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'Cleopatra: A Life' by Stacy Schiff

HistoryElizabeth TaylorPulitzer Prize AwardsAngelina JolieRex HarrisonRichard Burton

I have endured my share of Cleopatra jokes derived from the 1963 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. So only a biographer as gifted as Stacy Schiff could come to my rescue.

In "Cleopatra: A Life," published last year to great acclaim and now out in paperback, Schiff lavishes her gifts on one of history's most misunderstood figures.

History is more fascinating and complex than the cliche of Cleopatra as a seductress. The adroit talents of Schiff, who won the Pulitzer Prize for 1999's "Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)," are again on display in "Cleopatra." She has a gift of creating a rich and dynamic world out of the crumbs of ancient time. Schiff has ingested previous scholarship, reconciled contradictions within the absence of historical record and magically created an entire world.

The story of how an 18-year-old queen presided for decades over one of the richest places in the world, full of powerful men such as Caesar and Antony who had their own political agendas, is enriched by Schiff's ability to set the stage and illuminate it with even the most minor characters, such as scribes and pearl sorters.

With wit and style, Schiff has corrected history's unfairness to Cleopatra, who had been rendered as a character who used her wiles to acquire men and power, and shown her to be a shrewd political strategist.

If Angelina Jolie takes on the role in a rumored big-budget remake, let's hope her first call is to Stacy Schiff.

'Cleopatra: A Life'
By Stacy Schiff
Back Bay Books, 432 pages, $16.99

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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