Cleopatra: A Life

“It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence – in her ropes of pearls – there should, at least be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.” (Cleopatra: A life by Stacy Schiff)

Cleopatra CoverIt is patently clear that there is no way we can know Cleopatra’s motives or many of the events of her life. Not only has much been lost or destroyed, but her history was left to the too-capable hands of her enemies. Stacy Schiff admits this and never once tries to hold up one account as being the absolute truth. She cites from Plutarch, Dio, history of the time, and even Shakespeare, yet what ensues from this isn’t chaos, but a full picture of a dynamic and controversial woman.

Even though I have emerged from my week spent with this book rather more confused about Cleopatra’s life than at the onset, I feel that I have, in a sense, met this incredible woman. Real people don’t adhere to one specific story line – they bounce around, display their vices, and sometimes can’t even explain themselves to themselves. All of the different ways of looking at Cleopatra claim at least a small aspect of truth – she most likely loved Antony, for example, even while using him for his power and her own gain. By knowing Cleopatra’s story from so many angles the details become murky, but the person herself is revealed. Cleopatra rises above her one-sided legend here and becomes a multi-dimensional character, fit both for adoration and revulsion.

Beverage: An absolutely luxurious piece of non-fiction, this book calls for sweet, honeyed wine, of the bacchanal sort.

Reminds me of… a book that doesn’t bestow upon its characters the gift of three-dimensionality: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot focuses so fervently on showing her friends in the best light that she forgets people have many different sides.

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The Lady and the Panda by Vicki Croke

“The drink was good” (Paraphrased from too many female biographies)

The Lady and the Panda CoverI’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I wish there was a greater variety of book lengths out there. This biography could have been accomplished in 100 – 150 pages, but who would have picked it up? The modern reader is so used to the heft of a 300-page novel that any less seems cheap and any more feels grueling. Authors probably feel pressure to fill out their works to reach the 300-page benchmark even though their subject might only warrant 70 or 100 pages. In school, a favorite professor of mine refused to give a required paper length; he said that the paper would be however long it needed to be. I think it is rather unfortunate that this piece of wisdom isn’t applied to the modern book; we are losing out on experiencing a wider range of reading pleasures.

About half way through the book, my mind couldn’t help making connections between Ruth Harkness and other subjects of biographies or autobiographies I’ve read of women living roughly between 1900-1950; namely, M.F.K. Fisher and Edna St. Vincent Millay. All of these women start out with glorious, brilliant careers of unparalleled splendor but then end as alcoholics or morphine addicts. It makes you wonder if it was a characteristic of the time period that somehow had this effect on courageous and creative women, or if perhaps it is impossible to lead such a bright life without burning out in the end. I am not sure of the answer, and perhaps some excellent dissertation has been written on the phenomenon, but I keep being drawn to these biographies and always end up with the same question. I would appreciate any insight.

All this being said, however, The Lady and the Panda was a worthwhile read even if only to familiarize yourself with the rather incredible fact that a woman brought back the first captive panda to America.

Beverage: Stay away from alcohol here! Ruth’s on the wagon/off the wagon drinking problem will make you want to turn teetotaler before the end, so I’d recommend a nice, hot black tea for the cold winter atmosphere represented.

Reminds me of… As I said, Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher and Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Millford.