Monday, November 24, 2014

late-fall reading list

What are you reading? I have four end-of-fall recommendations, all from Nosy Interviewees (all fragrant, foxy, and friendly):


Foxes on the Trampoline by Charlotte Boulay
Charlotte, the first-ever(!) nosy interviewee featured on the site, published her first book of poems and it's gorgeous, funny, and brilliant. It gave me chills on a 90 percent humidity day this summer in Boston and now it's giving me comfort as the days grow short, and cold. You can read Charlotte's poem "Scientists Have Discovered," on your phone right now, as you walk to the bookstore to buy her book.



Friendship by Emily Gould
Read the first chapter of Emily's lovely and funny and bittersweet debut novel here, and     then get into it with Bev and Amy as they sort out their lives in contrast to and connection with one another in a way that is so welcome.  If this list has you hankering for still more book recommendations, hightail it over to Emily Books and subscribe to receive one great ebook each month for a year.  (Emily, self-proclaimed perfume nerd, also has a great review of Mandy Aftel's Fragrant, next on this list, at Bookforum.)





Fragrant by Mandy Aftel

That cover! It matches the amazing packaging Aftel uses in her shop (where you can buy the companion kit to Fragrant and "smell along" as you read), and you can bet what's inside this book will be more beautiful still. How have I not read this yet?!? I revere Mandy! It tops my to-read list, and here's a taste from the jacket copy:
In Fragrant, through five major players in the epic of aroma, she explores the profound connection between our sense of smell and the appetites that move us, give us pleasure, make us fully alive. Cinnamon, queen of the Spice Route, touches our hunger for the unknown, the exotic, the luxurious. Mint, homegrown the world over, speaks to our affinity for the familiar, the native, the authentic. Frankincense, an ancient incense ingredient, taps into our longing for transcendence, while ambergris embodies our unquenchable curiosity. And exquisite jasmine exemplifies our yearning for beauty, both evanescent and enduring.


The Self Unstable by Elisa Gabbert

Elisa's writing is so smart and funny and humane and it will get under your skin in a good way and change the way you see. The cover makes me a little bit dizzy, but champagne-dizzy, where everything holds so much promise and sparkle, and everyone is wittier and more beautiful than they were just a few hours earlier. Elisa makes it so.


{All the pretty drop caps are courtesy Jessica Hisch's Daily Drop Cap.}

Saturday, June 28, 2014

grown in rwanda

Lowell interviews Nyirahabimana in Gisagara, Rwanda.

Minsi myinshi (long time), Nosy friends! I have missed you. I apologize for this fallow period. I've had a lot of trouble accessing Blogger from Rwanda, where I'm still happily sniffing the best coffee on earth and burying my nose in my scarf against burning-tire smells. I've also neglected this space some in favor of finally finishing a big draft of my novel, which I hope smells like the air before a summer thunderstorm. Though I haven't been posting much, I'll return to the U.S., thanks in a major way to my Kinyarwanda-speaking partner (pictured in the field above, eliciting the laughter that "What do you, yourself, think you smell like?" was usually met with), with heaps of really amazing Nosy Interviews that I'm so eager to share with you. (We've collected nearly 100! I'm also sitting on a small but marvelous backlog of interviews from sniffers in the U.S. and other parts of the globe--I haven't forgotten you either!).

Look what grows in Rwanda (floral arrangements by Ru, one of my very favorite visitors)

We return to the U.S. this week, and once I catch my breath I hope to deluge you with so many smells you'll be dizzy. Apologies to those who have provided such lovely interview responses only to have them languish for this long (fermenting nicely!), and to you, if you've come here lately hoping for some fresh smells only to find me wishing you a Happy New Year/Valentine's Day yet again. I do hope the first half of your 2014 has been fragrant, that beautiful flowers are blooming wherever you are, and that you'll stick with me even after this sorry stretch of blog-anosmia. A sneak preview of some of the smells people here have shared stories about: snake's breath, the flower that kills luck, clean riverbeds, sun-dried laundry, warm milk, and every smell you can imagine (and some you haven't yet) relating to cows. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

love you, stinkpots

Yow! Happy Valentine’s Day! What could be more romantic than the removal of the toilet in your home, exposing a vast waste-well that dwells just beneath the floor? It is tremendous, really, the smell of so much waste, and contrary to my hyperbolic moans and groans, and the speed with which I fled the scene, I suppose I still believe it is good to be reminded, once in a while, of the shit just beneath the antiseptic pink bathroom tiles. And this shit, forced as it is to linger in the city, underneath so much concrete, confronts with such force precisely because it is indoors, doesn’t even have the benefit of being surrounded on all sides by trees and breeze and grass and dirt and the shit of other animals, powering up the plants that fuel our future shits. [Updated to add: The source of the ongoing toilet drama turns out to be tree roots growing into, and blocking, the pipes. Know our power!, say the mighty trees, even as we rip out their roots.]

I smelled many amazing things in January. Some highlights:

Sniffin' hard
  • Early in January, my new friend Mario, who has been incredibly generous with his amazing olfactory knowledge, invited me to a cupping at the Starbucks Farmers' Training Center in Kigali. It was great fun to play around with the coffee notes kits, to sniff and slurp freshly-roasted coffee with expert cuppers, and to gain insight into how professional noses approach coffee. Mario stressed the importance of being able to differentiate between preference and description, something I struggle with when approaching complex aromas. My nose zooms right in on the notes I love (chocolate, maple syrup, and toast when it comes to the coffee I'm drinking most often these days), and I want to work on sussing out those notes that I don’t love so well.

    Mario in his element
  •  Mario, pictured above with an in-bloom coffee tree growing in his front yard, is also responsible for introducing me to the smell of a coffee flower. It was so beautiful! It smelled of jasmine and lilac, two flowers I adore, and I was swooning at the thought of encountering whole fields of these. Mario and Lucius, resident coffee geniuses, have both spent loads of time in just such fields, and their descriptions have propelled coffee-field-in-bloom to the top of my travel wishlist. 
  • I learned that the heady, crazy-making flowers in the previous post are called brugmansia, or, in Kinyarwanda, ikigogo/ikijojo, and that they can legitimately make you mad. (Thanks to Elizabeth and Diana for sharing your plant wisdom.)  
    Ice-chip-sized hail!
  • In late January, there was a freak hailstorm in Butare, amidst day after day of sunshine and near-90s weather. The ground near the National University was steaming as the huge pieces of hail melted, and this seemed to set off every fragrant plant in the area—my husband and I could smell blasts of eucalyptus and lemongrass from the car even with the windows rolled up. There was also a super-intense curry-like smell that reminded me very much of asafoetida. We found the scratchy little leaves that were giving off the hing-smell, and I'll endeavor to find out what the plant is called (when the leaves dried, they smelled much fruitier, almost plummy or currant-like. Nature is nuts!).
In spite of the hail, it's the short dry season in Rwanda, and this means the return of what I've come to think of as dusty B.O. The hot sun leads to sweatier humans, to be sure, but I think there's a particular bite to the B.O. that's mixing with so much kicked-up dust. It’s one of the first smell-changes I noticed in myself when I arrived in dusty Kigali last summer. I want to learn to embrace elements of this powerful stink, to again distinguish between preference and description, and to fight against the fact that I was, like many Americans, “born with deodorant in [my] hand.” (Click that link for great interview with Sissel Tolaas in Swallow magazine.) To understand a place, to know a person, you must smell them at their worst. Not that I think it’s possible to understand anywhere, to really know anyone, but the joy comes in the endeavor, the trek through all that shit.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

new year, new smells

Mwaka Mushya, Nosy Readers! I've neglected this space lately, but I’m still experiencing all sorts of new smells in Rwanda. We’ve relocated from Kigali to Huye/Butare, where the dusty red roads, rows of semi-abandoned storefronts, and legitimate cowboys give the place a real Wild West feel. But the people are warm, and Butare is home to the best ice cream and coffee in all of Rwanda (more on both in later posts), so it’s a good move. I will be back with new Nosy Interviews soon, but in the meantime, here are some of the best and worst things I’ve smelled in the last few weeks:

The best:
Image via Mallee Native Plants

  1. Eucalyptus seeds! Have you ever seen these? They look like darling vintage buttons, bell-shaped and clustered together, their star-shaped openings secreting the stickiest rich sweet smell of their seeds. I’ve had a dried cluster on my desk for a couple of weeks, and it still yields its plummy (more in terms of the color of the smell than the actual smell), tangy, resinous scent. Let’s hope I don’t get one of these gum nuts stuck in my nostril.
    (so overwhelmed by the scent that I've gone blurry)
  2. These yellow bell flowers! Their smell is totally insane! (That’s me above, standing under them, drunk with delight. Does anyone know what these are? I must get myself a field guide.) These bloom at dusk and in the evenings and they will give you a new understanding of the word intoxicating, their sexy indolic smell enough to make you wish to become one of the bugs or birds that goes bell to bell, helping these plants propagate.
    An inyambo gets scented up 
  3. It’s been far too long since we’ve discussed manure around these parts. I recently smelled some very fine dried and burning cow dung (royal cow dung) in Nyanza, where the royal herd is kept. The herders burn a huge stack of dried dung to keep flies away from the cows, and these majestic (and smart!) creatures come over and stand inches from the fire to season their skin with the smoke, and make its fly-repellent power last.
The worst:
  1. Burning tires/garbage still holds my top-spot for smells I like least in Rwanda. On a walk, my dear friend D. mentioned how the smell reminds her of her childhood, and because of this, she likes it. People are often surprised to learn that others like smells they consider gross: manure, gasoline, skunks. This might be the first time I joined in such surprise, and even though the odor of burning tires still makes me want to gag, I do think of it a bit differently since she shared her nostalgia with me.
  2. A new contender for grossest smell in Rwanda is the sausage-like aroma that rises up from one of the toilets in our new place (Welcome/warning, future houseguests!). Yesterday I think I came closest to an accurate description when I described it as ‘hot-rot turkey carcass.’ We’re working on it (both getting rid of the smell (me & my husband) and figuring out how best to describe it (mostly me, as he doesn’t think it’s quite as bad as I do—hopefully future houseguests will find they agree with him.)).
I’ll be back soon with some recommended reading and more notes on smells, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear about the best and worst things you’ve smelled so far in 2014.

Monday, December 23, 2013

a red smell after sudden rain

Kalahari Desert © Hentie Burger
It took me a long time to finish the remarkable Mating by Norman Rush, and even longer to stop wishing I were still reading it. I'm still calling up things I learned from the book in regular conversation, wondering for a moment who told me this or that, remembering, again, that it was no one I've met, but someone I do know well. Here is our unnamed narrator on a smell she can't forget: 
The smell of the Kalahari after sudden rain is something you never forget. What blooms up, especially when the sun gets to work, and even in cool-tending June weather, is an odor so powerful and so elusive that you want to keep inhaling it in order to make up your mind which it is, foul or sweet. It seems poised midway between the two poles. It’s resinous or like tar, and like the first smell of liver when it touches a hot pan. It fades as the dryness returns, and as it does you will it to persist until you can penetrate it. It’s also mineral. Nelson thought I was hyperventilating, until I explained. I think he said he agreed it was remarkable—I had gotten to the point of claiming the smell was red, or maroon, somehow—but that if he didn’t react as strongly as I did, there was a reason. I’ve been here longer than you, he said.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

kigaloween, and the tale of the scary spice

Kigaloween spirit 

Happy Halloween! Or Kigaloween, as I'm celebrating this year. The scariest smell of the week was definitely the overpowering olfactory force of the seeds of dozens of urusenda, or hot peppers (very hot peppers), that I was preparing for pili pili sauce (I followed these guidelines, plus olive oil and salt). Having been in Rwanda only three months, I am already at pains to tolerate a potato without the homemade hot sauce that's available at most restaurants. We use (and love) Akabanga and Sabana at home, but I wanted some of the fresh stuff, so I set about deseeding dozens of the beauties pictured below with the protection of some latex gloves (kindly provided by my friend and housemate, from her stash dedicated for use in archival research--who says it doesn't pay to live with graduate students?). I was not prepared for the power of these seeds! (My hands may have been, but my nose, throat, eyes, and brain were unguarded.) Even the next day--when the bulk of the seeds had been discarded, but a few remained, along with the peppers, waiting for the superglue to dry on the food processor (owned by that same beloved, well-prepared researcher)--everyone who entered the kitchen came away crying and coughing. 

My apologies, housemates! Please enjoy the hot sauce in the fridge, now de-weaponized. 

So I have even more sympathy than I otherwise might for the residents of Irwindale, California, who have filed a suit against Huy Fong Foods, maker of the indispensable Sriracha (and, even more delicious in my estimation, chili garlic sauce): 
...[In] Irwindale, where the hot sauce’s production facilities are, residents are complaining of burning eyes, irritated throats and headaches caused by a powerful, painful odor that the city says appears to be emanating from the factory during production. The smell is so aggressive that one family was forced to move a birthday party indoors after the spicy odor descended on the festivities, said Irwindale City Atty. Fred Galante.

The spicy odor descended! This is the kind of smell news I savor. I can just see the ghoulish little phantasm of a fiery pepper (probably baring teeth similar to those pictured on the pumpkin above) snaking into this celebration, forcing everyone to clutch their party hats and run inside with their cake. A judge will decide whether Huy Fong must "stop production until the smell can be reduced,"and I suspect I speak for hot sauce lovers worldwide when I say I hope the company and the city can come to a speedy resolution. Huy Fong produces 20 million bottles of Sriracha each year, and it's certainly scary to imagine all the foods out there, counting on that delicious spice, remaining bland in its absence.  

fall harvest

Kigali kindly provides some relief for my leaf-longing. 

Autumn offerings from talented Nosy Interviewees: 

Jesmyn Ward's memoir, Men We Reaped, is out now, and it's every bit as harrowing, gorgeous, and essential as early rave reviews have suggested. Here's a scent-related fragment from Jesmyn's essay honoring the memory of Trayvon Martin, as well as her brother, Joshua: 
"I don't know if I imagined it or not, but his dog seemed quieter, subdued after my brother died, as if he spent his days wondering where his owner, the tall boy with butter yellow skin who smelled like coconut oil and hay burned fragrant in the sunshine, went."
Frequent collaborators Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney have a new chapbook, The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go, available now from Hyacinth Girl Press. Here's one line from a suite of five smart, lovely poems you can read at Nailed:  
Don’t start thinking about how smells smell to anyone else. You’ll only start freaking out about the limitations of knowledge.
Kate Lebo has a very exciting year in store (and, woah, a gorgeous new web site! Perhaps you can meet Kate on her tour in support of A Commonplace Book of Pie) and her poem, Rhubarb, the Green Age will appear in the fall issue of Gastronomica. The first two stanzas: 

          What puckered honey was potted last fall,
          its rootball a muddy peach, split dead 

          center and buried to kindle a pair 
          of pie plants. What bitterleaf 

My nosiness most certainly extends into (perhaps excessive) interest in the contents of people's handbags (and refrigerators and medicine cabinets), so I was delighted to get a peek into Katie Puckrik's purse, and read the accompanying interview, which includes this ringing & tingling endorsement of Safran Troublant (a favorite of my own main squeeze): 
I love turning people onto the off-beat seductive powers of Safran Troublant by L'Artisan Parfumeur. With its saffron, rose, vanilla and sandalwood, Disturbing Saffron is an unusual variation on a gourmand. And sexxxaaaayyyy....hoo boy. Put it this way: in ancient Rome, the expression 'sleeping on a bed of saffron' referred to a long hard night of making whoopee. 
Rebecca Hoogs and Maggie MK Hess have beautiful poems in the Fall 2013 issue of FIELD. What luck that you can read two of these poems online! But FIELD clearly has very good taste in poets, so you may also wish to order the issue. (You'll get a bonus poem by Rebecca!) The first two stanzas of Maggie MK's poem, "Role Play": 

Let's be lesser known suns.
You love me up close and I'll love you
from over here. We'll be ok if our legs 
are strong against the horse. Oh, quick,
quick, he's getting away. Let's rub
our noses until we smell of home.

Not available online, but so worth seeking out, are Britta Ameel's amazing poems in the September/October 2103 issue of The American Poetry Review. Here is the opening of "Self-Portrait with Planet and Hypothetical," one of my favorite poems by Britta (one of my favorite poems, full-stop): 
Yes, my body, my boss, my blood, yes,
my sucking heart. The world radiates
forth in its phosphorescent slump. 
Nosy friends and former interviewees, please let me know if you have something to add to this fall bounty! 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Nosy Interview: Saskia Wilson-Brown

Saskia in NGC 2170: Celestial Still Life, © Ignacio Diaz Bobillo

Saskia is the fearless founder of the awesomely innovative Institute for Art and Olfaction. If you're in the Los Angeles area, you should definitely check out their events and stop in for an open session. No matter where you are, I recommend nosing around (how could I resist?) the IAO website and liking their Facebook page (they post great links!), and not just because I'm proud to be have their support for my nosy research in Rwanda. You can find and follow Saskia (and the IAO) on Twitter, too. 

What do you smell like?  
Right now it's Sunday night, and I think I smell like a day well lived: Sun baked skin, myriad bits of displaced leaves and grass, steer manure (unfortunately hard to remove), a smidge of 'Jeux de Peau' by Serge Lutens, and, inevitably, coffee and cigarettes. Every perfume I buy has to compete with a base of cigarette smoke. It's a unique challenge, but I like to tell myself it makes my life a little more Brigitte Bardot. 

So let's just say I smell like Brigitte Bardot (minus the steer manure: I sincerely doubt she gardened).


What do you like to smell? 
Other than the obvious pleasant smells like flowers and frying onions and such, some smells I've always loved are: Los Angeles after it rains (steaming cement, basically: strangely earthy), sandalwood, grapefruits, tacos, an art studio (oil paints make me nostalgic), chlorine, an empty ski run in freezing weather (solitude!), cigarette smoke after an especially long meeting, jet fuel, the nape of my husband's neck... 

What I always enjoy spending nose-time on is an unfolding idea. I've never had a hyper-developed nose like so many folks who are into scent. For me it's been an extremely strange process of learning how to identify and put words onto what I'm smelling. But the concepts behind the scents are what really get me. When someone is using scent as an art medium, and can use elements in a symbolic way-- when a perfume becomes an illustration of a concept or a story. So I guess I love the smell of a good story.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

like rocks long for rain

Is it possible I learned the word petrichor from Tumblr? I believe I can thank Tumblr for both leading me to believe the lovely word referred to the scent of any and all earth after rain, and for teaching me that it's, more specifically, the smell of rain on dry earth. Petrichor, according to Wikipedia, is "the scent of rain on dry earth, or the scent of dust after rain. The word is constructed from Greek, petros, meaning stone + ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. It is defined as 'the distinctive scent which accompanies the first rain after a long warm dry spell.'" According to Scientific American, "Petrichor was first described in 1964 by mineralogists Isabel Joy Bear and R. G. Thomas...As they defined it, it occurs when airborne molecules from decomposing plant or animal matter become attached to mineral or clay surfaces. During a dry spell, these molecules chemically recombine with other elements on a rock's surface. Then when the rains came, the redolent combination of fatty acids, alcohols and hydrocarbons is released."

Our street corner (before the rains) in Kigali 

Petrichor is on my mind and in the air so much lately, here in Kigali. When we arrived it was so dry and dusty that the insides of my nostrils, when I tried to blow them clean at night, would be sometimes clogged with the same red dirt from the roads. Now the rainy season is beginning, and the wet fresh smell rising from all those stones and clay after rain is one of the very best things about being here. If you've gotten an e-mail from me lately, it's likely contained a lament about how much I'll miss fall, my favorite season, all those smoky, caramelly, woolly, crunchy-leaf smells. Petrichor may prove to be my consolation. Though it's not salty, it has the same calming effect as sea air I've smelled and loved in New England and the Pacific Northwest. Everything in the air here changes after these heavy rains--the light, the weight, the sounds. Things turn dark green and then golden and the smell is close to chlorinated, but with none of the burn. I will long for autumn as I’ve always known it, but feel lucky for the chance to fall in love with this new (to me) season’s smell also, all that wet clean rock, all that dark rushing road.