Thursday, December 1, 2011

New issue of Open Letters

I've got two little things in the December issue of Open Letters. First up, my latest perfume column: "On the Scent: A Dip in the Mainstream," in which I review stuff you can get at big chain stores for under $100 a pop. I talk a little about the problems with mainstream perfumes:
New mainstream releases tend to suffer from a tedious adherence to trends (we’ve been stuck in a cycle of thin fruity florals, super-clean musky florals, and Angel-esque fruity-patchouli numbers for a good decade now) as well as a certain cheapness that belies their price tags. This cheapness usually manifests as a bare minimum, or complete lack, of natural materials, which give body and complexity to perfume. Simple, mostly synthetic formulas can smell pleasant at first, but get boring very quickly, since they don’t offer all that much more than the fragrance in your $10 shampoo.  
Also problematic is the fact that even if you are looking for something in particular – say you’ve set your fancy on a green floral – the sales assistants often can’t guide you to something that properly fits this description. It’s not entirely their fault – they’re encouraged if not forced by management to push the newer releases, so they’ve got to find something relatively green among this season’s batch of fruity florals; they can’t or don’t think to show you perfectly serviceable green florals of decades past, such as Chanel Cristalle or Estee Lauder Alliage. “Green” simply isn’t in these days.
Nonetheless, there were some solid releases in the past couple of years. You'll find reviews of scents including Bottega Veneta, Cartier Baiser Vole, Tom Ford Violet Blonde, and Diane.

Also, I contributed to the "Our Year in Reading" feature (Part 1, Part 2) along with the other contributing editors (including John Cotter, Steve Donoghue, Adam Golaski, Lisa Peet, and Sam Sacks). I wrote about the most memorable novels I read this year:
In 2010, my hands-down favorite reads were Howards End by E.M Forster and A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. This year, I only managed to cross one classic off my list: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I started this book about a month before moving 2,000 miles across the country, and what with the packing and unpacking and everything in between, I might not have finished it, were it not for Mick, surely one of the best young female characters in all of American literature. This novel starts off feeling like linked stories, until you realize the chapters are cycling through a handful of major characters, all misfits in a small Southern town. Each has an interesting story, but I fell completely for Mick, a fierce, protective tomboy with a secret passion for music. Struggling against hate and poverty, she eventually succumbs, unwillingly and almost unknowingly, to the banal horror of an ordinary life. The fifth chapter in Part 2, in which Mick’s little brother runs away, is twenty pages of utter perfection, a self-contained wonder I’ll keep coming back to.
To read about some of the great poetry books I read this year, see here and here.

The issue also includes cool art by Pattie Lee Becker (the above is her print "Ramona's Bright Idea") and lots of good book reviews as always. Go read!


  1. I'm in the midst of reading Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, a new translation (out this year) by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I'm about three-quarters of the way through it and I haven't decided if I like it yet. It strikes me as more substantial, more in-depth, less superficial, than the movie (particularly in how the novel draws out the characters and their motivations). But so far I think I still like the movie more. The movie has a lyricism and bright simplicity that I'm not finding at all in the novel.

    Among books of poems I can recommend:

    I'm currently reading Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort, a new one of hers (published this year by Copper Canyon Press), which according to the cover copy her first book of poems that she's written entirely in English. I really like it so far.

    Also really liked:

    Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, Robert Bly's most recent one, published earlier this year;

    Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, Adrienne Rich's most recent one, also published earlier this year;

    Diwata by Barbara Jane Reyes (published within the past year or so by BOA Editions);

    Closing the Hotel Kitchen by Robert Bohm (published within the past year or so by West End Press);

    And, I've just finished reading All Graced in Green by Scott King (published this year by Thistlewords Press, an imprint of Red Dragonfly Press), which I really like. (By way of disclosure, Red Dragonfly Press, of which Scott King is the publisher, has published some books of my poems.)

    Word verification is "etank", which in the context of the cyberworld seems ripe with possibilities.

  2. Hi Lyle! I've never read Dr. Zhivago or seen the movie. I'll have to add that to my list. Thanks for the poetry recs too.

  3. Regarding Doctor Zhivago, my recommendation would be to watch the movie first (i.e. before reading the book). (The 1965 movie with Omar Shariff and Julie Christie. I think there may have been a more recent remake for cable TV, which I've never seen.) The 1965 movie became famous for its winter scenes and its music soundtrack.

  4. That's weird—I bought Zhivago a couple weeks ago in anticipation of reading it over my Thanksgiving train trip. As usual I got distracted by other books but I'm hoping to get around to it this month. I compared the old and new translations in the store, and to me it wasn't even a contest—the old translation is so much better. I also like to know that I'll be reading the same translation that James Schuyler must have been referring to when he praises the book in one of his letters (which I'm also reading). All the New York School guys were gaga over Pasternak.

  5. Glad you liked "Lonely Hunter" - I went on a Carson kick a few years ago. I loved her short stories, especially "The Member of The Wedding" (more of a novella) - if you haven't read that one check it out.

    And I loved that article, I doubt many people know there's a world beyond the perfume counter.

  6. I'm reading The Member of the Wedding right now! The main character is so close to Mick in THIALH that I'm maybe reading it too soon.