Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Cleopatra" by Stacy Schiff (2010)

There is one woman who might be more famous than any other in the history of the world. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Plutarch, and Elizabeth Taylor all wanted to be a part of telling her story. It seems to you that that story has got to be worth reading.

The cover of this book is kind of brilliant. Cleopatra's face is turned away from the viewer as if to suggest that we are not able or allowed to see who she really is. It is almost reminiscent of that old optical illusion often titled "Young Lady or Old Hag." It makes you want to open the book and start reading because feel like you want to get to be the person who gets to know this enigmatic woman, this legend, this queen of Egypt.

"Cleopatra" is wonderfully written. Schiff promises from the outset to bear in mind the motivations and track records of all of the various historians she will quote in this biography. Every perspective is just that, one perspective, and Schiff bears that in mind as she attempts to achieve some objectivity. Schiff draws mostly from 2 ancient historians, Plutarch and Cassius Dio, neither of whom were Cleopatra's contemporaries. Plutarch was writing about the Egyptian queen one hundred years after her death, Dio two hundred. The former despised overt displays of emotion and the latter was a sucker for stories of schemes and plots. Schiff attempts to glean what truth she can from these (and other) clearly biased accounts.

Before any story can be told it must first be set in context. Alexander the Great had been dead 300 years when Cleopatra was born, but his legend loomed over everything everyone did (as Hercules' did centuries before). Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemy family which claimed to descend straight from Alexander's blood line which means that Cleopatra was Macedonian Greek. No Nefertiti was she, being about as ethnically Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor. As in most stories of the ancient world, the Mediterranean Sea was the perfect stage, It allowed enough distance to allow cultures and peoples to evolve in radically different ways, but not so much distance that they could avoid one another. Conflict was likely and the militaristic Romans had been busy doing everything they could to ensure that conflict was, in fact, inevitable. Cleopatra was born during the decades dominated by bloody Roman Civil Wars.

Cleopatra became Queen of Egypt in March of the year 51 BC at the age of 18. She was crowned co-ruler with her 10 year old brother. By the year 48, she was in exile and seeking to raise an army to reclaim her throne.  Having grown up in Alexandria, a thriving Metropolis and cultural epicenter of the Mediterranean, she was highly educated and was the only Ptolemaic ruler to actually learn the Egyptian language of her 7 million subjects. All of her predecessors spoke only Greek. In fact, Cleopatra was fluent in 9 native languages, which gave her a distinct advantage in her efforts to raise, and then command her armies.

The knowledge collected in Alexandria is shocking, especially when you have a preconception of the ancient world as being a dark and ignorant place. The Library of Alexandria (which was literally in Cleopatra's back yard) was one of the Seven Wonders of the world, the nearby Lighthouse was another. Alexandrian tutors were renowned throughout the Mediterranean. Alexandrian scholars knew the sun was the center of the solar system, they knew how large our globe was (and that the Earth was a globe),  they were fluent in advanced geometry, and they were aware that the moon caused the tides. By the time of her reign, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar could sail the Nile and view architecture that was almost 3,000 years old. The Great Pyramids' construction (another Wonder of the World) was as far removed from her time as she is now from yours. The Egyptians had been recording history in writing for two millennia.

In October of 48, Julius Caesar entered Alexandria furious that Cleopatra's brother had killed Caesar's chief rival. Only Roman generals were allowed to kill Roman generals after all. Cleopatra (in exile) snuck into Caesar's rooms and presented herself to the newly undisputed emperor of Rome. She convinced him to give up his ideas of claiming Egypt as a Roman state and he instead helped his new mistress reclaim her title as Pharaoh from her brother. Nine months later, she gave birth to Caesar's child.

In your arguments with people over the ridiculous Christian obsession with proper gender roles, you are often confronted with the notion that Christianity was actually revolutionary for progressing women's roles. This book helped you put a nail in the coffin of that particularly bullshit notion. Cleopatra died only 30 years before Jesus was born, her story colored the world he and his followers lived in. Jesus actually lived in Egypt as a young boy. Egyptian daughters inherited equally to sons, and they could hold property. Wifely submission was not a thing along the Nile. Women had the right to divorce and hold their property after divorce. They owned businesses and hired employees. If male dominated cultures were the "natural order of things," as Schiff infuriatingly states, then why did one of the oldest civilizations on Earth not adhere to that "natural order?" Doesn't it stand to reason that the arbitrary gender roles that arose in cultures far younger than Egypt, ones that insisted wives submit to husbands and stay quiet, ones that refused to recognize female inheritance and that devalued daughters as objects to be bartered, are actually cultures more representative an "unnatural order?"

Regardless of proper gender roles, either ancient or modern, it is clear that Cleopatra is viewed unfairly in the Roman world during her own lifetime specifically because of her sex. The brutal Civil War sparked by Caesar's ascension to power finally came to an end on Egyptian ground when Cleopatra's brother beheaded Caesar's chief rival, Pompey. Caesar eventually returned to Rome and Cleopatra soon followed. She lived in Caesar's villa until his infamous assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BC. Part of what made her so intriguing to the Romans was that she had entered into this sexual relationship with Caesar of her own accord, as an equal. In a culture more used to treating women like commodities, a queen who would instigate a sexual relationship with an emperor was a unique and bewitching concept. However, precisely because of her sex, she was viewed (and is even today) in a different light. What is seen in Caesar as commendable and enviable ambition is seen in Cleopatra as devious and dangerous manipulation. Her decision to withdraw a wrecked navy in the new Civil War between Caesar loyalists and his assassins would been seen as tactically sound in a male general, but in Cleopatra it is seen as womanly cowardice. Often the only difference between what are seen as schemes rather than strategies is in the count of X chromosomes.

Cleopatra proved to be the perfect social chameleon, infinitely pragmatic. She also had the wealth to accomplish whatever needed to be done to protect her people and extend her own rule. At Tarsus (the future birthplace of the apostle Paul) she meets Mark Antony (who is fighting to claim Caesar's place as the leader of Rome) with one of the greatest banquets in history. After establishing herself as the wealthiest individual in the known world and dazzling her guests with lavish gifts (bejeweled dining sets, golden couches, lush palanquins and the slaves to carry them!), and after convincing her audiences that she might just be the goddess Isis in human form, after inspiring awe and wonder in the crowds of peasants and nobles alike, she was able to effortlessly slip into a jovial and rustic charm in order to put Mark Antony at ease. Moments after her presentation as the paragon of gentility and regal composure, she transformed herself into a thigh-slapping buddy for the old soldier. Anything to maintain her position and help her people. Her son's status, as Caesar's offspring and claimant to the Roman throne, ensured that she was snared in yet another Roman Civil War, but Cleopatra was determined to set the agenda and soon she and Mark Antony were engaged in a passionate relationship.

It's hard to overstate the effect Cleopatra had on the region. Her relationship with Antony directly resulted in the crown being placed on Herod's head (yes, that Herod). His small kingdom was the only independent area in the vast territory ruled by the queen of Egypt. Her domain extended from the Eastern borders of (what we now call) Libya to the Upper Nile, to the shores of the Red Sea, the Sinai peninsula, across almost all of Palestine and Phoenicia, and all the way up into Turkey! Her children were called King of Kings and Queen of Kings before a young carpenter from Galilee claimed that title too (Jesus' childhood would have been rich with stories of Cleopatra). Octavian (Caesar Augusts) effectively suspended the Roman Senate in order to declare war on her, the only time Rome declared war on one single person. He used this war to rid himself of Mark Antony, his chief rival for power. Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt and her death marked the final moment of the 400 year old Roman Republic. From that day forth, Rome was an undisputed monarchy.

After his triumph over Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian declared Egypt a Roman state and began siphoning off all of the riches that land had to offer. In Octavian's custody in Alexandria, Cleopatra committed suicide only eight days after Antony. Or did she? Schiff makes a convincing case that Octavian himself actually killed her. He would have planted the seeds of suicide story (suggesting she let herself be bitten by an asp) in order to wash his hands of the murder, but her death made his future much more simple. In either case, being an expert in the efficacy of most poisons and their uses, it is highly unlikely that Cleopatra died from any snake bite.

She was an extraordinary character. By sheer force of will and audacity, she was able to rise from exile and obscurity to become a legend. She was able to enrich her huge and diverse empire, to protect her people for as long as she could from seemingly unstoppable forces. Her hands were certainly covered in blood from her rise to power and her efforts to keep it, but that has never kept you from thinking of men as great rulers. Cleopatra was, for lack of a better term, a baddass. And she achieved that title in a world dominated by Romans who prided themselves on being the baddest of baddasses. She outlived all but one of them, and he immediately named himself a god once he had disposed of her.

In the closing paragraph of this outstanding biography, Schiff notes that "In her adult life, Cleopatra would have met few people she considered her equal." After learning more about this unforgettable woman, you aren't sure that anyone in any lifetime has have ever met her equal.

On to the next book!

Friday, February 21, 2014

"The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks" by E. Lockhart (2008)

After the last David Mitchell novel, you wanted to read a fun Young Adult novel; a palate cleanser. You picked up this one and started in on it with low expectations. By the end of it you were so conflicted and so intrigued that you were insisting that Liz read it too so you could get her advice on how to think about it. Not bad for a light and easy YA palate cleanser. Low expectations, man. They really are the key to being pleasantly surprised.

"The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks" (which shall, for purposes of brevity, be hereafter referred to simply as "Frankie Landau-Banks") starts off with a confession letter signed by the titular character. She takes the blame for a slew of pranks and infractions that have been pulled on the campus of her boarding school and exonerates everyone who has been wrongly accused of her misdeeds. The rest of the book is a story revealing the details of those various crimes.

Frankie has just entered her sophomore year at a prestigious prep school in New England, Alabaster Preparatory Academy, one of those schools that is really just a funnel for future students at Harvard or Yale. Her father attended when he was a kid and is living vicariously through his daughter. Frankie physically blossomed over the last summer and has become quite the head-turner, but she is still emotionally immature. Her family members still call her "Bunny Rabbit." They see her as a delicate thing in need of protection.

Soon after the novel starts, Frankie begins dating Matthew Livingston, who is a gorgeous senior and undeniably one of the coolest kids at the school. She falls madly in love with him and revels in her new found ability to banter with funny, quick-witted, self-deprecating people. She likes Matthew's friends and likes her new status in the school as his girlfriend, but all is not perfect in her new relationship. After a while, Frankie realizes that Matthew makes her feel like she is in a box, contained by his expectations of her. Instead of allowing her to feel more free to be herself, he makes her feel less free. He's not a bad guy, he's never abusive or mean to her. He's just part of a larger system that keeps Frankie ( and many others) in her place. He wants to protect her and take care of her, even as she is realizing that she wants to take chances and push boundaries, to be more than anyone expects from her. What's worse for her is that she feels that Matthew is willing to be a part of Frankie's world, but he is never willing to let her be a part of his.

Soon, it becomes clear that Matthew and his best friend, Alpha, are members of a secret, all male society at Alabaster called The Bassets. Frankie's father was a member too, and the fact that she is not allowed to join and that Matthew won't even admit to her that the club exists at all doesn't sit well with Frankie. She is compelled to be a part of this club and goes on a treasure hunt for the Bassets' secret history. She finds a book hidden away, called "The Disreputable History." After reading of the exploits of former members of the society, she begins to understand the roots of the club in a way that Matthew and Alpha never have. For decades, it has been a club that has been dedicated to civil disobedience and committed to shaking up the status quo. Inspired, Frankie secretly takes over the Bassets.

She creates a fake email account, pretends she is Alpha, the leader of the Bassets,  and begins giving out clandestine orders for the rest of the boys to pull off legendary pranks, stunts, and petty crimes. The entire student body, as well as the rest of the Bassets, are so impressed by Frankie's ideas that Alpha can't admit that they were not his. He'd look like a chump. Frankie continues sending the Bassets out on covert missions, each one intended to shake up the rules of the school, of society. Each one pushing the boundaries further and further.

Eventually, Alpha is caught in the act and is about to be expelled for his crimes. Matthew finds out that Alpha is innocent and that Frankie is the real mastermind, and he turns her in. She does the right thing and writes her confession, the one that started the book. And the plot wraps up nicely there.

But you were still left wondering what you had just read. This wasn't a Young Adult "Girl Crushes On Guy. Girl Gets Guy" stereotype (if such a thing even exists), this was a more complicated and nuanced story. The entire adventure is sparked by Frankie's reaction to being underestimated by everyone: her boyfriend, her family, her school, her society. Or rather, it is all her reaction to her realization that she is underestimated while other people (mostly the well connected boys at the Academy) are grossly overestimated. Frankie is the one who solves the novel's big puzzle and who sets the attention grabbing agenda for the secret society, yet she receives no credit for it.

Frankie is realizing that there is a double standard in the world that is perfectly arbitrary. Who you are expected to be, how you are expected to behave, what you are expected to accomplish is already set by the cultural enforcement of gender roles. If Alpha does it, it's genius, if Frankie does it, it's dangerous and psychotic. These roles are more than just arbitrary. They are limiting and they can be destructive. As a girl, Frankie is expected to be a passive participant in her world. A beautiful and smart participant, one who might even add value to the world, but always only ever a passive participant. Never someone who leads. Never someone who changes the world to suit her own vision. That role is left exclusively for the boys.

Frankie realizes that she has no desire to be limited by other people's urge to look after her or to take care of her. She doesn't want to be seen as cute or adorable. She wants to be more than the "Bunny Rabbit" her family thinks of her as being... because she is more than that. She is as capable of being an alpha dog as any of the boys on campus. Actually, she proves herself to be even more capable than they. But her efforts to become the adult she is destined to become are pushed back by her society.

Frankie is a sympatheitc character, but she is not exactly likeable. She possesses many of the qualities regularly praised in male lead characters. She is driven and brilliant, independent and determined. But she is the protagonist. In women, these qualities are usually reserved for the antagonists; your Cruella DeVille, your Wicked Witch of the West, or whatever Meryl Streep's name is in "The Devil Wears Prada." Frankie's ambition, her knack for strategy, her charisma as a leader are all seen as dangerous by the boys at her school, but they are seen (even more disappointingly) as easily forgettable by her school faculty. Whereas Alpha was on the verge of being expelled when it was believed he was the ringleader, Frankie's confession brings nothing but a reprimand. She's not seen as a threat, even though she is guilty of the exact same crimes that would have gotten a boy expelled.

Frankie sees the world as a place that she can change, a place where she can become famous or even infamous. She is energetic and optimistic, but her energy and optimism are stymied when they meet the reality of the society we too often find ourselves in today. The curious thing about this book is that, even after you realized that it was aimed at society, you weren't exactly motivated to go out and keep fighting the good fight to change other people's expectations or challenge the way they limited certain people. It didn't make you want to change society.

It made you want to change yourself.

You have long prided yourself on your feminist ideals (Murphy Brown and Ellen Ripley were early childhood heroes of yours), but "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks" forced you to examine your ideas of the women in your life women, and your expectations of what a main character in a novel is supposed to look like. It made you ask yourself, "How are you limiting the women in your everyday life? How are you limiting everyone you interact with in your everyday life? How many of your friends are only that because you like the preconceived notions of your relationship?"

 "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks" inspired you to work to change your ideas of how the world is supposed to work. This world needs to be a place where all people are encouraged to reach their full potential regardless of their race or their sexual orientation or their gender. You can be a part of changing the world to make it the kind of place where women are not marginalized, where girls are not taught to be passive participants in their own lives.

God, you want to have a daughter!

On to the next book!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell (2004)

David Mitchell first got your attention last year with "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet." Mitchell wrote "Cloud Atlas" first, and the two books couldn't be more dissimilar. In your review of "The Thousand Autumns," you predicted that if this book was anywhere near as good as that one, it would be worth whatever you paid for it. Well, it turns out that "Cloud Atlas" was worth far more than you paid for it.

This is not really one novel. It's six novellas rolled into one story. But somehow the novellas are all connected, even though they span multiple lives and are told across the arc of centuries. Mitchell breaks up five of the stories, interrupting one with the next. For someone who has always enjoyed reading more than one book at a time, "Cloud Atlas" was perfect.

The sixth story, a post-apocalyptic adventure, is told with no interruption and all of the others have their threads picked up seamlessly in reverse order from when they were interrupted. The final story, a series of diary entries from a 19th Century American notary sailing the Pacific Ocean, picks up more than 400 pages from where it left off earlier in the book. "Cloud Atlas" is like a matryoshka doll of a book and the way Mitchell nestles all of the stories together into one is so cleverly done that it was a pleasure to read. Each story bears its own voice, style, setting, and even tense. Finishing the book left you thinking, "How did he think of doing this?" And, more importantly, "How did he pull it off so well?"

Each story has a reference to the one that came before it, one main character is reading the previous one's diary entries, the next protagonist is listening to a musical piece composed by the last. This could have come off as gimmicky, but instead made the book self-referential in a believable way (David Mitchell was meta before meta was cool). Recurring characters sport identical birthmarks, even though their genders and personalities change. Mitchell flirts with making "Cloud Atlas" a tale of reincarnation, but never commits to that theme deeply enough to claim reincarnation is an explicit theme. It's just a likely explanation for a remarkably complicated but surprisingly clear storyline.

Mitchell plays with language and the evolving nature of human communication. Language is a living thing and humans are constantly changing it, adding to it or grafting new things in when they are needed, rejecting what proves cumbersome. Mitchell's first story is set in the 1840's and the language is as stuffy and proper, but also as soaring as the Victorian Age itself. But by the futuristic "Orison of Sonmi 451" English has changed noticeably. Spelling has become more efficient. Xtraneous "E"s are xpunged from this sleeker lexicon and, reflecting the corporatized nature of human society, everyone refers to products by their most common brand names. All cars have become simply fords, all shoes are nikes.

This story, "Orison of Sonmi 451" (an obvious but endearing reference to Ray Bradbury's famous futuristic novel) was the one that you liked the most as a stand alone story. Sonmi 451 is a "fabricated person" who was cloned for the sole purpose of serving as a slave to her civilization's "purebloods." She proves to be a wonderful reminder of the universal truth that slaves are often greater people than their masters. Like Data, the android from Star Trek the Next Generation, Sonmi reminded you that you can learn a lot about being human by imagining how someone who isn't would try to become human. While describing falling snow, her observation that "Perhaps those deprived of beauty perceive it most instinctively" served as another reminder to slow down and relish those common moments of fleeting beauty. Not everyone is privileged enough become immune to the exquisite wonder of the world that constantly surrounds you.

Sonmi 451's story also served as a  catalyst for you to ponder the nature of the soul itself. In her world, the word soul simply refers to an individual's ability to purchase goods or services. It is a subcutaneous device, a piece of technology that serves to perpetuate an inherently soulless system. You found yourself putting the book down and asking yourself difficult and unanswerable question like, "Where does the soul reside? What is it? When does it take up residence?" and, most maddeningly of all, "Would cloned people posses souls?" These are old questions, but the fact that they do not have easy answers implies that they are not unimportant. Truth resists simplicity and there are few easy answers, in your world or in Sonmi's.

Although Mitchell's style is remarkable, the book keeps its head above any accusations of style over substance. The substance is the whole point. The style just makes it all easier to drink in. After five hundred pages and six different intertwined stories, after murders and suicides, after revolutions and apocalypses, after petty thefts and grand betrayals, Mitchell closes his book with a surprisingly concise and unflinchingly hopeful point. Our history and our future are established on our individual beliefs, and those very beliefs tend to become self-fulfilling. Every story in the book is a morality play on this one theme, each matryoshka doll an artist's rendering of a larger, more universal truth.

"If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being... One fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself... In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction. If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe diverse races and creeds can share this world peaceably,... if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass."

One hundred years ago, humanity was engaged in an unthinkable slaughter they called the Great War. One hundred years before that, Washington DC was torched in the War of 1812. Today it is looking like the War in Afghanistan, America's longest war, might be coming to a whimpering end. What do we believe, as a people, as one species, about how the world works? One hundred years from now, your grandchildren will be able to tell what we believed by the shape of the world they inherit from you.

"Cloud Atlas" helped you remember that we each have a part to play in shaping that future, in making a world that doesn't perpetuate the belief that pure selfishness and self protection lead to anything other than aggression and subjugation, that might ever makes right. If we believe that the world is a terrible place, one that can only be changed through selfishness, fear, and violence, we will guarantee, once again, that is what it will be. If we believe the world is a good place, one that can be changed through empathy, kindness, compassion, and a shared kinship with all people, we might just be proven right.

It is daunting to realize that every life spent in pursuit of that goal is but one drop in a vast ocean of history.

"Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is a fascinating flowchart for the characters from the book and the actors who played them in the movie across all of the different story lines. This is definitely one movie you need to see!
P.P.S. See if you can add a postscript in your next review that doesn't contain the word 'fascinating.'