Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 302 pages
Published November 1st 2010 by Little, Brown and Company

Released to rave reviews and the full packaging monty of its publisher, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra took the NYT by storm in 2011, remaining there for months. And no wonder! This kamikaze of masterly writing, meticulous and thorough research, and humanizing hand of the author did a spectacular job of unmasking the woman behind the myth and debunking the lies we today call slander.
This is the biography of Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator (as the title implies) but it is done unlike any other. (PLEASE) remove the images of Liz Taylor in near-drag from your mind as you embark on this one, for this work is a truly stunning portrayal of the woman behind the parable. This biography delves into her marriages, her political decisions, her rise and her downfall. The flap said it all. In fact, it was the dazzling summary in the book flap that drew me in (rather than the razzle dazzle of Schiff’s renowned name on the cover and spine):
“Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons…In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order, a generation before the birth of Christ.”

Honestly, I couldn’t have summed this one up better myself (and whoever wrote that flap summary, in its entirety, should be commended themselves).
This biography, mind you, was released before the (in my opinion) disastrous exposé that Schiff did on The Witches, back when I’d never heard of this Pulitzer Prize winner and my mind was free of all bias for what those pages might hold, for how her style of writing would or would not stimulate and intrigue me. So, I was delighted to find that even the very first line drew me in with a skill rivaling the best in fiction, and her knack for weaving a story out of the hard research and history lost—rather than numbing the reader’s mind with dull and tiresome fact after fact—kept me reading, and hooked.
“Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all.”
Thus go the very first two lines of this biographical tour de force. Schiff weaves the tale in three dimensions. The world—Cleopatra’s world—that she depicts is rich with detail, color, noise. Intrigue, scandal, but, best of all, skillful and methodical stripping away of the myths that surround the legend. Page by page, Schiff untangles the Queen from the lies that have torn her down and muddied her name and her legacy, her intelligence and her political savvy. She dissects the hard decisions made in the name of sovereignty and survival that have painted Cleopatra both the witch and the harlot for centuries, truly, millennia—detailing the actions that made the Queen while giving the reader the perspective of the Queen who made the actions.
No surprise that the same methods used to villainize women both today and historically were used to dismantle the legacy of a great ruler of that era; indeed, the last ruler of that era. But Schiff’s Cleopatra did not cower behind the wall of generations of myth and salaciousness. Everything from her genealogy and skin tone (about as disputed as that of Christ himself’s) to education and precarious upbringing were explored, and Schiff’s work did a masterly job of giving the reader a view of Cleopatra’s life from a thrilling perch, as if right on her shoulder the entire time.
Because of this work, I will most certainly give Schiff’s writing another chance. This page turner (I literally finished half of it in one sitting) made me laugh with the satirical jabs that Schiff managed to aim at the lies surround her muse. It brought me to tears—yes, real ones!—at the climactic conclusion that left a queen and her lover dead and an era at an end. And the clever style of writing itself was witty, intellectual, adroit and entertaining to say the least. My copy was left full of highlighted passages and marginal notes; the best kind of read, if you ask me. Five stars *****

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The Witches, Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 417 pages
Published October 27th 2015 by Little, Brown and Company

I’m sorry to say that this one nearly bored me to tears (yes, literal and actual tears), which is a far cry from what I’d expected—and what Miss Schiff’s previous prize-winner, Cleopatra, invoked in me during the reading of it. I was ever so excited to start this one because I’d SO enjoyed Cleopatra—that one had me turning pages faster than any fiction thriller ever has and literally brought me to tears in the end—definitely the kind of roller coaster read that we all yearn for but wouldn’t dream of finding in a biography!

However, I found The Witches to be a muddled let-down from the very first page! A tremendous bore whose tendency towards superfluous purple prose didn’t have nearly the moving effect as it offered before. This one proved to be as laborious a task in reading as it must have been in writing, which is never the effect that an author wishes to achieve, I’d imagine. It skipped around from progressing through the timeline of events in its narration to delving into the most minute details of the backgrounds of even the most minor individuals—an enterprise to be applauded that her research yielded such the treasure trove of information, but a fact that severely slowed the progression of the narrative and made the following of it more difficult than necessary.

I felt like I was constantly juggling the backstory of each minister, shop keeper, servant and—Lord help me, each family line. Now, who refused to bring firewood to the new minister, and who first accused who of witchcraft because what (and whose cousin/sister/brother/niece/neighbor was that again)? That’s what it sounded like in my head with every page I turned! Ordinarily, such a deep understanding of the characters would be enriching to say the least, but this made me feel leaden down and burdened with the reading of the minutiae, like I was trudging through never-ending quicksand! This actually made it hard to get back into the timeline of events because I sometimes couldn’t remember where I’d even left off in the recounting before the meandering path of anecdotes about all of the interweaving families had knocked me off my reading compass. It was a lot like trying to follow a path already overridden with weeds (over-wrought in its attempts at setting the setting) only to be led off the path and back onto it again over and over by trails you thought you were following to stay on course.

Honestly, the reading of this would have been much easier and more enjoyable if Schiff had organized the information differently—shorter chapters would have been an immensely helpful start—so that the reader could more easily remember, categorize and process all of the moving parts of the story in a way that worked more like a novel, as her previous work did. Sure, there was a Shakespearean-like list and description of characters at the start, but even the use of that pulls the reader away from the flow of the work. The Witches would function wonderfully as a reference for an academic paper or the like, but not as a read for any sort of personal enjoyment, whether it had been based on fact or fiction. And this from someone who thoroughly enjoyed one of her other works. After all, as they say, nonfiction writing requires the finesse for story-telling of fiction authoring. Here, the finesse that I previously knew her for was missing. I would give five stars for the sheer amount of information presented here and for just how deeply her research went, but only one star for the way that it read. 1 star *