Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review of How to Mellify a Corpse by Vicki Leon

I just finished an enjoyable journey with Vicki Leon’s latest, How to Mellify a Corpse. Out last month from Walker & Company, Mellify is a lighthearted journey into obscure antiquity where we uncover all kinds of fantastic detail from the lives of the Mediterranean people (not just Greeks and Romans). Don’t confuse lighthearted with weak content, however, because the author is well-schooled in everything ancient – scholarly stuff in the right context and accurate too.

Who would have known that the Goddess Hera’s breast was responsible for the Milky Way? Or that the Greeks combined magic with practical techniques to insure the birth of boy babies instead of girls. I couldn’t have imaged that the Egyptians build a ship so large it required 4000 rowers and measured 420 feet in length. They barely got it out of its cradle and only sailed once to show it could.

And then there’s the channeling of Epicurus, the story of Titus Lucretius Carus, who re-introduced the work of a philosopher dead for 250 years. He not only provided the world with a faithful rendering of the Epicurean system, but also gave us a great deal of information regarding the scientific thought of the time. Then, when the works of Epicurus were destroyed, Carus became our only link to the great lover of pleasure.

One of my particular favorites, called Girly men and contact highs, relates a tale from the Histories of Herodotus that occurred during a visit he made to the Scythians.
Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an e...Image via Wikipedia

An uncouth lot, they drank their defeated enemy’s blood out of cups made from their skulls. But the Scythians had a softer side too. They would lie in tents around a charcoal fire of burning marijuana “howling, awed, and elated by the vapor”. Unfortunately, they never took baths. The Scythian women had another approach, though. They covered their faces with a thick plaster made of cypress, cedar, and frankincense, which was left on overnight. The next day, they knocked off the mud and emerged sparkling clean.

Reading Ms. Leon’s book brought to mind Will Cuppy’s great The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, which I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years. Cuppy’s ferocious cynicism was both lethal and funny – entertainment at the expense of famous people. Ms. Leon’s approach is not as irreverent, but still presents a relaxed view of history – something academics could use to kick back every once in a while.

Mellify is divided into sections, each covering a different geographical area. We start with Athens and Attica and travel through the Greek Islands on the way to North Africa and Mesopotamia. The sections contain a series of articles (stories) about people from those geographies. Target audience for this book is those readers who are interested in the details of history but would like to avoid a heavy academic overtone. You can also read it for fun if you have a little time. It’s easy to pick out topics by scanning the table of contents. Read a title and if you like it, go to it.

Although she calls California home, the author a restless rolling stone, having spent years in the Mediterranean cultures she loves to research and write about. Over 30 nonfiction books later, she is still making discoveries about the lives that long-ago men and women led—and letting audiences in on their secrets. Ms. Leon sees her research as even more fun than a whodunit. That’s why she considers herself a historical detective.

Ms. Leon is best known for her “Uppity Women” series including Uppity Women of Ancient Times and Uppity Women of Medieval Times.

You can find Vicki Leon at: or Her blog: Vicki Leon/historical detective,
found on her website

Email Vicki at: or go chat on her facebook page
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1 comment:

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