Friday, May 31, 2013

Mini-reviews: M.Micallef revisited + 2

The last five or six perfumes I've tried from M.Micallef have left me pretty cold (see the Vanilla Collection and Ylang in Gold), so I was about ready to give up on the line when I came into a decant of Nasreen, thanks to a fellow Perfume Posse reader, and a sample of Le Parfum Denis Durand Couture by way of the company. I don't know if they've changed perfumers or what, but these two are way more my speed.

Le Parfum Denis Durand Couture – This bewitching perfume opens as a bubblegum floriental, with the juicy-spicy quality (tangerine and cinnamon) of Sacrebleu, the powdery rasp of Loulou, and a bit of the woody toastiness of Le Maroc pour Elle. It's supposed to be orange blossom, but to me the main floral accord smells like rose and jasmine, topped off with a big old glob of honey. There's a metallic edge (what Angela at Now Smell This calls a "metallic tang") that I think of as the meeting point between jasmine and honey. With the powdery notes and honeyed white florals, it's distantly related to Love, Chloe, but without the crassness. This is restrained, not overly sweet, and with just the subtlest hint of furry animal warmth. To me it smells like hammered gold, shimmery but not flashy. Tres chic!

Nasreen – Nasreen is just the kind of thing I always immediately like: a jammy, apricotty rose with saffron and honey, giving it that same metallic edge as Denis Durand. It's sweet and sly in equal measure, not the gourmand you might imagine seeing "gingerbread" in the notes, but a sexy, nutty (vetiver?), smoky orientalized rose. The word "smoldering" comes to mind. There's something scratchy about it, too. Not itchy – it's as though smelling it could scratch an itch at the back of my throat. I love what Micallef is doing with texture in these two scents. If DD is hammered gold, this is a snakeskin clutch, buttery soft but only between the scales that catch your fingers.

By the way, a quick note on oud: Nasreen is supposed to contain it, and some reviewers have sworn they smell oud in Denis Durand as well. I suspect, as I've noted in the past, that none of the recent "oud" releases actually contain oud; I also suspect that "oud accords" are created in part by association. Rose, saffron and oud are so often seen in tandem that rose and saffron together (plus woody notes like incense and patchouli) automatically conjure the idea of oud. But for me, unless there are peaty and/or petroleum-like characteristics (see By Kilian Pure Oud, which smells downright toxic), it doesn't read as oud, and these two perfumes are too smooth to trip my oud sensors. That doesn't mean other people aren't smelling oud; it just means "oud" doesn't really refer to one specific thing. So are they oud perfumes? Sure, why the hell not.

Here are a couple others I've been testing lately:

Smell Bent Little Miss Panda – Lime (think Green Otter Pops – seriously, the top note IS Sir Isaac Lime) plus slightly musky tropical flowers. It's simple, bright, clean, refreshing fun, perfect beach scent material. Makes me want to wear a white bikini. Alas, I've never owned a white bikini and have never had the tan to pull one off. Which reminds me, I lost about half an hour of my life looking at pictures on this tribute Tumblr of models from the '80s and '90s (discovered via Alice Bolin). Isn't Kate Moss just the prettiest person alive?

Also, check out Angelina Jolie with "HER OLD NOSE" (I always hear that phrase in the voice of the plastic surgeon from Space Balls):

I keep forgetting that all of the beautiful people have had nose jobs. Really, all of them.

Anyway, one more:

Yves Rocher Comme Une Evidence – I received a mini of this in a package years ago (from Mals, perhaps?), tried it once or twice, liked it, then put it away and forgot about it. Something made me think of it recently – I was craving something fresh and delicate for spring – and I pulled it out and tried it again. It's actually lovelier than I remembered, and looking it up I see that it was done by Annick Menardo. No wonder this is good. It reminds me obliquely of Guerlain Insolence EDT, but don't let that give you the wrong idea – it's similar in structure but not style. The floral accord is rose, violet, and lily of the valley, getting most of its character from the fruity, green aspects of violet and violet leaf. (Violet leaf is one of Dawn Spencer Hurwitz's signatures, and sometimes CUE strikes me as a budget version of her La Vie en Rose.) It's very feminine and soft and just slightly powdery. This isn't a perfume-lover's perfume (too fresh! too wearable! too office-friendly!) but it's instructive to compare this to something like Champs Elysees; the balance is so much more comfortable. Good luck figuring out which version I'm talking about, though, because I sure can't.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Expanded tweets

Going beyond 140 characters on some stuff I have tweeted lately:

Something I think about a lot is the attitude some people seem to have that if you claim to be a feminist, you should have read a lot of feminist theory. I feel like this is a wildly limiting view of feminism. John and I hate when Republicans use the word "elitist" for anti-intellectual agendas, but this is elitism. Feminism isn't a college major; it's a way of life! I really feel like the principles of feminism are discoverable from very basic, limited information, like geometry. You know? It's all there! Which is not to say that reading theory isn't nice, just that it's not at all a prerequisite to being an active feminist.

I was thinking about why I don't care at all about Goodreads (recently, of course, acquired by Amazon). And it's because random schmoes aren't very good at evaluating things aesthetically. They are, however, pretty good at evaluating function, especially if the body of reviewers is large enough to cancel out some of the noise of stupidity. So if a product has 100+ reviews, you can feel pretty confident in the star rating. Amazon's system whereby viewers can vote on whether a given review is helpful or not makes those ratings even more valuable. Star ratings on Goodreads, however, are close to absolutely meaningless. First of all, there's star inflation, especially on books from smaller presses, because no one wants to hurt the nobody-author's feelings; the most successful the author, the more likely that someone does want to hurt their feelings.  Most any book I have ever looked at on Goodreads seems to have an average rating between 4 and 5 stars. In any case, I really don't care what these random people like. If a friend recommends a book, sure, I'll check it out, but a stranger? Who cares? This is related to the argument I made about criticism in my recent essay on Kate Zambreno, i.e., no one cares about your aesthetic opinion until you show yourself to be a smart and careful reader.

HOWEVER. Some smart Twitterer pointed out that Amazon reviews on books can be helpful in rare use cases such as when you're trying to decide between translations. I also think they could be useful for functional books, like a cookbook or manual. Just not so much for fiction, poetry, creative etc.
Almost every time I've felt that I was in contact with the sublime, I was looking at something really huge: an enormous painting, a gash in the earth, whatever. Occasionally, the sublime is something really small, like the Thorne miniature rooms at the Art Institute in Chicago. But size is involved there too. I don't think I've ever brushed sublimity with something medium-sized.
Get it? They're all ends of other names. Innovation!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Do you think of yourself in terms of a "type"?

Do you think of yourself in terms of a "type"? As in, "He's totally my type," or "Nah, she's not my type." Do you know whose type you are?

I was just emailing with my friend Liz and realized that I do think of myself as a type (i.e., not for everyone), but I don't think I'm necessarily very good at predicting whose type I am. I sense that some savvy people walk into a party or "da club" and know immediately who would be interested in them. In general, until I see ample evidence to the contrary, I just assume I'm not your type.

What's the norm here? Do most people have this figured out?

This isn't dating research, obviously; I'm a married woman now! (I guess?!) Just idle curiosity.

(See also "Some notes on beauty" parts one, two, and three.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Still unstable after all these years

A few more pieces from The Self Unstable are up at The Offending Adam. I love Whitney Holmes' introduction:

With what voice do I want to read out loud from The Self Unstable? Do I read with a full-throated Poetry voice or a playful wink-wink voice or with the voice of an oracle or a mystic hippie fortuneteller? I can’t decide, and maybe that’s part of the instability to which the title of this work alludes. Who is the self in these declarative prose poems? Elisa Gabbert uses the force of her tone and sentence structures to create authority, despite the fact that the identity of the speaker is neither fixed nor always recognizable. At the junction of aphorism, confession, and armchair philosophy, these prose poems delight in their ability to make profundity flippant and flip profound. Gabbert writes, “History is the news via consensus.” The speaker here doesn’t say anything we don’t already know, nor does she say it in a new or nuanced way. This axiom could, at first, be met with a little eye roll, with a “duh.” But Gabbert subverts the power of her declarative tone by playing with the declaration: “And then they add mood music.” And then I laugh out loud.

I reviewed the proofs for these pieces about voting and violence and history and war and the news during the week of the Boston marathon bombings. I was in the coffee shop in Golden where I spent many mornings this semester (I had finally stopped thinking of years in terms of semesters, when John started teaching college). John's intermittent vertigo and dizziness prevented him from driving for several weeks, so on days he felt well enough to teach, I would drive him to his 9 a.m. class and work down the street, drinking iced coffee even on the days that it snowed. We listened to the news obsessively that week, though half the time John couldn't hear it. Reading those pieces again, it struck me that my poetry has never seemed more topical or politically relevant. But weeks have passed; perhaps they're irrelevant again.

Thanks to Whitney and to Andrew Wessels for featuring my work.


In other "news": My pal DB just sent me a link to an article in The Atlantic by the guy who teaches the "Navigating Pornography" course at Pasadena City College. He sort of lost me here though:

Part of equipping students to navigate porn means giving them the tools of feminist analysis. Pornography traditionally revolves around the production of images of women for the pleasure of heterosexual men. Feminist critics like Andrea Dworkin, Gail Dines, and Robert Jensen help my students to see the ways in which porn can construct and reinforce misogyny. At the same time, my students examine the limitations of familiar feminist anti-porn critiques. Research suggests that nearly as many young women as men watch (or, if you prefer, "use") porn for masturbation fodder, making it increasingly difficult to characterize porn watching as a primarily male pastime.

If you click through to the links in the highlighted section, neither of them says that "nearly as many young women as men watch porn." According to the second link, which hyperlinking protocol suggests should include the relevant stat: "In the first three months of 2007, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, approximately one in three visitors to adult entertainment Web sites was female; during the same period, nearly 13 million American women were checking out porn online at least once each month." If 1 in 3 visitors were female, that means 2 in 3 were male. Hence, twice as many. How does half as many translate to "nearly as many"? Is that the new math?

Have I mentioned how much I hate The Atlantic? Of course I have. Nevertheless, this comment thread about chickens gave me great pleasure this morning:

Chickens are highly sentient. They form long-term friendships. They seek pleasure. They have good memories. They learn to play video games. They grieve (I've seen it). They have empathy. They play. They are curious. They understand object permanence sooner than a human baby does. They are aware of others, which is more important than self-awareness. 

Chickens play video games?

Sunday, May 12, 2013


I don't go in much for Hallmark holidays, but I do love my mother. I like old pictures too. This is my parents at their house in Madison, Wisconsin, before I was born. Aren't they adorable?

And here's an old snap of my father's mother, Dorothy. Pretty lady:

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tale of a Thursday elopement

Yesterday started off as a pretty normal day ... except that it was raining. In Colorado?! So ironic! (Alanis was right.)

Things got a little weird around 3, when we headed down to the county clerk office to pick up this phony-looking Old West–style thing:

We had a little time to kill before our 5:15 appointment with the judge, so we swung by Beast & Bottle on 17th for a little liquid courage.

The bartender there used to work at Encore – our favorite spot in Denver before it closed – and called out, "Hey, Boston!" when we walked in.

The sun came out just in time.

Phew, irony-free wedding.

The judge was super nice. Whole thing took about ten minutes. I cried!

Then a funny little security guard who didn't know how cameras work took our picture:

We took advantage of the evening light and got a celebratory drink on the roof of the MCA.

Then we went to our favorite sushi place. It was delicious.

So, yep, we're married now.

Quick FAQ:

  • Please please don't anyone feel left out. We literally decided to get married on Monday, made the arrangements on Tuesday and told only our families. There was no one at the ceremony but us. But we love you all and want to celebrate with you when we see you.
  • No, we're not registered anywhere! We're also not going on a honeymoon and we don't have wedding bands yet ... I do have a lovely family ring from the Cotters that I'm going to wear once it's resized for my elfin fingers.
  • No, I'm not pregnant, really.
  • One of my most viewed blog posts is "Why I don't want to get married." In principle, I still believe all that. I also don't think our relationship will be functionally different in any real way; we've lived together for 6+ years. Here's what tipped the balance: John has been having some pretty serious health issues. If he should ever take a turn for the worse, I want to be sure I have the legal rights to see him in the hospital, make decisions, etc. I'm not getting any younger here either. So I want to be sure that the various powers that be see our relationship the same way we do, and (unfortunately) that requires making it legal. These aren't the happiest, most romantic circumstances in the world, I know, but we made the most of it anyway.
  • I guess I have to start calling John my husband now?! I've never liked the words "husband" and "wife," but oh well: "boyfriend" sounded pretty infantalizing. 
  • I know my perfume people will be curious: I wore Sweet Redemption. John wore Chergui. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Recursive cooking

On a whim this weekend, I picked up this combination cookbook–food diary at the library: My Year in Meals by Rachael Ray. I then proceeded to basically read it cover to cover, twice.

I'm weirdly obsessed with it – weirdly because ... Rachael Ray? I obviously don't despise Rachael Ray as much as so many food people do or I never would have picked it up in the first place, but the recipes from her show and the other cookbooks I've seen tend to be cutesy and gimmicky, and she has all these annoying verbal tics like always calling sandwiches "sammies."

This book is different. It's a super-casual, almost bloggy approach to a cookbook. Instead of categorizing the recipes into appetizers, salads, fish, etc., the meals appear chronologically, like "JUNE 23 / BREAKFAST" and "JUNE 23 / DINNER." They aren't, for the most part, recipes that she developed for public consumption; they're family favorites or just the basic stuff that she actually cooks and eats at home (but sometimes for guests, so there are varying degrees of elaborateness). The photos are non-professional snaps she and her husband took themselves. Half the recipes are the kind of pseudo-recipes that I write: no amounts, just guidelines; everything is to taste.

What I love most about it is that it illustrates the way home cooks cook when they're not trying to impress anyone. We tend to make variations on the same meals over and over, especially within a three- to five-month period (I'm currently in a "taco period"). If you're like me and my girl Rach, you don't use recipes most of the time; you have certain templates in your head (like a vinaigrette template) and you vary it up based on what you have on the kitchen, what's in season, etc. So you might use lemon instead of sherry vinegar one day, garlic instead of shallots, etc. And there's something at work I like to think of as recursive cooking: using leftovers in a kind of "upcycling" fashion in new but familiar dishes. In Rachael Ray's case it often involves cooking an enormous hunk of meat and then later using the leftovers in some kind of soup or "sammie." Or cooking extra risotto so she can make arancini the next day. In my case I might make an herb oil to use up some on-the-edge cilantro and then use it in different applications throughout the week: in salad dressing, scrambled eggs, stirred into cooked rice, etc. Or I'll start a new slaw (for tacos) using yesterday's leftover slaw and adding some new ingredients. Or use leftover roasted broccoli as a topping for pizza. RR makes her own giardiniera and uses it in everything; I make a batch of salsa every week and use it in everything. It's a smaller-scale, evolving version of using the same starter in your sourdough for years/decades. Recursive, see?

It's the kind of cookbook I would want to write. And she's inspired me to make a kind of green huevos rancheros tonight using some leftover enchilada sauce (which I made last week with tomatillos, cilantro, jalapenos, sour cream, etc.) as a starter. Let's start a recursive cooking movement!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Response to a response to my response to the response to Heroines

Being a full time literary critic must be exhausting. So much writing about writing. But since I don't often write 5000-word manifestos on the purpose of criticism, I'm going to indulge myself and take this meta stuff one step further. Heather Cromarty wrote some "random thoughts prompted by (but not limited to)" my essay on Heroines. She reviewed Heroines herself in Lemon Hound earlier this year; I read the review at the time but did not comment on it in my essay, except perhaps obliquely, because Cromarty's review does seem a little judgmental on a personal level to me. Anyway, some thoughts. Here's Cromarty:
The first thing I want to address is in Gabbert’s piece is this:
[B]ecause some of the reviews have served essentially to trivialize and dismiss a book whose subject is in fact the historical, systematized trivialization and dismissal of work by women writers, it seems all the more urgent to question those responses. … I don’t wish to perform a meta–hatchet job on these reviews—just to show that their authors don’t reveal enough knowledge of or intimacy with the book and its purpose to give their judgement what Mendelsohn calls “heft,” and to put out a call for a more considered criticism, a criticism that teaches us how to read, to be better readers, not simply encouraging our worst habits and validating our laziness by telling us what not to bother with. 
First, I don’t believe that topic confers merit. It is possible, in general, that a worthy project can be executed poorly. Second, I have real issues with saying that the two reviewers just didn’t do enough with the book, otherwise they would have been less (or differently) critical. Keeler mentions in her LARB piece that she read the book twice, which I doubt is all that common in book reviewing, given deadlines and all. Gabbert calls Jessica Winter’s review “snarky, dismissive” but the whole thesis of “I just read better than you” seems pretty snarky to me. Am I misreading that?
1. I don't believe that topic confers merit either. It seems pretty clear to me that that's not what my introduction says.

2. If Keeler really read the book twice, I feel pretty comfortable saying that I'm a better reader than her, or at least that I was a better, more careful reader of this book. If that's "snarky," so be it. I did and still do find it absurd that Keeler quoted the list of items of clothing, removed from its context, in order to make Zambreno look superficial. I go to great length, in my essay, to show all the layers of meaning that Keeler removed from the passage in question, so I won't rehash that here. In principle I agree that "I'm a better reader than you" is an annoying tone to take in a piece of criticism, but anyone who is going to be writing and publishing reviews in big publications like the LARB (not "random thoughts" posted on your own blog, not college comp essays) should be a better reader than that. We can all be better readers; I'm often a lazy reader myself. But when reading a book with aims to review it, we have to be better than that. Otherwise you get crap criticism.

Cromarty again:
I mention in the comments at the LARB that people laud Zambreno for trying new forms, but that the reviews of Heroines are expected to follow some pre-defined structure of how reviews must work (in Gabbert’s essay, ironically, it’s a male penned definition too!). Keeler expressed her frustration with Heroines and that’s somehow not okay, but the book itself (like it or not) is a howl against just this sort of caging of the way women write or think. It just doesn’t make any sense.
3. There is nothing innovative about the "structure" of Keeler's review. It's plain-flavor review-review. Read it yourself and argue with me if you think it's innovative. My issue with the review is not that it doesn't follow some pre-defined format, it's that it (willfully) misrepresents the book. 

4. I quote Daniel Mendelsohn on the purpose of criticism (to teach readers how to think), not the format/structure. I'm all for formally innovative criticism if it gets the job done. And I'm all for reviewers expressing frustration if that frustration is the result of careful, informed reading, but Keeler doesn't convince me that she's a careful reader, so her frustration isn't very interesting. The frustration feels irrational. When I'm irrationally frustrated by books, I usually don't finish them and I definitely don't review them. 

Gabbert says that we needn’t like Zambreno, we need only to take her seriously. Again, I may not have been totally clear on this in my review, but I can take Kate Zambreno the person who wrote Heroines seriously (and I do) while sometimes not being able to take Kate Zambreno the character in Heroines seriously. I approached the book knowing that these two people weren’t precisely the same thing.
5. It really feels here like she is defending her own review, but again, I never referred to Cromarty's review in my essay. Anyway, "Kate Zambreno the character" is sort of "unlikeable," but I don't think people in books need to be likeable in order for the books to be good. In fact, I like unlikeable characters; characters aren't your friends

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Things I wrote

Happy May Day, y'all. My sweetheart is still quite sick and it's snowing (AGAIN), so I'm not sure what's happy about it yet, but maybe I'll see a herd of elk in Golden again?

I wanted to point you to some new work up online. First, a selection of poans (poem-koans!) from The Self Unstable at Boston Review. They look like this:

I was bitten by a feral cat, who left her fang behind in my hand. My dream life has its own past, memories I only access when asleep. When something hurts in a dream, where do you feel the pain? Is there an analog in the real world? And likewise, for the beauty? If we can’t change the past, regret is a waste of time, but not worry or longing. Still, I prefer regret. If time is a vector, we are passengers facing the rear of the train.

Many thanks to Timothy Donnelly for selecting these pieces for the annual National Poetry Month feature.

Second, a long essay (refill your coffee) about Kate Zambreno's Heroines and its critical reception: "The Madwoman and the Critic." Here's a paragraph from the essay:

It’s risky to write a memoir, or anything resembling one, because you will inevitably be judged on the basis of your self, your personhood, and not simply your writing. You may find yourself to be an “unlikeable character.” And if a reader takes a strong dislike to you, they may have trouble disentangling that from their opinion of the book. Reading reviews of Heroines, even before I had finished the book, I wanted to argue with their authors, because the rhetoric felt suspect on its face. There has been a tendency to get personal, to reveal judgmental attitudes toward Zambreno’s life choices or her emotional responses. (Has she any right to be unhappy, to complain? Isn’t her life relatively cushy? But this of course is not how depression, how happiness, works.) But I’m not going to try to convince you to like Kate Zambreno. I just want you to take her seriously. Zambreno is a radical, and we need radicals. We need people who go too far and say too much, people who are so passionate they’re angry, who are a little out of control. Like a Michael Moore, she is probably not going to convince anyone on the far right to become a feminist, but she might convince a leftist that they’re not progressive enough.

It's basically an act of meta-criticism, and I use most of the space to dismantle two reviews of the book that I found particularly "problematic," in that they either misrepresent the book or attack it using the same dismissive language, used for years against women, that is essentially the subject of Zambreno's book.

I'd like to say more about my complicated feelings re: writing and publishing this essay, but I'm not sure how. Suffice it to say that I am not against "negative reviews" done right; I don't believe in sparing the artist's feelings. However, I take issue with spiteful, unfair, or manipulative hatchet jobs. To avoid what I call dismissive criticism, you should come to a book generously, read it carefully, and engage with it honestly before laying down judgment. If you're incapable of doing that (because you hate the book on sight, say), maybe don't review it?