Wednesday, November 19, 2014


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Fragrant: the Secret Life of Scent (Riverhead, 2014) that Marie has contributed.

We received a complimentary copy of Fragrant: the Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel for review. Fragrant is a book about an exploration of scent and fragrance, primarily perfumes but secondary of culinary scents, and the love affair the author develops over the course of exploration. It is the opposite of "ignorance is bliss" as the more the author learns, the greater her passion on the subject. And, luckily for the reader, the greater her desire to share what she has found. This is a clearly written journal of a voyage of discovery.

All my life, I have had a complicated relationship with fragrances. On the one hand, on my first encounter with Vietnamese cinnamon, I could not resist going back to the pantry and opening the jar multiple times a day to have a sniff of the wonderful aroma; on the other hand, I was unable to attend high holy days at church as a teen because I reacted very badly to the incense.

On our food blog we try to experience exactly what this book is about: "the appetites that move us, give us pleasure, make us fully alive" although we talk just about the food aspect; however, she also has another thing in common, in that Ms. Aftell reads about the history of scents, and looks for the interesting and unusual. She says "I love the complicated histories of the materials and the complex characters that make the natural perfumer's palette so vibrant." And in the process, she finds points of interest to the cook, such as finding that sugar was used to scrape citrus and make essential-oil-infused sugar for cooking. I, too, love the complicated ways that simple foodstuffs interact to turn into the many things we know and love to eat; it was fascinating to read more details and it really felt like getting a more rounded view of the topic.

The author has five main aromatic compounds which she uses to shape the narrative of the book, and when I saw that cinnamon was one of them it made the book irresistible. The other four are mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. Each of the five ingredients has a full discussion of where the substance originates, how it's made and its historical place in fragrance and food making. Finally, she talks about the concept of wabi-sabi, the appreciation for the impermanence of objects. When dealing with something as transient as scent, you have to take into account the ability of each component to work together, very much like the ingredients in a recipe; you may love lemon, but if you put in too much the dish is ruined. I see an awful lot of recipes with unnecessarily long ingredient lists. Simplicity calls to me, and I feel that this book shows how simplicity, elegance and beauty intersect. Recommended.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.