Tuesday, February 28, 2012

FN Review: The Book of Lost Fragrances

When I was offered an advance reading copy of M.J. Rose’s new novel, The Book of Lost Fragrances, I hesitated. It wasn’t because, as Ms. Rose’s publicist pointed out, Publishers Weekly described it as a “deliciously sensual novel of paranormal suspense.” Here at FirstNerve we have no problem reviewing novels loaded with paranormal suspense. And the deliciously sensual is always welcome. (Mmmm . . . tasty!)

No, the hesitation was due to the prospect that The Book of LF would, by its mere physical presence on the shelf, cause a small but steady decline in testosterone levels. And you know how that goes—you review a romance novel and a few days later a small inner voice is saying, “Try putting a dollop of crème fraîche into that pesto,” and pretty soon the chardonnay budget is through the roof and you’re wondering if it’s time to start using a moisturizing facial scrub.

But rather than shrink from FN’s commitment to all things olfactory, I bravely accepted the offer and my copy of The B of LF arrived last week.

It had great looking cover art. Inside, a page listed the author’s previous novels including Lip Service, In Fidelity, and Lying in Bed. [Awesome titleage!—Ed.] Then came an epigraph from Marcel Proust, an unmistakable signal that the story to follow would be highly enriched with canards about odor memory. Indeed it is. M.J. Rose is a Proust Booster of epic proportions; an estrogen-fueled fabulist who takes odor-based recall to a whole new level.

The BOLF is ostensibly the story of Jac L’Etoile, a semiologist who has her own TV show called Mythfinders. Soon enough, however, we’re following multiple story lines set in ancient Egypt, Revolutionary-era France, and present-day China. The plot hinges on Cleopatra’s perfumer, who is charged with making a memory-evoking fragrance powerful enough to reveal the smeller’s previous lives. The perfumer and his lover take to their double-wide sarcophagus, each holding a jar of the scent, so that they may use it to find each other in subsequent incarnations. Their souls—and his vision-inducing scent—make numerous reappearances in the L’Etoile family, Parisian perfumers who have been running a successful business since before the Revolution.

Also in the cast of characters are the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, who want the fragrance to help them identify the next D.L., along with the Communist Chinese and their hired thugs who want to stop them. Plus the Jungian analyst from a Swiss nuthouse who wants the fragrance so he can settle some of his own Oedipal issues. Plus Jac’s bisexual brother Robbie, her Alzheimer-stricken father, and her ex-boyfriend Griffen North, now a studly archaeologist.


M.J. Rose stocks her story with enough characters to fill a Hollywood tour bus: dramatis personae-wise she’s the Charles Dickens of romance novels sensual novels of paranormal suspense. When Jac, under the hallucinogenic influence of the ancient Egyptian scent, has flashbacks to her previous lives, it gets a little complicated. With all the reincarnations, the effect is like flipping between three episodes of Law & Order SVU playing on different cable channels—while eating an entire jumbo tub of buttered popcorn. The overall effect, for me, was filling yet unsatisfying.

For other readers this might be a feature, not a bug. The reincarnation bit lets you thrill repeatedly to the same emotions with the same (?) characters in different epochs and places. It’s the multiple re-entry vehicle of romance novels sensual novels of paranormal suspense. More bang for the buck. Except that there’s not really that much bang in the book. TBOLF observes a certain literary decorum. Despite all the yearning and passion, I was startled when the word “cock” made its single appearance.

The genre elements of TBOLF let the reader have her cake and eat it too. You can have guilt-free sex with a married ex-boyfriend because you were hot for him in a previous life. You can be a modern American woman but also be suavely French. You can have no perfumery training whatsoever yet have a better nose than your father and brother—both professional perfumers.


Rose writes quite convincingly about scents and about the experience of smelling. I give her credit for sustaining an entire story based on smell—as a plot element, as a theme, and as narrative description. In this she does better than Tom Robbins. While she takes the metaphysical claptrap of Jitterbug Perfume seriously she spins it into a passable chick-lit potboiler.

Hey, who wants some more chardonnay? You really should try the pesto.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Profiles in Smell: Julie Hagelin and John Hildebrand

One of the pleasures of a life in science is the company one gets to keep. I was reminded of this today by the chance pairing of two items on the web. These vignettes give you a glimpse of how people happen onto the strange path of becoming smell scientists.

I met Julie Hagelin at an AChemS conference about a decade ago. She presented a poster about the crested auklet, an Arctic seabird that she discovered smells like tangerines during the breeding season. She let me sniff a vial of the birdy odor—remarkable stuff. Julie recently relocated from Swarthmore College to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, where she is turning her attention to another animal with neglected olfactory abilities: whales.

John Hildebrand is jovial guy I’ve bumped into regularly at AChemS and other science venues. He studies odor perception in the hawkmoth, Manduca sexta. The moth is found in the deserts of the American southwest where it makes a living feeding on the nectar of night-blooming flowers. John uses M. sexta as a model system to explore sex pheromones and the brain organization of odor perception in insects. He has just been elected to a three-year term on the governing Council of the National Academy of Sciences. The interview by Daniel Stolte reveals what drew John to the field as a kid.

P.S. John Hildebrands writes to remind me that M. sexta is found from northern Argentina to southern Canada in all sorts of biomes, not just deserts. That’s why it is commonly known, esp. on tobacco plantations in the southeast, as the tobacco hornworm moth. Duh.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Personality and Smell: A Two-way Street

I recently blogged about a study linking personality to body odor. Specifically, people sniffing previously worn T-shirts could accurately estimate the wearer’s level of extraversion, neuroticism, and dominance. In other words, your BO contains clues to your personality.

It turns out that your personality is also related to your sense of smell. The Big Five theory of personality holds that agreeable people score highly on being “cooperative, considerate, empathic, generous and kind.” And according to a team of German sensory scientists, agreeable people also have greater odor sensitivity. That is to say, agreeableness as measured by the NEO-FFI questionnaire is positively correlated with lower thresholds for odor detection.

In addition, people who score highly on the Big Five factor of neuroticism, which tracks anxiety, hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness and vulnerability to stress, tend to be more sensitive to trigeminal chemosensory stimulation, (aka the hot in chili pepper or the sting in ammonia).

Researchers in Dresden had 124 people fill out the NEO-FFI, a briefer form of the Big Five personality test. Then they ran the volunteers through a battery of sensory tests including odor, taste, trigeminal stimulation, pain, and electrical thresholds. There was a statistically non-significant tendency for highly conscientious people to have enhanced tolerance for pain. The taste measures—detection thresholds for perception of salty and sour—were unrelated to personality measures.

This is a well-executed and straightforward study: measure personality, measure sensory thresholds, and look for correlations. Therein lies the rub: correlations are just that—they do not prove causation. Nevertheless, the authors spend a lot of time editorializing for the idea that sensory thresholds determine the development of one’s personality. Perhaps. But the opposite case can also be made: that being considerate and empathic toward other people disposes one to develop more finely tuned sensory abilities.

Not to be disagreeable, but I’d trust their data and skip the sermon.

The study discussed here is “Agreeable smellers and sensitive neurotics—correlations among personality traits and sensory thresholds,” by Ilona Croy, Maria Springborn, Jörn Lötsch, Amy N.B. Johnston, and Thomas Hummel. It was published in PLoS One 6:18701, 2011, and is available here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Random Walk

Last night I walked around the burb just after the sun set.

The sky in the west was a robin’s egg blue.

Passing one house I smelled the intense odor of patchouli.

The sky became deeper electric blue, like a movie screen.

A few blocks on there was a strong aroma of baby eggplant in garlic sauce, Chinese style.

A half mile on it was frying hamburgers.

Then sharp wood smoke from a fireplace.

I can’t find the connection.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Body Odor and the Big Five

Those of you for whom Psych. 1 is a dim memory may be surprised at the current state of personality theory. Robert McCrae’s five-factor model has, since its debut in the 1980s, become the dominant theoretical framework for research into personality.

Extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience are now regarded as the major dimensions of personality. They are quantified in a questionnaire that comes in a long or short version. Each factor is a cluster of traits that tend to occur together. For example, people who score high on the extraversion factor tend to be sociable, cheerful, energetic, and assertive.

The five dimensions transcend culture and upbringing, according to a highly cited 2005 study by McCrae that spanned 50 different cultures. Extraverts, introverts and the rest are found in all cultures, a finding these traits speak to the deeply biological roots of personality.

It has also become apparent that people can accurately judge another’s personality from a brief interaction, from a video clip of behavior, or even from a photograph. The ability to use non-verbal cues to infer personality led a trio of Polish psychologists to speculate that body odor might also contain useful cues.

They designed a clever experiment based on the now-standard smelly T-shirt technique. Thirty men and thirty women—the odor donors—filled out the long version of McCrae’s test plus a test of social dominance. They then wore a T-shirt to bed for three nights in a row, while avoiding perfume, cigarettes, etc. The shirts were put in frozen storage until being rated by a panel of odor judges.

The judges were 100 men and 100 women, each of whom evaluated 10 shirts apiece. They guessed the age and sex of the odor donor, and rated the donor on the Big Five factors plus dominance.

The €64,000 question was this: how well did the average odor-based personality rating match up to the self-reported personality traits of the odor donors?

The answer: pretty damn well.
The main finding . . . is that a few personality traits can be assessed with some degree of accuracy based on olfactory cues. For all assessments of all donors, the correlation between self-assessed personality traits and judgments based on body odour was strongest for extraversion, neuroticism and dominance.
The authors note that olfactory evaluations of extraversion and neuroticism were as accurate or more accurate than evaluations in other studies based on viewing behavior on video. Not bad for a quick sniff of a soiled T-shirt.

Odor judges also performed significantly above chance in guessing the sex and age of the odor donor. Interestingly, when it came to guessing the sex of the odor donor, women did better with shirts worn by men than with shirts worn by women; men showed the opposite result. Seems like everyone’s noses are tuned for mating.

The study discussed here is “Does personality smell? Accuracy of personality assessments based on body odour,” by Agnieszka Sorokowska, Piotr Sorokowski, and Andrzej Szmajke, published in the European Journal of Personality, 2011; DOI 10.1002/per.848

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Smoke Your Own

According to the Huffington Post, Cash Koszela of New Castle, Pennsylvania has been “smoking his own sausage for about 30 years.”

If, in reading that phrase, you thought
(a) wow, yet another euphemism for self-abuse,
(b) that pathetic son of a b****, or
(c) is that a Polish joke?
then you are definitely reading the right blog.

Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang never got past Volume II (H – O), so I can’t evaluate option (a). However, choking the chicken appears on page 396 of Volume I (A – G).

Pages 729 and 730 are of special interest to olfactologists: comprehensive entries for fart, including its first recorded literary use by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1386 (“This Nicholas anon let flee a fart”) and more recent coinages such as fart around (1931), fart face (1943) and fart-knocker (orig. 1952; Beavis & Butthead, 1993).

But I digress.

The Huffington Post goes on to quote New Castle’s Assistant Fire Chief as saying “This is definitely the best-smelling fire we’ve seen in a long time.”

Still not following?

OK, then click here for enlightenment.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

ISDP February 2012: Family Edition

A chilly February wind has been blowing pages off the desk calendar and before you know it (and before we can get that damned cracked window fixed) it’s the thirteenth of the month. Time to hunker down inside the camo Snuggie®, warm our hands over the Sterno® flame, and start pecking out our monthly collation of disturbing smell stories, each more grotesque than the last. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day®, so we understand that you may not want to spoil the romantic anticipation with a nose full of putrescence. But just as surely as Every Kiss Begins with Kay®, every ISDP™ begins with a foul odor.

We begin with an oldie from the cold case files of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. On April 3, 2004, a 59-year old San Gabriel woman named Donna Kelly was reported missing.
Nearly two weeks later her daughter was driving in Eaton Canyon County Park in Pasadena when she opened the trunk to investigate a foul odor. She discovered the deteroriorating [sic] corpse of her mother.
At the time, Donna Kelly was thought to be romantically involved with Richard Allen Munnecke, a former Tournament of Roses Parade Association director, who also happened to be married.

Homicide detectives recently obtained a DNA sample from Munnecke, now 71, and charged him with murder last Friday. Late word, however, is that prosecutors have decided to drop the charges citing insufficient evidence. Hmmm . . .

And the nominees are . . .

It’s only February, but we already have our first (and second!) Norman Bates Award nominees of 2012.

Lindsay Reed and Melonie Roberts of the Cassville Democrat have the first story. A 28-year-old Missouri woman starves herself to death. In her bedroom. In her father’s house. While her father is living there. For days afterward.
On Jan. 21, the body of Charity Coscia was found in the Seligman home of her father after her brother, Scott Coscia, of Purdy, called the sheriff’s department to report a foul odor in the home.
An autopsy revealed that the 28-year-old Ms. Coscia, who had a history of not eating, had died of malnutrition earlier in the month. The situation, which automatically puts her father, Peter Coscia, in the running for the Norman Bates Award, also presents a tough legal call for Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly:
“You can charge someone with abandonment of a corpse, but he didn’t leave the body. He was still living in the home,” said Epperly. “You can charge them with concealment of a corpse, but that really isn’t the case here.”

“You can also charge someone with leaving a corpse without promptly reporting it to law enforcement,” said Epperly. “That is probably what we are looking at.”

Our second Norman Bates Award nominee hails from Tucson, Arizona. According to ABC News, he “was arrested after a foul odor led police to discover he had been living with his mother’s decomposing corpse.”
The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the body was that of Carmelita Aguilar, 47. Aguilar’s son, Christopher, 25, had been living with her body for an unspecified period of time.

“He was aware that a person was deceased inside the apartment and concealed the death for some time while continuing to live in the apartment,” Sgt. Maria Hawke of the Tucson Police Department said in a statement.
How did the aromatic clues go unnoticed by neighbors for so long?
According to an interim complaint filed in Pima County Justice Court, Aguilar said he found the body in his bathtub on Jan. 8.

The management at the complex complained of a foul odor, but the man [Aguilar] said it was the sewer near his apartment, the complaint stated.

Police found the body wrapped in plastic and covered in blankets.
Ah, the old blame-it-on-the-sewer gambit.

Department of Near Misses

A police blotter headline from the Cleveland suburbs of Mayfield Heights and Lynhurst: “No Missing Smell Coming From Apartment.”
A caller told police at 9:54 p.m. Jan. 28 that there were several “missed you” notes on the door of a Mayfield Road apartment and there was a very bad smell coming from inside. Police said the apartment was empty. Paperwork left in the apartment was from Lyndhurst Municipal Court.
Inquiring nostrils want to know: An innocent false alarm or did the authorities arrive after a body had been removed?

When the Tall Venti is Not So Grande

OK, campers, let’s review the safety rules one more time. Don’t try to break into a house via the chimney. And stay out of the air conditioning ducts, too.
A mummified body has been discovered inside an air duct in a French bank after workers had been complaining of a bad smell for several months.

Police and firefighters were last night attempting to dislodge the half-rotten corpse at a branch of Credit Foncier in Lyon, eastern France.

Investigators were trying establish if it was an attempted break-in that went wrong or a homeless man seeking refuge, according to a local prosecutor.
Why the delay in finding the unfortunate burglar/refugee? There’s an easy explanation: “The vent leads from the roof to a staff bathroom.”

We’re totally respectful of cultural diversity here at FN, so our general rule is that when French people, who in our experience have a high tolerance for BO and extremely stinky (though tasty) cheese, complain of a bad smell, it’s worth checking into tout de suite.

Down the Hall and to Your Left

We’ve all had our doubts about smelly public restrooms. This case will make you pause before stepping into a stall at the multiplex: “Decomposing Body of Missing Man Found in Movie Theater Restroom.”
The family of an elderly man who was found dead in a movie theater bathroom five days after he was reported missing is furious at the theater for not finding him after police asked the management to search the place.

George DeGrazio’s decomposing corpse was discovered after employees of the Colorado Cinemark 5 in Fort Collins noticed a foul smell.
That’s it for this edition. Time to put a lid on the Sterno and crawl back into the mummy bag.

Comic Fragrances

Amid the press releases preceding this week’s Toy Fair at the Javits Center in NYC is one for a line of superhero scents by JADS International. The colognes and perfumes, licensed from Marvel Comics, are tied to this summer’s release of The Avengers, with Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow and all the rest.

Judging from the promotional images, the product line won’t set the world on fire visually—the packaging lacks images of the superheroes themselves.

For some reason, I’d never heard of JADS International until now. They’ve previously produced movie tie-in perfumes and colognes for Star Trek and Star Wars. Here are a few examples to give you the flava.

Pon Farr for women has “light, clean notes of citrus, blackcurrant, lotus blossom, and water lily.” In other words, all the ingredients that say “I’m in seventh-year heat” to Vulcan males.

For you eroticized Shatner fans, there’s Shirtless Kirk cologne, catchphrase “Set phasers to stunning.” (I’m not making this up.)

My favorite is Slave Leia perfume, which includes “floral top notes of white peach, lily, bergamot, heliotrope and raspberry that dry down to a warm sultry mix of cashmere woods, musk and night-blooming jasmine.” [Night-blooming jasmine as a drydown?—Ed.] But never mind the ingredients. Check out the bottle. It shoulda won a FiFi.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Don’t Get Eliminated!

When concrete balls don’t do the trick . . . bring in the putrid goop.

How many of you think the Indonesia railway has gone totally crazy?

Well, you’re wrong!

They should hire Vic Romano and Kenny Blankenship to do the play-by-play.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

When High School Stinks

KIII-TV in Corpus Christi, Texas, posts a video segment with the awesome, all-purpose headline “Strange Smell Coming From West Oso HS.”

Had news anchor Katia Uriarte dug a little deeper she would have hit comedy gold: West Oso High School is located at 754 Flato Road.

[Not nice to make an entire student body the butt of your joke.—Ed.] [Hey, res ipsa loquitur.]

Speaking of strange smells in high school, something’s amiss at Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton, Florida, and it’s getting big-time attention over on the Powerline blog under the headline: “Rivers of urine.”

“Epic Greenfail” indeed. It’s a topic we’ve covered before on FN.