How To Make Sense of Scents

How To Make Sense of Scents

The New Yorker magazine, renowned home of literary legends, has published a piece called “How To Make Sense of Scents”, by staff writer Rachel Syme. She reads Fragrantica! Like many fragheads, she traces her interest in perfume back to childhood and her mother’s favorite scents, which included Anais Anais and Poison. She became a hoarder of perfume samples from Surrender to Chance and The Perfumed Court, like many of us.

Ms. Syme’s piece discusses the way that most of us lack the vocabulary to describe scents accurately and consistently. She also highlights a recently published book (October 2020), Harold McGee’s “Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells” (Penguin Press). McGee is actually a food scientist, so his observations range from the molecular to deviled eggs, with many stops between.

Another 2020 book Ms. Syme discusses is “Smells: A Cultural History of Odours in Early Modern Times” (Polity), by French professor and historian Robert Muchembled. She sums up their different approaches:

Where McGee seeks a common vocabulary for exploring the osmocosm, Muchembled reminds us that the variables of time and place may defy a truly shared language. What we smell depends on what’s in vogue and what’s valued—on what cultural forces happen to be swirling in the air.

She ties Muchembled’s discussion of the impact of plague epidemics of the Middle Ages on the populaces’ relationship to the sense of smell, to the current pandemic in which we face a deadly virus that spreads largely through aerosolized forms and can also deprive sufferers of their sense of smell, temporarily or permanently.

I will have to seek out more of Ms. Syme’s writing! I’ve already bought the Kindle version of McGee’s book and will likely do the same with Muchembled’s tome (as an incorrigible book hoarder, I try to buy most books in digital form these days). After all, who doesn’t love a writer who voices these scentiments:

I also have a new appreciation for the elusive quest to track down smells: while there is an undeniable appeal to pursuing a “proper language” for discussing the osmocosm, there is also something to be gained by accepting that much of the pleasure of nasal perception is untranslatable. When we are at last able to swoon together again, unmasked and unmoored, over lilacs or hot brioche, what we will really be sharing is secret reverie.

Featured image: Photograph by Delaney Allen for The New Yorker.

Fragrance Friday: Neil’s Book “Perfume”

I am in awe of the fact that Neil Chapman, author of the blog The Black Narcissus, has written and had published an actual BOOK! It is called “Perfume: In Search of Your Signature Scent”, and it just came out in the US (it came out a short time earlier, in March, in the UK). You can buy it on Amazon, where I had pre-ordered it; I came home from work earlier this week to find the package waiting on my doorstep. It is also available online and at booksellers such as Blackwell’s and Barnes & Noble.

As others have written, the book itself is beautiful, a hardcover volume with an Art Deco cover design in black, gold, and silver, and gold-edged pages. If you have ever read The Black Narcissus, you know that Neil is a wonderfully gifted writer with wide-ranging interests. His posts about fragrance include many cultural references and observations from his years living in several countries, from his childhood and youth in England, to his current home in Japan. He studied Italian and French literature at Cambridge University, and he now teaches English to Japanese secondary school students. His literary sensibilities suffuse his writing, but he also includes deeply personal reminiscences and a vast knowledge of perfume: history, ingredients, creators, etc.

Neil’s individual reviews of specific perfumes are grouped into categories such as “Green”, then by notes like “grasses, leaves and herbs.” (As a lover of green fragrances myself, I was thrilled that this is the first chapter!) It is a remarkably user-friendly format with an exhaustive index if one just wants to read one review of a specific fragrance. Neil has a poetic sensibility and lifelong love of perfume, both of which his writing reflects. As he says, “In its wordless abstraction, a beautifully made scent can encapsulate an emotion; smell, with its visceral link to the unconscious, is unique in its emotional immediacy.” His short reviews of individual fragrances combine information about their components and creation with his own reactions to wearing them, or memories of times when he wore them. Since his own perfume collection must number in the thousands, including many rare vintage perfumes, even the most profligate collectors of perfumes will find surprises and revelations. However, the book is also a very accessible guide for those who are just exploring fragrance, or, as he writes, “a guide through a world that can at times seem overwhelming.”

Bravo, Neil! I’m wearing Vol de Nuit in your honor today! To learn more about Neil, check out this interview on the blog “Olfactoria’s Travels.”

Perfumes: The Guide 2018 Is Here!

Perfumes: The Guide 2018 Is Here!

I and many others were sent down this rabbit-hole of perfumery by the book “Perfumes: The A-Z Guide“, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, published in 2008. Its detail, humor, insights, and shared knowledge about fragrance and specific perfumes made it irresistible, even when they panned a perfume you liked. Many of us have been longing for a new edition, beyond the updated paperback that did add dozens of reviews to the original. Reader, that new edition is here!

Perfumes The Guide 2018 was digitally published this week and can be bought RIGHT NOW on, in Kindle e-book format. “Buy now with 1-Click”? Done! And if you click on the link at the start of this paragraph, you will be taken to a free preview sample of the book. Enjoy!

According to Amazon, the 2018 guide “includes all new content, including
– “Ten Years Later,” looking back on the last decade of fragrance
– “The Shifting Shape of Fragrance 1918–2018”
– all new FAQ
– over 1,200 individual reviews: masculine and feminine, mainstream and arcane, from the latest Guerlains to a 5-star masterpiece by a small Malaysian firm
– an expanded glossary
– top 10 lists, this time including not just masculines and feminines but introverts and extroverts, the best retro, citrus, oud, and more.”

I know what I’ll be doing this weekend. Reading may take precedence over the many gardening chores on my list …

adult beautiful blue eyes book

Photo by Pixabay on

“The Smell of Loss”

“The Smell of Loss”

Normally I post about fragrance on or around Fridays, in my weekly “Fragrance Friday” blog post. But this weekend’s New York Times had such a stunning, beautiful op-ed piece, The Smell of Loss, that I just had to share it.

The first time it happens is a dark winter’s afternoon, not quite a year after her death. I’m at my desk working, and there it suddenly is: sharp, glassy-green, with that faint, musky undertone that catches at the back of your throat.

I recognize it instantly: the scent that hung in our hall every time she came to supper. The perfume that clung to her coat, her scarves, detectable sometimes for hours on my babies’ hair after she’d been carrying and kissing them.

That first time, it’s a shock. Her perfume is something I’ve long forgotten (in her final months, mostly bedridden, she was beyond all that). But here it is — absolute and definite and quite overpowering.

The author, Julie Myerson, is describing the signature fragrance of her beloved, deceased mother-in-law, which she starts smelling at unexpected moments, for minutes at a time, with no apparent source such as clothing. She consults experts:

I email Jay A. Gottfried, a neuroscientist who runs the Gottfried Laboratory at Northwestern University, which investigates the links between brain activity and sensory perception.

Professor Gottfried tells me that what I describe is known in his business as “phantosmia” or “phantom smells.” The sense of smell, he says, is our most ancient, primal sense and has “intimate and direct control over emotional and behavioral states.”

You really have to read the rest of this article, it is wonderful. Enjoy! Have you ever experienced this phenomenon?

Illustration: Aidan Koch, for The New York Times

Where to Write?

Where to Write?

Day 6 of Writing 101: where do I write? and what tools do I use?

I often write in the sunroom of our house. It opens into both the dining room on one side and the family room on the other; the other two walls are mostly windows. It’s a good place to write on my laptop, as I can be among the family activities and available to answer homework questions, for instance, but it is also very peaceful and somewhat apart. It has great natural light and the view is of trees and our garden. At night, I can hear the katydids and crickets outside the window.

I use a Macbook Air laptop to do most of my writing. I love this laptop! It is very lightweight and sleek, and I love how quickly I can find quotes, photographs, other blogs, publications — anything I could want to liven up my own writing. In the days when I wrote at a typewriter, I often had writer’s block because the perfectionist in me couldn’t bear to type words onto real paper until my sentences were close to perfect, or have to scratch out phrases. You can imagine how that slowed me down! Writing onscreen has totally liberated me from that, as any awkward phrase can be made to vanish instantly with no trace that it was ever there.

There are times, though, when I like to revert to the fountain pens I used as a child (required in a school I attended — yes, it was an old-fashioned European school), or some other nice writing instrument. If I write a personal note or card, or a poem, I do like the feel of pen, ink and paper together. I don’t, however, still use the Sheaffer’s “peacock blue” ink I favored for several years. Good thing I don’t yearn after it, because it was discontinued some time ago. Apparently it still has a cult following, though: Passionate About Peacock Blue Ink.  I’d better not dwell on that, or I might start yearning.

Writing 101: Social Media for Inspiration

Writing 101: Social Media for Inspiration

Day 5:  go to Twitter and find a tweet that inspires you to write. I wasn’t inspired by the five suggestions, so I chose this:

9/11 Survivor Tree

9/11 is a melancholy day for so many. I was blessed not to lose anyone I knew, but I used to live and work in NYC, including for a time very close to the World Trade Center. I remember going to its observation deck the year it first opened. Some of my friends were in lower Manhattan that awful day and are still traumatized. So this story about a tree that was literally buried in rubble, was dug out and found to be severely damaged, but was nursed back to health and replanted near the 9/11 Memorial, inspired me with its message of resilience and hope. I love that its seeds are collected and planted so that seedlings of this tree can be shared with other communities that have suffered. There’s a reason why Eden was envisioned as a garden.

Photo: National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Why I Write

Writing 101 asks, why do you write? I am quite introverted but verbal almost to a fault, with many thoughts and words jostling for my attention and linking to each other; writing them down takes them out of my head and gives me a creative outlet. My daily work requires that I interact frequently with people, often in one-on-one meetings or conversations. I enjoy other people, and I am not shy, but my introverted nature means that these interactions do drain me of energy; solitude restores me and allows me to capture my thoughts in writing. I have an inquiring, INTJ mind and thousands of books. Many things make me happy. I like sharing them and reading about what brings joy or feeling to others.

Mindfulness is something I am working to cultivate in my life. There are many competing claims on my time and attention: family, work, etc. As my children are now in their teens, I am working to carve out some time for peaceful reflection and creativity in my life, in spite of a demanding, sometimes pressured job. Blogging is one way for me to do that, in a different format than the other kinds of writing I am also exploring. This blog also helps me cultivate positive thoughts through practices like “What Went Well Wednesdays”, when I write down three things that went well that week.

I also blog about gardens, gardening, garden books, art in gardens and garden photography at Old Herbaceous.

Liebster Award and Nominations

liebster award sticker

Thank you to Fun Simplicity for nominating me for the Liebster Award!

Here are the questions I am to answer:

  1. Who/What inspires you to start a blog? I started Serenity Now because I wanted a routine to capture my observations about the many beautiful things I encounter in life and to remind myself to notice and appreciate them; and because I love to write and am trying to get back in the habit.
  2. Who is your favourite author? I have many favorite authors, as anyone who read my post on favorite childhood books knows: Too Many To Choose Just One. Favorite authors of books for adults right now are: Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, David Halberstam, Robert Caro, Elizabeth Goudge, Taylor Branch.
  3. What is your favourite pastime? Reading.
  4. Which country are you from? The United States.
  5. What is your favourite season? Spring, but I also love autumn.
  6. What is your most memorable moment? My wedding day; and the births of my children.
  7. If you’ve won a free trip, which country would you like to travel to? Japan.
  8. If you are alone in a haunted house, what will you do? Leave. Quickly.
  9. If you meet an alien, what will you say? I think I’d be speechless!
  10. If  you have a time machine, which era will you travel too? Tudor England.
  11. What is your Christmas wish for Santa this year? A yearlong sabbatical with a generous travel allowance.

My nominations for the Liebster Award are:

1. Expat on ACK; a recovering lawyer, she blogs about life as a British expatriate living on the unique island of Nantucket off the shore of Massachusetts.

2. Newshound to Novelist; Donna-Louise Bishop is a journalist who is trying to complete and publish her first novel. She’s a gifted writer and deserves a wider audience!

3. The Hopeful Herbalist; a former nurse and city resident, she blogs about the move she and her husband made to a cottage in the country, near the sea, where she is restoring a derelict garden after having retrained as an herbalist in Scotland.

4. The Perfume Magpie; she has a wonderful blog about perfume, which she illustrates with her own beautiful drawings. Seriously, her illustrations are gorgeous.

5. The Introvert’s Dictionary; Charlotte Latvala blogs a rotating list of alphabetized word definitions from an introvert’s point of view. Speaking as a card-carrying introvert myself, they are hilarious and she is spot on.

Here are the questions I ask my nominees to answer; some are the same as above:

  1. Why did you start a blog?
  2. What is the best book you’ve read this year?
  3. What is your favorite pastime other than writing?
  4. What is your favorite smell?
  5. What is your favorite season?
  6. What is your most memorable moment and where did it happen?
  7. Which country would you most like to visit?
  8. If you could meet any author, past or present, whom would you choose?
  9. Do you believe in fairies?
  10. If  you could be any character in a novel or film, who would that be?
  11. If a genie gave you three wishes, what would you wish?

The Rules:

  1. Once you are nominated, make a post thanking and linking the person who nominated you. Include the Liebster Award sticker in the post too.
  2. Nominate 5-10 other bloggers who you feel are worthy of this award. Let them know they have been nominated by commenting on one of their posts. You can also nominate the person who nominated you.
  3. Ensure all these bloggers have less than 200 followers.
  4. Answer the eleven questions asked to you by the person who nominated you, and make eleven questions of your own or your nominees or you may use the same questions.
  5. Lastly, COPY these rules in the post

Inspired By A Newshound

Today’s Blogging 101 assignment is to write a post inspired by another blogger’s post on which we commented earlier.Donna-Louise at her blog “Newshound to Novelist” wrote a post called Follow the Literary Brick Road, about turning 30 and wanting to publish a novel instead of continuing in the journalism where she has found success. By leaving her a comment, I hoped to encourage her to persevere. That, and a recent story on the BBC about J.K. Rowling, got me thinking about the various paths so many writers take. Continue reading