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A Bibliophile's Christmas
Literary Suggestions for Long Winter Nights
Smell books roll of the presses at a steady pace but not all of them speak to me. For example, a publisher sent me an advance proof of a COVID smell-loss memoir by a pair of established authors. There was nothing wrong with it—it read like a highly polished magazine piece—but my interest in the first-person anosmic genre is limited. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it much less blurb it.
And don’t get me started on academic books about obscure smell-related topics. One that I declined to read for blurbing purposes was clearly the result of much earnest historical research. However it was built around a couple of individuals who didn’t seem interesting or significant enough to carry the narrative, and it had a whiff of eco-moralism about it. Not for me, thanks.
There are some academic volumes I won’t open with a ten-foot pole. Take, for example, The Smell of Risk: Environmental Disparities and Olfactory Aesthetics, by Hsuan L. Hsu, published in 2020 by New York University Press. Here’s a bit from an online blurb:
Hsuan Hsu takes an exceptionally imaginative approach to the relationship between aesthetics and environmental justice. The Smell of Risk contributes significantly to the field of environmental humanities by exploring what has been a largely overlooked aspect of how we construct our environments and structure our social interactions. Hsu demonstrates the co-construction of ‘race’ and ‘environment’ as discursive technologies of state power and shows, in particular, how olfaction delineates the notion of an “environment” and its relation to the unequal distribution of risk . . .
Hunh? Sorry. I fell asleep at “discursive technologies.” And no, Hsu isn’t an economist or political scientist. He’s a professor of English at UC Davis.
For me the kiss of death was Hsu’s other blurb, written by Hans Rindisbacher. Years ago I paid good money to the University of Michigan Press for a copy of his tome The Smell of Books. I penciled a few marginal notes in the preface, but couldn’t get any further into his thick post-modern academic prose. Basta. (Say, I need room on my book shelves: make me an offer and I’ll mail it to you. Like new condition with perfect dj!)
((Holy crap! According to AbeBooks it goes for between $74 and $349. YHGTBFKM.))
Okay, so what do I like?
I love How’s Your Drink? Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well, by Eric Felton 2009. Felton used to write for the WSJ. He has an effortlessly engaging style and is a great hand at describing the history and flavor of popular mixed drinks. He loves to blow up bogus claims about who created which cocktail. You’ll get thirsty reading it. Get the paperback and keep it near your liquor cabinet for the recipes.
Harold McGee wrote what I am told is a classic book on the science of cooking. I met him a few years back and found him to be a friendly and serious guy. He recently published Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells. I haven’t read it (too close my own What the Nose Knows) (which btw he told me he admired) but I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has.
There are some classics I enjoy reading again and again. One is Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov’s synesthesia-like sensory descriptions are a marvel, and the descriptions of his peripatetic European boyhood following the Russian revolution transport you right there.
Speaking of memoirs, another favorite of mine is Just Kids by Patti Smith. I don’t care much for Robert Mapplethorpe or his art, but Smith’s account of their relationship in the crazy 60s and 70s in New York’s bohemian art scene is touching and beautifully written.
From Patti Smith it’s only a couple of free associations to Sam Shepard. He’s known for his plays and his movie roles, but I like his short stories which often have a Western flavor. These two collections are excellent: Cruising Paradise and Great Dream of Heaven.
Speaking of short stories [And self-promotion!—Ed.] my Nick Zollicker stories—Smothering the Savage and An Imperfect Mimic—make great digital stocking stuffers. Or get one for yourself, put your feet up by the fire, and read it while sipping a seasonally appropriate Tom and Jerry (recipe in Felten’s book). Nick Zollicker’s world of world of smell science and perfumery is one that hasn’t been depicted very often in fiction.
Looking for something weightier? Here are three recent non-fiction favorites of mine.
Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives, by Alex Berenson. Berenson, formerly of the NYT, posted about the scientific, medical, and public policy controversies of the COVID pandemic from the very beginning. For his trouble he was kicked off Twitter. (He sued them and they settled.) Pandemia is an even-handed and data-based account. Berenson’s lucid presentation of events and how they were portrayed at the time raises critical questions for the media and the medico-scientific establishment.
Another cool treatment of a hot topic [I see what you did there.—Ed.] is Steve Koonin’s Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Koonin has a lot of experience with computer-based climate models and he pulls no punches describing what they can and can’t do.
I thought I had a reasonable grasp of the history of WW II. Then I read Stalin's War: A New History of World War II by Sean McMeekin. It focuses on the material and strategic aid that the United States gave to Stalin and the Soviet Union throughout and after the war. The amounts were staggering, with repercussions at home and abroad. McMeekin’s account of the FDR administration’s overt and covert sympathy for the USSR, and consequent betrayal of friends and allies, is eye-opening and unsettling.
Happy reading and Merry Christmas!