Books: 100 posts

Books and reading lists

Anton Chekhov’s Gooseberries: On Happiness

Anton Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” tells a story–two friends, Ivan and Bourkin, shelter from the rain at another friend’s house. They take a swim in a pond and then Ivan tells about his brother, a civil servant, who had a dream of owning a house and a gooseberry patch. This idea so possessed him that he married a wealthy widow, starved his wife to death trying to save money, and finally bought an estate. When Ivan visited his brother in his new home, he found him not the meek civil servant that he once was but a pompous man who oppressed his peasants and took offense over not being saluted properly. A plate of gooseberries harvested from his patch was brought in during dinner. Though they were hard and sour, Ivan’s brother ate them with relish, delighting in every bite.

As Ivan tells the story, he turns to his friends and makes the speech that forms the climax of “Gooseberries.” He says that happiness doesn’t exist, that it shouldn’t exist. He urges his friends, younger men, to do good. “Obviously the happy man is at ease only because the unhappy ones bear their burdens in silence, and if there were not this silence, happiness would be impossible,” Ivan says in agitation. “Behind the door of every contented, happy man there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, and trouble will come to him — illness, poverty, losses, and then no one will see or hear him, just as now he neither sees nor hears others.”

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Favorite Perfume Books to learn about history, science, and techniques

Whenever I’m asked about my favorite books, two parallel thoughts flash through my mind–how much time do you have to listen to me and which are my favorite books. As someone who reads in all genres and on all topics, I have difficulty pairing down my favorites to to a small-talk appropriate list. However, when it comes to perfume books, I have no difficulty answering the question; my most read books are always within reach. Today, I will start with a list of books that I use for reference. I read them cover to cover and dip into chapters at random to learn about perfumery techniques, styles, or the fragrance industry.

Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells by Harold McGee

I first talked to Harold McGee about this book project more than ten years ago, but I believe that it took him even longer to research it. The wait has been worth it. McGee’s erudition sparkles on every page, and you can open the book on any chapter and find something new about aromas, molecules, emotions — and your own nose. It’s a study of olfaction as well as the world as we experience it through our senses. McGee weaves his personal experiences throughout his discussions, which gives Nose Dive its rich, layered quality. If you’re familiar with McGee’s writings on food and the science of cooking, you don’t need me to advertise this book further. Highly recommended.

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The Scent of Empire Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow by Karl Schlogel

The Scent of Empire: Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow by Karl Schlögel

The first time my grandmother was introduced to my future grandfather, he was performing a duet with his brother. Identical twins and devastatingly handsome, the duo sang their most popular number about a girl holding a bottle of “Tejé.” This French-sounding perfume intrigued me, but despite searching for Tejé in Google and various perfumery databases, I couldn’t find any trace of it. It was not until I read Karl Schlögel’s book The Scent of Empire: Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow did I realize that that it wasn’t Tejé, but rather TeZhe. It certainly was not French. TeZhe stood for the State Trust of Fat and Bone Processing Industry, which included perfume manufacturing. It was the LVMH of the USSR, if you will, and it was under its auspices that the most famous Soviet perfume, Red Moscow, was born. Schlögel’s book is about the world of Red Moscow and its intriguing connection to Chanel No 5.

Brocard Moscow vintage poster

Schlögel’s story alternates between Moscow and Paris, Red Moscow and No 5 and the personalities that surrounded them. Red Moscow was created in 1925 by Auguste Michel, who like the creator of No 5, Ernest Beaux, was a French perfumer working in Moscow. Michel was born in Grasse and joined Rallet in Moscow in 1908, where he and Beaux were students of Alexandre Lemercier. Beaux and Michel had been influenced by the work on aldehydes done by the perfumer Robert Bienaimé at Houbigant. Beaux remained with Rallet, while Michel moved to work for Brocard, another French perfume house in Moscow.

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Mir Taqi Mir’s Jasmine Pilaf

While reading the memoirs of Mir Taqi Mir, a great Indian poet who lived in 18th century Delhi, I came across a charming anecdote about a jasmine pilaf. Once you read it, you’ll know right away why the description captured my attention.

“They used to prepare a fine jasmine pilaf at the house of A’zam Khan Sr. They would put jasmine flowers in some oil and let it sit for a few days so it would absorb the fragrance. Then they would use the oil to cook the rice, which gave it a fine aroma. Burhan-ul-Mulk heard its praise and made a request to A’zam Khan Sr., who then had some prepared and sent over in several big platters. Burhan-ul-Mulk ate it with relish, then remarked in a jocular vein, “It’s not a platter of pilaf; it’s the blessesd grave of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.” The remark was greatly enjoyed, for people in fact used to bring jasmine flowers in great quantities to cover that revered person’s grave. It would then look like a heap of flowers, and their fragrance would transport passersby even at some distance.”

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5 Books about Dance and Resilience

Dance, like all arts, is about making a connection with others. I was thinking lately about Gelsey Kirkland, a dancer with whom I was fortunate to study when she gave her much beloved classes at Steps in NYC. Kirkland was one of George Balanchine’s star dancers and an American ballerina with a striking style. I will never forget how she told us that when dancing, we should remember that we are holding our beating hearts in our hands. That image solved the problem of dropping the wrist even during the most complicated movements, but it stayed with me even when I changed into street clothes and put my pointe shoes away.

These days I also think about Kirkland’s comment often, whether I dance or write. Making a connection with others is much more difficult in this time of Zoom and social distancing, but being genuine and honest and not being afraid of being vulnerable towards others is still important. My ballet training has influenced my attitude to life and shaped my personality. I admit that not all  such influences have been entirely positive–the relentless push for perfection comes with a price, ballet taught me what resilience means. Reading about other dancers and dance has always inspired me, and I would like to share my list of favorite books with you.

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