The perfume of old books


Now I smell like Julia Roberts! Or, wait, like Elizabeth Gilbert? Or like a book?

The New Yorker’s Book Bench (my favorite blog) encountered three scents based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love” last summer sold through the “Fresh” product line (which seems like it could easily fit into Gilbert’s original title). The “Eat” perfume, apparently, smells like lemon, plum, and rose; “Pray” has notes of patchouli and juniper berry; “Love” is a mix of mango and sandalwood. The clever book-benchers contributed their own ideas about how perfumes based on classic books would smell. Here are some of my favorites:

  • “Great Expectations” Splash. Romantic overtones with just a hint of “moldy old mansion.” The perfect scent to wear while not eating your wedding cake. Comes in a bottle swathed in yellowed lace.
  • Essence of “Mrs. Dalloway.” Floral, with irises and roses, and notes of madness.
  • “Grendel” Musk For the Monster in You. Apples, shocked grain, a swampy mixture of sulfurous dragon smoke, and the blood of thanes. Notes of
    existential yearning and a hint of regret.

That made me think of a few book scents of my own:

  • Solitude Body Mist

    “Madame Bovary” Eau de Toilette. An avante-garde and intoxicating perfume for elegant French women. Though shocking to men, women will find the scent quite familiar. Strong on the pheromones.

  • “One Hundred Years of Solitude” body mist. Banana base notes, hints of clay for the pica-enthusiasts, fresh laundry smells that will make you feel heavenly. A perfect alchemy for the senses. Inexplicably cold as ice. Keeps on the shelf for one hundred years unless devoured by ants first.
  • “Original Sin” by Eve. Sinuous, top-notes of apple. Not for the modest.

How to be an Irish writer


What you’ll need: a pen, a Guinness

Songlist: Dropkick Murphy’s Finnegan’s Wake, Danny Boy (duh)

Further reading: The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story ed. Anne Enright

Ok, you want to be a writer, you’re saying to yourself, but why Irish?

Because Irish writers are the best. And because it’s almost St. Patrick’s Day and my way of honoring the day when everyone wants to be Irish is to talk about something I care more about than beer dyed green. And that’s writing.

Early Irish writing: Book of Kells

Let’s talk about Irish writers. The greats, to name a few: Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, C. S. Lewis, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett. And contemporary Irish writers: Seamus Heaney, John Banville, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Frank McCourt. And former teachers of mine: Tommy O’Malley, Colum McCann.

The first sentence on Wikipedia’s Irish Literature page reads, “For a comparatively small island, Ireland has made a disproportionately large contribution to world literature.” Fact. My home state of Minnesota is almost three times the size of the island of Ireland, my Twin Cities more than three times the population of Dublin. And yet Dublin has been home to most of those writers listed above, four of which are Nobel laureates (Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, Heaney).

As John Banville remarked in a 2009 interview with the Paris Review, “This is a problem for Irish writers—our literary forebears are enormous. They stand behind us like Easter Island statues, and we keep trying to measure up to them, leaping towards heights we can’t possibly reach.”

But Banville also acknowledges that, even though he hates his own novels, “they’re better than everybody else’s, of course.” So what makes Irish writers so good?

For one thing, Irish writers, as Banville put so nicely, are always trying to keep up with the incredible achievements of their forebears. Set the bar high, and you have to make more spectaculars jumps to leave any impression. Furthermore, they are blessed with a nice blend of Catholic guilt and British oppression, exactly the kind of emotional trauma that fuels a lifetime career in the arts. And lastly they’ve got that beautiful rhythm.

Though at times it barely sounds like English, listen for a minute to James Joyce as he reads from his classic–and incomprehensible–Finnegan’s Wake:

I remember being struck the first time I heard Colum McCann, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for “Let the Great World Spin” give a reading. His enjambment of simple sentences made them sound extraordinary. Whereas I might have read, “By God [pause] the old man could handle a spade [pause] just like his old man,” Colum might have read, “By God the [pause] old man could handle a spade just [pause] like his old man.” Read those aloud. The latter will feel unnatural, but if you drop the unnecessary words just right you enhance the value of the more important words, enrich the repetition of “old man” (These lines are from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging”).

Here’s John Banville one more time* on the necessity of rhythm in his work:

It all starts with rhythm for me. I love Nabokov’s work, and I love his style. But I always thought there was something odd about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I read an interview in which he admitted he was tone deaf. And I thought, that’s it—there’s no music in Nabokov, it’s all pictorial, it’s all image-based. It’s not any worse for that, but the prose doesn’t sing. For me, a line has to sing before it does anything else. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above itself and above any expectation I might have had for it. That’s what keeps me going on those dark December days when I think about how I could be living instead of writing.”

So this week, be Irish. Wear green and drink beer and, when you’re giving your poetry readings, enjamb in a different place than you normally would. If you’ve got rhythm and you’ve got a pint, who could ask for anything more?

*If you’re wondering why I keep quoting Banville instead of the vast range of incredible Irish writers, it’s because I read his Paris Review interview last night and loved it.

Everest silences you

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One of the most beautiful accounts I have read of climbing Everest comes from a man who has certainly never climbed it.  In his book “The Satanic Verses,” Salman Rushdie describes the experience from the perspective of Alleluia Cone, a flat-footed woman who dreams of making a solo ascent after a successful climb with a group of sherpas.  In this first excerpt, she’s telling a classroom full of girls about her first ascent.

Do you know how it feels, she wanted to ask them, to have the whole of your life concentrated into one moment, a few hours long?  Do you know what it’s like when the only direction is down?

‘I was in the second pair with Sherpa Pemba,’ she said.   ‘The weather was perfect, perfect.  So clear you felt you could look right through the sky into whatever lay beyond.  The first pair must have reached the summit by now, I said to Pemba.  Conditions are holding and we can go. Pemba grew very serious, quite a change, because he was one of the expedition clowns.  He had never been to the summit before, either.  At that stage I had no plans to go without oxygen, but when I saw that Pemba intended it, I thought, okay, me too.  It was a stupid whim, unprofessional, really, but I suddenly wanted to be a woman sitting on top of that bastard mountain, a human being, not a breathing machine.  Pemba said, Allie Bibi, don’t do, but I just started up.

In a while we passed the others coming down and I could see the wonderful thing in their eyes.  They were so high, possessed of such an exaltation, that they didn’t even notice I wasn’t wearing the oxygen equipment.  Be careful, they shouted over to us, Look out for the angels.  Pemba had fallen into a good breathing pattern and I fell into step with it, breathing in with his in, out with his out.  I could feel something lifting off the top of my head and I was grinning, just grinning from ear to ear, and when Pemba looked my way I could see he was doing the same.  It looked like a grimace, like pain, but it was just foolish joy.

‘At that moment,’ she told the girls, who were climbing beside her every step of the way, ‘I believed it all: that the universe has a sound, that you can lift a veil and see the face of God, everything.  I saw the Himalayas stretching below me and that was God’s face, too.  Pemba must have seen something in my expression that bothered him because he called across, Look out, Allie Bibi, the height.  I recall sort of floating over the last overhang and up to the top, and then we were there, with the ground falling away on every side.  Such light; the universe purified into light.  I wanted to tear off my clothes and let it soak into my skin.’ (204)

Back home in London, Allie shows her boyfriend Gibreel a wooden sculpture of Mount Everest that Sherpa Pemba gave her.

‘Look,’ she said, stretching out a hand without leaving the bed and picking up, from her bedside table, her newest acquisition, a simple Everest in weathered pine.   ‘A gift from the sherpas of Namche Bazar.’ Gibreel took it, turned it in his hands.  Pemba had offered it to her shyly when they said goodbye, insisting it was from all the sherpas as a group, although it was evident that he’d whittled it himself.  It was a detailed model, complete with the ice fall and the Hillary Step that is the last great obstacle on the way to the top, and the route they had taken to the summit was scored deeply into the wood.  When Gibreel turned it upside down he found a message, scratched into the base in painstaking English.   “To Ali Bibi.  We were luck.  Not to try again.”

What Allie did not tell Gibreel was that the sherpa’s prohibition had scared her, convincing her that if she ever set her foot again upon the goddess-mountain, she would surely die, because it is not permitted to mortals to look more than once upon the face of the divine… ‘The Himalayas,’ she told Gibreel so as not to say what was really on her mind, ‘are emotional peaks as well as physical ones: like opera.  That’s what makes them so awesome.  Nothing but the giddiest heights.’ (313)

Allie describes the difficulty of living post-Everest, knowing that nothing in daily life will compete with the grandeur of such an experience.

‘Everest silences you,’ she confessed to Gibreel Farishta in a bed above which parachute silk formed a canopy of hollow Himalayas.   ‘When you come down, nothing seems worth saying, nothing at all.  You find the nothingness wrapping you up, like a sound.  Non-being.  You can’t keep it up, of course.  The world rushes in soon enough.  What shuts you up is, I think, the sight you’ve had of perfection: why speak if you can’t manage perfect thoughts, perfect sentences?  it feels like a betrayal of what you’ve been through.  But it fades; you accept that certain compromises, closures, are required if you’re to continue.’  (306)

There are a few times in my life when I’ve had a similar feeling: something I’ve experienced is so magnificent, so beautiful, it’s difficult afterward to reconcile such an experience with the mundaneness of “normal” life.  No doubt Everest would have such an effect.

The Dan Brown code


Dan Brown has plenty of enemies.  From plagiarism to historical inaccuracy to terrible sentence structure, there are any number of reasons to be dismayed.  Personally, I was affronted by his assumption that he is not only more clever than all of his readers, but also more than his characters.

The Da Vinci Code, unsurprisingly, is full of what Dan Brown considers codes.  Around page 394, we readers see a message written in one of these so-called codes.  In fact, the message is written a somewhat stylized script, in English, printed backwards. Immediately, I thought, “Oh, I see, it’s backwards.  This will be as obvious to the protagonists as it is to me, a lay reader.”  However, our three code-breaking heroes, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, French National Police cryptographer Sophie Neveu, and crazy old man Leigh Teabing pronounce it gibberish!  illegible!  mind-boggling! Luckily, Sophie comes through in a pinch: she tells the other two that her grandfather taught her this language (ie, English) when she was young, and she retains fluency in it.   She holds it up to the light to see the message through the other side:

From The Da Vinci Code: a hidden message in plain view

When Brown uses real codes in order to lend authenticity to his brand of historical fiction, he fares no better.  Jim Sanborn, creator of the sculpture Kryptos, which stands outside of CIA headquarters, said, “I don’t want my work manipulated in such a way that its meaning is somehow transformed.”  Brown had appropriated the code that Sanborn implanted within the sculpture to support his own theory of Mary Magadelene as axis mundi in the Christian faith.

It must be spelling out...Mary Magdalene!

Who does Dan Brown think he is, to get away with any of this?  Luckily, The New Yorker, has an answer to that.

The clues lie within the name itself. Brown is a color. What colors combine to make brown? Red, blue, and yellow—the primary colors. Brown is the color of the world, so we can assume Dan Brown is an international organization.

But is Dan Brown right about any of the conspiracies he’s created and fueled?  If only we could go straight to the historical source…