Monday, January 16, 2012

Walk like an Egyptian

Next on the Imaginary Friends Book Club list is Cleopatra: A Life. Technically our reviews were due yesterday but I played hooky. So you get it a day late. Also I’ll be frank—I’m not one for writing book reviews in the conventional sense. If you want a more learned approach to these books we’ve been reading, I suggest you go here or here. Otherwise, you get how I experienced the book.

Sometimes a book will just smack me in the gut. It’s as though whatever is going on in my life sort of links up with the book to create a great big hell yeah. Even if the book isn’t all that well written, if the message hits home for me, I’m tone deaf to any flaws.

The Song of the Lark did that for me. Thea’s story of talent and ambition and what it cost her to pursue her dreams illustrated how hard it is for women to even have those dreams, let alone do anything about them. I’ve never reread the book, even though I reread almost everything. I’m afraid the book’s magic was less about Willa Cather’s writing and more about where I was in my life when I read it.

The movie Gattaca did that for me also. There’s one line close to the end of the movie when Anton demands to know how Vincent, who is genetically inferior to him, has been able to beat him swimming across a bay. Vincent tells his brother that he never saves anything for the trip back. For whatever reason, that movie and especially that line absolutely hit home. I've also never rewatched the movie, and for the same reason I haven't reread Lark.

So on to Cleopatra: A Life.

I loved it, absolutely and without reservation and even though I knew the ending. Others in the group have been voicing less positive opinions and I get it and might feel the same way if we were discussing a similarly long-dead, almost mythological male ruler. But it’s Cleopatra, who was known not only for her extreme beauty but was also apparently quite well educated. I love it that she had it all—looks and brains and ambition—and she won it all, if only for a while.

I read the book almost as soon as our book club formed and I haven’t gone back and reread it so I can’t quote you bits and pieces to back up my opinion. But that’s OK, that’s all this is—my opinion. Cleopatra seems to exactly illustrate Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s oft-used quote about well-behaved women. You don’t see Cleopatra behaving properly by Roman standards.

Much like Song of the Lark, I probably won’t reread this book. And I don’t really think this is some kind of feminist manifesto. It's more of a speculative look at a woman who even now is larger than life. And to me it does beg the question of why it’s OK for men to have behaved the way Cleopatra did and not receive the kind of condemnation she did. Why do we still put up with double standards?


Jeanne said...

What I did like about Schiff's book, in the end, is that the painstaking work she did, cataloging Cleopatra's achievements in light of how they were viewed by others, particularly those whose accounts survived, is that it made her book more than just another feminist rant. It made it more than just another history. It did manage to make an elusive figure come alive, to some extent.

kittiesx3 said...

Yes, thank you, you've articulated what I loved about the book. At the end of it all, I got a sense of a real woman, not just a pretty face.

FreshHell said...

What Jeanne said. I think it's unfortunate that it takes so long to get there but that's the pay off for slogging through the history, much of which I'm unfamiliar with because my ancient history knowledge is very shallow. I got bogged down in the history lesson.

lemming said...

Not read "Lark" - is it like "Cleo"?

kittiesx3 said...

No, not at all although I generally get surprised looks when I speak about it in such positive terms :-)