Book Review: How to Mellify a Corpse

How to Mellify a Corpse

Vicki Leon

Walker & Company

336 pages

I graduated college in December 2007.  Since that time, I have not missed all the homework that had to be done, including the relentless amount of papers assigned.  I do feel like I do miss all the learning though.  I feel like I don’t always choose the most worthwhile books to read, and “learning’ is not one of my top priorities when choosing what book to read next.  When How to Mellify a Corpse came onto my radar, I was a little unsure about but I figured I would give it a try.  I mean, I figured I would learn something!

How to Mellify a Corpse is a brief education on ancient history.  The nice thing about it is that Leon infuses some humor into the book to ensure that it is not too dry.  Sometimes the humor was a little off, but most of the time it made the subject matter a little easier to swallow, especially considering it wasn’t too “in your face”. Instead, the humor was a bit tongue in cheek.  When writing of ancient Rome, Leon muses

Nocturnal beauty treatments were just the noxious beginning. Onto clean faces, Greek and Rome women buffed quantities of white face powder.  The most popular–and deadly–was made of pure lead carbonate (toxic leftovers have been found at various archeological sites).  For exclusivity’s sake, fashion leaders among the Roman elite demanded an expensive powder made from the white excrement of crocodiles.  Or, if croc supplies ran low, just a dusting of arsenic.  White chalk and orris root also served as face powder and were safer, too, although most women took a pass, because, you know, they just didn’t cling that well.


Leon was also very adept at writing in a style that drew the reader in and made the subject matter easily comprhensible. Case in point, this excerpt on Pythagoras–

On many issues, he took unusual stands compared to other teachers.  He was for ethics in business, against abortion and suicide.  Conservative when it came to sexuality, Pythagoras insisted on minimal hanky-panky among his flock.  Coitus was for procreative purposes only; his advice was to take up a lyre or take a cold shower.  Despite his hard line on sex for other people, Pythagoras fell for a local teen named Theano and married her when he was fifty-six.  In short order, they began producing a houseful of young Pythagoreans. 

Overall, I am glad I gave this book a chance.  It definitely served its purpose in my mind, by giving me a dabbling of ancient history from all kinds of different cultures.  The downside was that it was a much slower read because it was not the type of book I am used to reading, but it was educational all the same and definitely a change of pace from what I usually read. 

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Devourer of Books

I received a copy of this book for review.

6 Responses

  1. This sounds interesting, though too bad the humor was sometimes a little off. It sounds like it has a lot of great information in it though.

  2. I miss the learning part of college most too – having assigned tougher reading always made sure I got it done. It’s a little harder to motivate myself to read difficult books. This book sounds pretty good, although the strange humor might annoy me a little bit.

  3. I keep seeing this book and it has really sparked my interest.

  4. How interesting! I know I keep telling myself I need to read more non-fiction (and not just memoirs) to continue learning about different topics but it’s just so much easier to pick up a novel isn’t it?

  5. It actually sounds kind of funny. I like his chatty style. And I had to google mellify…ewwww.

  6. @amy: humor is very subjective, you’ll have to judge for yourself
    @meghan: my idea in writing ancient history in this fashion is to show readers that history doesn’t have to be dry, dusty, and dull
    @trisha: hope you’ll dive in!
    @iliana: perceptive comment—fiction is easier to follow and it offers more ‘escape’—but N/F can be fascinating if you give it a chance
    @softdrink: embalming in honey, I think it sounds like fun…especially if you think about what modern embalmers use…and how they do it (ewww also!)

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