Stacy Schiff’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography has been sitting on my shelves for the better part of a decade now. I picked up a battered used copy ages ago, dipped into a few pages, loved it…and then put it aside because life. Now, having finally returned to it, it’s been one of the bookish highlights of my summer.
Véra and Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship is legendary. Though Vladimir had dalliances with other women and was undoubtedly a difficult person to live with, the two seemed destined to be together: both were intellectual giants — Véra supposedly read War and Peace at age 3; Vladimir at age 6 — were multilingual and worldly, and were even born with the same neurological phenomenon of synesthesia. Vladimir was poised for greatness early on, and Véra understood and accepted that her role was to do everything to make that happen.
I’m giving away several books throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month. Win a copy of this book, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company! Read on for more information.
Cleopatra’s legacy is indelible: In her twenties and thirties, she ruled a country that was known for producing scholars, doctors, and artists. She had children with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, two of the most recognizable names in history. Centuries after her death, she remains a pop culture icon, forever immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor.
Depending on who you ask, she’s also a wickedly conniving woman who singlehandedly brought down an empire.
Because she was such a controversial figure, much of what is known about Cleopatra VII is muddled. While she certainly had her followers, her detractors’ writings–including the likes of Plutarch and Dio–also served to color people’s impressions. In Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff sifts through historical events and surviving historical documents to piece together a more objective interpretation of Cleopatra’s life.
If you know next to nothing about Cleopatra’s life (I certainly fell into that category), you will come away with an eye-opening portrait of one of the most notorious women in history and the culture she grew up in. Of Cleopatra’s family tree, or “ungainly shrub of a family tree,” Schiff writes:
While the inbreeding was meant to stabilize the family, it had a paradoxical effect…Over the generations the [Ptolemy] family indulged in what has been termed “an orgy of pillage and murder,” lurid even by colorful Macedonian standards…Over and over mothers sent troops against sons. Sisters waged war against brothers. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother fought one civil war against her parents, a second against her children.
Indeed, right before forging a relationship with Caesar, a young Cleopatra had her brother/husband murdered in order to secure her power. It’s been a while since I’ve read any Macedonian history, so getting reacquainted with all of the violence and backstabbing was astonishing.