Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dioscorides and de Materia Medica - Setting the Record Straight

The seed of the black poppy... is a pain-easer, a sleep-causer, and a digester, helping coughs and abdominal cavity afflictions. Taken as a drink too often it hurts (making men lethargic) and it kills.
-de Materia Medica Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE)

I have been meeting with a ton of book clubs lately, book clubs that have read The Vesuvius Isotope and are bustling with questions about the novel. Almost every one of those questions centers around the same general dilemma: how much is fact, and how much is fiction? Since I have been touching on this subject in various ways, I would like to call attention to the "Non-Fiction in Fiction" label on the left-hand side of this page. This label highlights posts dealing with this question.

Here's one of the questions received at my most recent book club: Is Dioscorides real? Is his medical text, De Materia Medica, real, as written in The Vesuvius Isotope? And, is a nardo real?

And here are the answers:

  • Dioscorides was a real guy. 
  • He was really a traveling physician with Nero's army.
  • He really did write an ancient medical text entitled, "De Materia Medica," which was utilized consistently for centuries, falling into dis-use only during the Renaissance.
  • He really did write of plants that he could not have seen on Nero's campaigns.
  • Those plants really are thought to have come from the campaigns of Alexander, and thus passed to Dioscorides through the Great Library of Alexandria.
  • But Dioscorides really did live from 40-90CE, long after Julius Caesar set fire to the library.
  • And, Dioscorides really did describe a plant called nardo. The pre-chapter quotes in The Vesuvius Isotope, including the two on this page, are real.
  • As detailed in The Vesuvius Isotope, the use of nardo as a cancer remedy has never been described. 

There are two kinds of nardus. The one is called Indian, the other Syrian. Not that it is found in Syria, but because one part of the mountain where it grows turns towards Syria and the other towards India... Applied they stop discharges of the womb and the whites... A decoction (taken as a drink with cold water) helps nausea and stomach rosiones, those troubled with wind, sickness of the liver or head, and painful kidneys... They are mixed with antidotes.

There is also another kind of nardus called Sampharitic from the name of the place—very little, yet great-eared, with a white stalk sometimes growing in the middle, very much like the smell of a goat in scent. This ought utterly to be refused.
-de Materia Medica Dioscorides (ca. 40–90 CE) 

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.


Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Write a Review - Win $50!

I'm giving away a $50 Amazon gift card to one lucky winner. Here's how it works. To enter to win, you must post an honest review of The Vesuvius Isotope... somewhere. You can post your review on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Shelfari, your own webiste... I'm not picky; it just has to be somewhere on the Internet. Then e-mail me to let me know that you've posted it. When the 100th review is posted, all reviewer names will be placed into a hat and I'll randomly draw the winner.

For those of you who have already posted a review, you're already entered! You don't need to do anything further - except, of course, recommend the novel to your friends.

Duplicate reviews WILL be counted - if you post the same review to six channels, you're entered six times. If you post six different reviews to the same channel under different names, I'll never know (but for the record I think that's really cheesy, so please don't.)

Here's the catch. Your review MUST demonstrate that you actually read the book, and it is solely at my discretion to ascertain this. If you write, "great book," that doesn't count. And if you write, "horrible book," that counts even less :) If you don't want to post a spoiler (and, please don't...) you can go ahead and post a generic "great book/horrible book" review, but then e-mail me and say something about the book to let me know you've read it.

If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me or post your question below in the comment box for all to see. After the 100th review shows up somewhere in cyberspace, the contest ends. So don't wait!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Strategic Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexandria



Readers of The Vesuvius Isotope are constantly asking me how much of the book is fiction and how much is fact. The answer I like to give is this: The novel threads together a number of historical and scientific facts within a fictional story. It also presents a few hypotheses that have yet to be proven or disproven. Here, I highlight some of the facts as they relate to the Great Library of Alexandria, as well as some of the hypotheses I have spun from them.

The Great Library of Alexandria was considered the "world's first research center." It was part of a grand vision of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conquerer who founded the city of Alexandria, Egypt.

Alexander selected this spot for his city specifically for its location and topology. At the tip of the crescent-shaped Alexandria harbor was the island of Pharos, the perfect location for a magnificent lighthouse that could beckon ships into the harbor. In Alexander's vision, once they entered the harbor, ships would be docked in close proximity to the world's largest center of thought. And so it was that Alexander and his descendants could draw ships toward the library, like spiders casting a net across the sea. Once entrapped, the ships were forced to surrender ... what? Not riches. Not gold. Neither incense nor myrrh. Books.

Within the library were a fully functional medical school and the greatest scientific accomplishments in history, including Aristotle's establishment of scientific method.

But neither the library nor its adjacent museum were open to the public. The wealth of information inside was accessible on an "invite only" basis, as dictated by the Ptolemaic leaders who built the library. Indeed, the truth is that the Ptolemies pirated the information. By law, any visitor to Alexandria was required to "donate" any and all books that the library did not already contain. The library quickly became so overloaded with content that a daughter library was built elsewhere in Alexandria to house the overflow.

By Cleopatra's time, the library was legendary, containing hundreds of thousands of papyrus scrolls. As she murdered each of her siblings in sequence, Cleopatra managed to secure the monarchy for herself repeatedly, and thus maintained her title as the sole proprietor of the library at Alexandria. She was rumored to have written dozens of books, she was famous among her peers for her knowledge of pharmacology and of the sciences so prominent at the research center, and it is known that she was fluent in as many as nine languages. Indeed, Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic leader to speak Egyptian, the language of her subjects. For more about these aspects of Cleopatra's life, click here.

Then Julius Caesar invaded. At first enemies, Cleopatra and Caesar were soon bedmates and allies against her brother and co-regent, Ptolemy XIII. Then they killed him. And then Caesar burned the library down. It is commonly believed that Caesar burned the library down by setting fire to enemy ships. But as documented by Plutarch below, it was a traitor from within his own army Caesar with whom Caesar was fighting that night, and it was his own ships Caesar burned. The fire quickly spread to the library, and Caesar was seen swimming away with papyrus scrolls in his hand:
Then, as everybody was feasting to celebrate the reconciliation, a slave of Caesar's, his barber, who left nothing unscrutinized, owing to a timidity in which he had no equal, but kept his ears open and was here, there, and everywhere, perceived that Achillas the general and Potheinus the eunuch were hatching a plot against Caesar. After Caesar had found them out, he set a guard about the banqueting-hall, and put Potheinus to death; Achillas, however, escaped to his camp, and raised about Caesar a war grievous and difficult for one who was defending himself with so few followers against so large a city and army. In this war, to begin with, Caesar encountered the peril of being shut off from water, since the canals were dammed up by the enemy; in the second place, when the enemy tried to cut off his fleet, he was forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library; and thirdly, when a battle arose at Pharos, he sprang from the mole into a small boat and tried to go to the aid of his men in their struggle, but the Egyptians sailed up against him from every side, so that he threw himself into the sea and with great difficulty escaped by swimming. At this time, too, it is said that he was holding many papers in his hand and would not let them go, though missiles were flying at him and he was immersed in the sea, but held them above water with one hand and swam with the other; his little boat had been sunk at the outset. But finally, after the king had gone away to the enemy, he marched against him and conquered him in a battle where many fell and the king himself disappeared. Then, leaving Cleopatra on the throne of Egypt (a little later she had a son by him whom the Alexandrians called Caesarion), he set out for Syria.
-Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, The Parallel Lives
Cleopatra followed Caesar to Rome several times within the next few years and gave birth to his son. She did not seem bothered by the fact that the Roman had burned down hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge within her center of learning. But years later, the importance of the library to Cleopatra was re-established in the form of Mark Anthony's wedding gift to her - 200,000 new scrolls to re-populate the decimated library.

In The Vesuvius Isotope, I hypothesize that Cleopatra and Caesar set fire to the Alexandria library intentionally. I hypothesize that they had already removed important works from the library and stored them in other locations. I reference the specific locations in which documents from Cleopatra's reign have since been found.

I stumbled across the above History Channel video on YouTube. I have a hunch that the narrator is Morgan Freeman, although I haven't managed to confirm this. The video offers a great introduction to the rise and fall of The Alexandria Library, and it details many of the historical facts cited above. Here is a timeline of specific references:

1:45: the library is referred to as the "world's first research center."
1:50: it is stated that the leaders "invited" dignitaries from around the world.
2:00: reference to visitors "who brought important new information to Alexandria."
2:08: modern ruins of the Alexandria daughter library, built to hold overflow from the original
3:40: the founding of Alexandria by Alexander the Great
5:35: the foundations of science
11:25: the death of Alexander initiates the Ptolemaic Dynasty with the ascension of the Ptolemy I
15:15, Ptolemy begins collecting books for his library
15:46: law that any visitor to Alexandria was required to "donate" their books
18:38: the medical school that existed within the library
21:25: first mention of Cleopatra
22:19: Ptolemy II builds the lighthouse
22:27: Fort Qaitbey and what the lighthouse actually looked like.
23:17: "Sailors guided by the lighthouse were drawn into the library."
34:26: Julius Caesar invades
35:50: of all the Ptolemies, Cleopatra was the only one who could speak Egyptian
36:00: Cleopatra's interest in the library and her own writings.
37:00: Caesar sets fire that consumes Alexandria library
38:21: Mark Anthony gives thousands of new scrolls to Cleopatra
39:10: Cleopatra's mysterious death
39:44: The rise of Augustus

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.


Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Introducing the So Cal Author Academy


A guest post by Susan McBeth, Events Coordinator of Adventures by the Book.

As an author events coordinator, I am frequently asked advice by writers (especially self-published and small press authors who do not have designated publicists) who are overwhelmed with the marketing process and setting up book events. Who do I hire for my author photo; do I need a book trailer; what do I invest for a professional website; where do I start with social media; how do I set up interviews; how do I develop my presentation skills; what good is a press release and how do I write one; how do I best approach bookstores and libraries for events; what other event options are available, etc.

The SoCal Author Academy will answer those questions and much more, as it takes you methodically through the process of marketing your book and setting up events in Anne Lamott fashion, Bird by Bird. Designed as a series of intimate workshops, taught by experts in each subject matter, the SoCal Author Academy will offer you a cohesive and interactive plan to market your book. Starting with a brief overview of Everyday Book Marketing, experts will guide writers from a logical first step thru planning and execution of an actual author event.

The inaugural workshop on Sunday, September 29, 2013, is divided into two parts, starting with a
general overview of Everyday Book Marketing that covers essential book promotion basics, followed by an interactive workshop that builds upon the morning session and in which, using a checklist, you will create your own customized marketing plan.

And who better to teach an Everyday Book Marketing workshop than Midge Raymond. Midge has been a writer, editor, and teacher for more than twenty years. She has taught at Boston University, Grub Street, San Diego Writers, and Richard Hugo House, among others. Midge’s short story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her award-winning stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including American Literary Review, Bellingham Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and the Los Angeles Times.

Future workshops will include websites, social media, author photos, event planning, presentations and interviewing, press releases, and book trailers.  And for those of you who graduate from the SoCal Author Academy, we will celebrate with you at an author event that we plan together!

Further information and registration is available at www.adventuresbythebook.com.  Questions? Contact Susan McBeth at susan@adventuresbythebook.com or at (619) 300-2532.  Susan has been an events coordinator for over twenty years, seven of which have specialized in author events for a major independent bookstore and now as founder and owner of Adventures by the Book.