‘Cleopatra: A Life’ by Stacy Schiff – “Best Book Of The Year?”

The first few pages of Cleopatra:A Life by Stacy Schiff is busting with extraordinary praise. Many great books (and some undeserving ones) have this dedication but Cleopatra’s praise extends for 7 pages – almost a chapter in itself. Words such as “startling, sizzles with passion, superb, astonishing” and New York Times Book Review claiming it’s the Best Book of The Year. Wall Street Journal remarkably says, “Stacy Schiff does a rare thing: She gives us a book we’d miss if it did not exist.” Seriously?

The author has previously won the Pulitzer Prize for the astonishing, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). Her book, Saint-Exupéry was a also Pulitzer Prize finalist. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, was the winner of the George Washington Book Prize. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She was a Director’s Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She also received an Academy Award in Literature (2006) from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Schiff is obviously an over achiever whose only worry seems to be kicking herself at night for not winning the second Pulitzer Prize while you worry about how your going to pay your phone bill. Nevertheless, she is an over achiever for a reason. She has passion and a gift for prose and research.

Cleopatra is an entertaining and informative read, rich with descriptions of splendor. It also emphasises the relationship between Cleopatra and Antony’s was more about politics and power than love and romance. While at times it reads as a historical thesis, the author needs to be commended for the extensive and impeccable research and scholarship. Although Schiffs writing style has been criticized in this biography for aiming squarely at a general audience, I find both Schiff’s style of writing in this biography easy to read and only find it complicated when Schiff uses dramatic and exhaustive descriptions often for quite simplistic things.

I may have found it hard to read on a Subway in Brooklyn or in my lunch break from work – but it is worth it. I found it interesting, for the most part eloquent, fascinating and entertaining. And unlike some books I could put it down – but it always manage to creep back into my mind and I thought about it even when I wasn’t reading it. That to me, is the hallmark of a great book.

Buy Cleopatra: A Life.

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