Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Case Against Fragrance

A new Kate Grenville book is always a special moment. I've read a few of her early books, but not really kept up with her more recent books. Which is a sad thing for me as The Secret River is certainly one of the most significant novels of recent times. I really need to read it some time soon(ish). I do remember absolutely loving Lilian's Story way back when.

The Case Against Fragrance was released last month and was reviewed quite widely. I was rather incensed at her choice of subject and really wanted to read it to pick a fight with her I think. I was especially keen to get my hands on a copy- the aqua tones of the cover (not fully captured in the picture above) made it even more enticing, it's just so, so pretty. And it has a stylish, embossed typeface. The cover illustration of a Chanel No 5 style bottle did make me think it was more a case against perfume, but the book's scope is far broader than that and deals with the widespread use of fragrance (and not just perfume) in our modern lives.

Kate Grenville has written this book and taken leave of her usual fiction because of her personal reactions to fragrance. It wasn't until her 30s, when she had subconsciously moved away from wearing perfume that Kate realised the enormity of her own problem with fragrance. A friend gave her a bottle of perfume and she immediately developed a headache. Overtime she began to avoid fragrance in other guises too- cosmetics, shampoos and cleaning products. And then in her 50s she had a viral illness with a prolonged recovery that seemed to sensitise her to fragrance even more.

As I began to read I started to realise that I had some commonality with Kate after all. I have had prodigious hay fever for most of my adult life (although thanks to the immune modulation of pregnancy it has been vastly better for the past 17 years or so), and don't like certain smells because they make me sneeze. I never linger long in those heavily incensed hippy shops. Whilst I like some of the products of places like Lush the overwhelming strength of the smell of the shops is a bit much for me. And I rather famously don't like coffee. But I especially don't like the smell- it makes me nauseous. I've long thought of it as a stench, but I do realise that one (wo)man's stench is another (wo)man's pleasure. And I realise most of the world actively likes the smell of coffee, and am more than ok with the fact that it's just me that doesn't like it.

Kate Grenville came out swinging with a quote from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, but then the tone of her writing was more centered.
When I was little, my mother had a tiny, precious bottle of perfume on her dressing table and on special occasions she'd put a dab behind her ears. The smell of Arp├Ęge was always linked in my mind with excitement and pleasure- Mum with her hair done, wearing her best dress and her pearls, off for a night out with Dad. 

Which is kind of how I think of perfume too. I'm not a daily perfume wearer, but I do have several bottles of perfume on my dresser. Like Kate I too love the sensuous shapes of their bottles, "the names and the labels, so evocative of all things glamorous". Not that I approach glamorous most days but smell is closely associated with memory and as well all know certain smells will take us back to a specific place and time. My current perfume makes me so happy that I blogged about it in 2013. I can't see the bottle or smell the scent without thinking of Paris.

In 2015 Kate did a book tour for her previous book, One Life: My Mother's Story. It was a fabulous tour, I went to her talk locally. But it was on that tour that her problems with fragrance really intensified. I was probably one of the perfumed women giving her a headache on that tour...
We're smelling man-made scents all day, every day. Fragrance is now so pervasive that, as I was finding on that tour, the only way to avoid it is to become- to put it mildly - eccentric. 
Yes, taping up the doors of hotel rooms is probably somewhere beyond eccentric and Kate was aware that "I'd just crossed one of life's little boundaries. It was possible I'd joined the section of humanity that thinks the moon landings were faked by the CIA or the government puts Prozac in the water supply."

So Kate set out to look into Planet Fragrance. And she discovered some interesting things. Prior to World War II perfumes were made with largely natural ingredients, because of course we weren't refining petrochemicals in the way that we do now. Even when we are using natural raw materials now modern processes are concentrating these natural compounds into unnatural substances. "It takes up to four thousand kilos of rose petals to make a kilo of rose essential oil."
But these days fragrance makers can produce rivers of fragrance for the cost of a single basket of hand-picked rose petals.

There are interesting chapters on the regulation and safety of fragrances. 
We're exposed, every day, to powerful chemicals in fragrance. They're largely untested, mostly unregulated and, in many cases, not declared on the label. Yet, when it comes to these chemicals, we consumers are on our own.

It can get a little dry in there, but No I don't want stuff in my washing powder that demyelinates rats and turns their tissues green (Versalide, a synthetic musk in use since the 1950s that was then banned in 1982), and clearly noone wants carcinogens in their shampoo. Naturally, it's always concerning when the overseer of a particular industry is the industry itself. 

I had no idea that some folks collect vintage fragrances. Or that there are perfumes for babies! Why? Babies smell delicious by themselves. I'd never heard of 'low-scent' or 'fragrance-free' workplaces. I made an active choice that it wasn't appropriate to wear perfume to my work place many years ago, but I come across many people that don't appear to use any fragranced products of any kind and they are mighty unpleasant to be near. Although obviously I'm not meaning to suggest that Kate Grenville smells... but clearly no fragrance can go too far. 

I'm not so sure about Kate's claim that fragrance causes "health problems for over a third of people". If I wrinkle my nose because the laundry aisle is sometimes a bit stinky- is that a "health problem"? I don't think so. If I get someone to move their offensive cup of coffee away from me is that a "health problem"? No. No, it's not. 

Kate Grenville did make me think about perfume and scent in a way I never have before. While I realise Kate Grenville's reactions to fragrance are on the more severe end of the spectrum I do think that it's a long bow to draw to say that second-hand scent is the new second-hand smoke. She ends by asking us to be considerate of others and play nicely whilst in public. 

There's no law that says you can't play the bagpipes on the bus, but everyone's glad if you don't.

There are many references in The Case Against Fragrance one of which is an interesting early TED talk from 2005 by Luca Turin on The Science of Scent

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour

Recently I needed some comfort food type of reading. Fluffy, non challenging reads. So it was utterly appropriate and timely that I plucked the pastel hued The Adventures of Miss Petitfour from my TBR.

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is the first childrens book by Canadian novelist and poet Anne Michaels. I remember meaning to read her Fugitive Pieces back in the day, but don't think that I ever did. 

Miss Petitfour is a young crazy cat lady. She lives in a small cottage with her 16 cats! Yes, 16 cats. I'm not quite sure why she needed to have 16 cats, no plot point ever depended on all 16 cats being present- it could all have been achieved with four or five cats. And every time the cats came into the story all 16 names were listed, over and over again. It was very boring, quite tedious and totally unnecessary, and I found myself skimming the four or five lines it took to list all the crazy cat lady cat names. 

But the 16 cats is a minor quibble I guess. I really enjoyed Miss Petitfour and her Adventures.  Miss Petitfour just happens to use tablecloths to fly about her village to go to the shops, while trailing 16 cats. The Adventures are very gentle and rather domestic on the whole- running out of marmalade, losing a stamp (and BTW a  Penny Black is a real thing, the first adhesive stamp used in a public postal system, released in Britain on 1 May 1840), or clearing out the closets. 

Some adventures are so small, you hardly know they've happened. Like the adventure of sharpening your pencil to a perfect point, just before it breaks and that little bit gets stuck in the sharpener. That, I think we will all agree, is a very small adventure. 

Other adventures are so big and last so long, you might forget they are adventures at all- like goring up. 
And some adventures are just the right size- fitting into a single, magical day. And these are the sorts of adventures Miss Petitfour had. 

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is whimsical and charming. There is wonderful wordplay, there's not enough books of any sort using words like rickrack, gesticulating and furbelow anymore. Or "the tiny sound of whiskers being licked clean". Although all of the digressions did get a little much, I like to think that maybe somewhere cats do play badminton and wonder if I should take up singing sea shanties while I clean my teeth. I shall try to divide people (and cats) by their predisposition to like circles (donuts, biscuits, pancakes) or lines (sausages, french fries, linguine and liquorice ropes).

I was somewhat hesitant going in as I remembered that my friend Brona hadn't liked Miss Petitfour and her Adventures, and whilst I do take her points, I found it a perfect antidote to my week. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Grover Finds a Home

I had never heard of this book (or indeed this series) until Grover Finds a Home showed up on the Readings Children's Book Prize Shortlist for 2017. A lost dog story is always welcome for me, and it was the shortest of the shortlisted books and easy to slip in as a quick read during my week of comfort reads.

Grover Finds a Home is such a lovely story- imaginatively told from Grover's point of view. Grover is living a terrible life, always chained in a backyard, neglected, abused and mistreated by the Man with Big Boots. One night he escapes terrified during a thunderstorm and is picked up and taken to an animal shelter. He is malnourished, sick and has infected, sore ears but he wins over Annie, a worker at the shelter who decides to take him home.

He couldn't believe how nice it felt to rest his tired bones on a soft bed, in a warm house, with a full belly. This was all he'd ever wanted. 

Picture Source

With lovely illustrations by Johannes Leak Grover Finds a Home is perfect for beginner readers and any animal loving child. Master Wicker would have loved this as a read aloud bedtime story way back when. There are three books so far in the Grover McBane Rescue Dog series- Grover Finds a Home, Grover's New Friends and Grover, Benji and Nanna Jean.

Like any modern personality Grover McBane has his own instagram account. Somewhat dispiritingly he gets about more than I do. We have two rescue dogs at the Wicker house, both sitting with me right now.

They're almost impossible to photograph, Especially together.

 These are from last winter. Basking in the sun at the door.

Claire Garth is the General Manager of Sydney Dogs and Cats Home, a large council pound and non-kill animal shelter in Southern Sydney. It has been in operation since 1946 and is currently on a major fundraising drive as they need to raise $3 million for a purpose built facility.

Mamamia did an interesting profile on Claire Garth and Grover McBane encouraging us all to get a rescue dog. It is a life changing decision- for both of you.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Birds of the South Coast

It almost seems a life time ago, but last September/October Master Wicker and I had a short holiday on the beautiful South Coast of NSW.

It's a lovely area, one where I hadn't spent much time. See my South Coast Panoramas.

Naturally, I was keen to check out some birds while we were there. We did see some, but sadly I don't think any of them were new for me. I did get some good photos though.

Lewin's Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii)

It's almost impossible to get good photos of lyrebirds though. They are always in dimly lit areas, and are constantly in motion, continually pawing (can birds paw?) through the undergrowth looking for dinner. 

Superb Lyrebird (Meura novaehollandiae)

You'd think this bird would be easy to identify, but I had a hard time. It should be a Spotted Turtle Dove I guess, but there aren't any obvious spots. 

New Holland Honeyeater (Phyildonyrus novaehollandiae)
This Grey Butcherbird was an exciting sighting for me, I've had glimpses of them before. This fellow flew off as soon as I got this photo. 
Grey Butcherbird (Practices torquatus)

We stopped at many beaches, one of them had a distinctive rooster noise as we got out of the car. And sure enough there he was!

It's always a joy to see some Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus), they're so pretty. 

An Australasian Gannet (Morus serrator) on the wing.

Pied Oystercatcher (Haemtopus longirostrus)

Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)

Long-billed Corella (Cacatua tenuirostrus)

Happily, I see Crimson Rosellas most days near home. I've even been bitten by one as I released it from bird netting in the back yard. They hurt. 

Male Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans)
The birds at Pebbly Beach are very used to people. The beach is also famous for the resident kangaroos hanging out on the sand. 

Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus)

Male King Parrot (Alisterus scapulars)

Saturday Snapshot is a wonderful weekly meme
 now hosted by 

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Beach at Night

I'd like to think that I'm the sort of person, the sort of reader, who will read Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels someday, but well I suspect that I'm not. Not really. I haven't read them yet, not even one, so the chance of me reading all four is, well, remote. Committing to one book is hard enough, but committing to four by reading one, well, that's near impossible. 

So I was very excited to see that Elena Ferrante had written a children's book. I was moderately disconcerted by the weird looking doll on the cover, but I bought it anyway and read it recently while waiting for an appointment. 

Oh my, it is so, so bizarre. The Beach at Night is narrated by Celina, a doll who has been accidentally left on the beach after her owner, five year old Mati, forgets about her after she is given a new kitten by her father. Celina is dropped like the proverbial hot potato. But seriously who takes a new kitten as a present to the beach?

Celina is left behind in the sand as night falls. She is then raked up by the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset with all the other debris of the day, and rubbish left behind. Which makes me wonder if Italian beaches are routinely raked each night? Maybe I'll have to go to Italy one night and find out. Celina has a nightmarish night battling fire, water and the creepy Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset, who sings impossible songs that surely must sound better in Italian, and dribbles much more than he should.

I can't imagine that too many children would enjoy reading The Beach at Night. I'm not sure what adult Ferrante fans would think of it. My cover blurb calls the book a "wonderful children's fable", and tells us that with it "Elena Ferrante returns to a story at the heart of her novel The Lost Daughter, which she considers to be a turning point in her development as a writer."

I'm now more than a bit concerned about whether I'd like Ferrante's adult writing or not. I don't see how I would based on this smallest of tastes. The translator here is the same translator as her adult novels, so there must be some stylistic link? 

American reviewers also struggled with this book. The Washington Post. The New York Times

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Stella Prize 2017 Longlist and Shortlist

The Stella Prize has done such a great job of highlighting the superb writing by Australian Women writers since it's inception in 2013. The official site of the Stella Prize gives a great account of its foundation in 2011. It's interesting that it was founded at the same time as the Australia Women Writers Challenge, which started in 2012.

This years list is naturally another Stella list. I have been keen to read many of these titles, and have bought a number of them already.

The Longlist was announced on February 7.

Victoria: The Queen - Julia Baird
Between A Wolf And A Dog - Georgia Blain
The Hate Race - Maxine Beneba Clark
Poum and Alexandre - Catherine de Sainte Phalle
Offshore - Madeline Gleeson
Avalanche - Julia Leigh
An Isolated Incident - Emily Maguire
The High Places - Fiona McFarlane
Wasted - Elspeth Muir
The Museum of Modern Love - Heather Rose
Dying: A Memoir - Cory Taylor
The Media and the Massacre - Sonya Voumard

The Shortlist was announced this past week.

Between A Wolf And A Dog - Georgia Blain

The Hate Race - Maxine Beneba Clark

Poum and Alexandre - Catherine de Sainte Phalle

An Isolated Incident - Emily Maguire

The Museum of Modern Love - Heather Rose

Dying: A Memoir - Cory Taylor

The winner will be announced on April 18.

The Stella Prize needs our tax-deductible support.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Do Not Open This Book

Do Not Open This Book arrived in a blaze of publicity in September 2016. Celebrity first time authors with a cute backstory tend to help that along. Andy Lee is half of the comedy duo Hamish and Andy and wrote this book for his nephew's first birthday present (make sure to watch the video of the surprise in action). Andy wrote the book on a flight. He then asked his friend who just happens to be a children's book publisher to make one copy for his nephew George, but his friend wanted to publish it. This was clearly the right decision as the book crashed the publishers website and sold more than 40,000 copies in just the first two days. 

I'd been meaning to pick up a copy when I saw it, but I never managed to find one in a shop til this week. Do Not Open This Book is perfect picture book simplicity. The funny little blue guy gets angrier and angrier as you keep disobeying him and firstly open the book and then turn each page. 

It is reminiscent of 1971's The Monster at the End of this Book, and there was a small skirmish about this at the time of publication, but I don't think that anything has come of it. Indeed there appears to be at least two other books called Do Not Open This Book- a 1998 book by legend Joy Cowley, and a 2006 one by Michaela Muntean. 

Do Not Open This Book was published by Lake Press, a small independent publisher based in Melbourne that has been shortlisted for Best Children's Publisher Book Publisher 2017 in Oceania at the Bologna Book Fair.