Ramon Monegal, whose Mon Cuir is one of my new beloveds, puts all of his perfumes into bottles shaped like inkwells.

inkwellIt’s like these people know exactly how to make me part with money….

I have recently disappeared down a rabbit hole of reading about, sampling and buying perfumes.  I was already a bit of an addict, but when I hosted my book club last month, we read The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr, and it took me off on a journey to discover all kinds of new scents.  This is not a cheap habit.  I’ve ordered dozens of samples of fragrances I want to experience.  I’ve discovered new loves.  I’ve bought enough perfume that, believe it or not, I have stopped browsing in book stores because, really, I can only have one obsession in need of an intervention at a time.  Friends have asked me if they should stage an intervention.  Of course not.  I’m not going into bookstores anymore, right?  (Well, there was that quick trip into the Bob Miller….)

Both books and perfumes give me a down to the tips of my toes kind of joy, and it is really wonderful when my obsessions complement each other.  When I read this passage about E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View from the wonderful How to Be  a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, I knew just the perfume to go with the scene.  Here is Ellis:

channelling Helena Bonham-Carter in the luscious Merchant Ivory film, I cultivated bird’s nest hair and set off for a month in Florence, just before my final year [of university].  I was there to learn Italian, but the classes at the fusty stuccoed British Institute were just in the mornings.  The sun-drenched afternoons and the cool, lazy evenings were for awestruck wandering, gazing at frescoes and eating gelato.  I tried to give myself up to beauty, as Forster advises.  He sends Lucy to Santa Croce without her Baedeker guide, and at first she’s frustrated by not knowing which tomb is the most beautiful, which most praised by Ruskin.  The church feels enormous, and cold.  (It is.)  Then suddenly ‘the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.’  … A friend was passing through Florence, and we took the orange bus out to Fiesole, in the hills above the city.  It’s in those hills, covered in violets, that George kisses Lucy.  We made for the Roman amphitheatre and sat on the stage, and read out my play.  He read the boys, I read the girls.  We had the whole arc of honey-coloured stones to ourselves, the whole blue sky.  Later I’d direct it in Cambridge and on the Edinburgh Fringe, but that afternoon in Fiesole was where it startled into life.  At Fiesole, Lucy sees the violets and feels spring, really feels the sun and the flowers blooming and opening, and suddenly feels that she can see the world ‘beautiful and direct’–and then George kisses her.  Because of Lucy, and because of Fiesole, I felt that too: that things were clearing, that I could see. (141-145)

I read that passage and got up to spritz myself with Room with a View by Christopher Brosius for C B I Hate Perfume before reading it again.  Here is Brosius on Room with a View:

This perfume captures the scent of the hills above Florence – the vineyards, the wild grass, the finocchio, the hot dusty Florentine earth.  And of course a torrent of violets.

404_perfume1And it does.  Just as Ellis gets inspiration to write from Lucy and from the setting in which her fictional heroine feels, so, too, did Brosius create from the spring that Forster’s setting provides.  He cites this passage as the inspiration for his perfume:

[Lucy] did not answer.  From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam.  But never again were they in such profusion; the terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.

Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepares, was the good man.  But he was not the good man that she had expected, and he was alone.

George had turned at the sound of her arrival.  For a moment he contemplated her, as one who has fallen out of heaven.  He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves.  The bushes above them closed.  He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.

And there was I, smelling Brosius’s dusty earth and torrent of violets, rejoicing in Ellis’s seeing the world beautiful and direct.

heroineHow to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much

Samantha Ellis

London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Was there ever a book so meant for me to read?  It’s been a long time since I’ve finished a book and wanted to get right to the computer to write about it, but this book gave me that wonderful sense of urgency.  I must spread the word.  Others must know how wonderful this book is. 

I heard Samantha Ellis read from and discuss her book on The Guardian books podcast.  I ordered the book right away, but had to wait for its publication date in Canada.  It arrived this week.  I devoured it in a day.

Ellis begins the book on the Yorkshire moors, with her best friend Emma, and they are arguing about who they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw.  (Emma and I agree; Jane Eyre, of course.)  Ellis is adamant that Cathy Earnshaw is the heroine for her.  Emma has made her think, though, that she should revisit the question.

…. when we reached Top Withins, the skies cleared.  The clouds vanished and the sun shone, as if this was the backdrop for some moment of revelation.  Which it was.  I was wrong.

My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.

As we leaned against the warm stone, basking–actually basking–in the sun, drinking flasks of tea, I wondered why I’d written Jane off.  She is independent, and brave, and clever, and she really does stay true to herself.  And while Cathy ends up a wandering ghost, Jane ends up happily married.  The brilliant sunshine was very Jane weather, I thought; pleasant, clear and rational.  It would have rained for Cathy, there would have been thunder and lightning.  And (said a small, but firm Jane voice) we would have shivered and eaten soggy sandwiches hunched under the hoods of our waterproofs. …

I decided that when I got back to London, I would dig out my copies of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and read them again, with more scrutiny and less sentiment.  I would find out how I really felt about Cathy and Jane.  But maybe that wouldn’t be the end of it.  After all, if I’d been wrong about Cathy, had I been wrong about my other heroines too?

And so begins 18 months of re-reading and writing about all of her favourite books and heroines.   Ellis begins with fairy tales and works her way through children’s books, racy reads, “the classics” and classics of first and second wave feminism; from The Little Mermaid, to Anne of Green Gables, from Lizzy Bennet and Flora Poste, from Esther Greenwood to Lucy Honeychurch.  She revisits, among many others, Louisa May Alcott, Barbara Pym, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Angela Carter.  Having read and relied on these books and their heroines to shape her growing self, who, she asks, is the heroine she needs today.

The title is a nod to Louis May Alcott’s “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain,” and this idea of reading spoiling not just one’s eyes and brain, but marriage prospects too, comes up often in the book.  As an Iraqi Jew, whose parents fled to England as refugees, the marriage plot features heavily in Ellis’s own life.  Her parents want her to settle down with a nice Iraqi Jewish boy, but Ellis chafes against the marriage plot both in life and in literature.  She wants adventure, independence, a model for a writing life.  Ellis herself is a playwright, and a huge appeal of her book is that she traces the fates of women writing in fiction.

There is a perfect balance of autobiographical material and discussion of the books on hand.  Ellis is not just well read, she has a genuine desire to right by books and their authors.  She is a generous reader, but totally unafraid of calling herself out or her beloved writers out for failing their own heroines.  I loved her arguments with her younger self and with the authors who let their women writers sacrifice writing to marriage and children.

I loved every minute of reading this book.  It went too quickly.  I gobbled, as I often do, but this book sent me back for seconds, it sent me to my own bookshelves to pull down my own copies of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Cold Comfort Farm, The Bloody Chamber, To the Lighthouse, I Capture the Castle, and and and.  It also sent me looking for books I haven’t yet read: Lolly Willowes and South Riding.  It did, in other words, what all great books about books should do: it gave me the pleasure of revisiting old favourites and the joy of anticipating new reads.

Tbookshophe Bookshop

by Penelope Fitzgerald

London: Flamingo, 1989.

I have to begin by saying that I can’t think of how to write about this book without spoilers.  The ending weighs so heavily on me.  What a delightfully acerbic and dark read this is.  Dark because the forces of evil, in the guise of a woman named Violet, seem to prevail.  Delightful because the world of books, fictional and real, has booksellers like Florence Green, who buys hundreds of silk bookmarks because they are beautiful and hundreds of copies of Lolita because, after taking advice, is assured that regardless of how much money it will make, it is a book worth reading.

Widow Florence Green decides to open a bookshop and buys a haunted, crumbling building in which to sell her wares.  She is all determination and forthrightness.   She is a little unsure of her business decisions, but under the influence of her astonishingly capable 10-year-old shop assistant Christine, Florence hardens a bit.  She is wonderful.  Her nemesis, Violet, decides after Florence has bought the Old House that she wants it for a community arts centre, and schemes and plots to get Florence evicted.  Fitzgerald is remarkably deft in her depiction of the stubbornly stupid bureaucrat, the despotic small-town matriarch.  Her dialogue is crisp and witty.  Her prose is just opaque enough to make you work at filling in a scene, just light enough to make you squint a bit to sort impressions into shape.

Courage is Florence’s primary virtue, and as a book lover it takes some courage to read this book.  Spoiler alert!   The book ends with Florence defeated, “her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.”  Oh, Florence, no!  That’s not it!    That’s not it at all!   The good news is that the Violets of this world will always be skewered by capable pens.  The narrator and we know what poor Florence does not, that Violet schemed mercilessly to ruin her, and there will have to be satisfaction in that knowledge.

coverThe Serif Fairy: Explorations in the World of Letters

by René Siegfried (translated by Joel Mann)

New York: Mark Batty, 2007.

In a last-minute bid to improve the ratio of books read to books bought for 2013, I am using the glory that is the post-Christmas pajama party  to knock a few slim volumes off of my TBR shelves.  I reorganized those shelves today, putting on the new books that were under the tree, and it felt great to handle all the bookish goodness that still awaits me.  I had forgotten this lovely little book, too, so I am especially glad to have used precious pajama time organizing.

The Serif Fairy has lost her wing.  Her left wing.  Her magical wing, to be precise.  She cannot fly without it, so she must journey on foot through forest, town and country to find it.  Each location is built out of its own font, and the author matches perfectly the font to the setting.  I marvel at his work on the Futura City:


Look at that helicopter!

This book was originally made as a project for a course in communications design, and the author’s design cred shines through.  With remarkably little else in the way of colour or illustration, Siegfried populates and illustrates each page with images made entirely of letters in different sizes.  At the end of the book, there is an answer key of sorts that tells you which letters are used in each image.  Part of the fun of the illustrations, of course, is to figure that out for yourself.  Adding to the fun, little critters hide on each page, and there is a prompt at the end of the book to go back and look for them.

But a delighted reader, young or old, will need no invitation to go back and look at these illustrations again and again and again.

I love to read (and write) in my dressing gown.  It reminds me of a time when I was twelve and I feigned a three-day illness so I could stay off school and read The Lord of the Rings.  Not getting dressed makes a nice statement of intentions–I’m staying in with my book.

Gavin Extence, author of The Universe Versus Alex Wood

in an Indigo flyer from the summer

I hope you all had a chance to spend some time in pjs with a book this Thanksgiving weekend.


As I learned when I took part in CBC Radio’s segment on cursive writing, discussions about the value of teaching cursive handwriting are all over the place these days.

13539083If you are interested in reading more about the great handwriting debate, you could not do much better than Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting and Why It Still Matters.  It is a lively, humorous and informative look at the history of handwriting instruction.  Although it is written by an Englishman with a focus on handwriting instruction in his home country, there is a lot of information about the developments and reforms to the education system on this side of the pond as well.

I can’t resist including both covers of Hensher’s book.  Mine is the one above, published by Faber and Faber, but I really did covet this one, published in England by Pan Macmillan:


Hensher begins with a fond recollection of learning to write cursive: “There was an element of aspiration, too.  You longed to do ‘joined-up writing’, as we used to call the cursive hand when we were young.  Instructed in print letters, I looked forward to the ability to join one letter to another as a mark of huge sophistication. … There was also wanting to make your handwriting more like other people’s.  Often, this started with a single letter or figure.  In the second year at school, our form teacher had a way of writing a 7 in the European way, with a cross-bar.  A world of glamour and sophistication hung on that cross-bar; it might as well have had a beret on, be smoking Gitanes in the maths cupboard.”

Reader, I too longed to copy the hand of my neater and more sophisticated friends and teachers!  I went so far as to enlist friends in the task of labeling my notebooks and binders so that they would at least look beautiful from the outside.

Hensher had me at “Hello,” but he really seals the deal with his chapter on his pursuit of the perfect fountain pen.  He shops all day to find the instrument that will meet all his needs, and he finds that, in spite of his readiness to drop a fair bundle of cash on a truly good pen, the only pen maker who makes what he wants is the same pen maker that made his favourite $5 plastic fountain pen.

Reader, I have been on a life-long pursuit for the perfect pen!  I have shopped in England, Ireland, America, Canada and Japan, and despite having accumulated enough gel pens to stock the whole neighbourhood in this back to school season, I have never met a pen to beat my all-time, cheap favourite: the Uniball Vision Elite in blue-black.  Why, after repeated confirmation that this is the perfect writing instrument, do I keep looking?  Such is the fickle heart of the pen addict.629624b

Hensher does not simply write about personal anecdotes, of course.  His main task is to trace the instruction of handwriting from the near-impossible eighteenth-century copperplate cursive to the much more legible and child-friendly methods of the mid-twentieth century.  There are also chapters on Dickens’s writing, on the instruction of writing in Germany, on the history of the Bic pen, and on writing and psychoanalysis.

There is also a three-page footnote on the use of coloured inks.  The Prince of Wales uses purple.  According to one old survey of 25,000 samples of handwriting, Lady Novelists use green.

None of the lady novelists of my acquaintance use green ink, but there you go.  O Tempora, O Mores!

Hensher ends the book with a ten-point manifesto for why we should all learn and take the time to use cursive.  It’s a thing of beauty.  And it’s not just a utilitarian account of how cursive makes us smarter.  It also makes us us, unique and inimitable.


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