On the Shelf

Le droit de choisir.

A strange thing happens while you're reading Kathleen Tessaro's novel The Perfume Collector. You put the book down for just a moment -- to answer the phone, maybe, or to freshen up the ice in your drink -- and all of a sudden you realize you can't remember the main characters' names. Just like that, they've completely vanished from your mind. It's disconcerting. After all, you've spent so much time with them-- privy to their innermost thoughts, witness to their joys and sorrows. By now, they ought to have become your friends. How can you forget their names?

Maybe it's par for the course. In terms of personality, uniqueness is not a trait any of these characters possess. The heroine (literary shorthand for the person everything happens to) is your average Mary Sue-- occasionally spunky but mostly milquetoast, and the center of a Ptolemaic universe of plot twists and stock characters. There's a charming cad of a husband; a sassy best friend; a handsome foreigner who guides our passive lead character into adventure. Add to that a mysterious benefactress, a babe-in-the-woods, a wisecracking Southern gal, a vain young apprentice... you get the idea. One by one, they appear and disappear, providing a handy backdrop of chatter and color to push the heroine's story forward.

And then there's Madame Zed, whom you recognize as the real-life creatrix of Lanvin's Mon Péché. Have you ever read Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume? Bauble for bauble, Madame Zed is the European cousin of that magnificent Creole wreck, Lily Devalier. It's a role custom-made for Joanna Lumley if ever you saw one. Indeed, you're already casting a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries that exists only in your head. How could you not, with this pretty potboiler of a plot?

London, 1955. Grace (Jessica Raine, Call the Nanny) is a young society wife whose philandering spouse (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) has been caught in the act. Like magic, a deus ex machina appears in the form of a solicitor's letter. It seems a total stranger has left Grace her entire estate! What timing! Our protagoniste promptly flies off to Paris, where an obliging young attorney (Gael García Bernal, Rosewater) familiarizes her with her legacy-- a fat investment portfolio, a hôtel particulier on the Place des Vosges, and a child's dress embroidered with a street address. There, they discover an abandoned parfumerie stocked with wares suggestive of a tragic mystery...

You can imagine the rest. I mean it. You really can.

Now, let's not toss the book out with the (scented) bathwater. Beneath its carapace of tired tropes, The Perfume Collector possesses decent bone structure-- otherwise, would you have stuck with it for so long? Its originality may disappear for a stretch only to resurface in a pert phrase ("Miss Waverly was miraculously made") or a description that makes you snort in amusement ("Her lips were so thin as to be nothing more than an idea for a mouth"). And it's got perfume. Early in the book, Grace's tart-tongued pal Mallory (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey) attempts to console her sorrowful friend by slipping her a handkerchief scented with Yardley Lily of the Valley. It means something to her, and she hopes to pass that meaning on to Grace even if she doesn't have the exact words of sympathy for the occasion.

Perfume also haunts the story of Grace's benefactress, told via flashbacks to 1927. In the fabulous Warwick New York Hotel, a young chambermaid named Eva d'Orsey befriends Madame Zed and her petulant protégé, Valmont. (All of the French characters have the sort of two-syllable surnames that even silly Americans can pronounce. Valmont, Beaumont, Tissot-- there's even an Assange, believe it or not.) In no time, Eva becomes a reluctant muse to Valmont's olfactory genius, though at times you catch yourself wondering why. Both she and Grace are the kind of awkward, self-unaware, yet curiously enchanted women to whom others constantly say, "You're extraordinary!" (In one memorable scene, a rather fierce coiffeuse confronts Grace after styling her hair: "Vous ne savez pas qui vous êtes. Vous êtes belle. Comprenez-vous? BELLE.") This quality becomes even more apparent once Grace starts wearing Eva's perfume. Even young Mr. Tissot, her French attorney, makes a play for her in what amounts to a sad end to a beautiful (platonic) friendship. Apparently, a combination of femininity and fragrance is powerful enough to make others lose their heads, with predictable (and inconvenient) results.

Of course it's no surprise that Eva and Grace are linked by more than luck. Blood is thicker than eau de toilette-- that's all there is to say. Getting to the final revelation is by turns entertaining and infuriating, but at last (and at least) it satisfies. Armed with a swank apartment, a pile of stocks and cherished memories, and a few unique perfumes, Grace gets her groove back. But Eva's most important gift is le droit de choisir-- the right to choose what life she wishes to lead. Such freedom is worth a long struggle, even for a Mary Sue.

Sniffsterhood is powerful.

So I'm lazing away my Sunday (as are many of y'all, I'm sure) reading my library's copy of Coming To My Senses by Alyssa Harad. Its subtitle (A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride) hints at a candy-box assortment of reader's delights and assures us that whatever our motive for choosing this book, we stand to be rewarded.  Some of us will read it primarily for the perfume, others to satisfy their curiosity about what makes a bride "unlikely". For many, the pleasure is equally balanced between the two.  For me, it lands predictably on the side of the perfume.

 Harad's tenure as the scribe of the marvelous "Out of the Bottle" series on NowSmellThis amply nourishes the fragrance aspect of the book, resulting in a peculiar and very satisfying richness of language whenever she focuses purely on scent.  I respond and relate strongly to her inward, personal reactions to fragrance, as well as to her lush descriptions of the perfumes themselves (some of which are named outright, while others -- most alluring! -- are not).

Now here's the catch.  When the girl talk starts -- and by this I mean the exchanges between Harad and the kaffeeklatsch of idiosyncratic ladies who make up her intimate circle -- I tune right out.  I'm sure it's just me; the concept of a big, cozy, global sisterhood sadly doesn't fit my empirical data set.  I'm happy if it really does exist for Alyssa Harad and others, but it seems to me like something that only happens in the movies.

Indeed, it's this intermittent cinematic tone that continually comes between me and Coming To My Senses.  In the middle of pure sensual descriptive splendor come scenes (the bridal shower!) and dialogue so conspicuously ready for the big screen that one imagines them being written with secret hopes for a future film option.  Not that that's a bad thing-- as proven by Julie & Julia and Eat Pray Love, Hollywood loves lady memoirists, and the quirkier their trajectory, the better.   But while I'm trying to enjoy this book here and now, the mental image of Sarah Jessica Parker flipping through a sheaf of typed pages at the first pre-production table read keeps inserting itself between me and the printed word.  I wish she'd would take five, grab a soy latte, and call her agent out of earshot.

Fortunately, these intervals of self-conscious narrative cannot diminish the impact of Harad's more contemplative passages about scent.  The joy of reading them remains unalloyed-- and the lucky thing is that they seem to make up the greater portion of the text.  I heard myself gasp out loud many times at a graceful turn of phrase or an adjective that made my truth bells ring.  But loveliest of all is the portrait Alyssa Harad paints of fragrance lovers and the passion that links them together-- this, at least, I know and can attest to.  I may not be able to easily access the women's universe she writes about-- but this unlikely bride gave me perfume and pleasure nonetheless.  I thank her with all my heart.

By Senses overthrown.

So here I am, home sick, reading Coming to My Senses by Alyssa Harad again. My opinion of it hasn't changed-- I still love Harad's prose on perfume, and I still hold at arm's length her "memoirizing" treatment of the topic. Today just as much as back then, it strikes me as a script treatment for a feel-good chick flick starring everyone from Ellie Kemper to Betty White. (Give Kathryn Hahn a perm and the lead role; she'd be a natural!)

Like Denyse Beaulieu, Harad essentially portrays herself as the center of a benevolent conspiracy. Wherever she roams, she's the object of constant compliment; every stranger who crosses her path has an encouraging code word to whisper in her ear. In the face of all this mysterious attention, what makes Harad more likable than Beaulieu is her humility. She never claims to be some High Priestess of Perfume (though if Bertrand Duchaufour offered to be her scent amanuensis, maybe she'd sing another tune). For the reader, the "takeaway" is the knowledge that there's a secret society of perfumophiles out there waiting to guide lost lambs towards happy self-actualization through well-placed spritzes of scent.

It's a nice fantasy. And back when I first read this book, I really thought I was a member of that magical, mystical community Harad described. Now I'm not sure I ever was-- and with each passing year, I believe the fantasy less and less. When Harad gushes like a fangirl, I relate-- and then recoil. As she names old haunts, I feel a sense of waste, loss, futility; I want to run, hide, forget.

Pleasure is such a tender thing, I once heard Alyssa Harad declare, standing in the flesh before a roomful of perfumistas. I'm not the only ghost who haunts that room today. Many of us have found ourselves pushed to the edge of Perfumeland, where we stand holding our hats and wondering what the hell went wrong. At one time, the great mothering hand of community held us aloft, ecstatic and secure. Then it let us go. We fell-- and are still falling. And despite all of Harad's assurances, there really is no net waiting far below.

Les merveilles de Ellena.

Less can be more, depending on the deliveryman. Jean-Claude Ellena -- Hermès house parfumeur; creator of their groundbreaking "Jardin" series; subject of a bestselling tome by critic Chandler Burr; founder of The Different Company; son, brother, and father of perfumers -- is just such a messenger. A man of his stature in the field of fragrance must have a lot to tell-- yet judging from the two slim volumes Ellena has authored, he prefers to keep things short and sweet. Every word he offers us is judiciously chosen and packed with information. Yet such is Ellena's humility that he never comes across as terse. With him, as with his fragrant compositions, simplicity is no obstacle to eloquence.

I can't say the same for myself. I specialize in purple prose, which sets me at a disadvantage when it comes to describing a man as straightforward and approachable as Ellena. I've only experienced him secondhand, through a few books and a good many scents. Even so, I'm left with an impression that I do know this proverbial open book of a man. His is a quiet voice easily recognized above the general din.

Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent (Arcade, 2011) is about as plainspoken a manual as could ever exist; it should be required reading for anyone ambitious enough to tackle the field of fragrance. I previously lauded it for its clear, simple tone and joked that it ought to be reprinted verbatim in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook. On subsequent readings, I become increasingly impressed by the absence of ego Ellena brings to the page. He shares knowledge largely without imposing his perspective upon it; on the rare occasions when he is required to adopt a first-person voice, he's as self-conscious as an actor breaking the fourth wall-- an endearing trait. He loves his subject and wants to live up to it; his passion turns mere reference into reverence.

Diary of a Nose (Rizzoli, 2013) maintains the reverence but reverses the balance between personal and professional. Here, we're made privy to Ellena's day-to-day musings on life, work, travel, and inspiration. For better or worse, we see him as he is. His candor and his eye for environmental detail remind me very much of Liza Dalby, whose daybook East Wind Melts the Ice has a permanent place on my bedside table. Open it anywhere and make an instant connection.

Speaking of which, I found myself responding strongly to Ellena's entry on the subject of personal anguish. It takes bravery for le maître to confess such an emotion to what essentially is a crowd of strangers. In an industry whose geniuses each believe themselves to be the Great and Powerful Oz, Ellena seems to be one of very few willing to admit to being vulnerable, imperfect, human. My respect for him grows and grows.

It's a pity that Ellena's two books don't share a publisher. They'd be so lovely presented together in a neat little slipcase... perhaps with a corresponding coffret of Ellena-authored perfume samples? Now that would be a gift.

Nearly perfect, as promised.

Just as they do his one-time subject Luca Turin, the people of today's Perfumeland hold Chandler Burr firmly at arm's length. It wasn't always so. The former New York Times perfume critic used to attract general opprobrium and wistful sighs from the gallery. He wrote two books; we applauded. He founded a Department of Olfactory Art at Manhattan's Museum of Arts and Design; it was hailed as one step toward an Yankee version of the Osmothèque. We all fantasized about being a guest (or at the very least, a fly on the wall) at one of his celebrated "scent dinners". Everyone-and-his-brother lined up to interview him, and he charmed us all with his wry humor and committed opinions.

But in 2012 came a tipping point. Was it the Untitled Series, wherein Mr. Burr sent unlabeled 50ml. bottles of perfume to subscribers and bade them experience the scent without knowing the name or brand? Was it The Art of Scent 1889-2012, that infamous MAD exhibit curated by Burr which involved sniffing stations that looked like urinals and light-projected titles that kept fading out before you could finish reading them? Was it his new mission to draw parallels between perfume and schools of art such as Abstract Expressionism and Post-Brutalism? Suddenly everyone in Perfumeland seemed to be squaring off on either side of a furious argument, to wit: was perfume a fine art or a branch of commercial design? (Damn you, Chandler Burr, for unleashing this kraken! It nearly sank the whole fleet!)

By now, everything about Chandler Burr seems to provoke resentment. His opinions are outré, pretentious, elitist, intended -- as one critic-of-the-critic pithily put it -- to épater-le-bourgeoisie (stun the middle class). With the publication by Rizzoli of Dior: The Perfumes, perfume forums exploded with comments charging Burr with selling out, writing PR copy for pay, and bowdlerizing his previous assessments of key fragrances such as Miss Dior. He patiently (and for the most part, gently) responded to every accusation himself. Classy guy.

Sometimes I'm sure that Chandler Burr would exasperate me if I ever met him in person-- but then, I might like it. I generally enjoy reading not only what he has to say but how he says it. Like Luca Turin, he's gracious and witty and prone to drawing unexpected connections between seemingly disjunct ideas. He's at once an objective witness, a fully-immersed raconteur, and a sly editorialist. Sometimes he panders to the perfume world, but he just as often pokes fun at it. In short, I'm never bored with Chandler Burr. He rubs me, true, but in the right way.

The Perfect Scent is a tome into which I know I can relax every time I open it. Its friendly, confidential air makes me feel like I'm riding around in Burr's breast pocket, looking and listening and learning as he conducts his survey of the fragrance world. I get to go everywhere with him-- could it be more fun? Whenever he converts French phrases to English in the text, it's as though he's actually whispering the translations to me-- discreetly, so as not to embarrass me. He keeps me in on the conversation and elucidates all the shadowy facts so that I don't end up feeling stupid. When he feels out of place, or starstruck, or puzzled, he says so. He's not afraid to appear less than expert. After all, he's learning along with me.

Anyhoo. As far as his pretensions go, I'm at peace with Chandler Burr in a way that I could never be with, say, Bertrand Duchaufour, who feints and backtracks and pretends his right hand knoweth not what his left is up to. If Burr makes a wrong move, he will probably be the first to own up-- and I'll like him better and better for it.

Miffed, she sniffed...

Today, with great eagerness, I took my first steps into the labyrinth of a brand new novel. I don't often opt to read fiction, but Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison revolves around one of my great historical fixations, the twilight of the Romanovs. Literally shivering with anticipation at the pleasures to be encountered, I prepared myself to be joyfully lost. All went swimmingly until page 34, where I met the following paragraph:
(T)he tsarina had done it again: eluded what she considered capture, leaving nothing more tangible than a fading whiff of Guerlain's Après L'Ondée, the perfume she'd worn every day since the tsar had first given her a bottle, during their courtship.
NO NO NO NO! shouted my mind. Absurd! Ludicrous! False! The Tsar and Tsaritsa had already been married TWELVE YEARS by the time Après L'Ondée launched in 1906-- and EVERYONE knows that Alexandra wore nothing but Atkinson's White Rose!*

Ssshhh.... ssshhhh.... quiet down, kid. It's okay. Remember, it's fiction. Fiction writers do this all the time. They use their imaginations. They cook stuff up. They play with history. They get facts wrong. They--


The book now sits forlornly on the arm of the couch, the victim of my inability to keep fact-checking separate from my enjoyment of a cracking good yarn. Maybe I'll give Enchantments a second chance once my inner wonk settles down. If it keeps being ornery, I'll remind it that speculative historical fiction is a pool into which I've dipped at least one toe. And if it STILL won't listen to reason, I'll simply feed my need for Romanovia by posting a certain perfume review I've been toiling over for a week. Check back by Saturday and we'll see how I do.

*The popularity of Atkinson's White Rose was already well established in 1884, when Alix of Hesse and Tsesarevich Nicholas first pledged childhood love to one another. The exact point when it became Alix's signature scent is unknown, but an advertisement containing a helpful endorsement ("A charming Scent") by Alix's cousin-in-law Mary, Duchess of York was published in 1894, the year of Alix's marriage to Nicholas. Yulia "Lili" Dehn, who became the Empress' personal friend and confidante in 1908, related in her book The Real Tsaritsa: "She (Alexandra) generally used Atkinson's White Rose; it was, she said, 'clean' as a perfume, and 'infinitely sweet'." It was also extremely British, which could only have commended it further to this granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Some perfume historians have asserted that Alix exclusively wore Bouquet de Catherine, the fragrance composed by Ernest Beaux to commemorate the 1913 Romanov Tercentary. But this does not quite ring true. No woman as reactionary, as anxious, as worshipful of convention or as obsessed with enshrining the past would have abandoned so arbitrarily the fragrance of her youthful blossoming. When Alix of Hesse fell in love, she fell in love for life.

Impermanent press.

Today, I'm waiting out the rain in the local laundromat. Outside it's cold, dark, and drippy; inside it's warm, noisy, and bustling. As TVs blare and towels tumble, I'm pondering my week to come-- filled end-to-end with tasks, errands, plots, and plans, culminating with Sniffapalooza on Saturday. In the midst of all this scattershot hustle-bustle, I realize that this moment of idleness might be precious. I find myself actually hoping that my laundry takes a little longer to dry.

Normally, I bring a book to the laundromat. Judging by my fellow wash'n'dryers, I'm not alone in the pursuit of (or preference for) the printed word. We could easily watch television (there are two of them, each tuned to a different channel) or kill time texting friends on our cellphones (which are also legion; a lot of us don't even have landlines anymore). Instead we read-- each stranger quietly settling into their chosen book, magazine, or newspaper. A few intrepid souls work on the Sunday crossword puzzle. Words of the unspoken kind get us all through the wash cycle.

Today, I hold in my hands a mint copy of Essence & Alchemy, Mandy Aftel's seminal work on natural perfumery. This book is said to be poetic, transcendent, rich in history and deft synthesis of ideas. I cannot wait to read it. I certainly have had to. It took one year and three separate requests to persuade the library to add this title to its nonfiction collection. I think the publisher might be print-on-demand, which always slows down the order. But the purchasing genies came through, and as reward for all my patience and persistence, this lucky worker bee can now claim first taste of the honey.

So why am I not reading it? Because it hurts my eyes.

I know what you're thinking: GO TO BED, OLD LADY! It's true my vision isn't what it used to be-- but then, it never was great, and perfect sight has never been a prerequisite for passionate readership. But this font is small. Really, really small. I'd say it's about a point size and a half too tiny for any reader's comfort, even those with 20/20 vision. Plus, it's... well, pale. The text appears faint and washed out even in perfectly adequate reading light. At first I think it's the ink, but then I look closer, and it appears that the entire book has been printed in some kind of halftone gradient. Sure, I can read if I squint-- and it's not that I'm unwilling to risk a wrinkled brow to enjoy a good book. But I look, blink, rub my eyes, look again-- and I still can barely see what I'm reading. It fades before me like a ghost.

Every one of the half-dozen people to whom I've shown this book has also blinked and rubbed their eyes upon viewing its pages. I didn't even have to say anything. One of them helpfully suggested that I "just download the eBook". Now, I can and do use technology when I need a tool to get a job done. My eyes, hands, feet, and brain have long sufficed as my machinery for many different pursuits, partnering compatibly with many other machines including PCs, old typewriters, ink brushes, etching tools, Volkswagen Bug stick shifts, MP3 players, laser printers, oven timers, frame drums and finger cymbals. But for some reason they draw the line at eReaders. On that point, they refuse to budge or be brought up to code. I know that humans and their culture are ephemeral and ever-altering; I never minded the thought of becoming old and obsolete, and even thought I might gently embrace it over time. But although Essence & Alchemy is indeed available to download, I don't see this as an improvement, or even an alternative. Because I want to read this book.

I want to READ this book. I want to take in its text with my own two eyes and derive understanding from it (preferably without being forced to squint at sub-par print quality.)

I want to read THIS book. I jumped through enough goddamn hoops to get it; I don't see why I should now have to trade it in for another, better model.

I want to read this BOOK. I want to turn its paper pages with my fingertips, smell the fragrance of ink and glue, and tuck an old dogeared postcard in to hold my place when I take a break.

I know all this makes me a de facto dinosaur, pathetically opting to sink in a La Brea pit full of printer ink rather than dip a toe into the safely paperless Matrix. But I will always prefer it thus. Only if words have never appeared in ink on paper (or if obtaining a rare copy would require Indiana Jones-level escapades involving a bullwhip and thousands of snakes) do I ever seek them from an electronic screen. And it kills me that I HAVE the book I want in the format that I prefer, but I can't read it because the production method used gives me a migraine.

There may be some arcane, roundabout explanation for why it must be so. I know ink is expensive. Gray-scaled illustrations and green-friendly fonts make both economic and ecological sense. But a book is meant to be read. If it can't be, it doesn't matter whether it saves money, ink, or the environment. It's poor design, and more-- it's the breakdown of a device that has worked perfectly well for over five hundred years.

(Maybe I shouldn't worry that the eBook will make the print book obsolete. It appears that the printing press itself is going to take care of that. Talk about Cronus devouring his own children!)

I'm still going to give Essence & Alchemy a chance. I've invested too much effort in getting it to give up easily. My book-seeking habits are like my perfume-seeking habits: I am willing to wait long, work hard, and go to the ends of the earth for what interests me.

But with perfumes and books alike, sometimes the quest involves a headache.

The logophile's lament.

I admit it: I am a grammar fascist. I've been one ever since I learned to read... and started correcting my storybooks in red Crayola crayon.

In the sixth grade, I taught myself proofreading symbols and marked all the spelling errors in my teacher's report-card comments. (You'd be surprised how many I found.) I'm certain this did not endear me to her, but my path had already been fixed by the stars.

In my early twenties, I supplemented my day job as a PR copywriter by proofreading dissertations for local graduate school students. Armed with a red pencil, I waded into the linguistic swamplands, slashing at text with the single-minded purpose of Stanley toiling to reach Dr. Livingstone. En route, I encountered misspellings, redundancies, sentence fragments strung together without logic or aim, paragraphs so saturated with improper syntax that the English language itself seemed vandalized.

It was hands-down the most demoralizing job I've ever had.

If you care deeply about language, you know well that nothing destroys your faith in mankind more than poor writing-- unless you count poor thinking, which is a different thing altogether. I fought against both with all my strength. Hell, I'd go so far as to call my clients, read their own sentences out loud to them, and demand explanations. "What does that MEAN?" I'd ask. "What are you trying to SAY? What's your POINT?" Pretty ballsy for a chick with little more than a high school diploma and a dogeared copy of Strunk & White's-- but what can I tell you? The English language is my temple... and I defend its sacred precincts with full ferocity. A wonderful thought badly expressed is more frustrating (if not nearly as dangerous) as a terrible thought beautifully expressed; the only way to combat the latter is to fix the former. Such is the position of the grammar fiend: a warrior for poetry, a bulwark against kitsch and propaganda.

Yet there's also a bit of Cassandra in this role. Try as you might to convince the writer that they've taken a wrong turn, you'll most often meet with responses ranging from blank stares to anger, from disbelief to apathy. That last one is by far the worst.

As an associate professor of English, Tilar J. Mazzeo has probably graded hundreds of papers exactly like the ones I describe. After reading her new book,The Secret of Chanel No. 5: An Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume, I wonder if the term papers' influence is starting to tell. On page 197,for example, she states:
Chanel No. 5, however, was not beyond resuscitation; in fact, it was far from it.
I stared at that sentence for three full minutes, unable to decipher the damn thing. Was she saying that Chanel No. 5 could be saved, or couldn't? How was being far from resuscitation different (or better) than being beyond it? For a moment, I felt my old editorial compulsion stir. What does that MEAN? I envisioned myself shouting into the phone. Instead, Idecided to read the passage out loud to my husband. The instant I saw his brow furrow, I knew I wasn't alone.

After five minutes of intense debate, we arrived at the following amendment:
Chanel No. 5, however, was not beyond resuscitation. Far from it.
Even better:
Chanel No. 5, however, was not beyond resuscitation.
Period. Follow with supporting facts. Done.

Well, not quite.

Lately, it seems that wherever I go, indifference to correct English spelling, usage, and punctuation abounds. Local florists sell "bokays". A restaurant menu tempts diners with "Oysters Rockafela". A municipal billboard congratulates the Citizen of the Year, "who's" dedication to civic duty is greater than someone's attention to the correct use of apostrophes. And what about this gem?
I remember the first time I met Guy Robert a wonderful self-effacing man who was also the distinguished perfumer who gave us Caleche, and Madame Rochas, to name but two of his great creations.
The above paragraph, authored by Roja Dove, appears on page 138 of The Essence of Perfume. Nice guy, Roja Dove. Talented perfumer, brain like an encyclopedia. But his grammar? Oy vey iz mir:
Marcel Rochas, who was born in 1902, and whilst he had no formal training he revolutionised women's fashion: he created the girdle, put fur in jackets as linings, was the first to put a pocket in a skirt, and in 1932 he created a trouser suit to be worn out in public-- trousers for women were first pioneered by Paul Poiret but they were for 'at home use', and in 1943 he created the bustier. (pg. 211)
I'm surprised that sentence got as far as the typesetters-- and that leads me to the point of this diatribe. Where have all the editors gone?

With judicious tailoring by a constructively critical editor, The Secret of Chanel No. 5 might have been all it set out to be. After all, it's not as though Mazzeo doesn't know her subject. If you've read her previous tome (2008's The Widow Clicquot) you know that she's one hell of a researcher. Investigative skills such as she possesses are exactly what the labyrinthine tale of "the world's most famous perfume" requires. An able guide might lead us straight to its heart-- but daylight is dying, and our Daedalus gets so caught up in juggling bits of legend that the reader is in constant peril of losing the guide line.

Mazzeo's narrative style is as follows: She states one fact, then another. Then she restates them both again before adding a third. Then she restates all three in sequence before adding a fourth-- and so on, producing longer and longer strings of reiteration until the reader finds herself chanting sotto voce, "Yes, yes, I get it, get on with it..." If you've ever watched one of those VH1 specials that provides exhaustive recaps after every commercial break, you know what I'm talking about.

I mean, history repeats itself-- but this is ridiculous.

Did Mazzeo not trust the reader to retain the simplest details? (We can.) Was she afraid her narrative would not prove sufficiently engaging to carry us from one page to the next? (It is.) Or did she realize -- as did I, inevitably -- that this story would make a better New Yorker article than a full-length book? (It would.) The distressing presence of so much empty filler alongside good, solid facts suggests that one (if not all) of these theories may hold water.

What it doesn't explain is this: Where was her editor?

A book may lack verity (if it is nonfiction) or imagination (if it is fiction) or a viewpoint (no matter what it is). These are the responsibility of the author, who must then be judged accordingly. But a perfectly well-researched book presenting a series of valuable and original observations without logic, structure, economy, or simple good grammar-- this is the fault of the editor, who ought to know better than to let it go to press without a good going-over.

Speaking as a reader, I may pick up a book and pore through it from cover to cover in desperate pursuit of a single fact...but if I have to sweat and struggle to extract that fact from the bedrock of bad writing, I'm likely to chuck it right back on the pile. Or heave it across the room.

I still might, too.

Porn stars.

In the county library network that employs me, there's one branch which stands apart from all others.  Originally an independent "free public library" supported solely by its township, it existed for almost eight decades before the county system absorbed it.  Consequently, its collection is wholly idiosyncratic-- a sort of literary Galápagos where single copies of unique books populate the shelves.

One such nonpareil is Jean-Yves Gaborit's Perfumes: The Essences and Their Bottles (Rizzoli International, 1985). By no means an exact translation of the original title (Parfums: Prestige et Haute Couture), this amended nom de livre proves apt for a tome filled cover to cover with what one can only call perfume bottle porn.

The cover pulls no punches: an octagonal bottle of Ombre Rose, sumptuously backlit and glistening like a prize temptation straight from the Devil's bag of tricks.  The message is clear:  Abandon all hope, ye who enter here! Inside, there's image after image of crystal, lacquer, and art glass vessels posing like bathing beauties-- some adorned with flowers, fruit, silk draperies and gold dust, others utterly nude if you don't count their labels. One happens upon the sight of Jean Desprez' Étourdissant reclining on its little Lucite settee, and damned if it isn't Ingres' Grand Odalisque reworked in crystal by Léon Leyritz. (If that weren't enough, this juicy photograph appears exactly halfway through the book, making it nothing other than your classic centerfold.)

Textwise, Perfumes introduces the major perfumes houses in alphabetical order, with each profile page headed by the company's official typographic imprint.  A brief paragraph or two details the house's history, philosophy, and other distinguishing features.  The photographs are a mixture of official promotional images and artistic originals depicting both classics and less well-known releases, but always with an emphasis on interesting bottle design.  Captions list each fragrance's main olfactory notes as well as snippets of trivia about its development.

Most interesting are the trails through perfume history which the reader can pick up from visual cues.  Certain bottles arouse interest due to their clear influence on later designs-- for instance, Jacques Fath's Expression (1977) is housed in an asymmetrical flat oval bottle with an off-center cap that instantly calls to mind innumerable Comme des Garçons bottles as well as the newer Missonis.  One sees divine vessels enclosing juices one has never heard of, as well as once-popular flavors-of-the-month that have fallen out of popular favor.  (Balenciaga's Ho Hang?  Courrèges' Empriente?  Bueller?  Bueller?)

It's also interesting to consider some of the contradictions inherent in perfume presentation.  Based solely on its hideous original bottle design, I would never have purchased Guerlain's original Derby even though I know that the fragrance itself is unforgettable.  Conversely, I'd mortgage a kidney for the parfum-strength version of Guy Laroche's J'ai Osé despite the likelihood that it might reek as hatefully as Drakkar Noir inside that rapturously beautiful bottle.

The back pages of Perfumes offer classification tables which reiterate each fragrance's scent notes as well as its "family", the latter often proving quaintly outdated.  (Did you know, for instance, that "(p)erfumes for men are not classified by families of odors"?  Really!)  On the other hand, it's refreshing to become acquainted with the names of the artists, sculptors, and designers who served as the "eyes" in league with the "noses".  Baccarat and Lalique ruled the roost, yes-- but one learns that Pierre Dinand, Alain de Mourgues, Félicie Bergaud, Jacques Llorente, and Serge Mansau were all rock stars of perfume bottle design. The artistic Marquis Emilio Pucci preferred to design his own bottles, as did Nicole Trussardi and (occasionally) M. and Mme. Rochas-- but at other huge firms such as Guerlain and Patou, designers toiled in anonymity under the blanket appelation of the "Création" department.

In truth, however harsh, one does not need to know a single designer's name -- nor that of the perfume, or the house that produced it -- to slaver like a Pavlovian dog at the sight of all these bottles.  Factices though they may be, implicit in their full-to-the-brim levels of amber or other similarly-colored liquid is the knowledge that they contain scent.  Oh, so many, so different, so classic, and so desirable scents-- this is the true source of all the mouthwatering that will ensue if you ever get  your hands on a copy of this book.

As for me, I'll continue renewing and renewing until I run into overdues.

It's only perfume.

It began with a book. Simple white cover, photograph of a cobalt-blue glass bottle, three-word title—Perfumes: The Guide. I had never heard of either Luca Turin or Tania Sanchez, the authors of this modest-looking volume. I did not know they were about to change my life.

Until that day, our library lacked a collection of comprehensive sources on perfumery or aromachemistry. We owned Nigel Groom's marvelous Perfume Handbook, but for in-house reference only; for circulation, our stock was limited to a motley collection of New Age D.I.Y. guides for making your own potpourri, candles, and bath salts.

After that day, the floodgates would open. In relatively short order, we'd receive another book by Turin (The Secret of Scent), a book ABOUT Turin (The Emperor of Scent), another book by the AUTHOR of the book about Turin (The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr) and one more book with the word "scent" in the title (The Scent Trail by Celia Lyttleton). But on that day, faced by that single book, I knew I had found something unique. I swiped it off the shelf and raced to the checkout station.

For the next three weeks, Perfumes: The Guide would become my oracle, my breviary, my source of daily meditation and delight. I read it on my lunch breaks, after dinner at home, and in bed late at night—waking my poor husband up with bursts of out-loud laughter. That a book about perfume could crack anyone up made him scratch his head in bemusement. I took to reading snippets of it out loud to prove it could really be that funny.

When the revised, expanded, and slightly renamed paperback edition landed on my desk a year later – now with a collage of multicolored perfume bottles on that white cover, and the promise of 400 newly-added reviews – I understood one thing. I was about to take a journey into a far-flung, exotic territory, and this little book would be my Baedeker.

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"What are you doing?" my husband asked.

I sat hunched over Perfumes, affixing dozens of purple Post-It flags to its pages.

“I’m marking some perfumes I know, and some others I might like to try,” I replied.

“Ah. A brand new obsession,” he grinned.

Not that I have dozens of them, but the few "special interests" I hold dear -- geisha, the Romanov dynasty, Norse mythology, and ethnobotany -- are perfectly suited to the life of a reference library worker. Research is fun and satisfying when you have dozens of scholarly tomes at your disposal. It also has the benefit of costing next to nothing. But perfume? My husband began to look worried. “Aren’t perfumes expensive?” he asked.

“Not decants.” I explained to him that a milliliter of expertly-decanted fragrance could cost as little as three dollars. This set his mind at ease… until he noticed I was on my second pad of PostIt flags.

“Exactly how many perfumes are you planning to get?” he fretted.

And thus my perfume budget was born. My husband calculated that $50 per month is what he spends on comic books that only he reads, or sci fi/horror films that only he watches. For that amount, I could experience up to a dozen unique works of olfactory art, then write about it for my own pleasure.

Creativity: the best argument for any new undertaking.

As time passed, I began to understand that creativity was in fact the key to this whole experiment, in a sense that I had not anticipated. I'd started with only my own existing tastes to inform me. However, the further I read, the more I began to trace lineages, connections, symbols and cultural references, both between individual scents and the houses that produced them. It reminded me of art history classes in college, where you view a slide of an Utamaro ukiyo-e followed by a poster by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and experience a sudden flowering of comprehension within your skull. I began to view perfumers not as producers of product, but as true creators -- like writers, designers, visual artists, musical composers, master chefs -- who grope in the dark just as often as they reach for the light. I found my horizons widened, my assumptions challenged, and more-- I found myself viewing my own creative efforts as an artist in a new way.

Obviously, there was more to this project than met the nose.

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How do we choose perfume? Sometimes we go looking for it; sometimes it comes to us-- as a gift, perhaps, or a sample in a magazine. Sometimes we see a beautiful bottle on a counter and feel compelled to reach for it, regardless of what it contains. Other times, a friend or relative raves about a favorite scent, which stirs our curiosity. Sometimes we read about it in an article, a product review or even a book like Perfumes. One way or another, we seek it out.

And once we find it, all the roads converge into one action with two possible reactions: we try it on, and either we like it, or we scrub it off.

Turin and Sanchez are just like us, except they go one step further and write about it. They speak honestly about their empirical response to each scent, whether it be rapture or horror. They enumerate the many sensual associations the perfume stirred up for them-- some startling, some possibly exaggerated for dramatic effect (a crime to the literal-minded). They connect their thoughts about scent to anecdotes from their personal lives, good and bad. They review perfumes as if they were albums, books, restaurants, films, theme parks, live rock shows, building demolitions, and manmade disasters-- humorously, insightfully, and (where warranted) brutally.

And if they scrub, they damn well say so.

Catty, bitchy, snobbish, picky, arrogant, rarefied, snide, biased, grandiose, pretentious, condescending, hurtful, subjective, incompetent, snarky. These are some of the many accusations leveled by fragrance forum commentators at Turin and Sanchez. "Mr. Turin is embarrassingly unprofessional and silly in his 'evaluation' of scents, which he bases strictly on personal preference," protests one blogger. "They only judge scents by whether they like it or not," scolds another. (Which begs the question: who doesn't?) Apparently it's a crime to be confident that what you have to say might be of service to someone else-- whether as counsel, warning, or pure entertainment.

Even fellow critics -- who surely know that their chosen profession is largely an editorial field -- chafe at the authors' sunny, confessional tone. Here's what Jonathan Meades of the New Statesman thinks of "Turinia", as he dubs the pair:
...this highly excitable couple have set themselves up as The Measure, The Ultimate Arbiters. They aspire to be perfume’s Parker, Pevsner, Pudlo. And, yes, they absolutely adore alliteration. It constellates in their oeuvre along with outré simile, hyperbole, quasi-synaesthesiac prose, in-jokes, arcane scholarship, unwitting mock-heroism, tireless exuberance, and a self-referential hermeticism that sites perfume at the very centre of the world....

The sheer chutzpah and effrontery of the brandname and place-name snobbery (in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide) are impressive. But I sometimes wear Arabie and have tasted Unicum, and fail to recognise any correspondence between the smell of the one and the taste of the other. It doesn’t prompt confidence in the congruence of Aria di Capri and Lavorato, both of which I am unfamiliar with.
Yet only a moment later, Meades continues in a much more reflective tone:
Still, 150 garrulous pages further on, we come to another Lutens perfume, Miel de Bois. Turinia are spot-on and describe this aberration as “like honey in dilution, like urine in concentration”. It is the first time I have seen the link between honey and urine made in print. This strikes me when I taste mead, fermented honey, whether native West Country grot, Lithuanian midus, Polish miod or Breton hydromel. To me, they all taste the way horse piss smells – an admission that is liable to prompt incredulous derision. And which thus raises the question of whether I smell, say, lavender or pitch as you smell them and they smell them.

The authors claim that, broadly, yes I do.

("Scents and sensibility", New Statesman, October 6, 2008, Vol. 137 Issue 4916, p50-51)

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The fact is that all the accusations are true. Turin and Sanchez are subjective (as well as catty, bitchy, snobbish, et. al.). What remains unspoken is they expect the reader to be exactly as subjective about perfume. Open their book to any page at all, and you will find bias, and snark, and sarcasm-- but how you respond to it depends on the unique frame of reference you occupy. If Luca Turin calls Lulu Guinness' Cast A Spell a "dreadful little thing" (pg. 164), what are you going to do about it? You can laugh. You can scoff. You can take Turin's word for it, or you can try it for yourself. And then you'll either agree with him, or you'll want to burn him in effigy. But you will no longer be objective. You'll have made your choice-- no matter how you were brought to it.

I, for one, marvel at the personal insight and irreverent sense of fun with which Sanchez and Turin carry out their task. I'd find it very boring indeed to read a perfume review that consisted merely of price range, bottle description, and list of ingredients. A career chemist, Turin could easily give us the latter. Instead, he mixes his science with plenty of sly humor, alchemically arriving at an entirely new form of poetry in his perfume evaluations.

As for Sanchez, when she reviews Lanvin's Rumeur ("rumor") with a single word -- baseless -- I'm won over by her punk-rock chutzpah. In my mind, she and her co-author stand comfortably alongside Lester Bangs, Legs McNeil, Tama Janowitz, Danyel Smith, P.J. O'Rourke, Lisa Carver, and Chuck Klosterman in the annals of no-holds-barred journalism. Their subject of choice may not be "the very centre of the world", as Meades puts it-- but it is no less serious, significant, or satisfying than any other cultural phenomenon.

"Try it on. It's only perfume," Sanchez tells us. She could just as well be talking about life itself, in all its joy and pain.

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In his 1910 novel Howard's End, E.M. Forster deplores the human tendency to "muddle"-- particularly the manner in which we drag in the language of one sense to describe another. Here's Margaret Schlegel harping about her sister Helen, who (in true bohemian style) insists on appreciating music with the help of her mind's eye:
"Do you think music is so different to pictures?... my sister declares they're just the same. We have great arguments over it. She says I'm dense; I say she's sloppy... Now, doesn't it seem absurd to you? What is the good of the arts if they're interchangeable? What is the good of the ear if it tells you the same as the eye? Helen's one aim is to translate tunes into the language of painting, and pictures into the language of music. It's very ingenious, and she says several pretty things in the process, but what's gained, I'd like to know? Oh, it's all rubbish, radically false. If Monet's really Debussy, and Debussy's really Monet, neither gentleman is worth his salt...

"Now this symphony that we've just been having-- she won't let it alone. She labels it with meanings from start to finish; turns it into literature. I wonder if the day will ever return when music will be treated as music. Yet I don't know. There's my brother-- behind us. He treats music as music, and oh, my goodness! he makes me angrier than anyone, simply furious..."
Of course, Forster is plainly fond of both Margaret and Helen, not to mention muddles. This much is evident in his own tendency (bless it!) to inject a healthy dose of purple into his prose. Even as he argues for sense over sensibility, he asks us to "only connect"-- wryly, as if aware that no matter what he tells us, we will go right on seeing music, hearing paintings, singing about architecture, and writing poetry about perfume.