Olfactory Entertainments

PerfumesA quick GO READ THIS from me today: go read Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. And before you can say, “But Tracey, I am a Profound Person! I read books about war, incest, and ennui—not smells,” let me reassure you that Perfumes is no mere collection of lady mag fragrance piffle (“you’ll drive your man wild with this fruity concoction,” etc). It’s an “exemplary” blend of “technical knowledge and evocative writing” (The New Yorker said so), chock-full of erudite, passionate, and hilarious criticism.

The book comes with a sweet-as-Prada-Candy back-story: once upon a time, Tania Sanchez, prolific American fragrance blogger, left a comment on the perfume blog of Luca Turin, European scholar of smells (and the subject of Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent), which led to a correspondence, which led to a working relationship (Sanchez provided Turin with editorial input on one of his earlier books, in exchange for a few rare perfumes), which led, two years later, to marriage.

And they’re a perfect match. Sanchez is whip-smart and funny—her one-liners are the best—and her descriptions of fragrances read like tiny, perfect narratives. Turin, also a very good writer, provides the musings of an esteemed olfactory nerd. Here he is explaining how perfumes are made up of atoms that come from “the Upper East Side of the periodic table, a nice, safe neighborhood”:

Citing a lack of passion for “data entry,” Turin and Sanchez forgo the lengthy lists of notes that occupy so much space in most fragrance reviews, preferring to focus on the impressions those notes create. And they’re fantastic at impressions:

[Ormonde Woman] has the haunting, outdoors witchiness of tall pines leaning into the night—a bitter oakmoss inkiness, a dry cedar crackle, and a low, delicious, pleading sweet amber, like the call of a faraway candy house. Lulling and unsettling in equal measure, and truly great.

[Lancôme’s Magie] brings to mind a pouting model, hands on hips in opera gloves, wearing a hat, a Spencer jacket, and a pencil skirt, with her feet at right angles to each other as if she were going up a ski slope.

[Estée Lauder’s White Linen] is a canonical expression of the American ideal of sex appeal: squeaky clean, healthy, depilated and exfoliated, well rested and ready for the day… the whole thing is comfortable and well lit, like a warm spot on the floor where the cat sleeps…it reminds me of Thomas Pynchon describing the smell of breakfast floating over World War II-era London as “a spell against falling objects.”

But the bad reviews are the most fun:

Givenchy’s Very Irrésistible Fresh Attitude: Hilariously misconceived and loud…if you can ask for it by name without laughing, you’re the ideal guy for it.

Lancôme’s O Oui!: This is a fresh floral in which every blindingly powerful aromachemical has been harnessed to induce a remarkable sensation of bone pain that rises from the roof of your mouth to your forehead, similar to what happens when you eat ice cream too quickly. Chiefly of neurological interest.

Estée Lauder’s Spellbound: Powerfully cloying and nauseating. Trails for miles. Frightens horses. Gets worse.

Benetton’s Sport: Reviewing masculine sport fragrances is a bit like trying to write short stanzas about individual matches in a matchbox.

Calvin Klein’s cK IN2U His: IM IN UR BOTTLE BORIN UR GF.