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November 24, 2014

Book Notes - Mandy Aftel "Fragrant"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Mandy Aftel's Fragrant is a fascinating mixture of history and personal anecdotes about perfume and the role scent plays in our lives.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"In this sensuous and profound exploration of the history, science, and art of perfume, expert perfumer Aftel (Essence and Alchemy) seduces readers with an sensualism that only intensifies as her stories unfold."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Mandy Aftel's Book Notes music playlist for her book Fragrant:

For the twenty years that I've been creating perfume, I have always without fail done it listening to loud music. I do the same when I write. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, loud music helps me to go deeper inside myself.

Perfume has a lot in common with music: perfume follows a musical metaphor, in which individual "notes" of scents are arranged into "chords" of fragrance.

Also, like many musicians, I create perfume to try to capture a memory or experience. My hope is that the person who buys it has a similar experience smelling it. And as with music, perfume (at least perfume made from the complex, ephemeral natural essences, which are all I work with) plays through and then is gone, is by its very nature here and not here.

The songs that I chose here, as a kind of soundtrack for my latest book, Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent, are all about desire and loss. I was living in a lost world while I wrote Fragrant—a world of beauty and mystery and longing. The deep wells of passion in the music I listened to spoke to me of those lost world that were still so alive to me.

"New Danville Girl," Bob Dylan, Genuine Bootleg Series Vol 1 Disc 3
This is a "take to a desert island" kind of song -- eleven and a half minutes of longing, regret and broken-heartedness. Although I find it almost impossible to believe that Bob Dylan has been dumped by anyone, he certainly knows how to draw a scale map of that territory. There are two versions of this song: The later and better-known is "Brownsville Girl (Knocked Out Loaded)." This very raw earlier version is a rambling epic in which the singer mourns the lost love of a woman of the old West: "You know I can't believe we've lived so long and are still so far apart."

"The Window," Leonard Cohen, Field Commander Cohen
This quietly beautiful song is like a religious vision. I don't totally understand it, but it is one of those songs that enters you like a fragrance, the phrases like "the rose on its ladder of thorns" and "lost in the rages of fragrance."

"Born in Time," Bob Dylan, Genuine Bootleg Series Vol 2 (Disc 3)
Dylan sings of the intensity and volatility of love, "Where the ways of nature will test every nerve, you don't get anything you deserve." Writing this book was like having simultaneous love affairs with the five scents I was writing about – cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine. I thought about them all the time, the way you obsessively think of a lover. But this song also reminds me of how scent, like love, exists in time, comes and goes like a whisper.

"Can't Wait," Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind
This is the ultimate song about the frailty of reason in the face of emotion, particularly when your heart is broken: "If I ever saw you coming, I don't know what I would to/I'd like to think I could control myself, but it isn't true/That's how it is when things disintegrate." I don't know who has delineated more achingly the thin veneer that overlies our most intense feelings.

"San Andreas Fault," Natalie Merchant, Live in Concert
I have had a long love affair with Northern California, and this song nails for me its beauty and inherent fragility. As Natalie Merchant sings, "Go west, Paradise is there, You'll have all that you can eat, The milk an' honey over there." And then the fault that runs through the center of things: "Build a dream, An' watch it all fall down."

"River Man," Nick Drake, Five Leaves Left
Not even sure what it's about, just has this broody vibe about things that take place on the edges of life. Just like perfume, it creates his rich atmosphere you can sink right down into, with a sweet, lilting undercurrent. It's timeless, as fresh now as it was over forty years ago.

"Lake Charles," Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on Gravel Road
A great song about loss, infused with the languid richness and decay of the bayou country. The deep sense of place that goes with knowing someone or something intimately reminds me of the deep way I know my essences. And the head-on sensuality of Lucinda's voice and words—the fierce sense of looking what is in the face--counterbalances the pain of losing someone who has given up.

"Up to Me," Bob Dylan, Biograph
This song is like a world in a bottle and is redolent of fragrance itself: "I've only got one good shirt left and it smells of stale perfume," and "Orchids are in bloom." With deceptive simplicity, the song turns around the three little two-letter words of the title like a prism held up to the light, making rainbows from different angles: "And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free/No one else could play that tune, you know it was up to me."
That last line inspired me through the writing of Fragrant, reminding me how no one but me could write what I had to say.

"Most of the Time," Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs [Disc 1]
A song about pretending you've gotten over a wounding loss, acting like you're not broken. It's about the way things disappear and how you cope with that knowledge: "I don't cheat on myself, I don't run and hide/
Hide from the feelings that are busied inside/I don't compromise and I don't pretend/I don't even care if I see her again/Most of the time."

"A Thousand Kisses Deep," Leonard Cohen, Ten New Songs
A song about things that don't last, but are unforgettable. This is so inspiring to me about what beautiful fragrance can do: it's profound, and then it melts and disappears. "The ponies run, the girls are young, the odds are there to beat": this is what life is—the moment of youth, the betting, the loving—and then it's over. It feels like it will last, but it doesn't.

"My Band," Eminem and D12 (explicit) D12 World
I just love this song and the way it makes fun of everything. Its funny, unbridled, in-your-face energy is a shot in the arm about being free and expressing yourself, without taking yourself too seriously.

Mandy Aftel and Fragrant links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Bookforum review
Columbus Dispatch review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Birschbox interview with the author
Dinner Party Download interview with the author
Huffington Post profile of the author
Los Angeles Times profile of the author
San Francisco Chronicle profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists