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Non-Fiction Book Club: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, Thursday, April 5, 2012 @ 6:30PM

As a humble moderator, I would like to thank, once again the dedicated and insightful folks comprising the Non Fiction book group for a thoughtful, if somewhat contentious, discussion of James Carroll’s memoir An American Requiem. Y’all brought it: perspective and passion. Great work.

It is time, once again to set our sights on another nonfiction gem. This time around, we’ll be leaving the nebulous, fact bending world of memoir to enter the better researched emotionally removed neighboring province of biography. Though it is clear, the facts of the life of the figure outlined in the chosen book are certainly shrouded in misconception, bombast, and caricature. I am talking of Cleopatra. And the book—meticulously cobbled together by, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff (Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabakov)—is Cleopatra: A Life.

As Ms. Schiff outlines in her opening chapter there are only a few actual recorded facts known about Cleopatra. The rest of her story has been written by her enemies or admirers, often decades or lifetimes after her death.

And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history. The holes in the record present one hazard, what we have constructed around them another. Affairs of state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart. A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages; silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors. … To restore Cleopatra is as much to salvage the few facts as to peel away the encrusted myth and the hoary propaganda.

Ironically enough, the rights to this myth peeling biography have been bought by film producer Scott Rubin with Angelina Jolie’s name being bandied about to play the queen. Ah, Hollywood.

I’ve posted a video of Ms. Schiff on the Tavis Smiley show talking about her reasons for taking on the task of illuminating the life of this elusive character.

Watch Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.