Between the Lines: ‘Fragrant’ from a master perfumer

World-class perfumer Mandy Aftel of Berkeley writes about the history and lore of scent in her new book, “Fragrant.”
World-class perfumer Mandy Aftel of Berkeley writes about the history and lore of scent in her new book, “Fragrant.”

This year, two novels with perfumers as protagonists were best-sellers. One was a gothic thriller set in 16th-century Italy and present-day France (“The Collector of Dying Breaths” by M.J. Rose; Atria, $25, 365 pages). The other involved “practical magic” as practiced in the Blue Ridge Mountains (“Season of the Dragonflies” by Sarah Creech; William Morrow, $26, 324 pages).

Of more hands-on interest is the nonfiction October release “Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent” by Mandy Aftel of Berkeley (Riverhead, $28, 288 pages), her fourth book on scent. It explores the history, science and mythology of scent, and includes recipes for “edible, drinkable and useful concoctions.”

Aftel is known as “the Alice Waters of American natural perfume” and was included among the world’s top perfumers in Forbes magazine. She markets her fragrances and body products at, and supplies artisan food producers (including chocolatiers and ice cream makers) and home cooks with essential oils.

With the holidays coming, we asked her for a strategy to help gift-givers who will be shopping for perfume and cologne for their partners.

“It’s important that the person you’re buying for also likes the smell, so for a fun and romantic outing take your partner with you,” she suggested. “Test only three scents at a time. Use three of your partner’s fingers as test strips, spraying one scent on each finger. Rub them after you put on the scents to make the alcohol heat up and dissipate. Then walk around the store and both of you smell the scents. If those don’t work, go to the other hand with three more scents. Then buy the one that is most appealing to both of you.”

So, no surprise-buying at the perfume/cologne counter? “I’m not a fan of anyone buying scent blind,” Aftel said. “It’s too individual. No matter who you think the (recipient) is or what image they project, it’s best for them to encounter the scent for themselves and have their own response. Otherwise, it could be disappointing for the person getting it and he/she could put it in the back of the closet and never use it.”

Aftel will host her yearly open house at her studio in Berkeley on Friday through Sunday, serving bites and sips. “It’s the only time the public is allowed in to smell everything,” she said. Call (510) 841-2111 or email


On the topic of gift-giving, don’t forget books, such as this sampling of holiday-related titles:

▪ “Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas” by Stephanie Barron (Soho, $25, 336 pages): It’s Christmastime in 1814, and everybody’s favorite English romantic-fiction author Jane Austen has been invited to a country mansion for the holiday. Murders soon follow, and Jane turns detective.

▪ “Mr. Miracle” by reigning queen of women’s fiction Debbie Macomber (Ballantine, $18, 272 pages): An angel posing as a high school teacher helps one of his students find an unlikely romance. Look for the movie on the Hallmark Channel.

▪ “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern (Simon & Schuster, $10, 64 pages): Fans of the 1946 Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” will like this one. It’s the short-story source material for the Jimmy Stewart film, with an afterword by the late author’s daughter.

▪ “An Island Christmas” by Nancy Thayer (Ballantine, $18, 224 pages): This could be a summer beach read set in December. As a wedding party gathers on Nantucket Island, the bride’s mother is second-guessing her daughter’s choice of groom. Would the stockbroker next door be a better match?

▪ “The Christmas Light” by Donna VanLiere (St. Martin’s, $17, 224 pages): Five desperate strangers find comfort and joy when they gather at “a rather unconventional church Nativity” in a small town.

▪ “Does Santa Exist?” by Eric Kaplan (Dutton, $20, 288 pages). This sort-of-humorous “philosophical investigation” goes far beyond proving or disproving the existence of the jolly old elf, and explores the meaning of life and other Big Questions. It even has an index and “suggestions for further reading.” The author is a co-executive producer for the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” and “is currently completing his Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy at UC Berkeley.” Ho, ho, ho?


The Strand has an illustrious history as the magazine that originally serialized many of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Its current managing editor, Andrew Gulli, has a talent for finding and publishing lost writings by famous authors, including Joseph Heller, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Graham Greene, Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells.

He called to say he’d been poring over thousands of archived documents at the University of Texas in Austin and discovered an unpublished short story by John Steinbeck titled “With Your Wings,” which appears in the current issue.

“The story is set during World War II and is vintage Steinbeck,” Gulli said. “It has all his lyrical prose and his progressive world view.”

Look for Strand at Barnes & Noble and other bookstores ($6.95). To subscribe to the quarterly: (800) 300-6652 or


This pair of disparate titles could be your next reads:

"The Best American Nonrequired Reading,” edited and introduced by Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler (Mariner, $15, 416 pages): It’s a fascinating collection of eclectic and diverse fiction and nonfiction by novelists, journalists and other writers, which originally appeared in literary and mainstream magazines, chapbooks and blogs. Cool stuff.

“Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation” by Laura Kipnis (Metropolitan, $25, 224 pages): Cultural critic Kipnis disassembles the male psyche to re-examine the standoff between men and women. Now we guys can finally figure out why we do the things we do, even if we don’t know we’re doing them. Got that?


The Friends of the Sacramento Public Library regularly hosts book sales at the Book Den, 8250 Belvedere Ave., Sacramento; (916) 731-8493. Typically, more than 100,000 “gently used” books, videos, and audiobooks are offered for 50 cents to $2. Two events are upcoming, one Saturday and another Dec. 13. For details and a calendar of upcoming sales, visit www.saclibfriends.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.


If you have information on author appearances or other book-related special events, email it to at least two weeks before the event. To read the online calendar, go to Questions? Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.