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How Much of "History" Is Fiction?

At the March meeting of our AIB Book Group, we discussed Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff.  While many of us found good reasons to read this book, virtually everyone agreed that it was poorly written and surprisingly so since the author had won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier biography and Cleopatra, itself, was named a New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year. But, it just wasn’t a compelling read. It kept wandering away from the main subject and the writing was scattered and disjointed. It was almost as if the author had taken all her note cards, thrown them in the air and then pieced them together wherever they happened to fall. We had to keep rereading paragraphs and even sentences just to follow the thought thread. Personally, I have never seen a book that used so many dashes to offset ideas and factoids that sometimes were completely unrelated to the sentence in which the offset appeared. Others felt the same way about the footnotes.

Having said all this about the style and structure, the research is impressive and the content itself is fairly interesting. As one reader noted, Cleopatra’s family makes the Sopranos look like the Waltons. It is also very interesting to note how little has changed about politics in 2000 years. But, most importantly, Schiff offers a very interesting and completely different perspective on Cleopatra than we have seen before. Her main premise is that the popular image of Cleopatra to date has been based on “facts” gleaned from people who either were her enemies or who lived centuries later and really had no idea what had happened, yet in both cases presented their stories with great apparent knowledge and certainty. The fact is there are very few facts about her. Most of the stories are manufactured and yet have been accepted as history. Today, all many people know about her is from the Hollywood movie featuring Elizabeth Taylor, and maybe from a session or two of class in elementary school history. This is unfortunate since she is one of the most powerful, important and intriguing figures in ancient history. What Schiff’s book does is invite us to look with an open mind, not just at Cleopatra, but at many other figures in history that have been described by authors, scholars and theologians, and ask how much of this “history” is fiction and how much is fact? This should seem obvious but it’s really not. It is extraordinary how much we accept as truth if it’s just stated confidently and eruditely enough. What Schiff herself says is that “[mostly] I have restored context.” There are no reliable sources so she couldn’t do much more than that. We just wish she had done it in a more organized and reader-friendly way.

We have our final meeting of the 2011/2012 season on Tuesday, April 3 at 3:00pm at Big Water Cafe & Coffee Roasters at which we will discuss Half-Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls and make our tentative plans for the next season which will begin in November. Our central figure in Half-Broke Horses does not individually have the historical significance of Cleopatra but she certainly represents an important cadre of women in history who in their own personal ways blazed the trail for the rest of us. I really look forward to talking about this book with our group. Remember, anyone is welcome, even if you haven't read the book and want to come just to sit in.