November 19, 2014

Nonfiction November: Readalong Discussion for Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Welcome to the Nonfiction November Readalong Discussion for Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff!  My co-host for the discussion is the wonderful Katie of Doing Dewey.  We sat down last night and discussed Cleopatra and came up with a question-and-answer format for the discussion.  Cause we've got QUESTIONS and we want to ask you what you think about them!

Katie: I'm not sure where to start... I guess with the beginning. Personally, I could tell I was going to like this book right away because the author started by saying she'd be clear about what was factual. I really like when nonfiction authors do that. What were your first impressions?

Becca: Same here.  I felt like she was very clear she wanted to be objective and factual.  Every time she quoted someone, like another biographer, she would say if she thought that it was a subjective finding by the person. I thought this led some credibility to her work, though it was sometimes distracting.  I also thought the book was kind of overwhelming sometimes because there was SO much information packed in there.  I sometimes had to put the book down to absorb the info before continuing.  I liked it a lot, but, like someone else said on Twitter, I couldn't really devour the book like I wanted to. Did you feel like that at all?

Katie: Oh yes! It was readable. I really liked the author's "voice", which I found very engaging. But sometimes it seemed as though every sentence had several pieces of information about Cleopatra's Egypt and I knew I'd never remember them all.  I did feel like I learned a lot though. In particular, I got a very different view of Cleopatra and her motives than what was in my head from pop culture representations. Right from the first meeting with Caesar, I thought the author presented a less sexed up and more believable version of Cleopatra's story than I've seen before. What did you think of the way Cleopatra came across in the book? Was there anything that particularly surprised you?

Becca: I was thinking, too, about the sexualized versions of Cleopatra's story versus Cleopatra as, basically, a strong female leader who had a lot of political ambition.  It reminds me of modern politics, really.  Look at, for example, Hilary Clinton.  It is more about if a "grandmother" can run the country than about her political strategies and objectives.  If she were a man, I doubt they would use the word "manipulative".  Like Schiff, they would say she was strategic and cunning and intelligent, you know?  She found a way to work the system, yes, but like Schiff said, it is impossible to know if she seduced them or the other way around.  

Katie: I agree! For all we know Caesar was bored during the siege right after he met Cleopatra and when he made a move, she decided to take one for the team and just go with it. To compare her to her contemporaries(ish), I've never heard Caesar, Ptolemy, or Alexander the Great described as manipulative. I also don't think there are many male rulers who are sexualized in the way that Cleopatra is and even today, it does seem that female politicians come under much greater scrutiny for their looks. I'm also kind of curious why Cleopatra is the member of the Ptolemy dynasty we remember. It seems as though murder, incest, and intrigue were par for the course in her family. Is it because she was the last pharaoh or again because she's a woman? It's hard to say.

Becca: Good point.  Probably both.  I think that's interesting - why has she captivated us for so long?  Schiff even says at the beginning of the book that "Caesar became history, but Cleopatra became legend."  It's really interesting to consider.  I wonder how Cleopatra would feel if she knew that her bedding two Romans would be the thing most remembered about her.  I'm guessing pretty upset!  Another quote that hits on this, "Cleopatra was every bit Caesar's equal as a coolheaded, clear-eyed pragmatist, though what passed on his part as strategy would be remembered on hers as manipulation."

I found interesting was that Cleopatra and her four siblings all met violent ends, but Cleopatra was the only one that controlled hers.  She planned it for a year.  She knew it was coming and she made sure her destiny was on her terms.  That's pretty impressive.  

I remember being surprised there was cursive writing and hydraulic lifts.  It never ceases to amaze me just how advanced Alexandria was, and I often wonder how much we lost in the infamous library fire.

Katie:  I didn't know they had hydraulic lifts either! I don't know why this is, but I do imagine the Romans having such things, just not the Egyptians. Perhaps just because my history lessons covered an earlier time period in Egypt and a later time period in Rome.

I was actually really surprised by the rights women had at the time. I recently read The Woman Who Would be King and it's clear that Hatshepsut only managed to rule by slowly morphing her public image into that of a man. I expected Cleopatra to also be an anomaly, but it seems as though she was highly educated, came from a long line of powerful women, and would probably fit right in with the property-owning, alimony-receiving women of her day.

How do you feel about the author including her own thoughts on how Cleopatra was remembered, as in the two quotes you share? Although I think you can argue that she's objectively right and although I think she's doing a good thing setting the record straight, I also sometimes felt like she had an agenda, which bothered me a little. The Woman Who Would be King was the same way, actually.

Becca: I felt the same way about the quotes.  It felt like she was fixing the subjectiveness but also kind of putting those biographers down for filling in the gaps that history has left.  Lots of biographers have written that way.  I'm not saying it is right, but it was kind of snobby the way it came across. 

I loved how the women were equals in Alexandrian society.  I wonder why it then disappeared for thousands of years.  Another loss of the fire?  Technology, scientific discoveries, literature, and women's rights?  

Katie: I agree, it didn't always come across the way I think she probably meant it. Is there anything else we should chat about?  Or do you have any last thoughts? Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It was a bit dense, but I thought the author did a great job being descriptive despite trying to stick to the facts. I think my favorite thing about it is that I came away with a completely different view of Cleopatra and I think it's a more accurate, nuanced, interesting view than the one found in pop culture. 

Becca: I agree wholeheartedly.  I now think of Cleopatra as more of a role model for power, intelligence, and feminism in the ancient world, while before I still had the idea of her as a woman who used her sexuality to influence government, instead of following in the Ptolemy footsteps of murder and war. She is, clearly, so much more than just a woman using her gender to her advantage! She was just as intelligent and cunning and strategic as Caesar and any of her male contemporaries.  I appreciated the view Schiff brought to Cleopatra.  I can't wait to read what others thought of the book, too!

Discussion Questions - Pick and choose a few!

~What did you think of the book overall?

~Did you have an impression of what Cleopatra was like before reading the book and is it different now?  How?

~In nonfiction, is it important to you that an author make it clear when their speculating or when there is ambiguity? Do you mind if an author speculates if the author lets you know that they're speculating?

~Cleopatra, despite her many achievements, is mainly remembered as a manipulative seductress while Caesar is remembered historically as a strategic ruler.  What do you think about this distinction?  

~Cleopatra's story is often sexualized in pop culture versions.  Do you think women in positions of power are still sexualized in the media?  

~Were you surprised by anything in the book?  Anything you didn't know that jumped out at you in particular?

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