My Back Pages: Perfume in “A Little Life”

I recently read Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life. (Many thanks to my friend T. for lending me her copy!) I’m not going to write an actual review; in any case, I’m still sorting out my thoughts about this compelling and troubling (and very long) book.

However, I did want to share one observation I made towards the end of the novel—a perfume-related thought! (If you haven’t yet read A Little Life and you don’t want any potential spoilers, you may wish to stop here.)

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My Back Pages: Bluebells in “Rebecca” (and at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden)

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This week I made a visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Bluebell Wood, just in time to catch the bluebells before they start to fade away. This corner of the garden always reminds me of Manderley in Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.

“Too early yet for blue bells, their heads were still hidden beneath last-year’s leaves, but when they came, dwarfing the more humble violet, they choked the very bracken in the woods, and with their colour made a challenge to the sky.

He never would have them in the house, he said. Thrust into vases they became dank and listless, and to see them at their best you must walk in the woods in the morning, about twelve o’clock, when the sun is overhead. They had a smoky, rather bitter smell, as though a wild sap ran in their stalks, pungent and juicy. People who plucked bluebells from the woods were vandals, he had forbidden it at Manderley…”

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My Back Pages: Scent and Sound in John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”

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When I was writing my recent review of LUSH’s Tender is the Night massage bar (scented with jasmine, ylang ylang, and vanilla!) I looked up John Keats’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale” in order to refresh my memory about the phrase that gives this product its name. Well, LUSH actually names F. Scott Fitzgerald as the source, but he was borrowing from Keats!

“…tender is the night,
         And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
                Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays…”

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My Back Pages: Perfume in “Hail, Hail Camp Timberwood”

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From the ages of ten to thirteen, I was fanatical about Ellen Conford’s fiction. Throughout junior high school, I read and re-read every book that she had written for young adults, reveling in her writing style as much as her stories about the everyday ups and downs of teen life.

Some of my favorites in the Conford oeuvre were Seven Days to a Brand New Me and We Interrupt This Semester for an Important Bulletin—I even presented an oral book report on the latter title to my sixth-grade language arts class. One Conford novel that has been on my mind over the past few weeks, as I’ve watched the local children and pre-teens return from summer camp, is Hail, Hail Camp Timberwood (1978).

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My Back Pages: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

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I can’t really think of anything to say about Andy Warhol that hasn’t already been said. I’ll just state that I do think he was a cultural prophet of our times, and I enjoy his art and his words (including The Andy Warhol Diaries, which took me months and months, just a few pages every night before bed, but was completely worth the time). I recently came across this quotation about fragrance in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), which I hadn’t flipped through in ages.

“I really love wearing perfume. I’m not exactly a snob about the bottle a cologne comes in, but I am impressed with a good-looking presentation. It gives you confidence when you’re picking up a well-designed bottle. I switch perfumes all the time. If I’ve been wearing one perfume for three months, I force myself to give it up, even if I still feel like wearing it, so whenever I smell it again it will always remind me of those three months. I never go back to wearing it again; it becomes part of my permanent smell collection.”

My Back Pages: Perfume in “Bergdorf Blondes”

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In 2003 I moved back to New York after living in other states for graduate school and work. Things had changed during the decade I was away. I’m nearing the ten-year anniversary of that return, and I’m remembering how surprised I was by certain things that women my age were suddenly saying and doing. They had made manicures a weekly routine, rather than a luxury for special occasions. They teetered through their daily commutes in stiletto heels. They freely discussed their Brazilian waxes on their cell phones in public. They wore 3-carat engagement rings. And they were reading novels from a sub-genre nicknamed “chick lit.”

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My Back Pages: Emily Dickinson, “I tend my flowers for thee —“

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It’s almost Spring (really! soon!) and the green leaf-tips and purple-edged buds of crocus flowers have been peeping up from the dirt in front-yard garden patches along my street.

For me, no writer conveys the anticipation of each changing season as well as Emily Dickinson. I love Dickinson’s poem beginning with the line “I tend my flowers for thee —,” especially this flower-filled stanza, which evokes the fragrance of a garden in bloom:

Carnations — tip their spice —

And Bees — pick up —

A Hyacinth — I hid —

Puts out a ruffled head —

And odors fall —

From flasks — so small —

You wonder how they held —

You can read the rest of the poem here. (Of course, it holds deeper layers of interpretation!) You might also enjoy this discussion of garden imagery in Dickinson’s work, here.