A review of Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Elizabeth Taylor she wasn’t. Nor was she the Cleopatra of Shakespeare’s imagination, or of Plutarch’s. Cleopatra was, simply put, one of the ablest and most powerful women in the history of the world. She ruled unchallenged the richest kingdom of the Western world for more than two decades.
In this extraordinary work of historic reconstruction, prize-winning biographer Stacey Schiff digs deep below the surface of the available sources, both primary and secondary, to write what is surely the fullest and most accurate picture we’ll ever have of the elusive first-century Egyptian queen.
Cleopatra was, of course, the long-time lover both of Julius Caesar and of his protege, Mark Antony. She bore four of their children, three of Antony’s and one of Caesar’s. History has tended to know her as the wily seductress who reduced both men — two of the most significant figures of the ancient world — to love-slaves. Schiff sets us straight.
Cleopatra was unquestionably a consummately charming and accomplished lover, but as Schiff paints her, it was more her charm — and the staggering wealth she commanded — that was the lure for the Romans. Apparently, she may not even have been beautiful by the standards of the age (several decades before the life of Jesus). She was, however, a brilliant linguist, adept in seven languages, and the richest person in the Mediterranean world. She effectively owned the Kingdom of Eqypt, with its fabulous wealth in wheat, glass, papyrus, linen, oils, shipping, and trade. The splendor of her palace; her capital, Alexandria; her wardrobe; and her court easily put to shame the best efforts of Rome, a rustic provincial town by comparison.
Strictly speaking, Schiff’s life of Cleopatra is a work of historiography, an inquiry into the validity of the sources of historical information. In telling the story of this truly astonishing woman, she examines contrasting accounts written both by contemporaries and later historians and weighs their claims in the light of available evidence. In lesser hands, the book would languish in tiresome scholarship. Schiff succeeds admirably in holding the reader’s attention, even introducing an undercurrent of tension and suspense as the story rushes toward its inevitable end with Cleopatra’s dramatic suicide.
Schiff sums up her story as the book comes to a close: “Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank. Her career began with one brazen act and ended with another.” With Cleopatra’s death and the subsequent accession of Augustus to the Roman throne, the ancient world became history and the modern era began.
My top 20 nonfiction picks
For nearly three-and-a-half years now, I’ve been posting book reviews in this blog, typically twice a week. For my own benefit as well as yours, I like to look back every so often at the books I’ve read and think about what I’ve learned from them. What follows below is a list of the 20 nonfiction books (out of more than 100 I read) that have added the most to my understanding of the world. They’re arranged in no particular order: I can’t imagine trying to pick the best of this lot!
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright
The definitive study of the belief system known as Scientology, with an emphasis on its human rights violations and the Hollywood celebrities it has gathered into its “prison of belief.”
Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney
Revelations galore from newly unearthed evidence about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his last years in the White House.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
The seminal role of a long-forgotten ancient Greek poet and philosopher on the thinking of the geniuses who shaped the Renaissance and on the course of history that followed.
The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan
Recent history and current events through the distorting lens of geopolitics, which views Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, from a very different perspective than is found in most history books.
Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman
The astonishing story of America’s rearmament in World War II, with a focus on the two larger-than-life personalities who made it happen through sheer force of will: William Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre
The stranger-than-fiction story of the British double agents whose brilliant work in Europe played a pivotal role in the success of the Normandy Invasion.
The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan
A comprehensive and well-informed view of the world of social enterprise and the extraordinary individuals who stand out in a field that attracts brilliant and inspired people by the carload.
The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham
An in-depth refutation of the myth of rugged individualism, lionized by Ayn Rand’s novels and enshrined in conservative and libertarian ideology for four decades.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
How the War on Drugs, and the institutionalized racism that undergirds it, has weakened American society and fostered a new underclass dominated by young men of color.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
A first-hand account of three years in a slum neighborhood in one of the biggest cities in the world, focusing on the hopes and challenges of two local families.
Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy
A beautifully-written account of the history of a nonprofit South Indian eye hospital that has pioneered a revolutionary approach to eye-care which has brought relief to millions of poor people worldwide.
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
An unvarnished biography of the design and marketing genius who built Apple and gained a place in business history alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton.
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin
The troubling story of the institutionalization of a new military-intelligence complex triggered by 9/11 and accelerated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson
The long-overlooked story of FDR’s ambassador to Nazi Germany and his frustrated efforts to turn U.S. policy against Hitler in the face of horrific violence against Jews in Germany and anti-Semitism in the State Department.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
An oncologist’s critical study of the diseases lumped together under the label of cancer and of humanity’s halting efforts to arrest and cure them.
Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
A fresh new take on one of history’s most powerful and fascinating women, long caricatured in popular fiction and history books alike.
The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers, by Vicky Ward
An illuminating tale of the people who set off the Great Recession, bringing to light the greed, self-delusion, and miscalculation that came so close to collapsing the world economy in 2008.
Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard. A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake
A profoundly troubling look at the rapid rise of cyber warfare and the existential threat it poses to American civilization, written by the top counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Based on ten years of dogged research, a science journalist’s deeply moving account of the African-American woman whose cancerous cells seeded six decades of medical discoveries.
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Tagged as Aravind, Ayn Rand, Ben McIntyre, Bill Knudsen, cancer, CIA, cia conspiracy, Cleopatra, cyber warfare, D-Day, Dana Priest, Erik Larson, eye care, geopolitics, Henrietta Lacks, Henry J. Kaiser, hollywood celebrities, John Elkington, John F. Kennedy, Katherine Boo, Lawrence Wright, Lehman Brothers, libertarian ideology, mary pinchot meyer, mass incarceration, michelle alexander, military-intelligence complex, Mumbai, Nazi Germany, Pamela Hartigan, poverty, racism, Rebecca Skloot, Renaissance, Richard A. Clarke, Robert D. Kaplan, rugged individualism, scientology, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Stacy Schiff, Stephen Greenblatt, Steve Jobs, The Swerve, Vicky Ward, Walter Isaacson, War on Drugs, William S. Knudsen, World War II