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This audio book version of Schiff's Pulitzer Prize winning biography is excellent. The historical material is well researched and documented and the speculative material is always signalled. The reader is excellent and the production superb. Am I alone in my praises? Well, no, since the book has garnered several well-deserved prizes.
Schiff's most recent biography, Cleopatra: A Life, was published by Little Brown in November of 2010 and reached Number 3 on the New York Times Bestseller List. To date, it has been featured on the following "Best of" lists:
- New York Times Magazine best non-fiction books of all time
- Seattle Times's Best Biographies of 2010
- The New York Times Book Review Top 10 Books of the Year
- New York Times Notable Books of 2010
- Michiko Kakutani's Top Ten Books of 2010
- Time Magazine Top Nonfiction
- The New Yorker's 2010 favorites
- Los Angeles Times Top Nonfiction
- NPR's Alan Cheuse Best Books of Winter
- Bloomberg Top Nonfiction
- The Week Magazine Top Books of 2010
- Obit Mag's Best Biographies of 2010
- Apple's Best Books of 2010
- Washington Post's Best Books of 2010
- Kirkus's Best Biographies of 2010
- Boston Globe's Best Books of 2010
- Washington Examiner's Best Books of 2010
- The Daily Beast's Top 5 Nonfiction Books of 2010
- San Francisco Chronicle Ten Best Books of 2010
When a contemporary reader hears the name "Cleopatra" he or she probably thinks of Elizabeth Taylor playing the Egyptian queen in the 1963 film Cleopatra with Richard Burton and remembers the love affairs, not only of Antony and Cleopatra, but also of Elizabeth and Richard. We think of the long eyelashes and the beauty as well as the death by asp.
Schiff's biography goes a long way toward recovering a real Cleopatra, a living, vibrant, beautiful, but above all, intelligent woman who was a ruler in her own right as the last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greek origin that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great's death. She was a brilliant and devoted administrator, a careful strategist, and a woman of great skills in dealing with the Romans who were spreading around the globe with their legions. The emphasis throughout is on the intelligent woman ruler as she deals with the men who desire her fortunes and her country. Schiff's Cleopatra is the world's first feminist: strong, intelligent, clever, and the recipient of the scorn and jealousy of the men who wrote about her in the days after her death. Men writers continued to describe her as a temptress, a seducer, and the like, and were unable to see her as a real person with abilities that equalled those of the men who tried to own her and her Egypt. And those men were the most powerful of the time: Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, and Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later to be called Augustus Caesar).
Cleopatra's struggles with her siblings for power led to a liaison with Julius Caesar that secured the Egyptian throne for her and produced a son, Caesarion, who became co-ruler of Egypt to show the Romans that there was a living connection between the countries. Later, of course, after the assassination of Julius Caesar, she aligned with Mark Antony against the other members of the triumvirate which was to rule in Caesar's place, but which embarked on a civil war to seek ultimate power.
We are all familiar with Shakespeare's brilliant Roman plays and with Shaw's play about Cleopatra. The story is well known, but Schiff is able to provide a compelling historical sweep complete with a fully developed woman at the center of the action. She is particularly good at describing the wealth and the extravagance of the Queen's court and the many marvellous parties and pilgrimages she provided for her subjects and her lovers. Her retinue was enormous; her expenditures vast. The display of wealth was beyond comprehension and one can easily see how Cleopatra has come to hold a special place in history.
The unabridged Cleopatra: A Life is read for the audio book production by actor Robin Miles who is just superb as a reader. Although the production runs for over fourteen hours there is not a moment of letdown since her power as an oral interpreter is flexible and strong, providing a richness that matches the richness of the source and of the subject.
In book form or as an audio book this is a massive and masterful work to be savoured and enjoyed. It is as close to the real Cleopatra as we, from the 21st century, will ever come.
© 2011 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.