Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Review: A Book After My Own Heart

She had me at “besotted.”

In the introduction to her latest book—How to Mellify a Corpse and Other Human Stories of Ancient Science and Superstition—historian Vicki León describes herself as being “besotted” with ancient history.

I totally relate.

Being besotted means that not only are you blown away by the beauty, wisdom and even genius of the object of your affection, but you’re also charmed by your “beloved’s” strange quirks and outrageous defects. You know—as in that whole “love is blind” thing.

León’s love for the ancient world, though, is anything but blind. Her genius is her ability to cover so much ground in such little space with so much humor. Mellify explores the thinking of everybody from Socrates to Pythagoras; from Herodotus to Agrippa; from Alexander to Archimedes.

Even better, she makes even the most obscure ideas accessible. This is no mean feat, as I imagine that every section she covers required dozes (if not more) books and sources for research. Speaking from experience, one can definitely get “research fatigue”—something you can spot when the writing suddenly becomes passive or dull. Never happens here, though.

León keeps it fresh and funny. Her pithy observations and asides not only cracked me up but also included modern correlates for perspective. So, for example, when pointing out that ancient thinkers were exclusively of the elite, she tells us that the rest of the unwashed masses had to make do with what she likened to bargain shopping at Wal-Mart: magical thinking. Rock-bottom prices on the absurd and illogical! Her descriptions of the outrageous ways people tried to make sense of their world is alone worth the price of the book.

I’ve always believed that if I can walk away with something new I’ve learned or understood, then a new book is worth it (we will address my book addiction at another time). With Mellify—which, León explains, is the process of using honey to embalm the newly dead, a process used on my favorite ancient egomaniac, Alexander the Great—I’ve walked away with dozens of new stories and factoids I can use with kids at the museum and in my stories.

Another plus: León writes in short sections so you can dip in and out of whatever catches your fancy. Perfect for us attention-challenged moderns. (Oh, look—an email! Wait…was I talking about?)

I highly recommend this book!

Leon, Vicki. How to Mellify a Corpse and Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition. Walker & Company, 2010. ISBN 9780802717023.


Unknown said...

I had great fun reading this book! I'm glad you enjoyed it too Vicky!

For those that are interested, I did a Q&A with Vicki León, where we talk about everything from The Tower of The Winds to The Artemision Jockey :)

H Niyazi

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Hi Hazan, thanks for stopping by!

Natalie Bernstein said...

I love your blog. Your energy and humor shine through so clearly, and most of all, it is packed with information that I can use. Thank you!

Natalie Bernstein

Joan said...

Sounds as if this book is rich in useful attention catchers when working with young authors AND great conversation starters anywhere!

by the way, did you know...?

Gail said...

I love your dedication to all things of the ancient world!!!!!!! Might have to try out this book myself:-)

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Natalie, Joan, and Gail--thanks for stopping by and commenting! You all made my day!