I visited the library the morning of my flight out to Virginia for my sister's college graduation. (I had, in a moment of clarity, realized that I didn't want to spend five hours driving alone in a car without the company of an audiobook.) Sitting on the Express checkout table (three weeks only, no renewals, no reserves), distracting me from my original purpose, was Stacy Schiff's new biography on Cleopatra.
I'm not normally a huge reader of non-fiction, and the ones I start I rarely finish (sup, god is Not Great, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Man is Not the Measure, Savage Inequalities . . .). This one looked fascinating, especially since Schiff is heralded for doing her best to peel away 2,000 years of embellishment and misrepresentation. Winning the Pulitzer was also a nice selling point.
The book lived up to its promise and its apparent hype. Schiff oozes credibility, giving us the varied accounts of events, pointing out why one or the other seems more likely, analyzing the motives other historians (Plutarch and Dio, mostly) present us with, often pointing out flaws in their explanations and offering more sensible ones instead. And she has fertile ground for it--the story, even in the more bare-bones version than what a modern audience has come to expect from the Queen of the Nile--is a fascinating one. Riding below the narrative, and directly stated at the end, is the overwhelming sense that this woman, reduced by history to nothing but a sex symbol and "Elizabeth Taylor's limpid violet eyes," was in fact an incredibly intelligent political powerhouse.
The best part of Cleopatra: A Life is (aside from the story itself) Schiff's voice. She has a sardonic and biting wit, and over and over again I caught myself sniggering loudly in public places. The only detraction--and this may be my flaw rather than Schiff's--is that I had a difficult time keeping track of all of the people that float in and out of the events. Keep a notebook nearby to scribble down names and deeds of minor figures, but definitely go track down a copy of Cleopatra: A Life as soon as possible. It's a perfect summer read for those of us who prefer intellectual pursuits to chick lit.