I recently read Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff. This book provides both a biography of the personal and political aspects of Cleopatra’s life, and an exploration of the numerous historians, poets, and actresses who have portrayed her in writing, literature, and film. Schiff never completely commits to one interpretation of some of Cleopatra’s actions. Rather, she suggests that a patriarchal history has painted her as an irresistible siren, or even a demonic evil genius. That history, she argues, has also failed to recognize the ruler’s pragmatism, education, and political savvy. Although Schiff deflates the romanticized version of Cleopatra as mere seductress, she does examine the rhetoric and imagery that Cleopatra used to craft her persona as a (literal) goddess to the Egyptian people. One may feel compelled to view Cleopatra as a feminist icon, a woman whose intelligence and tenacity won her power and riches in a violent, male-dominated world. However, Schiff also reveals that Cleopatra, like most leaders at that time, was known to uphold disturbing practices, like testing the strength of homemade poisons on her prisoners, and other much darker scientific experiments. Reading this book during the election season caused me to consider some parallels between politics during Cleopatra’s time and in our own, namely the use rhetoric and subterfuge. Nevertheless, I am glad that, unlike in Ancient Rome, our senate meetings do not end in bloodshed—at least not literally.
Based on events of an actual extramarital affair that Graham Greene committed, The End of the Affair is a love story for adults. The text’s turmoil bears witness to both the dangerous and thrilling highs and the guilty and paranoid lows one experiences as a result of committing adultery. Throughout the story, the clash between atheism and Christianity in 1940s England impacts the characters. Each of them love, hate, hurt, and help each other in their own way. Greene composes his characters as intelligent and compelling, even likeable though they may viewed as anti-heroes. At only 160 pages, this is one of the shortest novels I have read and as such, the text feels compact and efficient as if every word mattered. Indeed, every word does matter. As a result of its brevity, The End of the Affair is an easy vacation read or syllabus addition.
Recently, I learned that Hillary Clinton and I are both reading My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I felt bad because I had been neglecting the book because I typically read before I go to bed. Most nights, I decide that I’m too tired to read and just go to sleep. Lately, though, I’ve been telling myself that if Hillary Clinton can find time to read, then I can, too. I think sometimes I dismiss reading “for fun” as being unimportant, when it’s actually one of the more rewarding parts of my day.
I also recently read American Housewife by Helen Ellis. She’s a Tuscaloosa native and in 2000, she published a novel, Eating the Cheshire Cat, which pokes fun at the Alabama Greek system and prominently features Big Al as a character. She then didn’t publish for a long time, so the stories in American Housewife tend to focus on publishing anxiety and trying to balance an everyday housewife identity with the identity of a once successful and now failed novelist. The stories are both funny and dark. They take a lot from television and southern culture and add a twist. I read it in one go, which is always a pleasurable experience. She also has a great twitter account for the book, @WhatIDoAllDay, which works on multiple levels because there’s a story in the book where a writer is promoting herself on twitter rather than working on her novel. The result is an engaging reflection on the ways in which life and art imitate each other simultaneously.