Books: 56 posts

Books and libraries

Roses, Tobacco and Places in Between : Kapka Kassabova’s Border

“Today, the Valley of Roses near the main rose-producing [Bulgarian] town of Kazanlak (from the Turkish kazan, cauldron) still produces fifty per cent of the world’s rose attar… The other fifty per cent is produced by Turkey. Like Oriental tobacco, the rose is a bitter love story between Bulgaria and Turkey. When Bulgaria broke away from the Ottomans in the 1870s, workers from the rose industry travelled south across the border with cuttings from the Valley of Roses and planted them in the soil of Anatolia. They must have really loved their roses.”

The story of rose damascena is one of many shared by Kapka Kassabova in her odyssey across the borders on Europe’s southern edge, between Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. In the times of ever hardening borders reinforced by barbwire and prejudice, reading Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (public library) is an unsettling experience. How can mere lines on the map have the capacity to cut into people’s lives and haunt their thoughts?

That borders haunt is something I’ve experienced myself. I was fascinated with maps ever since I was a child, sleeping under a large map of the world. A large part on it, colored dark pink, was the Soviet Union, with Ukraine, a jagged diamond sitting on its western border.  “Ukraine” meant “the borderland.” I was born in Kyiv, and finding the city in the middle of the diamond, my finger traced a journey west–Lviv, Krakow, Prague, Vienna. But past Lviv, near the village of Shehyni, a thicker line started, and the dark pink space yielded to a mosaic of colors. I may not have understood the post-WWII arrangement, spheres of influence and the Iron Walls, but I knew one thing with certainty–I couldn’t cross the line at Shehyni. The border was there to keep me in. The more I became aware of it, the more I wanted to see what was happening za kordonom, behind the border. The more I was deterred, the more it entranced me.

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Summers Under The Tamarind Tree and Grilled Spicy Chicken

Picking a favorite cuisine is not easy for me. I adore the lusty Ukrainian flavors of my childhood as well as the subtle interplay of nuances of Japanese cooking. Italian dishes, especially the Abruzzo specialties I learned as a teenager living in southern Italy, are the mainstay in my repertoire, food I turn to if I don’t know what else to cook. Persian delicacies like layered rices and stewed meats are what I make when I feel like playing with colors and flavors. And the cooking of the subcontinent, especially Pakistan and India, satisfies my perfumer’s sensibilities. Diverse though the cuisines are in different parts of the countries, they give me a chance to compose a dish as I would a fragrance by building accords and creating top, heart, and base notes.

Pakistani cuisine may be less known in comparison to Indian, but it boasts a splendid variety of dishes, from grilled meats to banana leaf steamed fish, from breads perfumed with saffron to rice garnished with dried fruit and nuts. It’s both a new and an old country. Formed in 1947, Pakistan bears the imprints of civilizations that succeeded each other, from the Indus Valley Civilization to the Greeks and the Mughals. As a place where different faiths met and different people traded, fought, loved and lived, it has a varied and rich food culture. Short of visiting a Pakistani family, one way to discover it is via Sumayya Usmani’s cookbook, Summers Under The Tamarind Tree: Recipes & Memories from Pakistan (public library).

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10 Favorite Summer Reads in 10 Subjects

Summer reading lists are a tradition stretching back to my school days when a teacher sent us forth on vacation armed with a compilation of books to be read by September 1st. Now I will make a confession. As much as I liked imagining that come the first day of school, I would have a book report completed, I could rarely stick to the prescribed selection (and not only because it was biased towards the moralistic Soviet classics). At the library other titles tempted me as did the iris and chocolate redolent volumes from my great-grandmother’s old bookcase. Things have remained much the same the older I got. Even if I make reading lists, I leave room to deviate from them, because one of the pleasures of literature is the serendipitous discovery. My reading depends on my current interests, work projects, recommendations from friends, and Bois de Jasmin readers. If I fall under the spell of one of my obsessions–Japanese literature, Persian poetry, Ukrainian history, artist memoirs, or Middle Eastern politics–my carefully planned reading list will unravel and recombine into something else entirely. I follow my curiosity, and as a motivating force, it’s far stronger.

What I do love is reading lists made by others and selecting new titles to inspire my reading. The summer reading recommendations I share in this post were compiled in the same spirit. They include 10 books in 10 different subjects, books that I enjoyed in subjects that I find fascinating. In the words of Montaigne, who stars in one of my favorite books on the list, “When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.” They also enhance the sunniest of days.

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On Italo Calvino’s Classics and Serge Lutens Feminite du Bois

What makes a classic? “In his marvellous essay Why Read the Classics? Italo Calvino offers 14 definitions of what makes a classic piece of literature. Reflecting on his list, I thought how easily its ideas could also be applied to perfumery. The same notions of the inexhaustible sense of discovery, timelessness and “imprints on our imagination” also define a classic scent, be it Guerlain Shalimar or Chanel No 5. It was Calvino’s 13th point, however, that struck a chord. “A classic is a work that relegates the noise of the present to a background hum,” he says, noting that nevertheless the classics cannot exist without this hum. They’re rooted in the present even as they transcend it.”

This topic is the subject of my latest FT column on modern classics. The article, How Serge Lutens reinvented the idea of feminine perfume, is the first of a series that will cover fragrances I consider outstanding and important. Modern classics, in other words. My first essay is on Serge Lutens’s Féminité du Bois, a composition that challenged conventions and remade wood accords as we know them in perfumery. To read the article, please click here.

Italo Calvino’s essay is worth reading, whether your interest is perfumery or literature, because it’s witty and through-provoking. “Classic” is the most overused word, but unpacking its layers of meaning makes one appreciate the richness of allusions and references that each great work contains. The essay is part of the compilation “Why Read the Classics?” (public library) that includes Calvino’s observations on his favorite writers and novels. I can’t recommend it enough for your summer reading lists.

Of course, I would love to hear what a classical perfume means to you and which fragrances you count among the modern classics.

To read all articles in my column, please click on my name in the byline.

Lonely Mozart in Lemberg and Reflections on Solitude

In 1808 Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, the youngest son of the famous composer, traveled to Lemberg. Today it’s Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, but when the eighteen year old pianist was packing his sheet music and books and setting off on his journey, it was located in Galicia, an entity created by Joseph II after the partition of Poland in 1772. (It was the same Joseph that commented about the Marriage of Figaro, “too many notes, Mozart.”) While young Mozart was aware that he was trading Vienna for the provinces, he was in dire straits. Lemberg seemed like a promising place for a pianist to build his career and return to the capital. Mozart ended up staying for more than two decades.

Young Mozart’s early letters to his family were filled with mentions of his “loneliness [Einsamkeit].” He acutely felt the Galician isolation and complained that his inspiration was deserting him. He envisioned all of the brilliant conversations he could have experienced in Vienna society, the music, the books, the arts, and despaired of finding anything similar in Lemberg. Franz Mozart’s output over his lifetime was indeed small, yet, what becomes obvious is how much he drew on the local surroundings and how creatively he interpreted them.

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