with Johnny Cash, and sending well more than a dozen of his own celebrated recordings high onto the charts, Tom Petty’s story has all the drama of a rock and roll epic. Petty, known for his reclusive style, has shared with Warren Zanes his insights and arguments, his regrets and lasting ambitions, and the details of his life on and off the stage.

This is a book for those who know and love the songs, from "American Girl" and "Refugee" to "Free Fallin’" and "Mary Jane’s Last Dance," and for those who want to see the classic rock and roll era embodied in one man’s remarkable story. Dark and mysterious, Petty manages to come back, again and again, showing us what the music can do and where it can take us.

What a great loss to rock and roll. I think I might first have become aware of Tom Petty because my copy of Chipmunk Punk, featuring Alvin and Chipmunks squeaking out songs that were decidedly not punk music, had “Refugee” on it. Later, the video for “You Got Lucky” seemed to be on heavy rotation on MTV, and I admit it was interesting. You couldn’t get away from “Don’t Come Around Here No More” later. Rewatching that video recently, I was struck by how good Tom Petty’s acting is in the video.

However, I’m not sure I appreciated Tom Petty, truly became a fan, until college. I bought his back catalog and listened to the albums on repeat. I listened to them all again as I was reading this book, and I still remember each note. The first four albums, Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersYou’re Gonna Get It, Damn the Torpedoes, and Hard Promises, were on particularly high rotation, along with Southern Accents.

What I appreciated most about this biography was that Warren Zanes is an insider of sorts. In the 1980s, he was in the Del Fuegos and opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on tour. He spoke to many of Petty’s friends and associates, and the biography is unflinching in its honesty. Petty seemed like a reflective type of person, and he owned his mistakes. I particularly appreciated the reflections of fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and Stan Lynch as well as Petty’s long-time friend Stevie Nicks.

The part of the biography I found most compelling was Zanes’s account of Petty’s youth and adolescence, followed by his early days in Florida bands, such as Mudcrutch. His incredible work ethic was another interesting thread that ran through the book. It struck me that Petty enjoyed his English classes and didn’t consider them to be “studying” in the same way that his other classes were; you can hear that in his song lyrics. However, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but feel sad about how school crushes the spirits of so many creative people like Tom Petty. I think it was Benmont Tench who said in the book that Tom Petty was really good at convincing people to quit school and join his band.

When I heard Tom Petty died, I was crushed. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all time, and I’m grateful I was able to see him in concert once in 1992, for his Into the Great Wide Open tour. It was a great show. He was a consummate performer.

I put together a highly subjective list of my favorite Tom Petty tunes, more or less in order of preference. Some are deep cuts. I hope you enjoy it.

five-stars