Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I read a dumb book

In order to do some research for an essay, I tried to get a bunch of perfume books from the Harvard library (rather, John tried to get them for me), but almost all of them were checked out. (Which one of yous is reading all the good perfume books??) Among those they did have were Essences and Alchemy by Mandy Aftel and The Scent Trail by Celia Lyttleton. The former seems pretty interesting if you're trying to get into natural perfumery, which I'm not; I'm looking for information on certain synthetic aromachemicals. The latter had no such info, but I decided to read it (or skim it, as I'm wont to do with most nonfiction) anyway.

The Scent Trail is an incredibly annoying book I never would have finished if I weren't obsessed with the subject. The premise is entirely contrived: Lyttleton decides to travel around the world gathering rare ingredients for a bespoke perfume and write a book about her experiences. (It's 100% clear that she pitched the idea for the book first and then went on the "journey"; she didn't do it for personal exploration and then decide to write a book.) After visiting a bespoke perfumer and a color expert, for some reason, she embarks on a long trip to see where the various materials she has chosen come from (e.g., neroli from Morocco, Damask rose from Turkey, nutmeg from Sri Lanka, vetiver from India, etc.) and how they are harvested and made into perfume.

The main issue I had with the book should be obvious by now: It's an offensively elitist approach to perfume. Having a custom fragrance made is expensive enough, but traveling around the world to hand-pick your materials is outrageously over the top. This could maybe be forgiven if some attempt were made to amend for it, if the journey were as much about learning about foreign cultures as it was about securing her materials, but at the end of every chapter it's painfully clear that all she cares about is how her suitcase smells when she gets back home.

Adding insult to injury, the writing is bad. See: "In my case smells transport me, literally." You might think this is a joke based on the fact that perfume motivated her many international flights, but no. She means that "iris takes me straight to the hills of Tuscany [...] and when I smell basil I am instantly reminded of the warmth of the sun that surrounds the Aegean islands." In other words, the same non-literal way that smells transport everybody else. She's also flaky and illogical. At one point she wonders if Coca-Cola gives you a small buzz because the formula contains nutmeg. o_O And she refuses to use synthetic musk in her scent because she doesn't even want a copy of a material whose harvesting used to cause animal suffering, but she insists on using real ambergris. (Both musk and ambergris can be obtained without harming the animal, but animals are sometimes harmed in the process anyway.) Also, the perfume, structurally, sounds like nonsense.

Anywayz. Next I'm reading Luca Turin's The Secret of Scent, which is more like perfume meets pop science.

SOTD: Cuir de Lancome.

18 comments:

  1. Reminds me a bit of a book I tried reading last summer--I flopped out after about 50 pages. It was about the writer's search for Jesus's foreskin--how you don't make that interesting to someone like me is a real feat, but he managed, mainly by making it all about him, and frankly, I didn't like him all that much based on his tone.

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  2. Yes, it was the "it's all about me" attitude that was so intolerable. I should have counted how many times she said "my bespoke scent." Ugh.

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  3. while i don't disagree that that chick should die, i thought there was something about nutmeg being mildly psychoactive.

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  4. It is, but you have to eat like two spoonfuls of ground nutmeg I think. I'm sure the amount in CC is negligible, especially compared to the SUGAR and CAFFEINE which are sufficient to hop you up. Especially considering she uses her 2.5-year-old child as an example of the effects of Coke on the psyche.

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  5. okay, let's back up to the known knowns, that chick should die

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  6. We used to smoke dried banana skins and onions peel when we were kids.
    If only we'd known about the nutmeg.

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  7. That reminds me of that old classic Onion editorial: "I'll Smoke Anything."

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  8. Just a bit of trivia. I am learning Japanese Kanji at the moment and today I came across the kanji for perfume (香水)because I was learning water 水.
    Sometimes the kanji have a really interesting background but this one is straight forward. 香 means incense so incense + water 香水 = scent or perfume.

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  9. Makes perfect sense ... perfume of course means "through smoke" because the first perfumes were incense.

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  10. You know I didn't even think of that before even though it is obvious if you look at it as 'par fume' or 'per fumo'.

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  11. What do you think about places like FragranceNet.com? Are they rip offs? I really want to get some of that Prada...
    xo

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  12. Rip-offs in the sense that they send you knock-offs? I think for the most part they are pretty safe -- I think they get overstocked goods, sometimes testers and things without lids or boxes, but the perfume is generally the real deal. I've ordered from FrangranceNet and was happy w/ my order.

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  13. Perfect! Thank you Elisa, my fragrance guru. I'll save an easy $20 and I don't need the box.
    xo

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  14. Good luck! BTW, it should say if there is no lid or no box -- otherwise, it'll probably be as good as if you bought it from a 'real' store. Enjoy!

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  15. Elisa, "The Scent Trail" got my dander up, too, and for all the same reasons: mawkish writing, the contrived "stunt journalism" premise. However, it is useful for an accessible overview of the history of perfume and its raw ingredients, and I hold onto my copy for reference.

    But the author's line, "Today saffron is only to be found in two perfumes" (p 184), makes me wonder how many other inaccuracies the book contains.

    Plenty of saffron perfumes were available at the time of the book's 2007 publishing: L'Artisan Safran Troublant, People of the Labyrinths A*Maze, Comme des Garcons Palisander, and Agent Provocateur come to mind. I only happened to catch that blooper cuz I'm a kook for saffron.

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  16. Katie, I noticed that saffron line too! I think the book had more than a few inaccuracies -- for example she said IFF stands for International Flowers and Fragrances (it's Flavors, not Flowers).

    But yes, I did feel like I was learning a little something from it -- both about how various materials are harvested and how not to write a perfume book.

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  17. Oh, and I'm wearing Donna Karan Chaos RIGHT NOW (I just scored a sample) and it also has a saffron note. And it's yummy.

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