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Author ferrets out ancient foibles

There was no reason to take Latin at my alma mater, San Luis High. I wasn’t planning on becoming a doctor, lawyer or priest, the final professions where the “dead language” still finds life.

Yet there I was in Latin 101, sitting between two brainiacs — Nancy Castle and Laurel Isola — listening to teacher Lillian Bowles buff up Greek gods while I conjugated amo, amat, amas into amess.

To this day, I vividly recall Lillian: Bobbed iron-gray hair that curled around a broad forehead; support hose so thick her legs could have been swathed in ACE bandages; an aroma of tobacco, coffee and hand lotion that lingered about her after a quick trip to the teacher’s lounge between classes.

To say Lillian loved Greece would be an egregious understatement; she traveled there every summer, bringing back slides of various ruins — which, as I recall, were the highlights of her classes, seeing as how the rest of the time was one long, torturous exercise in rote regurgitation. It’s a shame Vicki León wasn’t on the scene; Lillian could have used her.

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For want of a better description, León is a dynamo, the human equivalent of a F-4 tornado — not that she creates havoc or leaves destruction in her wake; quite the opposite.

During the past several decades, the Morro Bay resident has written 36 books that have spanned the natural world (from tide pools to whales to parrots), travel and historical eras including the New World, the Renaissance and ancient Rome and Greece — with many of those historical jaunts seen through the eyes of her “Uppity Women” collection of books.

As a self-professed historical detective, León searches out the arcane and oddities that were hallmarks of centuries past, knitting sense out of practices and behaviors — like professional armpit plucking — in titles such as “Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns and Other Prized Occupations of the Ancient World” and her most recent book, published this month, “How to Mellify A Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition.”

The books are a hoot, both in the easy-to-digest historical content and the ironic fillips that León uses to bring the early Romans and Greeks alive.

“I try to astonish the reader on every page,” she says in an online bio. “Astonish, from the Latin attonare, ‘to be struck by lightning.’ Thus to write in a way that leaves the reader thunderstruck.”

As noted, Lillian Bowles could have used a good dose of attonare in her classes.

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As much as León loves to unravel a delicious historical anecdote or mystery of the ancient world, she’s finding that today’s publishing world is not what she knew as recently as five years ago — thanks in large part to the Internet.

Consider, in 1995, the industry published about 50,000 new titles. That number jumped to almost 300,000 new books last year because of skyrocketing growth in self-publishing and online e-book publishing.

According to León’s agent David Forrer at InkWell Management, and her current publisher George Gibson at Walker/Bloomsbury, those numbers have led to an enormous, industrywide shift in book marketing.

“Net result?” asks León, “Today, except for celebrity headliners and authors with huge followings, live bookstore events are no longer a viable route for mid-list authors, booksellers or publishers. Social networking is obligatory, from blogs and websites to Facebook, GoodReads, Twitter and other platforms.” León has taken the Internet plunge. You can keep up with her through blogs at www.vickileon.com. Most of her books are available online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

When León began the “Uppity Women” series in 1995, the year Barnes & Noble opened its store in San Luis Obispo, “There was a palpable sense of anticipation, of excitement over the brand-new idea of hanging out in bookstores, attending live events there,” she says. “And not just in SLO.”

The trend was given a name, she adds, “ ‘The third place,’ ‘the new community gathering area and clearinghouse.’ ” From 1995 through 2001, she did two tours a year, one during Women’s History Month and the other in the fall.

“Some years, I did 30 or more bookstores, plus my regular speaking engagements.” Much of that exposure is now handled through her online presence.

Yet some things never completely die. If you want to meet the real deal, Vicki León will be having a book party this Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. at Coalesce Bookstore, 845 Main St. in Morro Bay.

Consider yourself invited.

Book Party in Morro Bay

Meet author Vicki León at the Coalesce Bookstore, 845 Main St. in Morro Bay from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or 781-7852.

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