Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Now Smell Me... Somewhere Else

As almost anyone who could have possibly dropped by here in the last four years knows, I now post occasionally on perfume at Robin Krug's incredible fragrance website Now Smell This.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Top Ten: Reading

This post was inspired by the recent purchase of a gloriously silly compilation: The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, edited by J. Peder Zane. Mr. Zane's first line in the introduction is: "This book began with a dream." The book is as harebrained as this opening suggests, and both as enjoyable and as infuriating as any good list of lists should be. Mr. Zane suggests the purpose of the lists is to guide bewildered modern bibliophiles through the maze of the chainstores to find rewarding reads. How much guiding does the average book-lover need to dig up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Despite the subtitle, Mr. Zane has only asked the 125 "leading British and American authors" to submit a list of the ten greatest works of fiction, and so you get all the usual syllabus suspects: Homer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Melville, Proust, Fitzgerald, etc. Two of my own very favourite short fiction writers, George Saunders and Lorrie Moore, both masters of black humour, pick quite staid and serious lists. (Okay, Saunders, you get points for Slaughterhouse-Five, which is funny, at least, and was written within the last forty years.) It's disappointing how few surprises there are.

The truth is, though, that Aristotle was wrong: Man is the list-making animal. There's nothing more fun than agreeing with or fuming over a list - except making one yourself. This fact is entirely ignored by a number of the more self-important authors, who whine and sweat as if composing a list of books that give them pleasure is the equivalent of delivering triplets. The worst offender is E. Annie Proulx, whose rude and pompous preface is as humourless as anything else she has written. "Just so you'll give it a rest," she writes, "here is a list." Well, don't worry, Annie, we won't be bothering you for the next edition: your fifteen minutes have got to be up soon.*

When I wasn't mentally berating famous authors, I was cheering on writers who share my good taste. Way to go with The Loser, Claire Messud! (And you're damn good yourself, by the way...) Ethan Canin, why haven't I read your books? You love Mr. Bridge and Sacred Hunger and I believe you taught my good buddy Craig at Iowa. (Mrs. Bridge makes two other lists, too.) Lydia Millet, why have I stubbornly refused to read your Oh Pure and Radiant Heart? Just because the blurbs on the back reference unreadable po-mo? But you worship William Gaddis' JR! Admittedly, that book is nearly unreadable po-mo, too - but it's brilliant! Judy Budnitz, that short story of yours about a transferred cancer and disappearing hallucinated carp completely freaked me out. But I love that you picked All the King's Men, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, Jesus' Son and the best collection of Donald Barthelme (who also freaks me out, sure, but I do love "Me and Miss Mandible" and "Critique de la vie quotidienne".)

So, of course, this is all leading to me inflicting my top ten on you. Now I love King Lear, Gulliver's Travels, Madame Bovary and Heart of Darkness as much as the next girl - indeed, probably more than the next girl, those four especially - but I have disqualified them on the completely random basis that they were written before 1900. I have tried to pick the books that mean the most to me personally, and only two "real" classics managed to sneak onto my list. I included short story collections, but no drama, poetry, personal or sociological essays or non-fiction. It should be obvious that I'm a fan of the "tragicomic". Please feel free to abuse me for my choices and post your own. A totally unrelated post on my top ten scents this summer should follow soon.

  1. Mating by Norman Rush: Okay, so some of you may have heard me ranting about this one before. I sometimes feel like I'm in the wilderness with a loincloth and a copy of this book; I talked my bookclub into reading it next January and my husband thinks they're going to flog me with copies of the Shopaholic novels or something once they try to read it. It's dense and long, with words like "gynecomastia" or puns in Latin on every page. But it's incredibly smart, funny and full, a true epic of the personal as well as the global, narrated by one of the most intelligent and believable female characters ever.

  2. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton: If there's one character who earns as much affection from me as the narrator of Mating, it's Lily Bart. Brave, bright, graceful, honest and utterly doomed, she is the American creation who best fits Ivan Morris' description of that particular type of tragic hero, the one "whose single-minded sincerity will not allow him to make the manoeuvres and compromises that are so often needed for mundane success". Her story is devastating, but Lily is bewitching.

  3. Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard: Probably my favourite book about war, even though it gets stiff competition from The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien). I already wrote about it here.

  4. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore: In very many ways, I owe Moore the number one spot. This collection of short stories is the one I most wish I had written, a work of relentless, angry and shaking brilliance. It is so desperately funny and heartbreaking that I found myself laughing and crying over each story. She deserved every award going in 1998, but I think she only won top spot in the O. Henry Prize and Best American Short Stories for "People Like That Are the Only People Here", the very fictionalized account of her son's cancer. The National Book Awards didn't even nominate her, the nutters.

  5. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren: E.L. Doctrow wrote that Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man is a "monumental, hammered-out novel of perfected technical mistakes." That excellent phrase always reminds me of Warren's great classic. Everyone always treats All the King's Men as if it were a very wise and realistic summation of political life, when really it is a kooky, bilgy novel, written by a poet, full of borrowed mythic imagery, memorable psychological insight and hilarious run-on sentences. Very simply wonderful.

  6. The Collected Stories of Richard Yates: Along with Moore's stories, these are my favourites. Furiously ironic and real, they are full of the kind of detached sympathy for characters last possessed by Thomas Hardy. I think the whole collection is genius, but "A Glutton for Punishment", "Builders", "A Natural Girl", "Oh Joseph, I'm so Tired" and "A Convalescent Ego" stand out particularly for me.

  7. The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy: Overshadowed by the controversy surronding the use of a real person's life for fiction and then the publication of Ray Monk's fabulous biography, this novel based on the life of Wittgenstein is currently out of print. What people have forgotten is that it is a terrific book that is truthful in every way that counts. It is easy to get caught up in the story and not notice how carefully the main characters are linked. Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore all have transforming moments while swimming, for example, with each man's experience reflecting his temperment and philosophical path: Moore floating away from a beach without loosing sight of shore, an elderely Russell swimming doggedly and miraculously to save himself after an airplane crash, and Wittgenstein having an emptying, estatic and mystical experience on an isolated lake.

  8. Selected Stories by Nadine Gordimer: Since there has been no collection of short works by the Nobel Laureate since 1975, this one will have to do. I would take it to a desert island for "The Life of the Imagination" alone.

  9. JR by William Gaddis: Not light reading, this one. I think it took me a year to finish this 726-page novel with no dialog tags ("he said", "she said"). It was worth every second, though.

  10. The Risk Pool by Richard Russo: This one's a little more fun than some in the top ten. I love Nobody's Fool too, and always have a hard time choosing which Russo to lend first to a friend. (I began with Straight Man, which is a great start for anybody who has seen the "workings" of an English department up close.) All Russo books are about fathers and sons, but this one, beginning and ending with the birth of a boy, ties up the neatest.

Of course, I have been forced (by myself) to leave off Rabbit at Rest, Helen DeWitt's hauntingly bizaare The Last Samurai, everything by Flannery O'Connor, George Saunder's CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia, the Bridge novels by Evan S. Connell, The Bookshop, "Miranda Over the Valley" and "The Fat Girl" by Andre Dubus, Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban, Sacred Hunger, The Great Gatsby, The Barrytown trilogy, The Power and the Glory, etc., etc., etc.

* Why didn't B.R. Myer's "A Reader's Manifesto" ruin the careers of Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, as it should have? I suspect Proulx was saved by Ang Lee's film adaptation of "Brokeback Mountain". Lee also did a great version of The Ice Storm, a novel by Rick Moody, another of Myer's victims. The Tawainese director seems to be great at cutting the story and best images out of heaps of rambling sentences and mixed metaphors. If I ever overwrite a book, I'm calling him.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Chanel Egoïste

In some ways, Chanel has done the most of any major fragrance house to protect its brand name: insane quality control and investment in raw materials, continued production of classic scents, relatively few disappointing reformulations, almost no embarrassing blunders of the Le Baiser du Dragon variety and the recent careful yet creative design of a brave new line of scents. But, as if schizophrenic, The House That Coco Built also seems to go out of its way to damage itself. I'm not sure if it was ever more than rumoured that Chanel participated in the booting of decanters from eBay, but the ill will the scenterati directed at them in the wake of the disaster is indicative of how successful Chanel has been in alienating what should be their most appreciative audience. Why are the enduring Beaux classics and the new Exclusifs so impossible to find, while Chanel launches such wan, safely recycled scents to the mainstream market? Why do they keep farting around with their last full-blooded commercial earner, Coco? And why, oh why, did they discontinue Egoïste in North America*, and replace it with the almost freakishly calculated Egoïste Platinum?

Originally launched in the US in 1987 as a limited edition called Bois Noir, Egoïste was created by house nose Jacques Polge. It contains tangerine, rosewood, coriander, damask rose, sandalwood, vanilla and ambrette seed. It is therefore an Oriental, properly viewed as the little brother of Bois des Iles, not as the older sibling of the Platinum flanker (which combines an expensive-smelling heart of heavy club smoke in shampooed hair with a sadly generic marine base.)
Where Bois des Iles is a shaft of warm, golden light, Egoïste is a cool and silvered grey, soft as a cloud, ripe with fruit and yet somehow lacking the slightly decadent edge of its feminine counterpart. The opening's pastel sweetness is tempered with dry and savory notes: the smokey rosewood, a pimento-like tickle, a dusting of ambrette, a light yet liquored note that seems to be fennel. In the early heart, there are some rocky moments for me, as the rose dominates - a peppery, dusty-lampshade rose, like a bowl of dried rose petals or the heart of Parfum Sacré. The base, however, is beautiful: a rich, yet still muted floral vanilla blended with a very familiar buttery sandalwood. There is a touch of Christmas pudding about the whole thing, but this does not convey the sheer weight of the fragrance. Egoïste is first and foremost a fragrance of discretion. The sillage is subtle but distinctive; if it should take at least ten minutes for someone to notice you are impeccably dressed, then perhaps it should take at least as long for them to notice how how smoothly smart you smell.

* The original is apparently still widely available in Europe. I got my decant from the divine Dusan, who has a package preparation style that I love: the "throw it against the wall, and see if it sticks" method. He sent me everything from ubiquitous commerical favourites like Lacoste Pour Homme, through discontinued lovelies like M7, to the absolutely horrifying Made By Blog wonder Wet.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Quick Break

Just a brief note to say that I am back, yet again, in Ontario, as my "Aunt" (actually, an older cousin) has died suddenly. Quite sad, as I didn't really have a chance to say goodbye, and she was only my father's age, but I was glad to get back to help my whole family give her a wonderful send-off. My cousin loved a good party and she'll be mad as a hatter to have missed this one. She wore Ungaro's Diva, an underrated perfume. I hope to post a review of a summer fave later this week.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Les Parfums de Rosine Diabolo Rose

So... it has been over a month since I posted a review. What have I been doing? Looking for a full-time job as well as for child care for my daughter - and indulging in my own blue period.* Luckily, I have been drowning my sorrows in perfume (and in Starbucks Iced Black Tea Lemonade, one pump sweetener) so I should have plenty of material for the next weeks. I swear.

Let's start with Les Parfums de Rosine's Diabolo Rose (2007). I always try to keep up with the new releases from the resurrected house of Rosine, the home base of which is so often overshadowed by a little store a few doors down called the Salon du Palais Royal Shiseido. As explained by Marie-Hélène of The Scented Salamander, this scent is a rose-tinged tribute to the diabolo menthe, an extraordinarily popular drink I saw in every café when I visited France. A mixture of green peppermint syrup and carbonated lemonade (NOT 7-Up or bottled water, as all the American websites would have you believe), the diabolo menthe combines the pleasing childishness of sweet, gem-bright syrup with the refreshing counterpoint of mint and citrus, reminiscent of that adult cocktail favourite, the Mojito.** Diabolo Rose is a mixture of bergamot, peppermint, rose essence, lily of the valley, centafolia (rose) absolute, tomato leaves, peony, maté, sandalwood, amber and musk, and is composed by François Robert.

My skin magnifies acidic, citrus-like notes to a really astounding degree. A large cloud of bergamot usually accompanies me wherever I go, and I have difficulty with many rose-centered fragrances going quite sour on me. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the lemonade facet of Diabolo Rose is extremely prominent on me for the first half hour. While I don't get a lot of mint up front, there is a languid thickness to the the top and heart notes that suggests syrup; from the ingredients and inspiration, I was expecting this one to be a refresher, but on me Diabolo is heavier than either of my Rosine favourites, the sparkling Ecume de Rose and the warm but airy attic atmosphere of Poussiere de Rose. The sillage is not huge, but there is an almost boozy body to the core of the scent that didn't work in our spring-like weather. Later in the development, though, there is a touch of peppery tomato leaf followed by a sheer base of dry maté and musk. That final hour (out of three to four) is my favourite: like a chypre, the base of the scent juxtaposes refreshment with a skin-like intimacy. A gentle breath of the drydown managed to lift me above the car exhaust on my walk yesterday. Diabolo Rose will likely not be a purchase for me, but there is a sense of fun about it that makes me glad to have spent time with it.

Diabolo Rose is not yet at beautyhabit, which carries the rest of Les Parfums de Rosine. You can order from the line for 70 Euro (50 ml) or you can (shhhh!) buy a decant.

* I was also back in Ontario for a while for the wedding of my lifelong buddy, Dave, who is the friend who met me in Paris this February. For those of you who heard about my perfume piggy nose, you can check out a picture of me at said wedding here. I am accompanied by my wonderful, dashing brothers, Thom (left) and Jay (centre).
**Having gotten on the Mojito train early, after being introduced by a Cuban acquaintance, let me say how distressed I am by the abuses perpetrated on this noble drink since it became ubiquitous. A Mojito is not blended with crushed ice, and you should not attempt to cover up a shameful, miserly amount of mint with an injection of some random red, orange or purple fruit puree.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Creative Universe Té

The top notes of some perfumes instantly bring to mind a scent in the "real" world. L by Lolita Lempicka is salted carmels. (And like the candies, I can't help wishing there was more salt.) Caron's Poivre is the smell of the great, hole-in-the-wall Hungarian restaurant near my old apartment, with dishes full of paprika, pepper, clove and cream wafting past and dust drifting down from the touchingly tacky wall decorations. L'Artisan's Dzing! famously smells of cardboard, Piment Brûlant of red bell peppers, and Tea for Two is your tent permeated with campfire smoke. Comme des Garçons Rhubarb conjures, well, yes, rhubarb. Then, there are the maddening perfumes that smell exactly like... something, exactly like something that is evading you, it's right there, it's.... what is that smell, for the love of all things holy?!? Created by Creative Universe's Beth Terry, was launched in 1996, and contains notes of bergamot, celery (seed?), grapefruit, green tea, ylang-ylang and clove. For me, is the latter sort of eyebrow-knitting scent, the kind you just know, but you can't say from where.

At this point you are saying to your computer: "You nimrod, you know it from tea! It's called !" Beth Terry created the fragrance to evoke "tea in a glass", a childhood memory of her grandfather's indulgence. And indeed the heart and base notes of the fragrance do bear a remarkable resemblance to tea: rich, smooth, lightly bitter. (Oddly, to me, it resembles less a green tea than a more fermented Oolong or Darjeeling. I think this is due to the spicy, toasted, "dark" quality of the clove, but it may simply be because there is a sweet milkiness to the scent and green tea is almost always taken straight.) The top notes, however, are odd and close to unpleasant and really painfully familiar, if only I could remember from what. At first, I considered that it might be a paste or dough-like substance inflicted on me during childhood art instruction. (I am craft-impaired.) This would account for the almost salty angle. Unlike many tea scents, the bergamot is not particularly prominent here; the dominance of the bitter, sort of tannic celery early on reminds me a bit of poultry seasoning, and I therefore also tried to compare it to my olfactory memory of turkey stuffing.

In any case, my first wearing of was ruined by these top notes and my inability to pinpoint where I recognized them from. I put the sample away, but then found it just in time to put on some of the scent before I gingerly went to bed earlier this week with the aches of a brewing cold. I've worn it every day since and am finding it comforting and mellow. The ylang-ylang provides a light touch of floral sweetness and the green tea accord is drier and less "fresh" than that typically found in other perfumes. In some ways, does not smell like a personal fragrance at all. It is tea realism, unlikely to find favour with those looking for a bright, summery, stylized tea scent. Personally, I've grown to be quite charmed by it. Most impressive to me is the way Terry has balanced a sheer, cleanly modern style with a cozy, "round", comfort scent feel. The sillage is average for an eau de toilette, I suppose, and the lasting power probably on the higher end of normal for a scent of this type, but you'll be able to afford to refresh, as the Creative Universe scents are quite reasonable: $62 USD for 130 ml at luckyscent (which strangely seems to have in a larger bottle and for a cheaper price than beautyhabit.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

An Update

As Eugene Levy said in Splash: "What a week I'm having!" I was supposed to be handling our big move to a new home on Saturday alone, due to Mr. Emergency having an enormous deal closing at work. Then, on Wednesday, my daughter picked up a virulent stomach flu. On Friday, she had a series of severe - and, so far, unexplained - seizures that led to her hospitalization. The good news is that she is now acting as if nothing at all has happened, babbling, eating heartily and practicing her new walking skills. My incredible mother flew out overnight to help me deal with both the baby and the move, and has been an enormous help. Now, poor Mr. Emergency has the gastro-intestinal bug, too - and is (almost unbelievably!) working through it. I'm rarely getting to shower, let alone worry about what perfume to wear. I will return once we manage to dig our way out from under the boxes in our new abode. Thank you for your patience...