Cleopatra: A Life

  • Seattle Times's Best Biographies of 2010
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"A work of literature." — Judith Thurman, The New Yorker

"Enthralling" — Maureen Dowd, The New York Times

"A masterpiece." — Michael Korda, The Daily Beast

"Stacy Schiff is that rare combination: a first-rate historian and a brilliant storyteller. Using a wide range of sources, she spins straw into gold, conjuring the world of Ptolemaic Egypt in full vibrant color, and returning the voice of one of the most powerful, fascinating, and maligned women in history. Cleopatra is impossible to put down." — Rick Riordan

"The most compelling biography of the year." — Liz Smith,

"Schiff strips away the accretions of myth that have built up around the Egyptian queen and plucks off the imaginative embroiderings of Shakespeare, Shaw and Elizabeth Taylor....In doing so, she gives us a cinematic portrait of a historical figure far more complex and compelling than any fictional creation, and a panoramic picture of her world....Schiff seems to have inhaled everything there is to know about Cleopatra and her times, and she uses her authoritative knowledge of the era — and her instinctive understanding of her central players—to assess shrewdly probable and possible motives and outcomes." — Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"[S]o well-written that it's almost like a novel in its juicy literary flair...." — Tina Brown of The Daily Beast on NPR

" a skillful storyteller who knows how to spin the threads of history into a compelling narrative. Here, she clears away the tall tales to get at the truth about Egypt's elusive queen." — BookPage

"Schiff rises to this challenge and creates an engaging biography by relentlessly stitching together the pieces of her subject's broader life and making connections between them....In the course of Cleopatra: A Life, the reader comes to understand the complexities of the world Cleopatra lived in through the details Schiff includes in her narrative....Schiff does not try to portray Cleopatra as a feminist icon or as a victim of the men in her life. What she does do is reveal the complexities of why Cleopatra went down in history as "the snare, the delusion, the seductress." Throughout this biography, Schiff reveals through colorful details and clearly written prose why exaggerating Cleopatra's sexual prowess was less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts." — W. Ralph Eubanks, NPR

"It is a beautiful pairing—the most alluring and elusive woman in recorded history, and one of the most gifted biographers of our time. Style, like leadership, is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. We see it here on every page." — Joseph J. Ellis

"Even if forced to at gunpoint, Stacy Schiff would be incapable of writing a dull page or a lame sentence. Here she trains her satirical eye and sterling erudition on Cleopatra, rescuing her from the many shopworn myths that have encrusted her story from Plutarch to Shakespeare to Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Schiff's luminous prose evokes the ancient world with vivid splendor, whether it be the cosmopolitan charms of Alexandria or the murderous feuds of Rome. Her portraits of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony are fresh and provocative. Best of all, Cleopatra emerges as much more than the voluptuous seductress of legend and comes across as a shrewd, cunning, and highly competent monarch who knew how to thrive in a Mediterranean world of savage politics." — Ron Chernow

"What dazzles us in Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra are not the alluring mythologies about the evasive queen, but the astonishing if rare historical facts that Schiff has meticulously and lovingly excavated. Schiff offers not just Cleopatra's story but the story of an amazing era, one that has vanished but still affects us, questioning the way we look at myth, history, and ourselves." — Azar Nafisi

"Great historians can make the discovery of the real story more exciting than the romantic myth. Stacy Schiff, a great historian as well as a wonderful writer, peels away the layers to reveal the true Cleopatra&mdasdh;a much more interesting woman than the Hollywood version and, as it turns out, a formidable queen after all." — Evan Thomas

"An epic subject requires a writer of epic skill and scope, and we have a perfect pairing in Cleopatra and Stacy Schiff. Absorbing and illuminating, this new biography will endure." — Jon Meacham

"This is an astonishing, scrupulously researched, meticulously assembled retelling of one of the world's most famous lives—and it will become a classic." — Simon Winchester

"I am grateful to Stacy Schiff first of all because she can write a sentence—because she offers us her scholarship with wit, clarity, and grace. Once again, she has done what only the best writers can do: she has made the world new, again." — Tracy Kidder

"Stacy Schiff's meticulous research, the depth and deftness of her portrayal, have given us a Cleopatra far richer and more satisfying than the myths and fantasies that we have mistaken for true nourishment. This CLEOPATRA is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the history and lives of women." — Mary Gordon


A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

"This is a book to savor. Every page has some new nugget of insight, or some graceful turn of phrase that generates a verbal airburst over the most psychologically agile American of his time, perhaps of all time. Schiff has given a genuine jolt to the recent surge of interest in Franklin, along the way demonstrating why she is generally regarded as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today." — Joseph J. Ellis

"Stacy Schiff's extensive scholarship, her eye for the colorful detail, and her lively wit combine to bring alive—in full dress and in an absorbing narrative—the cast of statesmen, adventurers, spies, courtiers, patriots and con men who have a part in the story of Benjamin Franklin's negotiations for American independence, and to fix among them America's greatest diplomat, winning his way (and America's) in a style of calculated disarray. An extraordinary book." — Edmund S. Morgan

"What a brilliant book. A Great Improvisation pays tribute to the extraordinary love affair between monarchist France and the republican Benjamin Franklin. Their child was America, conceived at home and nurtured into maturity by France. It is a story full of intrigue, jealousy and passion. But ultimately it is a celebration of one American's love for his country. Stacy Schiff has written a masterpiece, capturing a fleeting moment when the stars aligned between Congress and Versailles." — Amanda Foreman

"A stunning book...Lively, witty, and extremely readable...It is hard to put the book down....A remarkably subtle and penetrating portrait of Franklin and his diplomacy." — Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books

"In sparkling prose, burnished to a high gloss, Stacy Schiff tells the tale of Benjamin Franklin in Paris with piquant humor, outrageous anecdotes worthy of the finest French farce, and a wealth of lapidary observations. Her Paris unfolds as a glittering carnival of spies, rogues, frauds, and flawed reformers, eccentric nobility and perpetually squabbling American diplomats. Towering above all is the protean figure of Franklin, an improbable compound of wit, cunning, hypocrisy, courage, and tireless devotion to his country. C'est magnifique!" — Ron Chernow

"An impressively researched, fine-grained account of Franklin's Paris years, and his critically important mission to secure French support and French money. The French adventure, as Ms. Schiff convincingly argues, should be remembered as Franklin's finest hour." — The New York Times

"[A] fine new biography...Ebullient." — The Economist

"Magnificent....Schiff has such command of tempo that she sends shivers down a reader's spine." — The Los Angeles Times

Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage

"There are many good reasons to be interested in the life of Véra Nabokov, but the best one is that Stacy Schiff has written it. She is the rising star of literary biography: witty, lucid, penetrating and humane." — Judith Thurman

"Véra is an astonishingly fine book—a tale told with wit and elegance, a tale that succeeds in encompassing both the intimacy of a marriage and the sweep of history...I'm in awe of Stacy Schiff's talent." — Jonathan Harr

"Véra is a beautiful book. Built on a heroic scale, it is subtle, intimate, and richly argued. Almost every page projects a truly remarkable woman and her part as tutelary spirit in the work of a great writer. Has there ever been a literary marriage so productive, complex, and intriguing as this one?" — Justin Kaplan

"I am truly in love with this book. Schiff's sentences are magnificent, deceptively complex, full of insight and fact and distance and wry humor, so that every page is a kind of mini feast." — Anita Shreve

"Schiff has succeeded in creating an elegantly nuanced portrait of the artist's wife, showing us just how pivotal Nabokov's marriage was to his hermetic existence and how it indelibly shaped his work. She effortlessly conjures up the disparate worlds the couple inhabited...a formidable challenge for a biography—a challenge that Ms. Schiff, with this book, has most persuasively met." — Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"An absorbing story, illuminated by Schiff's flair for the succinct insight...This portrait of a fifty-two-year marriage to a woman who was teh writer's prime reader open up Nabokov's private life....But the triumph of Véra is not just in providing entrée to her famous husband. She fascinates of her own right." — Lyndall Gordon, The New York Times Book Review

"Schiff has performed a monumental task in drawing a nuanced and fairly detailed portrait of the woman behind the mask both husband and wife conspired to create.... Writing in sprightly prose that captures the 'verbal tennis' of the couple's interactions, [she] has given us a vivid and truthful portrait of a proud and gifted woman whose contribution to Vladimir Nabokov's life and career was immense." — The Boston Globe

"A sharply focused, vividly detailed portrait. Schiff's elegant prose style [is] at once forceful and playfully allusive in the nicest Nabokovian fashion." — The Los Angeles Times

"Artful...both revolutionary and old-fashioned, an intimate biography that leaves both the imagination and the privacy of its subject intact." — Newsday

"Illuminating...'Without my wife,' Nabokov once remarked, 'I wouldn't have written a single novel.'...Schiff's work boldly and brilliantly illuminates how complex was this deceptively simple statement...A superb portrait." — Louise DeSalvo, The Chicago Tribune

Saint-Exupéry: A Biography

"A remarkable biography; indeed, it is impossible to imagine the job better done. It is balanced, perceptive, thoroughly researched, and exceptionally well-written." — The New Yorker

"Superb, spirited, enthralling. For anyone who enjoys a fascinating life-story well told, this is a book not to be missed." — David McCullough

"What distinguishes this biography from so many others is the elegance, witty intelligence, and sheer line-by-line pleasure of the writing... An exemplary biography." — Phillip Lopate

"A beautiful piece of writing, supremely poised, drawing so effortlessly from its research that it is hard to believe Schiff wasn't an eyewitness; she shows a flair for storytelling that even her subject would envy." — The Observer (London)