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Stacy Schiff

Author of Cleopatra: A Life

10+ Works 8,732 Members 275 Reviews 7 Favorited

About the Author

Stacy Schiff was born on October 26, 1961 in Adams, Massachusetts. She received a B.A. degree from Williams College in 1982. She was a Senior Editor at Simon and Schuster until 1990. She is the author of several nonfiction books including Saint-Exupéry: A Biography about Antoine de Saint Exupéry, show more Cleopatra: A Life, and The Witches: Salem 1692. She won the Pulitzer Prize for biography for Véra: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov in 2000. (Bowker Author Biography) show less

Works by Stacy Schiff

Associated Works

Paris Was Ours (2011) — Contributor — 219 copies

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Common Knowledge

Other names
De La Bruyère, Stacy
Birthdate
1961-10-26
Gender
female
Nationality
USA
Country (for map)
USA
Birthplace
Adams, Massachusetts, USA
Places of residence
New York, New York, USA
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Education
Williams College (BA|1982)
Phillips Andover Academy
Occupations
editor
non-fiction writer
columnist
Organizations
Simon & Schuster
Awards and honors
American Academy of Arts and Letters Academy Award (Literature, 2006)
Agent
Eric Simonoff (William Morris Endeavor)
Short biography
Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize, the Ambassador Award in American Studies, and the Gilbert Chinard Prize of the Institut Français d'Amérique. Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities and was a Director’s Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She was awarded a 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Schiff has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe, among other publications. She lives in New York City. Her newest book is entitled "Cleopatra: A Life" (Little, Brown & Co., 2010).

Official website: www.stacyschiff.com

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Cleopatra; A Life by Stacy Schiff in Ancient History (August 2013)

Reviews

The book relates how in 1692, the 9 year old daughter of Samuel Parris, the Salem Village minister, and his 11 year old niece Abigail Williams, start to throw fits and declare they can see 'spectres' - invisible presences comprising the spirits of living people - who torment them. Soon, the situation escalates when a well meaning neighbour instructs the male slave, John Indian, to make a witch-cake to reveal the witch afflicting them, and feed it to the household dog. It 'works' only too well, for the girls identify the villagers supposedly tormenting them, and soon others in the village join in the accusations, including John's wife, the Indian slave Tituba, who provides the authorities with a full confession implicating villagers.

Before long, the accusers include the mother and daughter of the wealthier Putnam family as well as a servant girl in their household, and the number of accusers grows daily as more and more girls and women, and eventually young men, are 'bewitched'. When villagers are brought for questioning to the judges appointed to look into the problem, the 'afflicted' as they are known, turn the enquiries and the later trials into a commotion of screaming and fitting as they act out seeing the spectres of the accused tormenting them. The justices suspend all disbelief and won't listen to protestations of innocence; they are only interested if the accused 'confess' to an increasingly farfetched story, by our standards at least. Anyone who expresses doubt ends up accused themselves, until the prisons in a number of New England towns and villages are full of prisoners living in festering, filthy conditions (at their own expense, as was normal for the time), with more and more people arrested daily.

Then the trials begin and it becomes clear that no one will be acquitted, no matter how many upstanding citizens are willing to sign a petition or testify that they are good Christian folk who cannot possibly be witches. The hangings start and one man who won't enter a plea is crushed to death with rocks, against a background of continuing arrests and trials, until the growing doubts around the witchcraft circus finally lead the Governor of the colony to call it to a halt. By that time, as well as those killed by the state, there are a number who have died from the prison conditions, and many families who have had their goods impounded, and their children left destitute or indentured as servants and apprentices.

This isn't the first book I've read on the Salem witchcraft hysteria but I'm afraid it isn't the best. It sets out to try to be modern and snazzy in its constant comparing of 17th century life with modern idioms and ways, with references to 'The Wizard of Oz', Harry Potter and umpteen other facets of 20th and 21st century living. These might be intended to make the situation more understandable to a modern reader but are anachronistic, because people from a Puritan background at that time and place didn't have the same mental frame of reference. It would have been far better to have given a lucid account of what people did actually believe and what their faith involved, to make it understandable why everyone believed in witches, even those accused or those who criticised the court proceedings.

The book treats the witch accounts as real, to the extent of an opening description of a broomstick flight by a couple of the women who later confess when the accusations start flying, which comes across as being a bit too arch and clever somehow. There is also a lot of speculation about how people thought/felt which doesn't actually have evidence underlying it, and some vagueness which seems unnecessary - for example, at one point it's said that someone sent to New York for opinions from ministers there, phrased as if it isn't known who, whereas another book on the subject I am currently reading clearly states their identity and the circumstances. If it's a key point, why not say who it was; otherwise, leave it out altogether.

Similarly, there's confusion about the building in which the Parris family live in 1692 - when the (later accused) minister George Burroughs brings his family to the village as the second minister to serve the community (Parris is the fourth), they have to live with the Putnams rather than moving into the minister's house. The author doesn't seem to know that the reason is that a house was being built for them - as another book makes clear, the original minister's house was given to the first incumbent who rented it out after eventually leaving the village, and the villagers have to donate more land and build another house for Burroughs and his family to occupy. Things like this make it seem as if the writer couldn't be bothered to read the sources.

There is some interesting information about the wars with the French and their Native American allies which formed a frightening background for the inhabitants of New England, as people were being killed in raids all during the period. The analysis of the political factions is also scene setting as is the conflict between Salem Villagers and their successive ministers. The writer gives us a lot about the way the famous Mathers, father and son, both ministers in Boston, had to tiptoe around the influential men who were the Justices so that even when they constantly cautioned them against accepting spectral evidence, the Mathers undercut their warnings by hedging them with statements that of course the judges were worthy, honest, pious men who couldn't possibly have got it wrong in listening to such testimony and sending people to the gallows. Cotton Mather in particular, who never attended the trials, comes across as very self serving and a lot of other authority figures do not cover themselves in glory either. So the book has something to commend it and provides some ideas of why the tragedy occurred, but the style of this thick tome, full of analogy to modern attitudes and cultural icons, means that it is quite difficult to draw this together in the reader's mind.
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kitsune_reader | 64 other reviews | Nov 23, 2023 |
I've been fascinated with Ancient Egypt in general, and Cleopatra in particular, for as long as I can remember. I was excited to read this book, but ultimately I came away somewhat disappointed. I was expecting something... grander; more magical, maybe. I understand that the author was working with limited information. Very little is known about Cleopatra's life, and what information we do have tends to contradict itself. Even so, I found the book dull in spots and slow moving. I came away with a lot of information I didn't already know, and I'm glad I read the book, but I'm going to keep looking for a better, more vivid take on this fascinating woman's life.… (more)
 
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Elizabeth_Cooper | 184 other reviews | Oct 27, 2023 |
A very detailed history of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Lots of notes at the back, as well as a list of characters at the beginning to help the reader keep track of the names and relationships. Two sections of photos, mostly images of court documents and illustrations of witches from other books.
 
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Pferdina | 64 other reviews | Oct 22, 2023 |
My 2-star review is not a reflection on the quality of research, but on the way-too-academic-for-my-taste writing style.
 
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Jarratt | 7 other reviews | Oct 10, 2023 |

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