16 December 2010

Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra's bad reputation was known throughout the Roman Empire even during her lifetime. Accusations of her seductiveness only escalated after her suicide. Two thousand years later, that's what most people think about when they hear her name.

The truth is both less and more sensational. Although she was married twice to younger brothers, she probably had only two lovers: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She was protective of her four half-Roman children and was brutally decisive in defending her throne from her siblings. She was the richest ruler in the Mediterranean and likely one of the most educated.

Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra cuts through centuries of romance and slander to present the Egyptian queen in as true a light as possible. That quest to understand and know Cleopatra requires side trips into Greek and Roman history and peeks at the lives of Caesar, Pompey, Octavian, and others.

Although I am not an expert on all things Roman, I have had a long-term interest in the time period covered in the biography (roughly the last half century B.C.E.). The immensity of the story and the repercussions of each relationship, betrayal, battle, murder, and birth make it difficult to find a straight line through Cleopatra's tale. Schiff wisely doesn't attempt to create one, instead presenting information as and when needed to understand Cleopatra's actions and mind-set. This approach worked well for me, but I wonder how a reader new to the era would fare.

The concept of spoilers doesn't quite apply to nonfiction, but I do not want to reveal everything that was new to me. Instead, I share one aspect of Cleopatra's influence that I was unaware of. Although Octavian plundered her treasury and could barely mention her by name in the years after Actium, he was too afraid of losing Egyptian wheat to wipe out all traces of her power and popularity. The riches he brought back to Rome coupled with Cleopatra's own story set off a period of Egyptomania in the empire. Along with it, came a "golden age of women," in which "high-born [Roman] wives and sisters suddenly enjoyed a role in public life."

No wonder men tried to bury Cleopatra's intelligence and political savvy beneath a veil of adultery.

I both read a print copy and listened to the unabridged audio edition (Hachette Audio) of Cleopatra. I often like to have both media available for nonfiction so I can review names and dates when I need to and so I don't miss out on the illustrations.

The narrator was Robin Miles, who is an award-winning professional. Unfortunately, I felt that Miles overenunciated, making the reading a bit stilted. In addition, pauses seemed to come at odd moments, further breaking the flow of the text. Regardless, these problems were not enough to make me stop listening nor should they discourage you from giving the audio a try. I suggest that you listen to a sample of the reading before committing.

Finally I'd like to say bravo to Hachette for including a CD that contains all the illustrations (maps and photographs) that appear in the print version of the book. What a great treat for listeners. I wish every nonfiction audio publisher would do the same.

Cleopatra was an Indie Next pick for November 2010 and appears on the New York Times's best of 2010 list. To learn more about Schiff, visit her website.

Cleopatra at Powell's
Cleopatra at Book Depository
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Published by Little, Brown, 2010
ISBN-13: 9780316001922
YTD: 109
Source: Review (print & audio) (see review policy)
Rating: B

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

23 comments:

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 12/16/10, 6:32 AM  

Thanks for your honest review Beth. The reader sounds like he could make this book more enjoyable in print version.

JoAnn 12/16/10, 6:47 AM  

Finally! An audiobook with a CD for maps and illustrations is long overdue. Thank you Hachette.

Sandy Nawrot 12/16/10, 7:07 AM  

I've been wondering about this one. I listened to Miles on Cane River, and I thought she had an amazing grasp of accents. She was a little stilted, but overall I thought she was very very good. I need to check and see if our library has gotten this one yet.

Tea 12/16/10, 7:09 AM  

Great review, I didn't know she had married two brothers. Were there children?? Interesting.

Jennifer-Girls Gone Reading 12/16/10, 7:22 AM  

Just started this one, and I was thinking about getting the audio as well. Secretly-I have even found myself reading parts aloud to myself :) Liking it so far, but I think I might avoid the audio and just stick with the e-book.

Beth Kephart 12/16/10, 9:08 AM  

I have this book sitting here on my coffee table waiting for me. I cannot wait!

Jenn's Bookshelves 12/16/10, 9:08 AM  

I read Margaret George's MEMOIRS OF CLEOPATRA a few years ago and have since been intrigued about Cleopatra. I might have to get my hands on a copy of this, but based on your review I think I'll stick to the print version!

I like the idea of an accompanying CD with additional resources. So many times I'm researching info online that I read about in books so it's great this is provided!

Rural View 12/16/10, 9:28 AM  

I've always been curious about Cleopatra's real story (rather than the Liz Taylor version) so I'm looking forward to reading this book.

bermudaonion 12/16/10, 9:51 AM  

As you know, I struggled with this one. I've set it aside and hope that I will enjoy it more once we're through the holiday rush.

Pam 12/16/10, 9:54 AM  

Reviews seem to be all over the board on this one. I'm still pretty interested in it since I love her as a historical figure as misunderstood as she is.

marthalama 12/16/10, 10:26 AM  

This is my book club's next pick and I really look forward to it.

Jen - devourer of books 12/16/10, 11:08 AM  

I have this in both print and audio. Maybe I'll randomly go to the middle of the audio and listen for a few minutes before deciding which to use.

TexasRed 12/16/10, 1:19 PM  

I saw this book discussed on Jon Stewart and it sounded fascinating. Glad to hear you had some of the same impressions! Going to need to keep a look-out for it!

Julie P. 12/16/10, 5:29 PM  

I started this one and then put it back down. I'm looking forward to reading it especially after seeing the Cleopatra exhibit in Philly a few months ago.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 12/16/10, 8:39 PM  

"accusations of her seductiveness" ... yeah, I have the same problem :)

I don't have a background in the history of the period, but I'm going to give this one a try.

Thanks for pointing out the bonuses in the CD version; that is a nice extra (that listeners deserve)

Rebecca Rasmussen 12/17/10, 9:36 AM  

I agree with Kathy -- I think I'll wait until after the holidays :) xo

Swapna 12/17/10, 10:31 AM  

Ooh, the extra CD is a really nice bonus - I would have loved if the pub did that with Simon Winchester's Atlantic.

Jenna 12/17/10, 10:18 PM  

this sounds interesting...

Mrs. Q: Book Addict 12/17/10, 10:19 PM  

I've seen this book around, and it sounds like a book I would really enjoy. Great post!

Meghan 12/18/10, 7:25 AM  

As you've seen I really enjoyed this book myself! I have a bit of knowledge of the period, mostly from learning Latin, but much of it was really new to me. It's unfortunate that the audio wasn't quite up to scratch.

Bellezza 12/18/10, 2:13 PM  

I keep seeing this novel popping up on blogs and lists and bookstore web pages...I'd really like to read it. Glad you didn't give away any of the spoilers! ;)

Veens 12/19/10, 1:09 AM  

I have already read good things about this one. I have also been really interested in this time period and sadly have read only one book. I think I should get this one :)

readerbuzz 12/19/10, 6:28 PM  

I bought this book yesterday. Could not wait one more day for the library to get their copy processed!

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