Smelling Notes: Sniffing Out Summer’s Freshest Books for Every Kind of Voyage

Published July 15, 2019

Any seasoned traveler knows no matter how small the weekend bag, you don’t forget a book and a bottle of perfume. As tools, they are an absolute must. No other items can more seamlessly conjure the visceral, the vivid, and the personal, no matter how snug the bungalow, tent, or backseat. However, in an age of piling TSA regulations, obtuse baggage weight limitations, and overstuffed totes brimming with psychic maladies, for most hauls, one of each is usually best. So how does one choose? Bearing in mind all three dimensions of travel—the actually going somewhere, as well as the psychological and olfactory voyages that ensue—I spent the day perusing the archives of Mindy Yang, founder of fragrance haven Perfumariē, and found eight fragrances (and their corresponding books) sure to pair with any kind of summer vacation.

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The Day Trip 

Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani (Verso)

Russian Tea by Masque Milano ($145)

For what it lacks in duration, the day trip makes up for in optimism. Luggage? Who needs it! A hotel room? For the birds! This pie in the sky spirit finds its soulmate in Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, a book that seriously and meticulously ponders a future without eco-catastrophe in which robots do our work for us. While a book that covers Marxist political economy may not be an obvious beach read, somehow, Bastani’s speculations on universal veganism and asteroid mining does, in fact, feel beachy. And what better than Masque Milano’s Russian Tea for considering the ins and outs of a “red and green” future. The Italian perfume house’s take on a Russian tea service throws all its accoutrements into a shaker: pungent red tea, cherries, tobacco, church incense, and cracked pepper. What comes out lies somewhere near the shores of Brighton Beach, singing karaoke.

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The Road Trip 

Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah (Graywolf)

Jasmin Paradis by Elisire ($110) 

In Registers of Illuminated Villages, Tarfia Faizullah takes her time carving out a seemly dislocated body of experience, one that lies simultaneously in San Francisco and Bangladesh, in Bidhoba Palli (the Village of Windows) and Sohagpur (the Village of Love). “I have never belonged anywhere” declares Faizullah in the poem “Djinn in Need of a Bitch.” Djinns are the supernatural beings, who according to lore, created fire and are beguiled by the scent of jasmine. Mothers and grandmothers used to believe if young ladies scent their bed with jasmine, the djinns would fall in love and possess their bodies. Today, aromatherapists use the scent of jasmine to provoke a feeling of euphoria and alert happiness. Jasmin Paradis by Élisire showcases the icier side of jasmine’s heady fragrance. As an extrait de parfum, the scent has a high 1:4 ratio of aromatic oils to carriers, allowing jasmine’s ethereal scent to be both luxurious and formidable. And when negotiating the mystifying unknowns of the open road, the ability to beguile is essential. 

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The Working-an-Industry-Week-in-Europe-Is-My-Vacation Trip

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck; Translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)

Pour Homme by Balenciaga (Discontinued) 

“THE POWER OF DREAMS:” this is the all-caps slogan of the original 1990 ad for Balenciaga’s now-discontinued Pour Homme, a spicy, bullish, and, dare I say, very unisex fragrance. Especially on holiday, the power of dreams can propel you into some hellish depths that likely be better left unexplored. Meet the summer art fair, fashion week, or any other industry meat-market that doubles as a “vacation” in your twenties—an activity-packed fever dream that feels more like an elementary school field trip than a sunny respite from daily drudgery. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is a portrait of a different kind of bleak European landscape. The novel is set in Berlin, a city struggling to cope with its changing identity amidst an ongoing refugee crisis. Beautifully haunting and familiar, Erpenbeck’s masterful prose will keep you company when cigarettes, free drinks, and minor celebrity won’t. 

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The I-Can’t-Afford-a-Trip 

Herman Miller: A Way of Living (Phaidon)

Waves by Regime Des Fleurs ($125) 

There is nothing more masochistic than staying home during the vacation high season, and investing in exquisite books and objects for one’s coffee table can really ratchet up the intensity of that self-loathing. Phaidon’s Herman Miller: A Way of Living extends way beyond the aspirational eye candy of a traditional coffee table book. The design tome meticulously details how the furniture company—famous for its office chairs and iconic designs by Noguchi and Eames—set about popularizing the utopian promises of early 20th century design. Star pages include reproductions of posters meant to announce the company’s office picnics in the 1970s. Close-up illustrations of a mouth crunching into corn on the cob and a hand holding a melting ice cream cone (with chocolate sprinkles spelling out “Herman Miller Summer Picnic”) exude summer fun. However, to really put the accent over the ‘e’ on coffee table décor, fit your tablescape with a bottle from the Regime des Fleurs collection of room sprays. With names like “Shells” and “Lais,” it’s hard to narrow which of the neon-ombré frosted glass bottles feels most appropriate for summer, but “Waves” struck a chord. On the skin, the scent of freshly-juiced cucumber dominates, but sprayed on my tablecloth, the fragrance resembles the ocean mist that rolls over Venice, California after dark. It’s herbal, and then it’s gone. 

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The Trip Where No One Understood You 

Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg; Translated by Minna Zillman Proctor (New Directions)

Neon Graffiti by Jasmine Saraï ($110) 

One vacay moment where having the right book rreeaallllyy pays off is the inevitable one when everyone has turned against you (or you have turned against them). When taking heat, peacefully reading (or even holding) a book will automatically make you appear as the more reasonable, literate party. The right book can also provide a mental desert in which to disappear, and Minna Zillman Proctor’s new translation of Natalia Ginzburg’s Italian novel Happiness, as Such is that deliciously arid novel. The book is largely told through a mother’s letters to her flagrantly hectic and very much absent son—a scenario mirroring how your friends and family will feel while you’re skipping dinner to finish reading it. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but spritzing Neon Graffiti by Jasmine Sarai before “walk-bys” through common areas will ensure your more positive attributes are remembered. The scent was created in 2014 by the artist and nose Dana El Mari, and its appeal is not easily missed. Invisible top notes turn the heavy mimosa and mango body a light green, before finishing in cedar. It’s the perfect olfactory bunker during any Cold War, and it doubles as an olive branch. 

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The Girls’ Trip 

Juliet the Maniac by Juliet Escoria (Melville House)

Sydney Rock Pool by Arquiste ($190) 

Juliet Escoria’s Juliet the Maniac is a diaristic, autobiographical book filled with tabs of acid, finger-fucking, hospital bracelets, and a house that may or may not have belonged to Master P. Its opening scene, which involves a switchblade and Dior makeup, immediately evokes the familiar tempo of even the best of girls’ trips, in which a clique can swing from Ya Ya Sisterhood to Lord of the Flies and back again in the time it takes to order a piña colada. Lean in, sister. In Sydney Rock Pool by Acquiste, one finds a nostalgic and naughty—almost sunscreen-like—coconut mixed with amber. Spritzed on your hair, wrists, and neck, the fragrance deepens the feelings of temporality and vague eroticism that close female friendships often share. 

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The Bros’ Trip

99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai (Viking)

Lithium by OneOfThose ($110) 

You’ve parcelled out your PTO, squaded-up and rented the Airbnb, and are ready to unleash yourself onto nature. Spear a fish. Drink rosé from plastic cups. Get drunk by an ocean and, hopefully, meet some ladies. Is this scene all-too-familiar? If only all bro trips could be as lyrical as 99 Nights in Logar. The novel by Jamil Jan Kochai is centered on a group of Afghani pre-teens and their mission to find their family’s lost guard dog. The book’s nested storytelling structure, reminiscent of video games, is set in motion by the narrator’s fingertip being bitten off by said dog. Similarly nested, Lithium by OneOfThose comes encased in a very un-eco-friendly styrofoam shell that one cracks open like a Kinder egg. The scent inside: a sweet stone fruit core wrapped in a synthetic leather accord, sure to entice any androphiliac. 

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The Ego Trip

Sing to It by Amy Hempel (Scribner)

Onda by Vero Perfuma (Discontinued) 

 

Some journeys are best taken solo. The late Vero Kern—who passed away last December—was as an underground star of the perfume world. She sought not to please her audience but to stay true to the conviction that perfume is an art meant to express emotion. Her fragrance Onda, meaning “wave” in Italian, is one of six distinct perfumes the artist released during her lifetime. The scent speaks to a specific history of perfume connoisseurship, and is therefore not for everyone. It is earthy and glamorous in that l’armoire de ma grand-mere kind of way, but there is wisdom in that. Amy Hempel’s recent collection of short stories, Sing to It—dedicated to another dearly departed artist, Gloria Vanderbilt—reviews the twilight moments after dark, and at the end of romance. “There must be a word for going about your business without knowing something key…” says the narrator of “Cloudland,” one of the collection’s beautiful, and sometimes embittered, stories. Like a raccoon in a garbage can, Hempel’s characters find themselves pouring methodically over every detail of life’s asides. Let these egoists implore you to take your own psychic explorations incredibly seriously. Can you say, Eat, Pray, and None of the Above?