Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: "Coming To My Senses" by Alyssa Harad

Are you unique?

I’m not.

As I read through Alyssa Harad’s “Coming To My Senses” over the holiday weekend, I was struck, time and time again, by close trajectories.  For both of us, the exploration of perfume has led to a deeper and much longer-lasting knowledge of what a sensual life is and what femininity is. An understanding, like a gift. 

Harad says that, prior to perfume, she was a “Birkenstock-wearing feminist.” I wasn’t exactly that, but there was a lot I’d lost sight of over time. She was unsure about life after grad school; I had seen both my parents through their last days and badly needed some joy. She stumbled across her first perfume blog by accident. I was taking calls at a consumer-oriented radio talk show and heard that you could buy deeply discounted perfumes on the internet. I googled a name, several blogs appeared, and down the rabbit hole I went.

After that it should all be quite familiar to those of us who are already perfumistas or fans or obsessives or whatever label you’d like to use. Here are the Big Blogs — NST and PST; BdJ and Perfume Posse. Looking around the room I see March, and Victoria and Marina and Ida — hi, y’all! And I’m guessing about the perfumes she’s discussing: is that Chergui? Lonestar Memories? Avignon? Here is the culture on perfume on the internet: the abbreviations, the swapping, the gifts, the decant sellers and splits pages; “the Perfumista Black Market.” 

One of her early discoveries concerns the reaction of friends when you tell them you’ve become deeply interested in perfume. “Perfume? Really?” And that quizzical look, the one that says, “Should I start being disappointed in you now?”

Since Coco Chanel, the mainstream perfume industry has ridden fashion like a remora rides a shark.  Recent converts to perfume are forced to pay for this with shame. Shame at collecting much more than you’ll ever use. Shame at the frivolity and the expense. Shame at your unseemly attraction. Almost no one, Harad points out, looks at a wine, book or art collection this way. 

Perfume wears close to the  psyche. This beautifully written book is a story of a life reclaimed, a maturity attained by making peace with femininity and with traditions of an earlier time. More than that, it’s a guide to bravery: enough to insist on a little glamour. Here’s how the beauty of the fragrance you’re wearing sinks in and becomes, well, you. Here’s how this little habit, which you might have once scoffed at, changes everything.

“It didn’t stop with smells,” she says near the end. “Flavors had a new clarity and complexity. I invented new recipes with familiar ingredients and sought out spices and fruits I’d never tasted. I paused to enjoy the silky cool of the flour between my fingers….The world had more color and more contrast.”

It does for me, too. 

Full disclosure time: “Coming To My Senses” was sent to me by the publisher for review.

Available in all the usual places. The ISBN is 978-0-670-02361-5.

Photo by Pat Hall Borow. All rights reserved.


olenska said...

"Almost no one, Harad points out, looks at a wine, book or art collection this way."

This sentence had me leaping out of my computer chair shouting YES! And yet a perfume can play like a masterpiece of music, literature, cinema, or visual art if the wearer is attuned and open to enrichment.

Anonymous said...

Living in Australia has disadvantages. My copy is still winging its way, Sounds good though,
Portia x

Olfacta said...

Hi Olenska -- I think the reason for this is the positioning of perfume by the fashion industry -- that it's merely an accessory for seduction. And Puritanism certainly isn't dead in American culture! I wonder if it is the same in others.

Olfacta said...

Hi Portia -- I'm sure you'll like it!

Dionne said...

I was really looking forward to reading the copy that was winging its way to me via inter-library loan, but just found out that New Releases aren't eligible for it. Since I can't wait, it's off to amazon....

Olfacta said...

Hi Dionne -- It's well worth it, imho.

Blacknallallen said...

Alas I think the wider world merely considers us junkies who spritz instead of injecting our chemicals.
Reading the original blogs was a chance to exit the closet of the scent obsessed. Always loved to smell things even if they're not bottled.

lynnette said...

i was talking to a close friend last year who obsessively collects rock'n'roll paraphernalia - he has a shipping container and a house full of it. I confessed to him that I liked to collect vintage perfume and he just laughed at me derisively. I was really peeved.

Maggie Emm said...

I identify with this completely!
Before I got into perfume I didn't think I liked it, as most of what I smelled was off the pages of glossy magazines - yuk.
Now, as you both say, it has opened up a whole new and completely wonderful world - one that smells, and has more senses than just sight.
And yes, I rarely mention it in society because of the reception it gets (not that I spend much time in society).
Thank goodness for the web, and for all the fabulous blogs, including this one!