reading: Harad, McPhee, Johnson, Knausgaard

On May 14, 2016 by theseventhsphinx

I’ve failed to include reading for a long while,  a bit of a shame as I’ve been reading so many things I would recommend. Let the jury note a general resolution to improve on this front. What I’m reading tends to be a more or less direct reflection of what is occupying me, and what I find important and interesting from one month to the next. I have long believed that reading is the most important activity I do, and I grow increasingly dimwitted when I neglect it.

reading theseventhsphinx

Coming to My Senses, Alyssa Harad — This is a wonderful story about the awakening of Harad’s passion for perfume intertwined with thoughts about beauty and identity that are relevant to us all, and especially to women, whose relationship to beauty (to an abstract, artistic concept of beauty as well as a commercial, mainstream concept of beauty) is so complex and, in many ways, problematic. Harad writes eloquently about her own journey, and any of you secret perfume obsessives out there—of which I am a not so secret one, but even readers here (and even good friends) cannot begin to imagine the true volumes of perfume in my possession—will surely identify with her. A delightful read, and I suggest following her on twitter as well. One great result of reading this is the irresistible urge to dig out perfume samples, buy new perfume samples, and think with still greater (and variously focused) attention about perfume and beauty. This is directly related to the larger questions of what makes art art and what makes the beautiful beautiful that has been humming along in relation to the painting I’ve been doing, which I will have to get into another time.

Middle Passage, Charles Johnson—I’m about a quarter in here and it is already a riveting, deeply ominous narrative. A fictional account of a New Orleans thief stowing away on what turns out to be a slave ship collecting and transporting slaves from Africa. I’ve read enough about this novel to know it’s only going to get more gruesome. Excellent, if we want to call such a grisly story about such a awful subject excellent…thanks to GeekOutsider for prompting me to push this to the top of the list.

Levels of the Game, John McPhee—As I was reading this I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘this is so good!!’ McPhee is, on the surface, describing a semi-final match in the 1968 U.S. Open. The face-off (I wasn’t familiar with either player before reading this), fantastic tennis writing in its own right, is brilliantly interleaved with biographical, social, and historical context. You don’t need to be that into tennis to appreciate what this is: an attentive, informative, wonderfully researched, insightful essay. The format reminded me of L. Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, a play-by-play of the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final. Wertheim’s account of the match (extremely detailed, with certain dramatic points described at length) is similarly interrupted to provide context – I’m convinced he’s standing on McPhee’s shoulders. It’s also an interesting read and one I enjoyed a lot (I read it twice!) but it pales in comparison to Levels style and subtle humor, and has nothing like the cocktail of social tensions surrounding the ’68 match. There is little I enjoy more than putting myself in the hands of a brilliant essayist.

My Struggle: Book Two, Karl Ove Knausgaard—A strange, compelling autobiography on the model of Remembrance of Things Past, that is, an exhaustively detailed, sharp-eyed reflection of his remembered life. Knausgaard is of course not Proust, but we would not want him to be, he is thoroughly himself. The powers of description that help me to trust his narration (I mean, put my trust in him as a reader (I mean, keep reading)) are all the more effective paired with his grim (at times grim, at times provocative), relentless honesty. Already I am enjoying Book Two, focusing on his romantic and family life, more than Book One (also massive), which chronicled his childhood and the death of his father. Interesting too that he is speaking in such detail of cultures – Norwegian, then later Swedish – so foreign to me, beyond the fascination of speaking in such detail of a life so foreign to me. A kind of life. Incidentally, the work, some six volumes in total, is a literary sensation. Not hard to see why.

x

smell this: Guerlain Shalimar

On April 8, 2016 by theseventhsphinx

Shalimar is an established classic, designed in 1921 by Jacques Guerlain and still on the shelves. This fragrance has been reformulated at least once but the essential notes remain the same; bergamot, jasmine, rose, iris, opoponax, vanilla. This is a complicated fragrance with a lot of powerful ingredients, and not only a lot on paper – a lot in the nose as well. Smelling iconic perfumes is such a good exercise.  I think anyone who gets sufficiently curious about perfume will want to experience the old classics sooner or later, certain of them anyway, whether a true vintage sample or the nearest one can get.

Shalimar EDC

I have yet to have an opportunity to smell the original formulation and can’t speak to whatever butchery the reformulation represents, but to me the current interpretation has a lot to appreciate. Anecdotally (Wikipedia on perfume histories is an interesting rabbit hole) it’s the result of an entire bottle of the latest synthetic vanillin being experimentally poured into a bottle of Guerlain’s Jicky, and was launched as Guerlain’s showpiece for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, an art exhibit designed to show the pre-eminence of French taste and style that was the highlight of the early Art Deco period. There is a great history of Shalimar on The Perfume Shrine.

We are discussing the EdC here, as that happens to be what I was gifted recently. It’s strange, I have hardly ever been given perfume. My mom gave me a much loved bottle of Jovan White Musk when I was 13 or so, and my aunt gave me a not especially loved bottle of…what was it? Lady Stetson? (miles away from the awful tropico-chemical aerosol body sprays in vogue in rural Maine in the 90s, which I largely shunned for Vanilla Fields), and I’ve had a few lovely fragrances passed on to me, but I haven’t had that feeling of having a new bottle of perfume in a couple of years. I am so used to being the one who gifts fragrance, I forget it can be given to me, too. How nice it is!*

*Potentially…

I was delighted to receive Shalimar, not because I like it [I’d only smelled it academically in passing years ago, and had only thought about it as a forerunner, a foremother] but because it is iconic, a sound addition to any fragrance library. It’s clearly echoed in later orientals, later leathers, in powdery and floral scents, in ambers and vanillas and incense fragrances…so many of these it seems could not exist without Shalimar.  That said, I do like it, though perhaps this does not translate to wanting to wear it often.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Shalimar EDC

Shalimar EdC opens with a zingy lemon and bergamot (think earl grey tea) accord, really bright, with an insistent sour note like cedar and civet (think animal musk/sweat and cat pee). The animality is strong for me, though for some it takes a back seat to the bergamot and soapy powder (highly recommend browsing the basenotes reviews of Shalimar). This moves promptly -within a few minutes – into the soapy floral heart of iris (for me dominant) and rose, which rose is never fully extricated from that original citrus. There is jasmine as well but for me it is more ‘complex heady floral that you know cannot be only rose or only jasmine’. It’s so over the top to have jasmine and rose, basically the two most expensive floral extracts and Guerlain famous for using the best. Either alone is enough to carry the day, and iris too can hold its own*, so it’s already a busy concoction, and THEN.

*Guerlain’s Apree L’Ondee, Frederic Malle Iris Poudre, The Different Company Bois d’Iris – I find iris soliflore fragrances are the best way to teach your nose the iris note, irises themselves are not so helpful, the root being the relevant thing.

On the coattails of the iris is an equally prominent note of leather, with vanilla and tonka bean creeping steadily in. For me the leather is unmistakable, though some seem to read it only as a smoky vanilla, or more like incense. Some people don’t seem to read leather at all, which to me is baffling, but the leather is the illusion, a mirage made of musk, amber, incense, and powder. The resinous note is evidently the opoponax – a note I don’t really have clear in my brain yet but which is a gum resin like frankincense or myrrh (opoponax is also called sweet myrrh) that smells luxuriously of balsamic and honey. Supposedly. I get what I would call sweet (amber, vanilla) and sour (civet, cedar) leather with a backdrop of powdery iris and incense. As time goes by, and this is a defiant fragrance that hangs around for many hours, this cocktail softens more and more, with leather, amber and vanilla waxing as the sourness and florals wane.

Shalimar will smell naggingly familiar to most, as it is still selling and still being worn, for many it is the scent worn by their mother or grandmother. Then, too, it is the ur-oriental, and all orientals are reminiscent of it. It’s had a cult following for nearly a century, the house’s flagship fragrance; innovatively sweet and exotic for the daring 20s. In addition to selling steadily in the main formulation, has spawned several offshoots or flankers, which surely sell in no small part due to the gorgeous bottle they keep re-releasing with slight variations on the original Baccarat design.

SHALIMAR08010 BASEA

Make no mistake, to my nose Shalimar is old-fashioned. It should smell old fashioned, formulated some 90 years ago and, from my point of view, worn by people much older than myself. Then, powder to me nearly always smells old-fashioned, as do basically all orientals, orientals being amber dominant scents with rich ingredients like musks and resins along with (often eastern) spices and florals. It’s strong! Not in the brassy 70s way or the cloying 80s way, and not in the modern Tom Ford way, but in a complex everything-but-the-kitchen-sink way that a number of iconic fragrances from the 1910s and 1920s demonstrate for us (ahem, Chanel No. 5 (1919)).

The beauty of Shalimar today is that it’s at a point where it’s so old it can be new again. It’s a potent, grown-up fragrance, even in the relatively sheer EdC formulation, and I can see it reading fresh and interesting on a younger woman, say under 40. Not that age matters, but youth provides a great contrast with these notes. Worn with complete at-homeness as a signature fragrance by someone older is a great look for Shalimar as well.

It appeals to me especially in the rain (that’s the iris), and it smells about a billion times better on skin than it does on fabric. No spritzing the scarf with this one for me. I need to power through the civet-heavy opening to get to the leather/iris bit, which is the part I can appreciate. I encourage anyone smelling Shalimar to spray it on and give it an hour. I can see myself more realistically layering this with a musk I actually like to add interest (say the Kiehl’s musk oil, or this one I like that I found on Amazon), or with a straight rose (say Tea Rose, or another straight floral maybe) to add interest, such that the layering fragrance provides a new driving force and Shalimar a soft ambiance. A dominant leather could be a nice pairing as well. Hm. Let’s talk about Tom Ford Tuscan Leather later, which is perfection all on its own.

x

bottle image via pinterest

smell this: Byredo Rose Noir

On November 12, 2015 by theseventhsphinx

I find my nose increasingly sparing with its praise. Once you smell a few hundred perfumes, you’re not so easily charmed as perhaps you once were. This is I suppose the development of some kind of discernment or taste, and I tend to think it’s for the best. It often strikes me as vulgar to like too many things [as I undoubtedly do], aside from merely liking things everybody else likes. I don’t want to eradicate vulgarity but it is something I want to display in moderation.

So, then, impressive fragrances stand out all the more. Anything that makes it into the category of beautiful stands out all the more. I was delighted to be so effortlessly pleased with Byredo’s Rose Noir.

Byredo Rose Noir parfum

If you don’t like the scent of rose, I guess forget it. The rose is a true lush damask rose, and she does not smell cheap (she is not cheap). It opens with a super ripe yet still sour grapefruit note mingled with a vague white floral (evidently freesia, a scent with little character in isolation, light and inoffensive) that remains as the rose comes gently forward. There is a poignant, woody richness that I tend to associate with oud (which I generally do not like, finding in it something sickly, rancid, like the oversweetness of rotten wood). It works for me here, providing a savory anchor that balances the full-on rose, much like black pepper does in The Different Company’s spicy Rose Poivree and Le Labo’s stunning Rose 31. I’m pretty sure I like it here because it’s not actually oud but cistus (labdanum(resin)) and musk creating that same sense of a faint neon glow. [Probably some aldehydes contributing to this as well.]

This balance is critical for me. While its boozy headiness is beautiful in its own right, damask rose isn’t a scent I want to wear. It’s too much. Though rose is by far my favorite floral, really one of the only floral notes I take much interest in (with the exception of Tiare flowers/Tahitian gardenias), I want it in combination with something. Vetiver (L’Artisan Parfumeur Voleur de Roses), incense (Caron Parfum Sacre), citrus (Perfumer’s Workshop Tea Rose)…something.

The sour grapefruit lingers (as does its brightness) and the resin has an intrinsic sourness/savoriness that prevents the sweetness of the rose from ruining the show. This is a wonderfully sophisticated scent. It reads clearly as a floral and a luxurious one yet isn’t especially heavy or dark. Not one of those rich roses suitable only for evening. The musk is gentle and sparing, and far in the background. All other notes play a supporting role to the rose. It could be accused of being too simple, not exciting enough, especially given the pricetag and that Noir, but being solidly pleasant is success enough. If it were somehow more exciting…I imagine the balance would be off and I wouldn’t like it anymore.

The junction of floral/citrus/musk reminds me a bit of Chanel Mademoiselle, which I also like, though this feels like the older, less obvious, more mysterious sister. The one who doesn’t care whether you like her or not. Harder to make her smile, and so more satisfying.

The edp is lovely for autumn/winter but I could see wearing this anytime. I expected it to be slightly stronger (esp. with that ‘edp’) but actually I like this concentration. I don’t think I’ll be getting a full size of this, I’m still longing for Profumum’s Victrix, but I think this is beautiful, and enjoy wearing it.

If you want to investigate other rose fragrances, this L.A. Times article mentions some great ones.

summer bodycare favorites

On July 23, 2014 by theseventhsphinx

Sunscreen, moisturizers, body oils, body scrub…here are a few of the body products I’ve been enjoying so far this summer.

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Banana Boat Sport sunscreen — I’m not that fussy about which sunscreen I use on my body, I mostly want an old-school sunscreen smell (I really enjoy that smell when it is authentic, in the context of sunscreen), and happily turn to brands like Banana Boat and Coppertone.  For a great explanation of the various types of and methods for rating/categorizing sunscreen, and what that means for you, check out this video, which I found educational. Facialist Caroline Hirons interviews plastic/reconstructive surgeon Marko Lens, the brains behind the Zelens skincare line, who has an excellent Italian accent.

Elemis Frangipani Monoi body oil — Smells awesome. Frangipani (or plumeria) is a tropical flower with a lush, peachy, creamy scent that reminds me of some lilies, but more fruity. Monoi is a term for coconut oil that has been infused with the tiaré flower, or Tahitian gardenia (which smells a lot like frangipani). Great for (easiest to get out of the bottle in) summer because coconut oil is solid below 76°.  The fragrance is nicely balanced and I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts but won’t repurchase. I will instead go for

Monoi Tiare Tahiti Monoi Tiiki Tahiti Coconut Oil — Same idea as above (sans frangipani) but much less expensive. The scent is stronger here, and a bit less complex (fewer ingredients), but also lovely. I find that it dies down pretty quickly, anyway, so don’t be afraid of how it smells out of the bottle. This brand also has a vanilla version, with a vanilla bean in the bottle, and it smells like frosting in a really authentic and delicious way (not in a synthetic, gross way). A bit too sweet for me but I know there’s an audience out there for it.

The Body Shop Olive Cream Body Scrub — I exfoliate year-round but with particular care in the summer. This smells great, bright and herbal. I wouldn’t mind if it were a bit scrubbier…but it works. I use a body brush beforehand, and sometimes an exfoliating glove along with the scrub, so there’s no shortage of friction. I like a number of salt and sugar scrubs as well, and am not too particular about the specific product slotted in here.

Weleda Citrus Deodorant — The active ingredient here is biodynamic (good for you, Weleda!) lemon peel oil but to me this smells like lime water with a little something else in it, which means it smells like a gin and tonic. Mojito, gin and tonic – why not smell like your favorite summer tipple? I don’t use this under my arms, typically, more as a refreshing body spray (all natural ingredients here, and no antiperspirant function) on the parts of my body most likely to overheat, or the parts that have already overheated. This bottle will last a while but I’m interested to try the rose one next.

Trader Joe’s Coconut Body Butter —  Coconut oil and shea butter whipped into a rich, luxurious cream. I like using straight coconut oil, too, or one of my options above, but this sinks in quickly and leaves skin moisturized for a good while. Such a good use of $5 or whatever it is. This smells like coconut frosting, so you’ll need to be OK with that. Not too sweet for me, though.

Nuxe Huile Prodigeuse — Having a dry oil to hand is really useful. So quick to apply and you don’t have to worry about getting oil stains on your clothing. This oil smells particularly lovely, a slightly old-fashioned (rather, currently out of fashion, but no less beautiful for that) floral bouquet that reminds me of classic French perfumers working directly from floral extracts (say, Houbigant, and others from Grasse). This floral is complex, restrained, elegant. It can easily be worn in lieu of perfume or, as I often do, layered under perfume to add longevity and interest. This one is a bit of a cult favorite, and there’s also a version with shimmer in.

Jergens Natural Glow Moisturizer — As I’m using sunscreen so faithfully, if I want a deeper tan (a noticeable-to-me tan) it’s got to be a fake one. Tanning is your body trying to protect you from sun damage, and also the sign that the damage is done…so a safe tan is a fake tan. I think the main complaint is that fake tanners tend to smell like biscuits, but as far as I’m concerned they smell like those awesome Speculoos ginger cookies I love, and I can’t at all see the problem. I use this just on my legs, when I think to. I don’t have streaking issues as long as I wipe off the excess with a paper towel or some such, and have exfoliated beforehand. I have the St. Tropez bronzing lotion as well, and while it is a bit nicer, the color a bit more realistic, the formula a bit more effective…it’s not so much better that I’m inspired to pay for it again and again when there are decent alternatives like the Jergens (and now many others) out there. As for ‘firming’, good grief. Don’t believe that stuff.

My face is a whole different story.

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