Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Feasts for the senses

Burr, Chandler. The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York. New York: Henry Holt, 2008.

Gollner, Adam. The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession. New York: Scribner, 2008.

I put these two together because both authors describe in great detail smells, and, in the case of Gollner, tastes. Both books arose in some way from essays, and both authors do write about themselves in pursuit of their stories. Both books are richly detailed "micro-histories," in which the author explores the past, present, and future of some common thing in our world--perfume in Burr's case, fruit in Gollner's.

Burr's book is a bit more limited in scope, and therefore has more depth. He writes about the development of a perfume for the Hermes company of France. Burr has already written a biography of Jean-Claude Ellena, the developer of this perfume, yet Ellena is the center of half of this book as well. The other half of the book covers Sarah Jessica Parker and those at Coty who help her develop her first scent and some ancillary products. Those looking for Parker the actress in this book will be disappointed--there's virtually nothing about that. Yet the portrait of Parker in the book is interesting. There's a bit of everything that goes into perfumes in this book--chemistry, pricing, history and culture of an old industry, marketing, design. And there are lots of micro-reviews of perfumes along the way. Sometimes the book was hard to follow--there are lots of people involved in each perfume, plus there's that chemistry! But I will never look at, or more importantly, smell perfume in the same way. And there's an interesting philosophical discussion about "synthetic" versus "natural" ingredients.

Gollner writes about all kinds of fruit. The book is more a series of essays and vignettes (while Burr's book is limited to a year timeframe). Gollner's book is a mix of biology, history, travel, literature, religion, and business. Chapters focus on what a fruit is, exactly (yes, a tomato is a fruit); trips Gollner took in search of particular, unusual fruits; portraits of people in the U.S. who collect and cultivate unusual fruits; a man who is cultivating and marketing an apple that tastes like a grape (or vice-versa, the "Grapple"); and the miracle fruit (after biting one, anything sour you taste shortly afterwards tastes sweet instead) and how an attempt to sell in it in the U.S. was squashed. The book reminds me of Flower Confidential, except that there's less about fruit as a big business. Gollner describes the taste, appearance, and textures of many, many fruits. It's amazing the various roles, beyond physical sustenance, that fruit has played in so many cultures.