Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra, the famous last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, comes quite vividly to life in Cleopatra: A Life, which tells the stunning and intriguing story of Cleopatra. Her life and death has been disputed greatly, and with the loss of records from the destruction of Alexandria's library, the sources of Cleopatra's life come only from those who destroyed her and Mark Antony. Stacy Schiff attempts to "strip 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." (X) The book is captivating and spins Cleopatra in a new light: a "shrewd strategist" and an "ingenious negotiator," a woman who has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons...
The sources may be flawed, but they are the only sources we have. There is no universal agreement on the basic details of her life, no consensus on who her mother was, how long Cleopatra lived in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether sha and Antony married, what transpired at the battle that sealed her fate, how she died. (8)
 I knew very little about Cleopatra and Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire before I began this novel. Upon finishing, I feel like I have a very solid grasp of Cleopatra's life (and of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony). I did not know that Cleopatra killed her siblings to secure her throne, or that she was the wealthiest woman in the world at one point in history. I didn't know she associated with the godess Isis, the ideal mother and wife. She is a truly admirable woman, using her perceived weakness as a woman to her strength. The affairs of Cleopatra/Caeser and Cleopatra/Mark Antony are strongly interwoven throughout the novel, adding a layer of romantic intrigue, even though Schiff makes it clear "Cleopatra's life was neither as lurid nor as romantic as has been made out." (322) It is a historical novel that doesn't feel like one; you subconsciously realize as you're reading this is a true story of a magnificent women, but the book itself is "a cinematic portrait of a historical figure far more complex and compelling than any fictional creation, and a wide, panning, panoramic picture of her world." (x) A #1 National Bestseller, I urge you to read Cleopatra when you have the chance. You won't regret it, and you'll learn that Cleopatra is much more dynamic the femme fatale western literature and culture has made her to be. Rating: ★★★★★


A Room with a View

Written at the end of the Victorian Era and dawn of the Edwardian Era in England, E.M. Forester's A Room with a View comments on the new liberal and open-minding ideals were replacing old social norms. The protagonist is Lucy Honeychurch, on holiday in Italy with her straight-laced, snobbish, and narrow-minded aunt. A "classic exploration of passion, human nature and social convention," Forester's novel is both delightful and insightful.
But Lucy had developed since the spring. That is to say, she was now better able to stifle the emotions of which the conventions and the world disapprove...Love felt and returned, love which our bodies exact and our hearts have transfigured, love which is the most real thing that we shall ever meet, reappeared now as the world's enemy, and she must stifle it. (132)
Lucy struggles with identifying her emotions and defying the social constructs of the time period she's living in. It was wondrously written, letting the reader get lost in the worlds of Italy and England. It was adapted into a critically acclaimed film in 1985, starring Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy. Overall, Forester's classic novel was a short, easy read but an enlightening social commentary on England at the turn of the twentieth century. Rating: ★★★★


The Secret Agent

Arguably one of Joseph Conrad's finest novels, The Secret Agent (published 1907)  was inspired by the possibly first terrorist international incident in Great Britain, anarchist Martial Bourdin's 1894 death while apparently attempting to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian anarchist, believed in order to gather a larger following, “We must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.” (source). Conrad took this story to a whole new level, adding saboteurs, violence and mystery to thicken the plot. "Murder is always with us. It is almost an institution." (34) The role of terrorism & anarchy is important in the novel. Conrad lets the reader understand the bombing before the main characters, therefore letting the readers have a greater sense of what was happening, even as he leaves us hanging on many unanswered questions (How is Winnie going to react? Is Verloc truly responsible?) Starting off slowly, the novel slowly built tension and intrigue, and Winnie (as eloquently described, "She was death itself - the companion of life."(235)) developed into my favorite character in the novel. As the New York Times book review from 1907 writes, "the story is a sombre one. There is death in it, despair, revenge...and there are Anarchists, human but freakish, each after his kind..." This novel was written during the first great terrorist wave (perpetrated by anarchists, with casualties including an assassination of an American President). As the NYT hailed The Secret Agent in 2005 as "the most brilliant novelistic study of terrorism," it strikes me as extremely to this new age of terrorism we're living in. In the aftermath of 9/11, The Secret Agent became one of the three most quoted pieces of literature in the American media. As a Slate article discusses, the media wasn't getting it wrong. They were taking the book at face value - comparing al Qaeda terrorists to the anarchists who blew up the Observatory - when, in reality, it's the book itself that's demonstrating the principles of terrorism:
Conrad specifically compares his book to a work of terrorism—in a preface to The Secret Agent, he apologizes for its grim violence, then says, "I have not intended to commit a gratuitous outrage on the feelings of mankind." The idea Conrad sets out to blow up in the novel is modernism's sin of thinking abstractly about moral and human affairs...The anarchists think this way; the police do, too; and so do the government officials. Conrad dismisses them all. The only person who does not think this way is the secret agent's wife, Winnie Verloc.
(Again, reasons why Winnie is my favorite - she was the one true anarchist in the novel, very surprisingly so for reasons I won't disclose due to plot spoilers!) Stick with the novel if you chose to read it; beginning slowly, it introduces characters one by one and gives the reader a clear portrait of England in the 1890s before bringing the novel to the important action. Once the bombing occurs, the plot doesn't stop. It's thrilling and exciting and a lens through which we can view terrorism today. Rating: ★★★★★