Friday, December 10, 2010

Day 10:The Queen of the Nile Returns

Welcome to Day 10 in our 24 Days of Books. Today is all about stripping away the "kudzu of history," the myth that swarms in the absence of fact. Cleopatra is one of the most famous -- and one of the least truly known -- women of all time. She ruled Egypt for twenty-two years, dying at age 39, a generation before the birth of Christ. Now, award-winning biographer Stacy Schiff has written a book --Cleopatra: A Life -- that attempts to restore context to our understanding of the famous leader and to strip away some of the myths that have surrounded her. As the author says, it's "not for the first time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one."

Most of Cleopatra's earliest biographers were Roman, male, and writing more than a century or more after her death. They tended to find it more comfortable to focus on her supposed sexual prowess than on her intellectual gifts. Cleopatra was actually Macedonian Greek ("which makes Cleopatra approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor"). She spoke nine languages. She was a commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance. And "even at a time when women rulers were no rarity she stood out, the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and to play a role in Western affairs." "At the height of her powers she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler."

Schiff was educated at Williams College and worked as an editor for Simon & Schuster until 1990. She left S&S to write a biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupery -- a book that became a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. She next wrote Vera, a biography of Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her next book, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, won the George Washington Book Prize. Clearly this woman knows a thing or two about writing biographies.

Ron Chernow, who knows a thing or two about writing biographies himself (his most recent is Washington: A Life) says about Schiff's new book: "Even if forced at gunpoint, Stacy Schiff would be incapable of writing a dull page or a lame sentence. Here she trains her satirical eye and sterling erudition on Cleopatra, rescuing her from the many shopworn myths that have encrusted her story from Plutarch to Shakespeare to Joseph L. Mankiewicz."

This book quickly ran out of stock. We've just received a new supply, but it's bound to disappear quickly.

Kathryn Harrison reviewed Schiff's new book for The New York Times. Below is a brief video of the author reading a passage from the book.

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