The Perfume Collector ~ Kathleen Tessaro

Moving is one of those magical experiences that eats up time like a black hole gobbling everything. Absolutely everything. Consequently, this post is a long time coming. At least, it’s longer than anticipated. I actually finished this book about two weeks ago and meant to yell from the rooftops, but the rooftops had to wait.

Many boxes and too many car rides and a few irritated cardboard box cuts later, I’m back on the roof.

Kathleen Tessaro’s The Perfume Collector is a beautifully crafted story about Grace Munroe, a young upper class Englishwoman who finds herself the recipient of an unexpected inheritance, and Eva D’Orsey, the mysterious Frenchwoman who has named Grace her sole beneficiary. Grace journeys to Paris, in disbelief at the news that a woman she does not know has left her a sizable fortune. Unwilling to blindly, mindlessly accept the money and leave, Grace seeks out anyone who might have known Eva. In a derelict perfume shop, she meets a woman, seemingly the only person left who knew Eva, and learns through three perfumes the story of a remarkable individual.

The Perfume Collector is an enchanting story containing all the crucial elements of a genuinely entertaining read: mystery, romance, glamour, tragedy. Although its reveals are perhaps not so surprising and its ending thoroughly predictable, the story itself remains compelling and marvelous because its real beauty lies in the details of the protagonists’ lives and in the development of their characters. The prose is elegant, visual and visceral, embodying the use of perfume as a narrative lens.

I loved this book for so many reasons. Of course, the writing itself. I absolutely will not slog through a blandly written story; I’ve gotten very picky. I loved the scents and visions Tessaro evoked with her narrative style. The protagonists were also marvelous. Eva is a brilliant individual whose intelligence, grit, and cleverness help her transcend the socially-constructed class and gender barriers placed around her. Grace is also intelligent; she is determined, stubborn, and inquisitive. Over the course of the story, she gains confidence, reclaims her intelligence, and discovers the thrill of autonomy. Both women transcend the societal assumptions and restrictions to live life on their own terms. The stories themes of self-actualization are uplifting and joyful, even as they underscore the not-so-joyful circumstances that must often be overcome in the process.

And yes, it’s nice to have a story where women can be fully human without it having to be a big deal (as though women being human first and female second were some sort of revelation rather than an actual, since-the-dawn-of-humanity fact) or a statement on the author’s cleverness/timeliness/genius/worthiness.

Ultimately, The Perfume Collector is a beautiful story told in vivid, gorgeous language. It is a tale of transcending challenges, reminding the reader to strive for the positive rather than wallowing in the negative.


The Book of Joy ~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams

This book. THIS BOOK. Everyone needs to read it. It’s amazing. Just actually amazing. This book speaks to the soul.

The Book of Joy, written by Douglas Abrams as a record of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, explores joy, the cultivation of joy, and the relationship between joy and suffering. I picked it up at the recommendation of one of my professors. As someone who has struggled with happiness, I found this book really resonated with me. There was so much that I read and went “yup, I know how that feels” or “yeah, that roughly sketches a pattern that occurred in my life.” And wonderfully, I related to their suggestions for ways forward, their approaches to generating positivity in a too-often negative world.

I also appreciated that The Book of Joy is not pretentious, as perhaps one might be inclined to fear. As the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu say through Abrams in the prologue, “You don’t need to believe us. Indeed, nothing we say should be taken as an article of faith. We are sharing what two friends, from very different worlds, have witnessed and learned in our long lives.” The Book of Joy does not aspire to tell you how to think or live; it does not claim to have all the answers. It wouldn’t translate very well to an inspirational TED Talk or smartly written blog post or clever YouTube video about 10 Ways You Can Increase Your Happiness TODAY! Rather, The Book of Joy invites you to think for yourself and consider the ideas presented and hopefully to find a better way forward yourself.

So please read this book. But don’t just read it. Read it and contemplate it. Take your time with it. Marvel in it. Slow yourself down with it. It won’t entertain you like the internet will. It won’t kindle passion, anger like the news can. You won’t feel a battle cry erupt within your throat.

But you will find in this book the seeds of a better you, a happier you, a more joyful you. And the seeds of a better us, all of us. The seeds of a better humanity through better humans. The seeds of a more joyful humanity through more joyful humans.

The only remaining question will be what you want: joy or suffering.





Be gentle on yourself, darling. Give yourself a chance. When the midnight comes in the late afternoon, then you know you could not have done anymore.

I know what they say. They say such quaint phrases. Work harder, they say. Sacrifice, sacrifice. Sleep, food, and ego, they say. Be stronger. Keep that pretty smile on; hold your head high. Don’t let them know, they whisper. Don’t let us see, they beg.

I know. I hear their voices in the night.

But when the midnight comes in the middle of the day, what more could you have done? What more is there to say?

So be gentle, my darling, with your heart and soul and your big eyes that carry the fight into the evening. You are only human, and you gave what you had to give to stay alive, to make it through the dark into the pink-lit evening sky. Be gentle with your bruised soul. Be gentle with your brimming eyes. You deserve to let go of the pain and hold on to the best of life.

the Wisdom of Whores ~ Elizabeth Pisani

So I picked this book up because it had this ultra dramatic title. The Wisdom of Whores. Wow. Okay. So what do the whores have to say?

Use condoms. And don’t share needles. Apparently.

Elizabeth Pisani, journalist-turned-epidemiologist author, has lived in the US, England, Kenya, and the Philippines. She has chatted up sex workers and ministers of health and junkies and non-junkies who do drugs sometimes for funsies. She has a PhD in infectious disease epidemiology.

And she’s written this remarkable book. An engaging, intelligent, eloquent non-fiction discussion of HIV, its prevention, treatment, and politics.

This book is actually, honestly a page-turner; I read all 325 pages in a matter of 5 days. Four and a half really, but that’s only because I got drowsy on day four. It was late.


I love this book because it exists squarely at the intersection of story-telling and science. The text is stuffed full of statistics, enumerated references to studies, and scientific data collection and analysis processes, but it’s so readable. It’s personable. Pisani injects humor and levity without losing substance or credibility. She brings to life the people, places, and experiences that shaped her understanding of the impact of HIV on real people. She writes with personality and a dash of irreverence, with thoughtfulness and intellect.

If you’re considering what to read next (or have a list of books to which you add recommendations), I would like to place this book, figuratively speaking, into your open hands. It is not only a thorough, meaningful look into the HIV epidemic but also an insightful study of the many ways in which science, politics, and belief systems intersect and complicate our lives. And how the last two often hinder good from being done.

I enjoyed reading this book immensely because it read with the ease of a good story, but I also loved this book because I came out more knowledgeable on a subject that is often obscured by people’s prejudices and fears. Worth your time.




Monday, August 28. The AM.

Eyes staring at the ceiling, mind wrapping bizarrely around the hills and troughs of the spackled, shadowy contours of white paint. These familiar blankets, these blue sheets; they are alien to me. Smelling the same, feeling generic. Contents of a once-home. A former abode. Alien in this new light, this new context.

I roll out of bed. Drift to the bathroom mirror. Only my face. Nothing weird.


Which conjures grubby people down on their luck, chasing life and falling a little behind. Not me. Certainly. I had a home. It was miles away.

Nomadism, perhaps. A lack of permanence.

A floating from place to place. Settling a little, uncomfortably, only to float on again. It wasn’t bad necessarily. But lacking something.

Home. The feeling of relaxing your shoulders, sinking into bed at night. Waking up and wandering in and staring at your kitchen
refrigerator door opening
lean in
and peering in with a vapid contemplation and easy indecision of no place to lose. The walls cradled you.

Home was knowing you’d be there tomorrow night and the night in two weeks and the night in five weeks.

Home was not having to pause when someone asked you where you live
because did they mean where I live now? Or…?
Because “home” was miles away.

But I didn’t wake up without a home. I simply woke up in a temporary home.

Because home was also people to call up: you were back! Home was having someone with whom to eat breakfast. Home was having someone with whom to go on a walk when the work was getting you wound and down.

Home was here and there and that other place, too.

It was too many places, and that was beautiful in its own disjointed, scattered, bewildering, exciting way. But it had made a ghost of me.


Good Omens ~ Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett

So I finally finished Good Omens. It took me long enough. I don’t usually read this slow, but I’ve had so much going on. I suppose that’s just the way it is sometimes.

This book has been around for some time now. 27 years, to be precise. That’s older than me. This book is old enough that the copy I read has a foreword in which the authors discuss writing the book and something that might count as an afterword that discusses the book’s status as a “cult classic.” From what I can tell, those who know it and love it, know it and love it thoroughly.

Considering, however, that I am now officially an adult and hadn’t even known of the existence of this book despite having heard of the authors and considering this book is older than today’s newest vanguard of adulthood, discussing this book seems to me to contain merit beyond me spewing my opinions at you. Not that spewing my opinions at you isn’t reason enough. Opinion-spewing is fashionable these days.

My favorite part of Good Omens is the humour. Now, if you have read this book or pick it up in the near future, you will say to me, perhaps with a twinge of sarcasm

“That’s very nice, but the whole thing’s a bloody handbook on comedy.”

True, but that’s why it’s so brilliant. The book never stops being funny, which is absolutely incredible. Even comedy movies need to take a break from being funny for a moment, probably because the writers have run out of jokes and think that humour and character development are mutually exclusive. This is the book to prove them wrong (which, of course, makes me wonder where they’ve been all these years because they’ve had 27 years to mend the error of their ways).

Furthermore, the comedy is smart. Sometimes, it’s even borderline satiric. It’s satire that’s having way too much fun. It’s satire that’s challenging ideas and telling you smart things while cracking you up so hard you’ll spill your tea (or coffee or cocoa; whatever you drink while you read, I suggest you set it down first).

Good Omens qualifies, then, as a fun read. You can read it on the train or in a plane or after a particularly stressful day. It’s the type of book you can read before bed. It won’t leave you weeping. It’s lighthearted.

Another bit of the book’s magic is in the seamless blending of fantastical and mundane elements. I have not yet read a Terry Pratchett book, but I do know that this overlapping of worlds is something Neil Gaiman does well and, frankly, often. The idea of taking a traditional story and bringing it to today’s reality and reimagining it within those bounds is very Neil Gaiman.

What are these fantastical elements, you say? What is this story reimagined? That is where you pick up the book and find out for yourself.

The Ais

The sunset was shades of grapefruit behind palm tree silhouettes and the idling hint of a cargo train.

One of the largest and fiercest early Florida tribes, the Ais, consisted of several hundred thousand people, who lived in east central Florida…

I’d never seen a Native American burial mound before, only heard of them. This one was not terribly tall and covered in yellow wildflowers and a handful of palm trees. It looked like a small, unlikely hill. Florida doesn’t have hills.

People sometimes order their words by importance. Sometimes, they order it to hide something they hope you won’t read, something they hope maybe you’ll skip because there were too many words and you got bored and didn’t read the sign all the way. I know, people don’t read signs much anyway.

Their large council house was furnished with wooden benches came after The Ais were fishers, hunters, and gatherers. The Ais were humans. They had stories; they had lives. And here we could see what remained of them. I have no doubt they were not simplistic, uncivilized people, yet here again, we hid their civilization in words schoolchildren are taught to associate with the earliest settlements of humanity.

Buried somewhere later in the sign was Although the Spanish Governor of Florida in 1597 described the Ais as the most populous of tribes, they were extinct by the 1740s.Like other early Florida tribes, including the Timucua, Apalachee and Calusa, the Ais were decimated by invasion and enslavement by northern Indians. Aboriginal people had lived in the state for over 12,000 years. Did you know human beings could go extinct?

The least we could do, I suppose, was honor their dead. Acknowledge with full-face responsibility the role the United States’ European ancestors had in their extinction we cannot. So honor at least this simple monument, their death. Did they know, I thought, staring at the rambling grasses and nodding flowers, that this would be their legacy? No names and a sign that simplified their lives and their culture, who they were. Did they know that their existence would be reduced to fishers, hunters, and gatherers.

What do they say of the Europeans?

• Old Fort Pierce Park, Ft. Pierce, FL •

*italicized text quoted from park sign


Nickel and Dimed ~ Barbara Ehrenreich

I remember once learning about hunger and homelessness and poverty. I was young then, too young to really know what it all means but just young enough to learn through compassion rather than fact, to remember the meaning without having to argue about its validity. The program that exposed me to these topics is now sadly discontinued but suffice it to say it opened my eyes and left a lasting impact on me.

Recently, I read a book that reminded me of many of the lessons I learned that long while ago. It reminded me that poverty hides in plain sight and that those who live in its clutches do not deserve it any more than you or I. Not that I ever thought that those who are poor deserve to be poor, that they are somehow lesser, but the glitzy world of those quite safely afloat tells a very seductive lie: that perhaps that is merely the way things are, that people will be poor, that we’re doing the best we can.

A rather pathetic excuse, don’t you think? Somewhere in the range of “the dog ate my homework” and “I was late because there was traffic (like there is every morning).”

I’ve never believed that a problem only has one solution, which might seem surprising if you had a cursory acquaintance with my background and absolutely not surprising if you truly understood my background. Life, in a sense, is a problem, not in the sense of something frustrating and bothersome (though sometimes it is that) but in the sense of being a puzzle, a dynamic, intricate, complex puzzle with rules and no rules simultaneously. Life is a conceptual problem, and no correct answer exists to how it must be lived. This, of course, also means that a solution obtained may not be the best one and to convince yourself otherwise despite knowing the truth is merely delusional at best, cold-hearted and selfish at worst.

To believe that the current solution to poverty, which ultimately underlies the pressing problems of hunger and homelessness, despite the living, breathing human proof otherwise is a self-conceit of damnable proportion. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich explores the issue of low-wage living in the United States and its relative invisibility to those living a comparatively to seriously and strikingly affluent lifestyle. While the book is by no means an exhaustive source on the shortcomings and failures of modern society in addressing and supporting those living at the bottom of the income spectrum, it is a wake-up call. Nickel and Dimed draws attention to the many challenges facing those living on low wages, in poverty even if their situation is not officially recognized as such.

I will admit, when I first started reading Nickel and Dimed, I felt a little annoyed with the author. She seemed incredibly self-centered and more focused on bemoaning the loss of her upper-middle lifestyle than on digging into the implications of the lives and conditions she saw around her as she dove into her experiment to mimic and stay afloat in a low-wage lifestyle. To her credit, she grew a lot as the protagonist of her little story, but more importantly, as the book, and her experiment, progressed, she did, in fact, dig into the implications of her experiences, interactions, and observations. The research and background she put into supplementing her own experiment were thorough and meticulous. I also realized that her seeming self-absorption was not a fault in her but rather a reflection of the shocks someone who is in no way, and likely never has been, familiar with a life of poverty may experience as she or he begins to grasp exactly what that new, unsavory lifestyle entails.

In essence, Nickel and Dimed reads like a personal narrative: the experiences of author Barbara Ehrenreich as she undergoes the experiment of trying to maintain a place of residence and feed herself via low-wage work. The book is well-written and well-paced, and reading it entirely is time well-spent. Through description of personal experiences, Ehrenreich reveals the many challenges facing an individual attempting to stay afloat in the lowest sector of the income scale. It is through these moments also that she conveys the deep contrast in the accepted boundaries and limitations of human endurance and behavior between those living the low-wage lifestyle and those living more comfortably than that. Low-wage workers work harder and often at far greater physical and emotional expense to receive far less than those comfortably in the middle class and above. Via footnotes, Ehrenreich details research and supporting information that provides context, a setting and a scope, for the situations she encounters, demonstrating that hers is not the story of an upper middle class woman failing to adjust to a less privileged lifestyle but of a human paralleling the lifestyle of the many people who experience such steep obstacles to mobility and survival every day. Nickel and Dimed’s greatest triumph is in providing a foothold for an empathetic understanding of the situation rather than a merely factual one, in helping the reader learn by compassion rather than by easily-dismissible and –forgotten data.


Everything here was still, up on the cliff with the swarming thorn bushes, high above the crashing of the waves. Here, the rush and roar reduced to a murmur, a magnetic come-hither. The wind stilled.

Here, where everything stopped, and the sunlight froze the swirling anxieties, the push-and-pulls of the world and its overbearing inhabitants, like black, diaphanous ribbons suspended in shimmering light, I heard the echo of the ocean within me. I heard the ocean speak.

I never know exactly what the ocean will give me when I go to speak with it, but I know this: it always gives me truth.

Deep within the midnight blues that sprayed into fine, white froth that turned into the endless sky, I felt my own soul resonate, pure and simple. Melancholy. A deep, bone sadness that permeated like the sunlight, sat still and breathless as the breeze. Swirling slowly, calmly within me, indifferent to the layers of personality, the hopes, the fears, the misguided yearnings imbued in me by the rest, the outside. A melancholy so profound, it was as deep and slow in its movement as the deepest blue of the ocean. Stolid.

This was not something you argued with, now that the ocean had seen you and spoken. That I knew.

After all, everything begins and ends with the ocean. Life itself, on this planet, began with the ocean, swings to its whims. We all have a little ocean inside us. And the ocean speaks, if you know how to listen.

| 27.12.2016 |