I’ve been putting off sitting down to write reviews of The Last Unicorn Collection from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab because I keep thinking to myself, “but I’ve got to find my copy of the book, first!”! I’m not sure why that was such an important prerequisite, it’s not like I was planning on reading it again (I’ve got too many other books I’m promised to!) Maybe I wanted to take a photo of it next to these perfumes for the featured image of this post. That probably would have looked nice.
Well, I took a moment today to search my shelves and as it happens, I don’t own a copy of The Last Unicorn. What I found instead is a paperback copy of Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place. Did I ever own The Last Unicorn? Was it paperback or hardback? Where did it come from? Did I give it away? Was it among the items I lost in a flood in 2011, a month before I moved from New Jersey back to Florida? Does it even matter?
I don’t think it does. If I am being honest, my memories of The Last Unicorn stem from the movie, not the book–which was released in 1982, when I would have been six years old or so. And let me tell you, at that age, it scared the crap out of me. For many years after, if I thought about the film–which I tried not to–my sole recollection was of The Red Bull, a distressingly oppressive, lurid entity which was straight-up nightmare fuel (and to a lesser extent, also that talking skeleton!)
It took me many, many years to rewatch it. I must have been well into my 30s! But now it’s been part of my annual viewing every year since; it’s so beautifully crafted in that pleasurably melancholy way that I was susceptible to even as a child and encompassed fantasy both joyful and sorrowful, with heroes and quests, and there’s redemption and transcendence–all of those storybook things that I love best, have loved forever. My acceptance of and obsession with terrifying and monstrous things like the Red Bull was to come later!
Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab initially released their The Last Unicorn collection several years ago back in 2010. I purchased a few of the original bottles, but sadly, these too were things lost in the flood. I was elated to learn that some of these fragrances were released this past June and am so pleased to have the opportunity to revisit and reconnect with them once more. And the more I think of it, the more I do need to hunt down a copy and reread The Last Unicorn, looming TBR stacks be damned!
Mommy Fortuna (Honey, gunpowder, dried herbs and pleonectic, twopenny magics) Cheap carnival tricks and homemade horrors cobbled together with rusty nails and sticky, syrupy dark wildflower honey. The peppery smoke from an ashen pile of herbs at this poppet’s feet provides the wordless spell that animates it; once the vapors dissipate, it sleeps once more.
Schmendrick (sweet, raw tobacco leaves, chamomile, clary sage, meadow sage, Mysore sandalwood, sultana raisins, and caramel). I inhale this scent and my heart instantly hears “I know you. I’d be blind and I’d know what you are.” Schmendrick brings me to tears. An earthy, woodsy, deeply aromatic tobacco leaf, vanilla-y, apple-y chamomile, and a thoughtful, pruney musk.
The Butterfly (fuzzy brown tonka bean, golden amber, bergamot, nutmeg, and petitgrain) The Butterfly is fizzy and effervescent, somehow both airy and earthy, the petitgrain so lemony and peppery, and the amber so honeyed…they’re so sweet and playful together. In the bottle, it’s deeply loamy–that sweet, dark, earthy scent that I love so very much!– but on the skin, the scent lightens in such a strange way that has to do with the absence of shadow more than any direct brightness. It is velvety and opulent but it’s finery worn in jest. P.S. I hate to compare perfumes to other perfumes overmuch, it feels a little lazy, so don’t think of this as a comparison, but rather if you like X, you may dig Y. In the dry-down of The Butterfly, there’s some milky-musky-powderiness of an old, beautiful thing stored behind glass, that reminds me quite a bit of Antique Lace. Do with that information as you will!
The Last Unicorn (frosty lilac petals, iris pallida root, orris, violet leaf, white chocolate, coconut, wild lettuce, white sandalwood, white gardenia and oakmoss). This is a deliriously ethereal, gauzy, gossamer slip of a scent, with that wintry, woody orris and the aqueous verdancy of the lettuce, and the white quartz, snow-melt nip of chilled water with the tiniest bite of bitterness, the last drop in an icy chalice of sorrow. But there’s a carnal quality there, too, of worldly concerns and sensual delights, like…cupcakes. A mild cocoa butter creaminess and a milky nuttiness coalesce to form a tiny mythical gateau, a small frosted treat with a floral crumb, sprinkled with a scattering of star shards– that one might leave out to lure magical creatures… fairies or pixies… or even unicorns.
The Lilac Wood (ageless trees, everblooming flowers, brilliant grass, a flicker of fireflies, and soft shadows) There are so many *perfect* scents in this collection, but every time I sniff the uncanny geography of The Lilac Wood I think, ah, this, THIS is the one! Green sap and misty grass, peaceful, delicate moss, emerald ferns, and the wistful dreams of flowers in a patch of shade underneath the old ash tree with the lightning-riven trunk. This is so, so beautiful. I want to wear it with this dress, all the time.
Lindsey Lou (@the_sick_rose_ on Instagram) won a copy of The Art of the Occult several months ago and patiently waited for her copy. She conjured this fabulous photoshoot over on her account today and I was absolutely floored by her thoughtful lensing of my little book goblin and all of the nice things she said about it. As the title of this post asserts, it is PERFECT, and I am DEAD.
You can see the rest of the imagery over on her account and I highly suggest you take a peek. She has a marvelous eye for mystical details and her Instagram account is absolutely brimming with dark, magical imagery and energies!
Last weekend I spent time with both of my sisters, in the flesh, for the first time in over three years. It was only a long weekend and while there will never be enough time to mend the ragged holes of sisterly absence that continue to fissure our hearts, it did offer a temporary balm and the reminder that the blood bonds shared between these weirdos is pretty strong, and we’re gonna be okay.
On one of those evenings, we thought we might divine the answers to some of our most pressing questions with tarot cards that I most shamefully never use. I confess, I just like to look at the art! Tarot is something I’ve tried to learn about over the years, but I always find something more high-priority, more interesting, that diverts my attention. “One day…” I’ll probably still be saying about it, even on my deathbed.
But just because I’m not terribly knowledgeable about the practice, doesn’t mean I won’t shuffle a deck from time to time to see what the cards want to tell me. I interpret the images very literally and apply what I see to my question, and while that probably doesn’t offer much in the way of nuanced insight, it’s a place to start, right? And then I may consult a book or two because despite what I may have said, I still want to learn…I’m just not making much of a concerted effort. So we each pulled a card, had a think, and tried to come up with some possible ideas.
Mine was interesting. I didn’t have a specific question in mind, but among other things, the card that came to me indicated disappointment and the feelings that come when things go differently as you expected. Ooooof. That is something I struggle with. I always have. I have a desired outcome firmly (one might say “rigidly”, even) set in mind from the outset of a thing, and if things veer off course I become overwhelmed and frantic and despondent. Or… awfully sulky at the very least. I took this as a sign that this rigidity, this inflexibility, this sulky-sullen-glum-“nothing is ever going to be okay again” attitude I immediately take is something I need to look at. And come at the situation differently. Adjust and adapt and let go of attachments and all that sort of thing. I’m sure it has something to do with a “grateful heart.”
(If that sounds a bit snarky or snotty, I am sorry. Read a little further and you’ll find out why I am a little grumpy.)
In the week after our visit, I fell back into my regular routine and thought about that card periodically, but you don’t have to work very hard at adjusting your expectations while things are going well. I met a major book deadline, I submitted an article and I had bunches of plans and projects for the weekend. Then I learned that in the midst of our state not doing particularly well during this pandemic, setting new records–the bad kind– daily as a matter of fact, my boss wants me to drive to the other side of Florida and attend an in-person luncheon. Ugh! Really? Right now?!? Well, I like having a job, so I guess I’ll do that if I have to. I hadn’t been planning on it, but it will be fine. It will be fine.
The next day our AC stopped working. At the end of July. In Florida. Just…spectacularly awful timing. Two days later the AC repair guy was finally able to come out and have a look, and as it happens, the whole system is done-for. We have to get it entirely replaced…and it will be one-and-a-half to three weeks before they can even get started due to a parts shortage (and I just did a quick Google search to make sure I hadn’t imagined that portion of the conversation, but that’s real, it’s a thing.)
So. Not filming a little video for YouTube this weekend. Not making a blackberry cornmeal cake for Lammas. Or any of the other little kitchen or garden or knitting putterings or perfume testing or book research that I had hoped to do. Instead, we went out and spent close to $1000 on portable AC units to cool our 90 degree home to a more tolerable 82 degrees. And then we sat in front of those noisy machines and proceeded to do nothing for the next six hours before going to bed at 9pm on a Saturday night.
When I get overheated at night, I tend to have nightmares, and sure enough, at 1:29am this morning, I woke Yvan up terrified, because “the executive portraits were climbing off the walls and crawling into our bed.” So…21 more nights of that? Wheeeeee…!
That’s a cake I made two weekends ago. It’s a chocolate cake with an espresso buttercream frosting, and I was attempting to redeem myself for a chocolate cake I made a year ago for Yvan’s birthday, and which did not turn out so well. We couldn’t even get it out of the bundt pan (I think using a bundt pan was my first mistake) so we just spooned it right out of the pan into a separate bowl of frosting and it was delicious anyway. That was actually a good way to work with that disappointment, past-Sarah! Anyway, I thought I might give it another go and this one turned out beautifully.
The month before, I made a lavender and lemon verbena tea cake for the summer solstice. I can’t remember what recipe I used, but you could use these herbs in any tea cake or pound cake recipe and it would probably work out well! And this cake has nothing to do with learning lessons or letting go, but it was a nice picture!
This is a shawl I’ve knit once before. It’s a relatively simple pattern, but this time around maybe I wasn’t paying attention to how far along I was and I bound off a bit early. It’s tiny! You can’t get a real sense of scale from this photo, but I am fairly broad-shouldered and this should be quite a bit larger. I was so mad at the time, but I’ve simmered down, since. I guess it could work as a more bandana-like scarf? A shawl for one of my pixie-sized friends? A bit of gift-wrapping the next time I send a surprise or a treat to someone? I’ll work it out. It will be fine.
A quartet of meals from the past month which actually turned out great and about which I have no complaint:
Misfits Market is finally delivering to our area, so in between making a pot of slop on the weekend (“slop” being a catch-all for some sort of soup or stew or casserole we can reheat all week long) I’ve been reveling in making some fun weeknight recipes with the produce in the delivery box. So far there have been only a few squished tomatoes, but that resulted in the inspiration to make one of my favorite eggplant dishes, so that worked out, anyway!
When I first realized I had to scrap all my plans for the weekend, my first thought was “oh! well! I’ll just do a bunch of reading!” After all, Goodreads was just haranguing me because I am two books behind in my yearly challenge, and it’s possible that I think about books and I talk about books more often than I actually read them. So this was a great opportunity to get caught up, right? However, it became quite clear, very quickly, that in this heat it was impossible to lift my fingers to turn a page, let alone concentrate on the slippery words dancing in front of my eyes. That could also be due to the fact that I literally can’t see very far in front of my face. Or too close to my face. It might be time for bifocals or transition lenses or whatever. Anyway, I put the book down.
So…I have done a lot of nothing this weekend. Well, that’s not true. We ordered in nachos and drank very icy drinks and watched Fellowship of the Ring for probably the 250th time. That’s our “it’s the middle of the summer and it’s too hot to live” marathon pick, and the timing seemed appropriate.
As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve been overcompensating for being told I was a lazy child, and in believing that, I became a teenager who was scared to even start anything because apparently, I was so lazy I’d never be able to keep up with it, and I grew into an adult with all kinds of anxieties about productivity and perfectionism and finally, in my 40’s, I think I have developed a fear of stillness. I say I’m someone who is laid back and go-with-the-flow, but I’ve realized that has to do with my relationships with others, and less with myself. I will tell you that there’s no rush, it’s not urgent, it’s no problem, don’t stress yourself out about it, but I don’t extend that same grace to myself. And so everything (from blackberry cakes and YouTube videos and blog posts to deadlines that I am actually contractually obligated to meet) has the same end-of-the-world sense of urgency. And while all of that does stress me out me out terribly…isn’t that “I’ve gotta do all the things or I will quite literally die!” energy still better than being the lazy person that everyone says I was? Hm, Sarah. Is it?
But I’m tired. And hot. And maybe I need a break. And maybe it’s ok that nothing from my to-do list gets done this weekend. And maybe that card and imagery and whatever all else is wrapped up in whatever I was seeking an answer for…was telling me that I need to examine some things I have been hanging on to for such a long time. Those old hurts and fears and issues don’t have to shape my every reaction and attitude and behavior for the rest of my life.
I am feeling the need to wrap up this missive. Despite those little AC units cranking overtime and doing their best, they are in other rooms, and my office here is a sauna. But to totally screw up that metaphor…I have run out of steam.
A gathering of death-related links that I have encountered in the past month or so. From heart-rending to gut-splitting (sometimes you gotta laugh, you know?) from informative to insightful to sometimes just downright weird and creepy, here’s a snippet of recent items that have been reported on or journaled about with regard to death, dying, and matters of mortality.
In August of 2017, I am pretty sure that Kjersti Faret of Cat Coven and I were within 5 feet of each other at the Salem Night Market… but I was too shy to introduce myself. I had been an admirer of Kjersti’s weird feminist magics in the form of art prints, decor, and soft, drapey tee shirts for some time, and I would loved to have told her how happy her witchy, whimsical, sometimes medieval-inspired creatures make my heart feel whenever I peek in at her new work. There’s always an element of fierce, feral joyousness to her illustrations that turns any spooky, serious, goth expectations you might have of this kind of art right on its head. It’s delightfully surprising while at the same time exploring fascinating facets of art history, queerness, and the occult, resulting in such a unique blend of tender oddball darkness and wonder.
Needless to say, I love Kjersti’s art and perspective and am delighted that she has answered a few questions for us at Unquiet Things today. See below for our Q&A where we ruminate on art-witchery and exploring the unknown parts of one’s self, the urge to create delicious weirdness measured against the bitter pill of capitalism, and the magic of setting aside time for one’s self amidst a hectic hustle.
Your imagery focuses greatly on your heritage, your queer perspective, the occult, art history, feminism, and of course–cats! How do these ideas and attitudes and points of view meet in your art?
I’m struggling to answer this question because I don’t really know. They just are such a strong part of me that I automatically include them. As I accept my queerness more, it flows into the work. If I’m reading more fairytales or mythology, they’ll seep into my work as well. Whatever I’m currently meditating on in the back of my mind is what goes onto the paper. I suppose because I use a lot of my personal work to explore unknown sides of myself, it just naturally comes out and drifts into my commercial work as well.
You describe yourself as an “art witch”–which I LOVE. If it is something you are comfortable speaking on (as I realize practice can be a very private thing!) do you consider your art and the creation of it to be your main magical practice or do you do magical workings outside of your artistic practice? Is it all very much tied together for you, or are they separate things, with their own corresponding rituals and such?
Yes, they are very tied together. I do some things separate from art-making, but it’s like 90% art-making. It’s either very meditative or very frenzied, depending on the day. Creating art in a frenzied way means I sort of set up my “safe space” (like opening a circle, if you will) and free myself up mentally. I put on specific music and go into a trance-like state and let the mediums – whether it’s graphite, gouache, ink or whatever – do the talking for me.
A lot of times I don’t know exactly what I will create, and it comes out spontaneously. Like I mentioned previously, I like exploring the depths of my mind to find hidden gems I may not have known before. Other times, I have a clear image of what I want to make that just “pops” into my head and it’s trial and error until I have replicated it in the real world. After meditating a bit this usually happens. I’ve been doing a lot more guided meditations lately and I get very strong visualizations for new projects after doing this. Sometimes I will start creating right away, other times I let it sit for a few days and make sure it’s worth pursuing.
I have a tendency to get very excited by a new idea and then run out of steam halfway through. I’m learning patience and that I have a limited time to pursue projects, so I can only complete those which demand to be made. It feels like performing a ritual to set an intention. That’s how I treat certain artworks I do. I am taking this intangible thing and giving it physical form. The process of making the piece also helps me internalize the concepts and/or process uncomfortable emotions.
Speaking of rituals, do you have any–either magical or mundane– that you engage in to set the mood for creating?
I have to listen to very specific playlists to get in the right state of mind. I am trying to get my consciousness to hit that sweet spot between intentional yet open to spontaneity and chance. Right now it’s movie/TV show soundtracks, which can range from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, How to Train your Dragon to Outlander (basically fantasy music is perfect for setting the vibe, or anything by Bear McCreary). Or it’s a playlist I made filled with nostalgic pop songs circa 2012, because that was a very significant year for me. Also working at night is a special time for creating. I don’t get to do it very often because I like to sleep, but I will push myself every now and then to stay awake and create sometime, from like 12 – 2 AM, because somehow the world is quieter and more magical then.
This is a very specific question, I hope you don’t mind! You recently(ish) shared a little papercut goddess over on Instagram, which I believe you made for yourself. First, I love to see when artists keep their own work …I mean, maybe that happens more often than I realize, and just no one talks about it! I read somewhere recently, an artist on TikTok I think, how they asserted that artists have NO obligation to sell their work to anyone, and I think that’s a powerful statement and also something that doesn’t get discussed often.
But that’s not even the point of my question, I am getting sidetracked! You mentioned that this personal piece was not one goddess in particular, but rather an amalgamation of several favorites. I’d love to hear about your favorite goddesses/deities and how they inform and inspire your creative practice and even your life, in general…!
Oof, okay. Loaded question! I’ve always made art for myself. I think that’s how we all start, us artists, we love drawing in our childhood and if it gets encouraged, then you either pursue it professionally because you want a “job you love” or you do it on the side, eventually lose time because life happens and you stop creating. If you chose the “job you love” path, then you either focus so much on hustling commercial work that there is creative burnout for other work, or your “personal work” gets mixed up into your commercial work, and you are selling every bit of yourself to scrape by.
Can you tell I’m bitter about capitalism? Anyway, yes, this is all related to your question because I feel a split between my “professional” work over at Cat Coven and my “personal” artwork, which is that goddess piece. I love constantly growing and experimenting, but that is not encouraged when doing product work because you want to establish a recognizable brand. And while I do have fun drawing the things I do for Cat Coven, it is not necessarily what I would spend my time making if I didn’t have bills. I’d probably make a hell of a lot more weird inaccessible, existential art that would get maybe 10 likes on instagram.
The past few years I’ve really tried to get back into having separate personal work that feels fulfilling in my soul. I’ve dedicated my life to art because it is the language through which I can express myself best and understand the world around me. The only way I could practice it every day was by incorporating it into my job. When I draw things for Cat Coven, I am always tweaking and learning my style and getting better at drawing skeletons, cats, etc, which I can then use in my Important Work.
That being said, I am also in the process of rebranding Cat Coven to align more with who I am now and what I enjoy now as a 28-year-old, since I feel like a very different person than when I was in college and began my business.
Anyway, the goddesses! My “gateway goddess” was Freyja. I made one or two artworks years ago that were about her. I was drawn to her first because of my Norwegian heritage. Recently I’ve been drawn to Inanna and Ishtar. I don’t remember how they first captured my interest, but here I am. The “goddess” piece you referenced was mainly inspired by her. There’s a bit of Lilith in there too. I suppose it’s not just goddesses, because I was also thinking of Medusa (hence the snake hair), but any mythological archetype really.
While of course, I am always interested to hear about the work of your art and why you do what you do, I am also keen to hear about your rituals of rest and relaxation. How do you replenish your creativity and feed your soul when you’re not working on Cat Coven projects? It should be noted that this question is inspired by the joyful Renfaire photos of you and your wife that you sometimes share on social media, back when we could do such things 🙂
Haha, I’m glad you think I relax! Just kidding, I do and I am definitely getting better at it. It’s something that’s been a long time in the making. I used to have terrible work/life boundaries, just sitting on my bed in my first apartment after college, sewing tiny embroideries until midnight to put on Etsy. The past few years I began to align myself with my wife’s working hours, who works a “normal” scheduled job, which makes it easier to say “ok it’s time to stop working, go do a hobby or cook dinner or spend time with her.”
I’m also trying to take longer “European” lunch breaks. I call them European lunch breaks because the idea really got in my head after I did a residency in France a few years ago. Lunch was two hours, usually with a bottle of wine or time for a little nap. I don’t do the wine obviously, but I am trying to take time to read or go outside after lunch and enjoy the present moment. Also leaving NYC recently has made me feel calmer, as there is no rush of the city to make me feel pressured to keep going and going. That was part of our reason to move, as my wife and I both realized we are being worn down by the hustle of city life.
And yes, we enjoy the Ren Faire, or really any excuse to get dressed up in costume. Another benefit of being out of the city is that I finally have the space (garage and driveway) to do DIY house projects like sanding and painting a big bookshelf, so I am enjoying relaxing while I do other handicrafts I never had access to before. Also I can take BATHS!!! (We only had a shower in our previous apartment). Baths have changed my life (Shout out to Witch Baby Soaps).
What are some of your biggest inspirations currently that are finding their way into your art and practice?
I’ve really fallen for the Surrealists recently, something I think I was resisting for a long time because the famous ones can feel a bit cliché (like Dali) or overly churned into products (like Kahlo, which makes me sad). But I do really love Kahlo, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington. Tove Jansson is my number one always, not just because of her art but also because of how she lived her life. She is my queer icon I look up to the most. Because of my Norwegian heritage, I have a very nostalgic attachment to anything Scandinavian, and these artists always warm my heart: Nikolai Astrup, Edvard Munch, Elsa Beskow and Theodore Kittlesen. Medieval art is always a favorite. Also, woodcuts in general, because the linework that the medium produces is so raw and overwhelmingly human (specifically when Kathe Kollwitz uses it and other expressionists).
I just learned that you have a Patreon! Can you tell us about what goes on over there?
Yes! It is mostly behind-the-scenes work or first looks for both Cat Coven and personal work. Also sometimes ramblings on different themes that are present in my art. I’ll also be sharing my new studio space there soon – it feels very vulnerable to share, so I don’t feel comfortable posting it publicly on social media. Some tiers also have download and print color pages, calendar pages and discount codes for CatCoven.com 🙂
At I’ll Follow You today you can hear our conversation covering everything from being the avenging angel of properly crediting supposedly anonymous artwork found online, why intros are the hardest part of the writing process, the arcane expectations of the publishing industry, being terrified of academics, reining in the tendency to be clever at the expense of kindness, and the Taurean ability to become more of one’s self while staying cozy at home.
I am so quick to proclaim “I’m NEVER going to do x/y/z thing!” And 100% of the time, I always end up eating my words. I was terrified at the idea of having recorded discussions like this and didn’t think I was capable of doing it, but this is the second one I have done this year (I have another scheduled this week) and I am…maybe…getting the hang of it?
A million thanks to Allison for having me on her podcast, for making me feel comfortable, for her marvelous questions, and for helping me to realize that these experiences are not something to dread, but to actually have a good time with!
The Low, Low Woods is the brooding and utterly unnerving graphic novel debut by Carmen Maria Machado, an atmospheric and surreal horror story set in the dying coal town of Shudder-To-Think, Pennsylvania. Teenage best friends El and Vee experience strange incidents of missing time and decide to investigate the mystery behind that gap in time and the strange happenings around the community, where time and memories, as well as the women themselves, often go missing. A female-centered queer and diverse cast of characters navigating friendship, grief, rage in the midst of digging for truth in this tale of body horror, hybrid creatures, mysterious portals–in the course of doing so they realize the stories of their town hold more darkness than they could’ve imagined.
Fangsby Sarah Anderson. It’s not fair to an author to give a starred review hinging on something like “well, I would have given this more stars, but I wish it would have been longer.” I mean, you can see how many pages a thing has before you buy it, you can hold its heft in your hand and get a sense of its length or brevity. And I also no longer base my reviews on what I expected vs. what I got. Not having been familiar with Sarah Anderson’s work, I don’t think I realized it was cutesy-fluffy kind of stuff and that there wasn’t much story there or investment of time. I probably wouldn’t have purchased the book if I had known this. But I got suckered in by the stark glamour of the illustration on that blood-red cover when Amazon suggested that I might like it, and so I threw it in my cart as an impulse purchase. Why did I bother saying any of that? It’s not the book’s fault. I’m just annoyed with myself about it, I guess. This is a charming, light-hearted, slice-of-life, 4-panel peek at the budding romance between a vampire and a werewolf. It’s sweet. It’s fine. It would make a darling gift.
Trust Exerciseby Susan Choi. Ooof. Is there a better phrase than “coming of age” to describe a story about some young people figuring stuff out? I wish there were. (I guess I wish the same about “slice of life,” which I just used above.) Well, these are young people in an artsy-farty high school, there’s shaping and shifting of the power balances between friends and lovers, and there’s the abuse of power by adults who should know better. There are narrators who aren’t telling the whole truth, or maybe it’s the truth as they recall it or as they wish it had happened, and there are other narrators who are furious about this; interesting commentary, I suppose, on who it is that owns a story. This was a complicated read, but I don’t mean dense or heavy or anything like that–rather, I felt complicated things while reading it, and I’m still not sure what my takeaway is. But thanks to some of the extremely, uncomfortably visceral scenes in this book, I never want to have sex again. And my libido is already pretty much non-existent. Thanks, Susan Choi
This summer I read a bunch of mysteries. And I am done feeling weird or ashamed or guilty about it, which then turns into a weird snobbery, like “I DON’T USUALLY read this type of thing, BUT.” Come off it, Sarah. You read it, you liked it. There’s nothing wrong with that.
And so I find myself reading a lot of Ruth Ware over the past year. I think I may have written about her in the last edition of Stacked as well. This time around, it was One By One , which I think you can already tell from the title is an Agatha Christie-style whodunit. A group of start-up company employees are on a retreat at a posh ski lodge and they’re being murdered one by one. The company has developed a social media app that allows you to listen in on the music your friends are listening to, and maybe it’s just me, but that seems like a really dumb and pointless idea. It’s a predictable story but it’s mildly entertaining, so that’s ok.
I also read The Likeness by Tana French, which I believe somewhat picks up where In The Woods left off, but this time the main character is Cassie Maddox, who was Rob’s partner in In The Woods. And I am happy to be done with Rob, so that’s fine by me. In this story, Cassie is called to the scene of a murder where the victim looks almost exactly like her, and if that weren’t eerie enough, the victim possesses ID indicating she was going by the name that Cassie used in a previous undercover operation. Cassie must again go undercover (her first go-round, she was attacked and transferred out of that unit) and gain the trust of a local group of college students to try and figure out who this person was and why was she killed. This sort of puts into Dark Academia territory, which is another aspect of it that I liked. This was definitely a weird, insular group of young people.
I really loved this book. But I’ve found that Tana French is one of my favorite authors of mysteries/thrillers, and so I wasn’t surprised that I loved it. Some reviewers complain that she’s an overly wordy writer (“I get board with details!” notes one Goodreads user. Hee!) But it’s her beautiful prose that makes her stories so wonderfully compelling! And also the fact that in her mysteries, there frequently seems to be a mystery A. and a mystery B. and while the case may get solved, there always seems to be a piece that’s left without clear answers– and I really appreciate that.
Finally, on the mystery front, there was Lock Every Door and The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager. First I should note that several times I learn and then forget immediately that Riley Sager is a pen name, and this author is not a woman–this has happened to me with every book by him that I have read. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it does: I typically do not enjoy books wherein a male author has written a female protagonist. (See: boobs bouncing boobily) Is this a little problematic to admit? If so, I’m sorry. However, I don’t detect any issues like that with Sager’s stories, and as a matter of fact, I kind of enjoy the characters moving through his books much more than, say, Ruth Ware’s people as she writes them. In Lock Every Door, a woman gets hired as an apartment-sitter for an empty apartment in a mysterious Manhattan apartment building. I don’t think I am the first to make this comparison, but it’s got a Rosemary’s Baby vibe that I found delightful, even though it didn’t quite head in the same direction. In The Last Time I Lied, an artist is invited back to a summer camp she spent a week in as a teenager, and while she was there, her cabin-mates disappeared. She accepts the invitation in present-time, because she’s got some digging around to do regarding those past events, and as strange things start to happen during her stay, her suspicions mount. Though I didn’t really love his first offering, Final Girls, the more Sager writes, the more impressed I am with his stories. They all seem to involve some sort of horror trope, but they are not exactly horror stories. I think it’s an interesting angle, and it pretty much guarantees I’ll continue reading as he publishes more.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert MacFarlane. I am not sure what I can say about this book that might convince you to read it. I started it a year ago, last July, and I have only just today finished it. I wept a little, as I did. An exploration of the Earth’s underworlds–perilous caves atop impossible cliffs, labyrinthine catacomb crawls, the darkness under our feet through which mycelium tendril, the drop even further below to starless underground rivers, and the unfathomably deep descent into the backward-reaching time machine of ancient ice.
McFarlane writes in melancholic, claustrophobic, prose of transcendent, breathtaking, heart-stopping beauty, and as fascinating as I found his adventures, the relationship he formed with the land he explored, the connections he made with the strange and wonderful people who followed similar passions to dangerous and extreme ends–it’s how he wrote about these experiences that truly captured my heart and brings tears to my eyes even as I type this out.
There’s an exchange between McFarlane and a scientist, and while maybe I am missing the bigger point of everything here, it really sums up…while not exactly the spirit of the book, but rather why I personally love the book so much. When shown some microscopic sediment from the ice that points to the fact that the land a kilometer below the ice used to be a Sahara, McFarlane muses: “They’re beautiful…desert diamonds from the end of the world.” His companion in conversation replies laconically, “I can tell you’re not a scientist.”
Many people confided in me that they didn’t get very far into this book, I think, for precisely the reason I fell so profoundly in love with it. This is a man of words, writing about the science of things explored in deep, dark places, and the deeply philosophical questions and issues that this knowledge points to when brought to light. And while passionate about these issues, not being a scientist himself he grapples with and presents these ideas in inventive and otherworldly language that might be challenging to wind your way around if you’re looking for a book that is a straight, clear path. And, well, I suppose if this was sold to you as a travel book (as I see it is marketed in some places as such) , in that case, you have every right to be confused and not get very far in. For as much as I enjoyed this book, I sure never want to travel to any of these places. That aside, Underland was truly a descent into the sublime.
The Ballad of Black Tom was on a lot of horror-lists in the past few years, and it’s easy to see why. A gripping novella that revisits HP Lovecraft’s particularly xenophobic The Horror of Red Hook but from the point of view of a Black man, it was a nerve-prickling thrill that I read in the course of one evening while cat-sitting at my sister’s house. Here’s a great interview with Lavalle over at NPR where they talk with him about his conflicted feelings for Lovecraft, and which gets more into the story itself.
Wide Sargasso Sea was a book I’d heard of for years but had just never found a compelling reason to read. This came as a recommendation from Rachel Syme on twitter who, whether she’s advising on fragrance or literature, always has some fabulous suggestions, and so when she mentioned it, I thought, ok, maybe now’s the time. This is not a new book and so even giving a synopsis feels a bit silly, but if you are unaware, Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial and feminist prequel to Jane Eyre, describing the backstory to Mr. Rochester’s marriage from the point of view of his wife, a Creole heiress named Antoinette Cosway–whom we know as “Bertha Mason” the madwoman in the attic, the lunatic that is Rochester’s first wife.
I both loved and hated this book. Probably because I knew the fate of this character before I even read the first page. Lush and hazy and brimming with brutality, beauty, and an ever-present sense of dread, this was a story that I found myself wishing over and over would end differently, but it never could. There is a passage in the book describing a red dress: “The scent that came from the dress was very faint at first, then it grew stronger. The smell of vetivert and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees when they are flowering. The smell of the sun and the smell of the rain.”
I don’t know if this perfume exists, but it should. It seems to capture the Antoinette that might have lived with less devastation, tragedy, and madness. An Antoinette who had the opportunity to experience more bright mornings and radiant sunlight. Who might have even been happy.
I have a lot of memories of my tenth and eleventh years on earth. Most of them involve either reading or walking. It was that year that I first remember going on daily evening strolls with my mother. She would loop our neighborhood, taking turns with both my sisters and me, sending one in to fetch the other when their turn was up. I know sometimes we look back at our circumstances and say “man, I sure wish I had appreciated that more in the moment,” but honestly? I did appreciate those moments as they happened, every step. I loved my walks with my mom. Even though later our relationship became strained and difficult, it was at this point in time that I thought she hung the moon. I’d tell her about the stories was reading, about how I couldn’t relate to anyone in my class (they were into boys, I was into books,) we’d talk about everything and nothing. I remember telling her, in all sincerity, “mom, I could never be mad at you!” Oh, little Sarah. You sweet thing. Just you wait. But that wouldn’t come for a few more years, and in the time between, my mother and I had lots and lots of walks together.
In the years since, no matter where I have lived–in a shitty apartment on the river around the corner from a slew of biker bars, in a damp and moldy cottage next to the ocean, in a small town in New Jersey notorious for its asbestos legacy–where ever I’ve found myself, I’ve always walked. I am not keen on exercise. I am not coordinated, I don’t like public gym facilities, group classes stress me out, and quite honestly, I am too repressed to even jazzercise or dance or whatever, alone in my own home. But walking? That I can do. And I have walked, four-five times a week, for the past thirty-five years.
There is something deeply meditative about placing one foot in front of the other and carrying yourself forward. It feels intentional. It feels progressive. It feels like life on a much smaller scale. It makes life’s larger obstacles somehow more bearable.
. A friend of mine shared with me that she’s never in her entire life met an endorphin, but I’m not so sure about that myself. I’m very easily susceptible, impressed, influenced, and when I read about endorphins flooding your brain when you exercise, I thought, “Oh! So THAT’S what’s happening to me!” On my evening walk with the right music and having fallen into the rhythm of my steps, I know that if someone were to look at me I would have a strange beaming gargoyle grin on my face, and I would feel as if I were flying out of my skin.
I think of walking as an overall wellness thing rather than an exercise in…well, exercise, I suppose. Walking daily keeps me on an even keel, it centers and balances me. I could walk a million miles and, considering my metabolism and the way that I know my body works, probably never lose a pound–so it is for sure not a part of a diet and weight loss regimen. And anyway, I’m not sharing this as some sort of ableist fitspo rhetoric; I am writing this from the perspective of a mostly healthy human with no current mobility issues.
Walking is an activity that is so normalized and can be so easy to take for granted, but it’s actually not so easy for everyone. People with arthritis, with auto-immune diseases or degenerative issues, with knee and leg injuries–they can’t just “walk it off.” I want the things I share and the conversation surrounding that to be as inclusive as possible, and I realize that ability is not a choice and a disabled body is not something to overcome. So I don’t mean to discount or dismiss anyone’s experience and abilities or lack thereof here, I guess is what I am saying. Walking is a thing that I do for me, but I’m not here to give anyone a hard time about it or to shame them or make them feel lesser-than for an activity that they are just physically not capable of, or that maybe they don’t even want to do. Also, like I said, this has nothing really to do with fitness or diet. I mean, it’s probably good for my heart, I guess? But that’s a secondary benefit for me.
Walking has quite literally changed the course of my life–more than once! I typically take my walks very early in the morning, and when the world is still dark and quiet, and the only sounds you hear are of the crickets and the frogs and your own breathing–it’s a great time to get some thinking done. I plan my day, I compose poems and emails and silly tweets for Twitter. I daydream and let my imagination run away with me. Sometimes, in the mindlessness of steps walked becoming miles traveled, the inner paths my ruminations take will lead me to interesting places with new ideas or present solutions to problems I was subconsciously working out. I come up with my best interview questions, my favorite article titles, and my most intriguing lines of inquiry during these perambulations, and even in the heat of summer when it’s a sweaty miserable slog every step of the way, I wouldn’t trade that precious time for anything.
It’s funny to gauge memorable moments in terms of walks I have walked but I actually came up with a list of ten of them!
-My first walk around the block in October 2011, when I moved back to FL. It was in my middle sister’s neighborhood, as I was staying with her for a few months while looking for a place of my own. We walked together and joked how it was October in FL and 75 degrees and time to pull out the heavy coats.I had just escaped that toxic relationship situation in NJ, and it was the first time in seven years I felt like I could actually take a deep breath and say, “ok. I am gonna be ok.”
– New Year’s Eve, 2012 I was at a friend’s party when I became hot and overwhelmed. I stepped outside, and I kept stepping. I was halfway around the block before I realized I was navigating an unfamiliar neighborhood, partially drunk, and without any idea of where I was. Suddenly there was a person at my side. Someone else at the party, feeling out of their element and who needed air as well. Side-by-side, with a silent understanding, we followed the floating lanterns from a nearby festival and got the space we needed, together.
– Halloween 2009, I was having a rare afternoon walk around my neighborhood before a friend arrived for an evening of junk food and horror movies. I typically walk in before sunup or just as the sun is setting, but this was an overcast day, and also I was living in NJ, so October temps were probably in the 50s-60s and bordering on chilly. It was a still, beautiful afternoon when a little tornado of fallen leaves suddenly swirled up around me and a maple leaf punched me in the face!
– The year before, in 2008, I was also in NJ and found myself often lamenting that I didn’t seem to experience the same sort of thunderstorms that I recalled from living in Florida. That evening during my walk and about a half-mile from home, I got caught in a torrential downpour that soaked me to my bones. There was no shelter to be found unless I huddled on someone’s porch and I’m too shy for that, so trudge home through the deluge and ankle-deep puddles it was. I was so thoroughly drenched that I had to take my clothes off in the hallway before entering my home because I was just that wet and I didn’t want to drip all over everything. And it was a PUBLIC hallway. I didn’t care!
– In 1992 I fled from my home after my mother gave me a dreadful nonconsensual haircut. By the time I noticed the amount she had taken off, I jerked away and hollered at her to stop. But the chop at that point only covered half my head! I entered my freshman year of high school very lopsided. I was so furious I ran out the front door and just kept going. But as our block was a circle, I ended up right back where I started. I must have walked at least twenty times around my neighborhood that evening, sobbing so hard I made myself sick. Remember what I said about telling my mom I could never see myself mad at her? HA!
– I spent New Year’s Eve, 2010, like all of my NYE’s in New Jersey– depressed and alone. I drank too much gin, put my snow boots on, and hiked down to the river. I called my baby sister to wish her a happy new year and while stumbling around in the cold and the dark, I almost fell into the river. Le whoopsie.
– In 2019 I with much trepidation, I walked around a few blocks in Los Angeles by myself. That doesn’t sound like it should be much of a big deal for a human person in their 40s, but I’m terrified of getting lost in strange cities, and I don’t ever venture out like that on my own, so it was actually a pretty big deal. I celebrated with the best breakfast sandwich I had ever eaten.
-In 2018 I visited my Best Good Friend and we spent an afternoon in Philadelphia. We had left a gothy-antiquesy-jewelry type of gathering and were trekking across the city for dinner and along the way, we went through a sort of boardwalk-type atmosphere and we passed some kind of seasonal festival of lights. I don’t actually know if any of that is accurate, they’re all just marvels and blurs and fanciful impressions in my memory right now, but it was like a dream, how one weird and discordant and beautiful scene flowed into the next. It was late afternoon and the sun was streaming directly into our eyes and I what I recall –so vividly– is trotting to keep up with her long-legged stride when we realized we had ended up in a sketchy part of town. I don’t know why I cherish this afternoon so fiercely, and why this piece of it stands out so powerfully in my memory…but maybe because it’s in my dreams I can never keep up and I eventually fall behind and lose sight of whoever it is I am chasing and who eventually leaves me. But in this instance, we reached a busy intersection, and there we were, once more standing side by side, for more adventures together.
-In 2002, my baby sister was living across the state while she worked on her graduate degree. She’s probably going to read this and tell me that I’m wrong about both the year and where she was at in her schooling, but MELISSA, THAT’S NOT THE POINT. I would periodically drive out and spend a weekend visiting with her, and on one of these weekends, we spend an ungodly amount of time on her apartment complex’s treadmill because we planned on going out for all-you-can-eat sushi afterward. She’ll probably tell me the treadmills weren’t in her complex and that it was some other weekend that we went for sushi, but the POINT, IS, MELISSA, that I went on a memorable walk with you! And we ate a lot afterward!
For a while there, I was doing a brief walk in the morning as soon as I rolled out of bed. I slipped on a pair of crappy shoes and crept outside in the early dawn hours for a leisurely “wake-up walk” around the block in my pajamas. This was generally done right around 5 o’clock in the morning and it was still very dark out, so it’s not like anyone could see me! But I’ve moved on to developing that habit into a more serious morning walk, and that requires actually getting dressed.
Lately, I’ve been wearing the bike shorts from Universal Standard, a favorite tank top, and these shoes. The shoes that I had been wearing developed holes in the tops of the shoe from my toes poking through–and this happened with two separate pairs, same brand, same style–so I thought it wise to move on to footwear with a wider toe box. So far so good, but it’s only a month in with the new ones and we’ll have to wait to see how they hold up. One important piece that I do not have a handle on right now is a good sports bra. So if you’ve got a favorite brand or style, I would very much like to hear about it!
During the time my mother and I took those walks, she was also going back to school for her nursing degree. As it had been a while for her, she had to start off with a bunch of 101-type classes, and one of them was English or Writing or something like that. On one of our after-dinner strolls, she shared with me that I had inspired the essay she was currently writing. I marveled at this–what could I have possibly said or done that struck any sort of chord with her? Apparently, I confessed to her that when I was walking, and getting hot, or tired, or felt like I wanted to give up, I would tell myself “you can do this, you only need to make it to the next mailbox!” And that’s how she was trying to look at her schooling, all of the classes she needed to take, and the road ahead of her to get a new career started. I was floored and flattered and I loved my mom so much and was so proud of her in that moment. For both listening to me and thinking that I had something valid and important to say, but also for recognizing something in herself, seeing that she had something to contribute and strive for, as well as persistently and with dedication–stride toward.
I don’t know if I will ever get to where I am going. Most days I don’t know where that is and I don’t know where the mailboxes are along the way or what they’re meant to represent. But the point is…I keep moving forward. One stumbling, senseless, insignificant step at a time. I’ll get there one day. I don’t think it even matters where “there” is. But when I look back on the path I forged I hope I feel like I did that one day when my mother repeated my own secret back to me, and I realized that in just being who I am and sharing what’s important to me, I helped propel someone else forward, too.
To be honest with you, I don’t know why I felt compelled to write all of this. I’ve been thinking about my walking practice (is that a thing? can I call it that?) and what it means to me, over the course of dozens of walks, over the past few years– and it’s been in my drafts here since 2018. I don’t think I’ve done it justice. It’s such a deeply meaningful thing for me and I feel like I am leaving something out that’s really important and which needs to be said. I’ve just now hit on the barest inkling of an idea what that might be.
It occurred to me that I didn’t share the kind of music that I listen to when I’m walking, or the podcasts or audio books that I listen to…but you know what? More often than not, I don’t listen to anything. I think a large part of the magic and the ritual and the significance of this practice is the time I spend in conversation with myself. Where it’s just me and the quiet of the morning and my feet carrying me forward while my mind is working on whatever I need to work on or work out. Even when those things are ugly or uncomfortable– and those things are definitely easy to ignore or avoid during the hustle and bustle of the day, you can drown them out with music or television or Zoom meetings or mindless chatter. But when it’s just you and yourself again, those things are still there, and it’s important to sit with them.
I’ve written about bean soup before. Probably right around this time last year. Well, here it is again, friends. And thanks to the brilliant friend on Instagram who gave me the idea for this blog’s title!
I hated my grandmother’s bean soup when I was a little girl. If I’m being quite honest I always cried when I had to eat it. I sobbed through every spoonful. There was nothing wrong with it. I just wanted something more familiar like a salami sandwich with yellow mustard. That was my favorite! Bean soup was just so…ugly. I hated looking at it. I hated smelling it. No thanks!
Anyway, I must feel awfully guilty about it these many years later, because anytime I am inspired to make a soup, it’s usually of the beany variety. Here’s a recipe, if you are interested and you’ve got some of these ingredients lying around. I’m really bad at keeping track of amounts, just eyeball it and make it soupy, you know? It’s still an ugly soup, but holy beans, is it delicious.
As they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beanholder.”
“I’m Sorry, Mawga” bean soup
-a bunch of beef of vegetable stock (from scratch is best.) Maybe 6-8 cups?
-a few cups of dried beans, whatever you’ve got, soaked overnight
-3-4 strips of bacon
-one onion, diced
-however much garlic you like, minced
-hefty squirt of tomato paste
-a few bay leaves
-sprig of fresh rosemary
-several leaves of fresh sage, chopped
-salt and pepper
Chop bacon and fry in a deep pot for a few minutes until some of the fat is rendered out. You don’t need it to be crispy. Toss in your onion and sauté for a few minutes until fragrant. Add the garlic, stir it up and sauté for a minute or so more. All of this is on medium heat, I suppose. Squirt in your tomato paste and stir around until everything is coated and let it cook for a minute. Add all of your both, beans, and herbs and bring to a boil for a few minutes. Reduce heat, cover and cook until beans are tender or to your liking. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
We served the soup with some focaccia that I’d made using a not-too-peppy sourdough starter and whole wheat flour, with a recipe from Pro Home Cooks. I mean… even mediocre fresh-baked bread is good bread, but I would definitely like to try my hand at this again, with better, fresher, more lively ingredients. Still, to accompany a humble bean soup, I think it worked well, and it was made tastier with a dollop of the compound sage butter I had made this past weekend with loads of fresh sage from the garden. GOOD LORD this stuff is good. Just make it and put it on everything.
Amouage Fate for Woman is another fragrance I’ve been avoiding talking about because I feel like it hasn’t yet revealed its heart to me. And if you think that sounds a little melodramatic, here’s a bit of the copy which refers to its: “rich floral heart intensified by a dark and destructive accord resonating with the tumultuous unknown.” And as much as I love the delicious poetry of an overwrought word salad…that is not helpful. It sounds like a James Bond movie. Here is what I do know: for not being listed in the notes, I smell a goodly spike of sharp, woodsy cedar, and soon after, a dry veil of green mossy rose, wrapped in a honeyed balsamic leathery cloak lined with the smoke of a coniferous incense. It’s so opulent that at times it feels like I’m wearing a costume, and it did kind of trick me into liking another rose scent, so maybe this is a spy novel double-crossing femme fatale of a fragrance.
Jean Paul Gaultier Classique does not list jasmine in the official notes yet it smells like a glittery jasmine vanilla powder bomb drunken dance floor. It recalls an evening I visited a friend and without telling first, she had agreed with other friends that we’d all meet up and go to a club. Being a brutally shy homebody, that’s the last thing I EVER want to do, but as a visiting guest, you’re sometimes trapped into these things, and I am also a people pleaser, so there you go. And there we went. The ladies room was filled with tipsy club-goers fixing their hair and makeup, and our mutual friend pulled a whole-ass bottle of perfume from her purse to refresh her scent. Even me, being the perfume obsessed weirdo I am, thinks that’s strange. A whole bottle, wow. Anyway, it was this Jean Paul Gautier scent, and to this day it makes me think of boozy nightclub cocktails and the jasmine-scented tears of strangers in bathrooms telling me they love me just moments before puking on my feet.
Initially, Coromandel is nose-prickling, aldehydes, bright and sharp and sour, like a bitter citrus slice of moon on a night when winter is sparingly giving way to spring. It’s also brimming with curious camphorous woods and strange subterranean echoes when the first spritz settles on your skin. Soon though, it is inexplicably a dark, floral sprinkle of black pepper atop a mug of palest milky cocoa, smooth and rich and creamy on the tongue, but tinged with that underlying musty bitterness. The strange interplay between those primordial notes and that velvety decadence offers dueling impressions of opulence and austerity; imagine enjoying a delectably elegant beverage…on the damp, cold floor of a mossy limestone cave.
I first read Black Dianthus described on EauMG’s blog as a witches brew of a scent, and being an-all-or-nothing person regarding potential holy grail witchy fragrances, I bypassed a sample and bought an entire bottle. This was in 2017. I sniffed it once, thought, eh, it’s fine, and never wore it again. I saw it glaring at me balefully from the shadowy recesses of my perfume cabinet recently and thought that perhaps it was time to give this one another try…and I am so glad that I did. Black Dianthus officially only lists notes of black dianthus, which is I believe carnation, in addition to licorice, and vetiver, but what I smell is a bitter brew of bracken and moss, tannic, leathery bark, and peppery hemlock leaf littering the damp forest floor, the sour fruit of burst baneberries, and spiced smoke spiraling from the cauldron where this potion hisses and sputters over a strange, green flame.
We’ve got a date with Old Scratch and we’re gonna meet them wearing Idole de Lubin and nothing else. This fragrance is marketed for men which is a bunch of malarkey because this woodsy, darkly spiced scent with notes of saffron, rum, teak wood, and sugarcane would be devastating on anyone who possesses a human body. And speaking of possessing human bodies, our bae Beelz is due to stop by at midnight and this infernal gourmand redolent of unholy smoke, syrupy booze, and leather-clad sin, will make them feel right at home.
I love that Etat Libre d’Orange’s Like This, which was inspired by the unearthly and surreal Tilda Swinton and her idea of a magic potion that smelled like the familiar grace of home. Greenhouses and kitchens and gardens and intriguing notes like yellow mandarin, pumpkin accord, Moroccan neroli, and heliotrope. I don’t know if I was influenced by the copy, but: the connection of magic potions and kitchens, along with the initial hit of citrusy-ginger, fizzing and spiced as if glowing in cauldron, summoned for me the transcendent, transgressive art of Leonora Carrington’s paintings of kitchens as magically charged spaces, as conjured through her singular and visionary filter. Floral, honeyed tobacco, an earthy spring greenness, and gentle musks bubble and brew alongside those first bright and zingy notes and the end result is a joyous creation that feels both celebratory and sacred.
Geranium Bourbon from Miller Harris Perfumes is what I imagine Jo from Little Women smells like; it’s willful and smart, and it’s somehow both no-nonsense and very creative. It’s got a very upfront “take me as I am vibe” which seems appropriate, as even though geranium is listed in the notes and it’s the name of the perfume, it doesn’t exactly smell like geranium…so you’ve got to judge it on its own merits… for what it is, rather than what it is not. And as for what it is, well. It’s a sort of dry, sunny lemon grassy palmarosa, a sour green rose, bitter, musty black pepper, and some sort of aromatic woods. It’s classified as a floral, but it’s certainly not your typical offering from this category of scent; it’s not at all sweet or spring or even summery, and the rose is a strange one. I guess I might say this is an herbal, woody autumn floral, and much like our girl Jo, one of a kind. (Hoo boy. I just went back in to add a link, and this is discountinued and very hard to find. Sorry!)
I am struggling with wrapping my head around L’Instant de Guerlain. My first impression is that it smells like a classic, powdery vanilla Guerlain but with a “how do you do, fellow kids?” vibe, reworked with fresh fizzy citrus and cool, misty iris notes, for a contemporary crowd. I just noticed that these are bees on this bottle, so maybe that’s the powdery, bright, golden halo I get from the initial spritz. It’s a very pretty scent, very spring picnic with frothy petticoats and bonnets, which I guess isn’t very contemporary, but young people get up to all sorts of weirdness, don’t they?
In a fit of nostalgia, I recently found and purchased a doll on Etsy that reminded me of one that I had when I was much younger. If her frothy, tiered, ruffled, and lace cream-colored frock was a perfume, it would most certainly be Heliotrope from Etro, a floral gourmand dessert course confection of a scent, with delicate almonds at the forefront. This is a powdered marzipan, pillowy meringue, candied almond nougat, bonbon on a base of fluffy spun sugar vanilla clouds. It’s displayed in a window somewhere in Paris, nearly too beautiful and too delicate to eat. (Much like this doll, which sat on a shelf and I was not allowed to play with when I was a little girl.) As it wears on the skin, it becomes iced almond milk tea, barely sweetened with amber-hued grains of brown sugar and poured over rich, chewy tapioca pearls. I do go on about how I don’t care for sweet scents, but in that I’m referring more to fruity fragrances. I don’t want to smell like a strawberry shortcake or a fruit salad or a lollipop. But vanilla and amber, I guess you could say that’s my sweet spot.
I first heard reverent whispers of the enigmatic Filigree from Thymes before the 2014 relaunch, and my interest piqued, I tracked down a bottle on eBay. Never have I read such wildly differing reviews about a fragrance! The Thymes website sings praises of its intricate layers and elusive nuances, and alternately people refer to it as rich, spicy, warm, creamy, and luxurious, but despite the dissimilar impressions, it is undeniably universally beloved. To my nose, it is a scent just this side of crisp and not exactly fresh. It reminds me of antique lace doilies and porcelain teapots It is gentle lemon peels and sweetly grassy and a delicate dusty amber that translates more as vanilla. It’s light and lovely and apparently, many things to many people, but we all seem to adore it.
I am going to do the thing I hate and be a total hypocrite, but Fleur de Lune from Strangers Parfumerie is totally a “grandma perfume”. However! I mean that in a very particular and very personal way. This is *my* grandma. But not when I was older and I could recognize and appreciate her heavy-handed love of Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew or Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door; this is my grandmother when I was 4 years old, before I realized perfumes even had names. I only knew that I loved the scent of her hair when she came to visit and I would fling myself into her arms and bury my face in her shoulder. Fleur de Lune is a sort of sneezy retro violet talcum powder, clean laundry dried on the line outdoors in the spring sunlight, and a sort of milky, creamy floral, like a vanilla and honeysuckle pudding. I don’t know if I love this scent, but how could I not be fond of it, with all of these lovely associations?
Scandalwood is a fragrance that makes me a little sad. I first discovered the brand when I used Polyvore, a sort of virtual moodboard for curating imaginary closets and creating fantasy outfits. I used to play around on it every single day for nearly a decade, and then in 2018, without warning, they shut it down. I was pretty upset–I made many friends through Polyvore and it was a fun distraction that got me through some rough patches. Were any of you guys over on Polyvore? There’s a few similar sites now and I’ve been using one called URStyle but it’s just not the same. I’m ghoulnextdoor over there by the way, if you ever want to say hi. Anyway, this is a perfume review, sorry. Scandalwood is inspired by Dita von Teese and much like her own outfits, the scent is very bare and barely there. Light and close to the skin, it’s a lovely blend of sandalwood, cedar, rosewood, leather, and musk. It’s not really all that erotic unless you get off on quiet naps and whispered ASMR. And hey, it takes all kinds.
Comme des Garcons Rouge is an odd and surprising scent, and at all not what I expected to smell from this glossy, cherry red popsicle of a bottle. It instead reminds me of an artwork by the fabulous, and flamboyant Argentinian painter, Leonor Fini In Les Sorcieres, we observe five frenzied witches swarming and swooping on their broomsticks through a swirling blood-red sky. This scent mirrors these feverish sensations of airy, dizzying fizziness and couples them with a terrestrial earthiness, like herbs and leaves and things freshly dug from a garden patch. Rouge smells like an effervescent shrub (the vinegary drink, not the bushy plant. But also minus most of the vinegar) of rhubarb and beet, fiery ginger root, and floral pink pepper. A witch’s cauldron tipple that tapers to a beautiful gingery incense.
I often pause and meditate on how evocative writing can influence our perceptions and sucker us into buying things. But also, how those perceptions can change as we change and grow. I’m looking at you Ormonde Jayne Woman, with your notes of hemlock and violet and all your talk hypnotic, mysterious potions! In Perfumes, the A-Z Guide, Tania Sanchez describes it in terms of haunting witchiness and tall trees in the night and when I read those sentiments over a decade ago, I couldn’t get my hands on a bottle fast enough. At that time, what I got from it was corporate executive realness with a weird green twist, or if Day-to-Night Barbie was changing into Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West costume instead of the pink sparkly disco outfit that came in the box alongside her no-nonsense pink girl-boss suit. I haven’t worn this Ormonde Jayne Woman since I got it, but today I *get* it. Initially, there’s still that whiff of generic woody-green sophistication, but as it lingers I catch glimpses of shadowed forest paths lined with sweet, purple aromatic woodland blooms, leading one to the door of an enchanted sugarplum storybook cottage. The witch may or may not be in.
I don’t think it’s just me who feels this way, but much like how orange blossoms smell nothing like oranges, so too is the disparity between the fragrance of the blossom of the lime tree and actual fruit itself. I should also note that lime blossom smells nothing like orange blossom! Just using it for an example, I guess. Though like I said, I’m pretty sure that’s how most people feel, so I don’t mean to offer that opinion like I’m the first person to ever come to that conclusion. Anyway! We have a small lime tree in our yard and its flowers smell heavenly, but it’s a delicate scent that I find elusive of precise description. Jo Malone’s version captures it somewhat, the bright charm of a spring breeze, pearlescent morning dew, and sweetly herbaceous green sap encapsulated in in a small, white flower…which if I had to compare it to another blooming thing, I might say honeysuckle. But it’s got an extra element of synthetic linen freshness and a note of something that smells like how a mild tingling jolt of static electricity feels, and this gives it a bizarre bionic blossom quality. It is a little odd? Maybe. Do I love it? Also maybe.
I smell this and I’m suddenly time traveling back to the olden days of 2014 when I did a thing on the internet which some of you may remember though you may not have known it was me. I shared daily missives of love and self-acceptance from Eternia’s most nefarious skull-faced villain, as he progressed on his journey of healing. I am speaking of course, about Skeletor is Love. The facebook and tumblr pages still exist, if you have no idea what I am talking about. Anyway, someone on Makeup Alley realized that was me, and tickled that the creator of that weird thing was a also fragrance enthusiast, we became friends. Miyako from Annayake was a rare scent she insisted I find, she pointed to an eBay listing for it, and it was soon in my possession. Inspired by Japanese incense rituals, it was a perfume I’d never heard of, but was intrigued by, and it’s unexpectedly lovely. It’s warm, richly-scented amber, copious dry, dreamy spices and woods, and a shifting but utterly ambrosial note of smoky green floral cardamom. It is lush and hypnotic and when I wear it calls to mind the strange connections we make in life and how if you’re not open to them, you might miss out on something spectacular.
Tibetan Mountain Temple from Pacifica does not smell like my idea of a blend prepared in accordance with centuries-old traditional Tibetan Buddhist methods to accompany prayer offerings or spiritual purification rituals. But what do I know! This is more like the snack aisle in a tourist shop *next* to the monastery but the only thing they sell are orange creamsicles and those ridiculously delicious Newman ginger-Os, which if you’ve never had them, they are basically like Oreos in concept, but instead of a chocolate cookie sandwich, it’s a ginger snap.
La Couche du Diable by Serge Lutens smells of clementines and dates preserved in amber, soaked in rare, imported spirits, and tossed on the smoking remains of the fire you lit to conjure a demon to do your bidding. Your bidding, it must be noted, involves some petty shenanigans regarding your nemesis and chopping off all of their hair as they sleep. Your final ingredient for the spell, as it happens, is a single strand of their richly tinted auburn tresses that you plucked from their burnished mahogany hairbrush in the span of a second when you cried, “look, over there, what is that thing?!” And like a dummy, they looked. The hair sizzles and pops in the flames and an aromatic wind fills your chambers, scorched citrus, bronzed resins, bitter wine, and something eerily metallic, echoing the diabolical snicker-snack of twin blades, wickering eagerly from the depths of the glowing embers.
I’m laughing at what I am not sure is actual copy or editorializing by LuckyScent for Initio’s Musk Therapy. They write of “pleasure receptors activated, the mind being energized, and inner peace and pure delight.” and I love you Luckyscent, but you are A LOT. And before you argue that I’m jealous because I’m not the staff writer tasked with churning out this poetic perfumed piffle…well, ok. You’re right. I’m jealous. It was not for their description that I bought it, though. Victoria of EauMg described it as smelling like “hot people effortlessly being hot” and friends, I am not immune to that sort of hyperbole I’ll even one-up it. This is a fragrance that makes you feel like you’re just better than everyone. And you’ll smell so good, they’ll go with it. It’s got a beautiful bitter sourness like the salvia flowers just outside my house, which smell like velvety aldehydes and sparkling grapefruit peels and a musky magnolia and sandalwood soapiness that’s neither too much of one or the other and wow…this really is a flawless, perfect summer scent.
Madam Moriarty, Misfortune Teller from BPAL’s Carnivale Diabolique series is the dark fruit of thickly sugared plum jam, tart pomegranate & redcurrant wine, and the spiced, earthy incense of red musk and patchouli enhancing and emboldening the berries and stone fruit, rendering them that much more lush and sticky. I am not a fancier of fruity fragrances, but even I can admit that is an objectively beautiful scent and there’s a good reason it’s a cult favorite.
I thought peau was french for pear, and not being keen on fruit-forward fragrances was surprised by how much I like this one… but pear is poire, and peau is actually skin, so this perfume from Diptyque, Fleurs de Peau, translates to Skin Flowers and now I understand why I enjoy it. Created in tribute to classical mythology’s Psyche and Eros, it’s a love story with a heart of musk. At first a light and grassy scent of mildy soapy green florals, it abruptly drops in temperature, and strangely it’s in this chilly stage that the musks emerge, as if you’re kissing the wrist of a wraith. It’s a perfume that’s eerily bloodless and while it’s not burning with passion, it radiates a sense of cloudy befuddlement, the way a deeply consuming love affair may affect you. It conjures ill-fated lovers in a romantic mystery by the likes of Sarah Waters, a timid governess of modest means and the coldly beautiful mistress of the manor and they declare their secret love in a bed of irises and it turns out one of them was a ghost all along.
I originally purchased the sadly discontinued Velvet Tuberose from Bath & Body Works because my Best Good Friend wore it, and it smelled amazing on them. With an opening somehow both airy and earthy, it’s a creamy white floral cloud whirling with delicate powdery grains of amber dust and soft floral vanilla orchid petals. It dries down to soft woods and skin musk and of course, it never smelled quite as good on me as it did on my BGF, but I still associate it with them and some of our times together even though they probably haven’t worn it in years.
This scent is an exercise wherein I again come to the realization that hey, I’ve never spoken this word aloud and I am not certain how to pronounce it. I usually go to YouTube to get a consensus, but in this case it seems a bit divided. Some reviewers say LabDANum, and others say LABdanum. That’s always how I said it in my head, so that’s the one I am going with. Labdanum de Saville by L’Occitane is a honied, burnished amber that borders on fruity tobacco, with a bright, peppery, sparkling citrus aspect that reminds me of an illustration of jeweled autumn fruits in a golden dish that I recall from a lavishly illustrated edition of 1001 Nights from when I was a child. It’s a fairly linear scent that doesn’t evolve much over the course of the day, and while it’s not terribly complex, it’s still lovely. I’d suggest it as a less expensive option to the autumnal spiced apple compote magics of Ambre Narguille from Hermes, but I’m afraid it’s discontinued.
This scent that has haunted me since 2004 when I first tried a sample of this perfume from Elizabeth W. and I’ve been hoarding that tiny vial for over fifteen years! Back then it was called Sweet Tea, but they’ve since changed the name to Té. That looks like an accent aigu, but I’m not certain that this is French. Maybe it’s Spanish? Either way, perhaps they thought a rebranding would lend a classier vibe than sweet tea evokes with its deep south connotations as a sugared libation to accompany your all you can can-eat ribs and meat sweats. And as a Floridian, I love me some Sonny’s BBQ so I mock not. Listing notes of amalfi lemons, black tea, and almond honey, the opening is lively and brisk with a tannic, floral elegance, the aromatic tea and intense perfume of the lemon balanced and beautiful. I don’t get a sense of honey, just a lovely hint of sweetness, more like a light citrus syrup, or a limoncello. This is not the most nuanced or complex scent, but who cares? We like what we like and this is one of my favorite tea concept perfumes.
I was a little kid who never paid attention to anything. I perpetually had my head in the clouds. Of course, when you’re forever checked out of what’s going on, things happen without you noticing. Sometimes these are things like your mother signing you up for summer camp and you don’t know anything about it until she’s packing you up on a bus with a lot of kids you don’t know to a place you’ve never heard of. Still, there’s daydreaming and imagining to be done, so I’d just find a seat by myself, lean my head against the filmy glass of the bus window, and breathe in the clean, cool morning air of an early June morning in Ohio, as the vehicle picked up speed and we drove out of the suburbs into the sunshine. Demeter’s Fresh Hay smells like honeyed red clover blossom, warm, dusty earth, and soft woody grassy vetiver; the fertile ground of summer daydreams and limitless expanse of a young person’s imagination.
Angel Nova is a very horny perfume. But a sort of sad, lonely, horniness. It’s the drunk middle-aged lady at a concert or local gig, or festival, stumble-dancing alone. (I am middle-aged now, but in my memory, every incarnation of this woman always seems older than I will ever be.) It smells like what both partners might wear when they pack for their hedonism cruise in a last-ditch effort to save their relationship and they’re on the prowl for their unicorn. It’s a bit desperate and hopeless, like that last radiant burst of manic energy that you put into a thing that’s doomed to fail, so what the hell and why not. As to the actual fragrance, it’s a sticky stain on your sheets that if you dare get close enough to sniff, it smells of overripe raspberries, lychee syrup drizzled shaved ice, and a sickly sweet cola drink spiked with peppery patchouli bitters. Instead of spending your money on Angel Nova, I think it wise you invest in an extra session with your therapist.
Montale Full Incense is an ancient story of aromatic pine, strange, sugared crystals of frankincense, and fresh, grounding cedar shavings. It feels sacred and weird, like an epic legend with an unexpected instance of surreal comedy. Perfume-wise it’s a bit comparable to CdG Avignon, but where that one conjures a chilly, stern atmosphere, this is woody and warm and somehow beautifully wacky, like hallucinogenic incense smoke rising from a cracked clay vessel balanced on smoldering embers in the desert woodlands, but in a locale far removed from our reality. On the world of Thra plays out a drama between the tyrannical Skeksis and the Gelfling, as a darkening blight threatens the existence of all. Full Incense is what I imagine scents the scene wherein the Gelfling heroes have arrived at the Circle of the Sun and encounter the kind Skeksis known as the Heretic and the Wanderer. What ensues is the weird and brilliant puppet show within a puppet show, and they all must have thought wow, am I high right now? I feel a bit like that myself when I wear this scent.