There is nothing especially winter-like about my list of books (and perfumes). It’s mainly about enjoyment, with a dose of something high-spirited. Some may call it escapism, but I see it as a way to recharge and tune out the world long enough for me to find my balance and plunge back into the routine. Moreover, high-spirited, entertaining and fun, whether in literature, art or perfume, can assume many different forms. Here is my take.
Jeffrey Steingarten The Man Who Ate Everything
“Whenever I have nothing better to do, I roast a chicken,” writes Jeffrey Steingarten. The food critic at Vogue magazine since 1989, Steingarten is also the author of two of my favorite books about cooking and eating, The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate. Steingarten is witty, irreverent and passionate, an irresistible combination. His essays are full of interesting tidbits and recipes, but the main reason I enjoy them is because of Steingarten’s dry sense of humor. I don’t know how many times I’ve read “Kyoto Cuisine,” but the scene in which he tries to pry off the lid from a bowl of soup leaves me laughing out loud every single time. In the same essay, he also describes the exquisite flavors of Japanese cuisine, reminding his reader that as a bumbling tourist he may have missed many nuances. With Steingarten you can visit the Nishikidori market in Kyoto, run a scientific test of ketchups, grill sardines with Marcella Hazan in Venice, perfect fries, or try cooking from the back of the box.
Natsume Soseki I am a Cat
Natsume Soseki is one of the most influential Japanese modern writers. Some of my Japanese friends would correct it to “the most influential.” Kokoro, Botchan and I Am a Cat are the novels I’d recommend as the best of the best in Japanese literature. I am a Cat (1905-1907) is told from the perspective of an anthropomorphic cat,who describes the lives of humans he encounters in the household of his owner, a teacher named Sleaze. Appropriately enough, as one realizes two pages in.
“I would like to take the occasion of this incident to advise my readers that the human habit of referring to me in a scornful tone of voice as some mere trifling “cat” is an extremely bad one,” the cat observes. He quotes Plato and Aristotle as he offers biting remarks on the Japanese society of the Meiji Restoration period (end of the 19th century) with its rush to modernize. Soseki’s reflections on life, science, art and modernity, and his erudition make “I Am a Cat” a thrill, while a dose of satire adds a memorable, if caustic, note. Even when he’s serious, Soseki is highly entertaining.
The story was originally published as series, which explains the quirky, disjointed narrative arc. Soseki handles the most complicated issues in a lighthearted tone, and his comic exaggerations echo the manga techniques. For instance, one of his characters, Coldmoon, is working on the thesis titled “The Effects of Ultraviolet Rays upon Galvanic Action in the Eyeball of the Frog.” Whenever he popped up onto the scene complaining of his inability to carve the perfect glass sphere, my memories of grad school grew more vivid.
Yoko Tawada Memoirs of a Polar Bear
I don’t like to edit articles too much after they have been published, but I absolutely must add this book. There is a venerable folk tradition in Japan of animals as story tellers, and the recent novel published by the Japanese-German author, Yoko Tawada, continues it. “Memoirs of a Polar Bear” explain why the mother bear rejected her baby at the Berlin zoo. You may know this baby bear as Knut. The story is written from the perspective of the three generations of bears, and it’s funny and satirical in equal measure.
Sylvia Townsend Warner Lolly Willowes
I have already described the spirited character of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Lolly Willowes and her desire to retain her personal space, even if it means selling her soul to the devil. Townsend Warner is an unfairly overlooked writer, so I have no qualms mentioning her novel again. I also highly recommend The Corner That Held Them, a mystery novel set in a 14th century Benedictine convent and unfolding around a nun’s strange disappearance.
Wilkie Collins The Woman in White
Whenever I encounter a big book, I think of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva: “People say, ‘do read it, it’s short.’ And I say, ‘If it’s short, I won’t read it.’ ” If you follow in the footsteps of Tsvetaeva, The Woman in White at over 600 pages will suit you just fine. Long books require a greater investment of time, but their pleasure lasts longer. I have a particular weakness for Victorian doorstoppers with all their intricate descriptions of landscapes, characters, scenes, emotional states, and even the occasional moralizing. I want to say that it’s my guilty pleasure, except that I don’t feel much guilt over it. The Woman in White is a Victorian detective story, with elements of mystery and Gothic horror.
“In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me. I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick. There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven – stood the figure of a solitary woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.”
Perfect for dark snowy days.
Elena Ferrante My Brilliant Friend
Who hasn’t read Elena Ferrante at this point? I admit that I was late coming to the Neapolitan Novels; I was so taken with Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment that I overlooked the rest. However, the Neapolitan Novels pursue the same theme of attachment and its burden–as well as detachment and its void–that touched me during my first encounter with Ferrante’s work. The first of the four novels, My Brilliant Friend sets the story–the lives of two women, Lenù and Lila. The novels follow them as they leave childhood behind, mature and marry, all set against the violent and chaotic backdrop of a poor neighborhood on the edge of a violent and chaotic Italian city, Naples. I’ve yet to read the last book in the series, but I hear that it’s the best one.
In perfume descriptions “sweet” is usually followed by “pretty,” but no such adjective is appropriate for Rochas Tocade. Perfumer Maurice Roucel sets roses in amber and creates a dramatic dark and smoldering vignette. If you like sweet notes, but find the current crop of caramel and cotton candy accented perfumes to literal, try Tocade.
Lolita Lempicka L
Another sweet and vibrant blend that will make my winter more colorful is Lolita Lempicka L. The idea was to blend the maple syrup-like notes of immortelle with patisserie staples like vanilla, cinnamon, tonka bean and lemon zest. A layer of sandalwood and smoky musk turns the confection more seductive than edible.
The bottle looks like something a wave might wash onto the shore (and I don’t mean a dead jellyfish, although some might make this comparison.)
It occurred to me after I made my fragrance choices that I have a distinct Maurice Roucel theme going here. Besides Tocade and L, he also created two other perfumes I have been wearing a lot lately, Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur and Hermès 24 Faubourg. His perfumes are inviting, enveloping, and most certainly high-spirited.
What about you? How are you coping with stress, routine, and winter?
Photography by Bois de Jasmin