Spring 2012

Cleopatra: a Life by Stacy Schiff

Reviewed by James Barasch, from The Tufts Daily‘s Barasch on Books

This week, I read Stacy Schiff’s new historical biography of “Cleopatra: A Life,” centered on the most famed Egyptian queen and identifiable woman of classical antiquity. She has been a topic of innumerable movies, plays, histories, and even advertising campaigns. Yet, from a historian’s perspective, all this attention may be rather perplexing, as very little contemporary information about her has survived to the modern day, and much of what does survive is unflattering.

It is a common saying that victors write the histories, and this is especially true for Cleopatra. Following her defeat at the Battle of Actium by Octavian Caesar — the future Augustus — and her suicide in 30 B.C. between the ages of 38 and 39 , Cleopatra’s reputation was systematically sullied by subsequent Roman-era chroniclers such as Plutarch and Cassius Dio, who present her not as the powerful, capable and cultured leader of an ancient kingdom — a woman in such power was, at least by Roman standards, unheard of — but as more of an irresistible femme fatale. This vision of Cleopatra depicts a woman whose seductive charms were so great that, while still in her early 20s, captured the affections of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of the most ambitious and powerful men of the time.

Schiff’s biography attempts to strip away the negative accumulations of history and reconstruct Cleopatra as she would have appeared in life. The author achieves this goal with astounding success, presenting Cleopatra Ptolemy as clear-eyed and competent — a Macedonian queen of the richest kingdom in the Mediterranean.

Cleopatra’s personality sparkles with education, charisma and vitality, and all are put to use as she attempts to carve a place for herself and her kingdom in an increasingly Roman-centric world. Cleopatra was also a survivor; she did not hesitate to kill, poison or usurp anyone — including her brothers and sister — who posed a threat to her rule. Schiff’s interpretation allows the reader to see how successful, powerful and experienced men as Julius Caesar and Antony could have fallen for this nubile young queen — whom all remaining ancient sources describe as striking, but not beautiful — and fathered all four of her children.

However, though a worthy biographical reconstruction, the historian may find Schiff’s book to be overwhelmingly peppered interpretations, commentary and vague statements. To Schiff’s credit, she does primarily rely on contemporary ancient sources. Her extensive bibliography and notes at the back of the book show Schiff to be a thorough and conscientious researcher. But, in her attempt to reach as broad an audience as possible with her fascinating story, Schiff had to provide many of her own insights.

Schiff does an admirable job in resurrecting Cleopatra and her world, and I’d recommend this book to anyone — and especially to those interested in history, classics or women’s studies — simply for the enthralling writing, intriguing arguments and fascinating reconstruction of one of the most powerful women of the ancient world. For a 300-plus page history book, it is a relatively fast read that will keep you interested from start to finish.

No matter your grounding in classical history, Schiff’s book appeals scholars and casual readers alike, and will familiarize you with a most exciting era in history and introduce you to the charming, cunning and capable woman at the center of it.

Tisch Library Call Number: DT92.7 .S35 2010
Location: Tisch Book Stacks

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

“From bestselling author Walter Isaacson comes the landmark biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. In Steve Jobs: A Biography, Isaacson provides an extraordinary account of Jobs’ professional and personal life. Drawn from three years of exclusive and unprecedented interviews Isaacson has conducted with Jobs as well as extensive interviews with Jobs’ family members, key colleagues from Apple and its competitors, Steve Jobs is the definitive portrait of the greatest innovator of his generation.”
Tisch Library Call Number:QA76.2.J63 I83 2011
Location: Tisch Book Stacks

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

“Once you start reading 1Q84, you won’t want to do much else until you’ve finished it. Murakami possesses many gifts, but chief among them is an almost preternatural gift for suspenseful storytelling….Despite its great length, Murakami’s novel is tightly plotted, without fat, and he knows how to make dialogue, even philosophical dialogue, exciting….There’s no question about the sheer enjoyability of this gigantic novel, both as an eerie thriller and as a moving love story.”

Tisch Library Call Number:PL856.U673 A61213 2011
Location: Tisch Book Stacks

Stones into Schools : Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off in 2003, recounting his relentless, ongoing efforts to establish schools for girls in Afghanistan; his extensive work in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan after a massive earthquake hit the region in 2005; and the unique ways he has built relationships with Islamic clerics, militia commanders, and tribal leaders even as he was dodging shootouts with feuding Afghan warlords and surviving an eight-day armed abduction by the Taliban. He shares for the first time his broader vision to promote peace through education and literacy, as well as touching on military matters, Islam, and women-all woven together with the many rich personal stories of the people who have been involved in this remarkable two-decade humanitarian effort.”

Tisch Library Call Number:LC2330 .M66 2009
Location: Tisch Book Stacks

Townie: a Memoir by Andre Dubus III

“After their parents divorced in the 1970s, Andre Dubus III and his three siblings grew up with their overworked mother in a depressed Massachusetts mill town saturated with drugs and everyday violence. Nearby, his father, an eminent author, taught on a college campus and took the kids out on Sundays. The clash between town and gown, between the hard drinking, drugging, and fighting of “townies” and the ambitions of students debating books and ideas, couldn’t have been more stark. In this unforgettable memoir, acclaimed novelist Dubus shows us how he escaped the cycle of violence and found empathy in channeling the stories of others–bridging, in the process, the rift between his father and himself.”

Tisch Library Call Number: PS3554.U2652 Z46 2011
Location: Tisch Book Stacks