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
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
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

Booking Through Thursday: Interactive?

Numerique - papier - un texte est un texte

I detect a bias in the way this week’s Booking Through Thursday question was asked:

With the advent (and growing popularity) of ebooks, I’m seeing more and more articles about how much “better” they can be, because they have the option to be interactive … videos, music, glossaries … all sorts of little extra goodies to help “enhance” your reading experience, rather like listening to the Director’s commentary on a DVD of your favorite movie.

How do you feel about that possibility? Does it excite you in a cutting-edge kind of way? Or does it chill you to the bone because that’s not what reading is ABOUT?

I know that there is a dedicated group of readers who seem to be anti-ebook and are worried about the direction reading is going in. I am not among their membership. I think ebooks are great. I think the possibilities for books are opening up. Who knows what ways we might be able to interact with them? I have an app on my iPhone that is a version of “The Three Little Pigs” (iTunes link) illustrated and read by a six-year-old boy in Texas. I also have another app based on “The Velveteen Rabbit,” (iTunes link) one of my favorite stories as a child because oh! I wanted my toys to become real. The app allows me to watch a video based on the book, read the book, listen to Meryl Streep read it, or read and record myself. I have a Sherlock Holmes Vook (video book—iTunes link) on my iPhone that allows me to view videos that contain insights into Sherlock Holmes and Victorian London. My [amazon_link id=”B002FQJT3Q” target=”_blank” ]Kindle[/amazon_link] has a feature that allows me to see what passages other readers like enough to highlight. I can share my own notes and highlights with others and access them online later with a secure link. It sure beats thumbing through a book trying to find that passage again. I love being able to move my cursor to look up words I don’t know in the dictionary.

If you haven’t guessed the answer to my question, I’m excited about the possibilities that ebooks and devices like the iPad and Kindle offer readers. Who says that reading has to fit some narrow definition or be confined by some idea that a book isn’t supposed to be a certain way? If you don’t want to interact with your book, you have the option not to—paper books have not gone anywhere and won’t go anywhere soon. I for one think that now is an exciting time to be a reader (and a writer—ebooks are opening up the closed world of publishing to indie writers like me).

I am starting to see a trend among readers who want to stop any sort of change. The most disturbing aspect of this trend to me is that these types of readers seem to believe that they are somehow more authentic readers or love books more because they don’t like ebooks. That’s snobbery. Why be so judgmental? So it’s not for you. Don’t do it. You can avoid ebooks if you want. But to insinuate that interactive features that are now available with the advent of ebooks detract from reading and are not what reading is ABOUT is a fairly antiquated opinion to hold. It rather reminds me of folks who insist graphic novels aren’t real books or that one should not read books like romance novels, mysteries, or chick lit. Bottom line? People should be able to read what they want, however they want, and other folks should have better things to do than stick their noses in the air about it.  Put your nose back in your paperback where it belongs. I guess I am getting a little tired of these snobs telling me I shouldn’t read ebooks.

The subtitle of the photo I chose for this post is “un texte est un texte.” Translated into English, that means “a text is a text.” Exactly so.

Edited to add:

I forgot to mention ebooks on the iPad and Kindle and just about every other reader I can think of allow readers to change the font size, which opens up reading to people who couldn’t. So there is also that.

photo credit: Remi Mathis

New eReader App and Updates

The Unofficial Apple Weblog reviewed Barnes & Noble’s new eReader app today, and it doesn’t look pretty.

This is a bad product debut. It has an onerous and ill-thought out sign up routine, lousy selection and many prices are way too high.

I had to test the veracity of the reviewer’s claim about the cost of the books, so I did a search for Neil Gaiman’s books in the B&N reader and the Kindle store. I found that the prices for books in the Kindle store were several dollars less without exception and that the selection was also much better in the Kindle store. The reader itself is free and comes preloaded with two books: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and The Last of the Mohicans James Fenimore Cooper. Once you register, you will receive Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Dictionary. A weird bug I noticed the first time I refreshed the book list is that I had two or even three copies of some of the books. I deleted the extras, closed the app, and opened it again. This time when I refreshed, I did not see extra copies of the books. I’m not sure why that happened. I have to agree with TAUW that this reader isn’t quite ready to compete with its fellows.

Meanwhile, Stanza, my favorite eReader, updated their app recently. The changes include

  • iPhone OS 3.0 compatibilty
  • book annotations
  • improved page turning animations

I haven’t played with book annotations, but I can tell you that the page animations are much nicer and resemble Classics, my second favorite app (first with design, though). I noticed some problems with turning pages in The Woman in White last night as I read. Specifically, at several points when I tried to turn the page, the book appeared to be stuck, and the page turned to reveal the same page I was just looking at. The only way I could find around it was to go forward a few pages using either the chapter bookmarks or the slider and then backtrack. I’m not clear if this problem is a bug resulting from the update or a corrupted book file.

Speaking of Classics, this app also recently updated. New in this edition is a fix to the chapter numbering in Flatland and several new books:

  • Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • The Art of War by Sun Tzu

The app now includes a total of 23 books (not bad for 99¢), but its chief drawback is the inability to select books. I have no desire to read several of the books that come with the Classics app, but the interface is beautiful and much more book-like than any other app.

You can read more about these apps in an earlier post about eReaders.

Reading Apps for iPhone

Amazon’s Kindle app has received a lot of press, but other iPhone reading apps exist. I wanted to share my thoughts about my favorite reading apps and a few images of the apps in action. Links in this post connect to the iTunes Store, where you can learn more about and download the apps in this article.

Stanza

Stanza will enable you to download free books or purchase books from a cadre of providers, including Fictionwise and O’Reilly.

Stanza 1

You should be able to locate just about any book that is in the public domain through various providers, including Project Gutenberg.  The interface is easy to read, but users can change fonts and colors.

Stanza 2

A new update allows users manipulate text (zoom in, select, and define words).

Stanza 3

The dictionary feature is really nice, and I could see it being very useful.

Stanza 4

Stanza is free, but as I mentioned, some of the books are not; however, as most of the books and the app itself are free, Stanza is probably the best reading deal for the iPhone.

Shakespeare

The Shakespeare app from Readdle allows users to own the complete works of William Shakespeare–all the plays, sonnets, and other poems–on the iPhone.

Shakespeare 1

The interface is easy to read, just like Stanza’s.

Shakespeare 2

Bible

The Bible app allows users to choose from among many Bible translations, including the popular NIV, New American Standard, King James, New King James, and many more. The interface is very easy to read.

Bible 1

Users can bookmark their favorite verses for easy perusal. This app also comes with a daily reading feature for users who want a reading plan.

Bible 2

Classics

Classics is not a free app.  Currently priced at $0.99, this app is still a bargain for its beautiful interface.

Classics 1

Classics comes with twenty books, and more are promised by developers as the application is updated.  The current list includes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Dracula, and The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Of the apps I’ve discussed, Classics most closely replicates the experience of reading a book, but it also has the most limited library. Users are clearly paying for the interface rather than the books.

Classics 2

While some might argue that reading apps on the iPhone will never replace the feeling of reading a book, and one certainly shouldn’t read the iPhone in the tub, I have found the apps to be a pleasant way to read books. I take my phone with me everywhere, and it has been convenient for me to read at long stoplights, while waiting in the doctor’s office, and while in line. In addition, the backlighting allows me to read with the lights off.

I have downloaded the Kindle app, but I haven’t purchased any books. My husband swears by the Kindle app. I checked out the interface on his phone and discovered it is much like Stanza’s. Books for the iPhone Kindle are cheaper than regular books, and the array of new titles is quite possibly broader than with other apps (though I’m not certain this is true). Perhaps after I’ve had a chance to check it out, I’ll review Kindle for iPhone in a future post. Meanwhile, feel free to post any questions or comments.