Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book Review: The Scent of Desire by Rachel Herz

scentdesire I must admit that I was almost totally ignorant about our sense of smell until I read Rachel Herz's Scent of Desire. Herz is recognized as the world's leading expert on the psychology of smell, and she now shares her knowledge with us in this book.

Scent of Desire is full of fascinating information about our sense of smell and its functions, and after reading it, I am amazed by how much I now know on the subject. Most of us never really think twice about this amazing sense of ours, taking it for granted and never noticing how valuable it is until we lose it. I'm guilty of not appreciating my own sense of smell as well.

There's a question that I like to ask the people I meet in an effort to get to know them better, "If you had to choose, would you rather be deaf or blind?" Their answers let me learn a little more about them, but isn't it a telltale sign that out of all our five senses, we usually only focus on our sight and hearing.

Perhaps we believe it's unlikely for us to lose our sense of taste and even more unlikely to lose our sense of touch, unless someone writes a book about these two senses and enlighten us otherwise. We also seldom hear about people losing their sense of smell, but even if we did, we don't understand the importance of the loss and we'd probably go, "He's lucky he didn't lose his sight or hearing instead!"

The few times I've contemplated my sense of smell are mostly when I travel and am forced to use a particularly foul-smelling toilet. At times like these, I usually wish I could lose my sense of smell. I'm glad I didn't get what I wished for, after reading Herz's Scent of Desire, I now realize that a loss like that would be devastating.

While it's true that losing my sense of smell would mean that I would be spared from smelling foul odors from a dirty toilet, it would also mean that I wouldn't even be able to detect my own body odor. In the case of Jessica Ross, one of Herz's clients who became anosmic(loss of smell) in a tragic accident, she started becoming paranoid that every time someone looks at her in a certain way, it's because she smells bad and doesn't know because she couldn't smell herself. She would shower at least twice a day, and wash her clothes every day, and still she'd worry that she may have an offensive body odor that she wouldn't be able to detect. She also worries that she wouldn't be able to smell smoke and fire, or spoiled food.

Jessica is also more irritable and depressed since losing her smell, and cries often. She feels that she has lost her quality of life, and that she's disconnected from herself and the people around her. She's also lost interest in sexual intimacy and isn't as attracted to her husband as before.

Herz explains later in the book, that we instinctively choose our mates by their smell, and having our sense of smell tampered with by external factors may cause us to choose the wrong mate. In various experiments where men and women had to choose their most preferred odor of the opposite sex, they almost always chose the odor of someone with the most different biological makeup from themselves. The exceptions are in cases where the women are on birth control pills, in which case, they choose the odor of the person with the most similar biological makeup to themselves.

Herz's theory is that for the human species to thrive, we were instinctively built, biologically, to be attracted to the mate most biologically different from ourselves, to avoid inbreeding and to ensure the survival of the species. Birth control pills mimics the conditions of pregnancy, causing us to instinctively look for safety and family, which in turn makes us attracted to mates who are more similar to us biologically, rather than mates who are biologically different from us. Herz further speculates that this may be why there is such a high divorce rate in our society. Women on birth control pills find themselves attracted to men they normally wouldn't be interested in, and after getting married and getting off the pill, they suddenly find that they are no longer attracted to their men.

It's definitely food for thought, our sense of smell controls our behaviors and actions more than we know, and it certainly explains why we have so many relationship problems. Jessica's inability to smell her husband's odor may be the reason why she finds herself losing her attraction to him.

Herz also talks about the why some odors are considered pleasant to us and unpleasant to others, and vice versa. She says that there are no universally 'good' or 'bad' odor, liking or disliking an odor is due to societal conditioning. I believe her. Living in a country where the durian is called "The King of the Fruits" and savored by locals, it astounds me that foreigners, usually Westerners, can't stand the smell of this wonderfully delicious fruit. Apparently, it works the other way around too; Westerners love cheese, which Asians supposedly can't stand. Personally, I love cheese, but I know a few friends who hate it. I suppose there may be some Westerners who love durians as well.

One anecdote of Herz's that stuck in my mind was about how she became fascinated with our enigmatic sense of smell. When she was a little girl, she loved the smell of skunk, and it was only when she expressed her love of the scent to her friends that she discovered that the smell skunk was supposed to be "bad" when they made fun of her.

It reminded me of something similar that happened to me not too long ago in college, when a friend of mine just came back from a break, and I said to him, "You smell nice." He and a couple of other friends gave me weird looks, and it wasn't until later, when I realized that he smelled of cigarette smoke, that I understood why they behaved so strangely at my compliment. In fact, I thought I was weird!

While the information Herz shares in The Scent of Desire assures me that I'm not abnormal for liking the smell of cigarette smoke, I have no idea why the smell of it on my friend smelled good to me, I don't remember any particularly good memories associated with the smell of smoke as I am a non-smoker, and no one in my family smokes. As for what happened with my friend after that, he probably thought that I was interested in him and that was just a terrible pickup line, because he went out of his way to be nice to me after that.

Herz also covers other odor-related topics like aromatherapy and how lavender, peppermint, and other oils don't really have any beneficial effects on us except through conditioning, how particular smells can trigger long-forgotten memories, the link between our senses of smell and taste and how our sense of taste can diminish without our sense of smell, and what the future holds in odor technology.

The information contain within the pages of The Scent of Desire is astounding and sometimes mind-boggling, but Herz conveys these information so well with her wonderfully charming voice and writing style. She is a pioneer in this field and she has my utmost respect for creating the awareness we need about our amazing sense of smell.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberley by Linda Berdoll

Darcy & Elizabeth I recently reviewed Linda Berdoll's Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, which was her sequel to Jane Austen's classic, Pride and Prejudice. In the review, I mentioned that Berdoll's sequel was a maturation of Austen's original story, and that Berdoll gives us so much more of everything; drama, complexity, and even sex.

Berdoll's sequel to her sequel, Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberley, is a continuation from where we left off in Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, and again, it gives us more of what we loved in the first sequel.

In Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, we read about Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship as a married couple, Darcy's devotion to Elizabeth, Elizabeth's love for Darcy, and even the wild sex they have. And to spice it all up, there's all the trials and tribulations their notorious relations put them through in between, most notably the annoying ninny, Lydia and the despised blackguard, Wickham.

In the first sequel, we end the book with the knowledge that Wickham is in fact Darcy's half brother from one of their father's transgressions with the hired help. John Christie, whose mother had sexual relations with both Wickham and Darcy, turns out to be Wickham's illegitimate son, whom he later murders in cold blood during his desertion from the battlefield.

Wickham is believed to be dead by all, including his wife, Lydia, but we find out that he's well and alive before the book ends. At the same time, we also see that Georgiana, Darcy's sister, is in love with Fitzwilliam and has gone in pursuit of him to war, and Elizabeth faces her pregnancy alone and later gives birth to twins, while Darcy in turn, has gone in pursuit of Georgiana.

In Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberley, the sequel to Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, we see how Elizabeth and Darcy adjust to life with their newborn twins, Georgiana and Fitzwilliam gets married, and Wickham returns from the dead. But what really makes this sequel exciting, is that Lydia, believing the reports of Wickham's death in battle, has already remarried, and John Christie's half sister, Sally Frances, is determined to find her brother's murderer and mete out her own brand of justice.

There is remarkable connectivity between the characters and how each one relates to another. What I like most about Berdoll's sequels are that every character, even the lowliest ones, play very important roles in the plot. Sometimes there might be a passing mention of a particular character we deem unimportant, and later we see the same character again, playing a larger role.

I am amazed by Berdoll's ability to flesh out complex and interesting characters and plot lines. There isn't a single boring passage in the book, even when the characters are only talking about mundane matters. Berdoll has an amazing grasp on understanding human nature and how to make the characters seem larger than life with their thoughts and motivations.

I really enjoyed the journey with Elizabeth and Darcy and all the Pride and Prejudice characters, and also with the new and very interesting characters, that Berdoll has taken me on. While I thought that Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberley ended perfectly, with every character getting just what they deserved(especially Wickham), I can't help but be a little sad that it ever had to end. If Berdoll ever decides to write a sequel to Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberley, you can be sure I'll be one of the first to acquire it.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Neptune Noir Edited by Rob Thomas

neptune_noir Veronica Mars hooked me the moment I stepped into the DVD store and read the plot synopsis on the cover of Season One. Her best friend murdered and her sheriff father removed from office because he accused the dead girl's father of the murder, Veronica Mars and her father try to build new lives as private investigators but her obsession is with solving her best friend's murder. Wouldn't you be hooked?

Yeah, I was hooked from that synopsis, and from the first episode until the season finale. Then I bought the second season of Veronica, which had nothing to do with the murder of Veronica's best friend anymore; it had an altogether different plotline, and I was hooked too. And now I'm just waiting for Season Three on DVD to reach our shores, and then I'm gonna go out and get it too.

So what is it about Veronica Mars that keeps me hooked? It can't just be the plotline, because plots only go so far without good characters, dialogue, and chemistry. To be quite honest, I've never really thought about why I loved Veronica Mars so much, or why I kept on watching episode after episode. Sure, the chemistry between Veronica and Logan Echolls may have something to do with it, but it's not the only reason to get hooked. There are many other great TV romances after all.

Here's where Neptune Noir comes in. Neptune Noir is a completely unauthorized collection of 18 essays by various authors analyzing the show and why we love it. The essays aren't just fan reviews talking about how much they love the show and what they love about it — the essays are actual intellectual analyses about the show complete with footnotes and references. That's not to say that it's a dry and boring "scientific' book," but in fact, a very interesting one that gives a lot of insights into the workings of Veronica Mars.

The book starts off with an introduction by Rob Thomas, the creator of Veronica Mars, about his professional life as a screenwriter from the time he wrote his first TV show, Cupid, until Veronica Mars was picked up and how Veronica Mars "saved my career and, less importantly, my soul." Rob Thomas also edits Neptune Noir and includes comments on what he thought of each essay included in the book.

The first essay, "Welcome to Camp Noir" by Lani Diane Rich, takes a look at the "noir-ness" of Veronica Mars, and also its "campy-ness." Well, the noir I can understand — some of the other writers in the book chose that as their focus too, and the title of the book is Neptune Noir. But the camp, well, I don't see it, and as Thomas writes, "When something on Veronica Mars feels campy, it means we have failed." However, he also writes, "Reading Lani's essay...I see that she has...a wider net of what she considers camp..." and I agree, Lani's point of view is very interesting to read.

There are a couple of essays which talks about the importance of the father figures in Veronica Mars. Joyce Millman explores the many complexities in the father-daughter relationship between Veronica and her father in her essay "Daddy's Girl," and Amy Berner's essay "Daddy Dualities" marvels at the importance of the roles of the father figures in the show in a time when there is so much focus on single mothers. Both essays opened up my eyes to another facet of Veronica Mars' appeal and the fact that sometimes fathers have more "motherly instincts" than mothers. Which we see shown in Veronica Mars time and time again, especially with Veronica's own alcoholic mother, who left the family when the going got tough, and then later even stole Veronica's college fund money.

Some of the essays I really enjoyed were "'I Cannot Tell a Lie. And If You Believe That...'" by John Ramos, and "Lawless Neptune" by Alafair Burke. John talks about all the lies that Veronica tells in the show; lies to gain information, to manipulate people, to solve murders, to save lives. Why do we accept all Veronica's lies and still love the liar that she is? Because ultimately, although most of us still believe that honesty is a virtue, we also believe that the ends justify the means. Yes, Veronica is a liar, but she lies for the greater good. She lies so that she can help people and solve mysteries. But it's not just about what she lies about, or why she lies, it's also about who she lies to. Lying to a random hotel clerk or librarian to get information is fine, lying to Sheriff Lamb or Vinnie Van Lowe is probably encouraged, but lying to Wallace or her father? Well, she'd better think twice.

Alafair's "Lawless Neptune" takes a look at the fact that the law enforcement in Neptune is pretty corrupt and indifferent under Sheriff Lamb's command, which it has to be, for Veronica Mars to work. What use would Veronica's sleuthing skills be, if she had no crimes to solve because the law was fair and the police did their job well. Neptune had to be lawless, so that Veronica could solve her best friend's murder that her best friend's billionaire father tried to cover up. It had to be lawless, so that Veronica could plot with Duncan to save his daughter Lilly from her abusive grandparents. It had to be lawless, basically, so that Veronica Mars could work.

My favorite essay in the book was a surprise to me. It is Lawrence Watt-Evan's "I'm in Love with My Car," which talks about automotive symbolism in Veronica Mars. It's surprising because I don't particularly like cars, I don't know cars, and I didn't even notice the cars in Veronica Mars. Lawrence's essay is extremely enlightening about the use of cars in the show to symbolize the characters' personalities. For example, Veronica's LeBaron represents the all-American life, fun and carefree, but because it is an old model it is just a reminder of what she used to have; Aaron Echoll's flashy Aston-Martin sport car simply screams narcissistic movie star; and even Lianne Mars' beat-up Plymouth symbolizes that she's been beaten down in life.
The funny thing is, Rob Thomas isn't a car guy either. The decisions about cars used in the show are made by his assistant Alex and writer Phil Klemmer, and from Lawrence's essay, it's obvious they did a terrific job.

All the essays in Neptune Noir are enlightening and really fun to read. I didn't know that there was so much to the show until I read the book, and now that I've read it, I can't wait to go back and watch the whole series again with new eyes and points-of-view. As Rob Thomas said, "This is a must-read for Veronica Mars fans."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

DVD Review: Smallville Season 6

smallville6 I haven't always been a fan of Superman, or any other superhero for that matter. In our family my older brother's the one who collects comic books, and he's the one who tells us about the adventures of his favorite superheroes. It's no surprise, then, that he's also the one who introduced me to Smallville.

My brother started collecting DVD box sets when they started making them. He has dozens: the complete Friends series, Alias, CSI, Desperate Housewives, Six Feet Under, Buffy... you name it, he's got it, including of course, Smallville. I couldn't be bothered to watch them because there were just too many and I didn't have the time. Sometimes my brother would tell me about how good some of the shows were, but I usually ignored him, and he usually left it at that.

When Smallville came out, though, he insisted that I watch it. He actually bribed me! "I'll pay you ten bucks to watch one episode," he said, "on the condition that you give me back the ten bucks if you like it. You can keep the money if you don't like it." How would he know if I really liked it? I could pretend not to, and keep the money. "Well, then you won't get to watch the other episodes." Shrewd guy, my brother. But then again, he was so confident I would love Smallville that it wasn't really a gamble to him.

(SPOILER ALERT: spoilers ahead for Smallville seasons 5 and 6.)

So I watched Smallville, and six years later, I'm still watching. The thing about Smallville is that although it's one of the most unrealistic shows on TV, it's got a human element that touches and inspires. I can't even begin to count how many episodes have brought tears to my eyes since Season 1. Judging from the fact that Smallville is now in its seventh season and still going strong, I'm not the only one who feels that way.

So many things have changed since we first met Clark, Lana, Lex, and the rest of the gang in Season 1. Our favorite characters have grown and changed, some for the better, some for the worse. We've lost a few beloved characters - most recently, Clark's father, who died in Season 5. Tell me you didn't cry when you watched that happen, and I'll call you the biggest, fattest liar on the face of this earth.

Season 6 brings even more changes. It starts with Lana and Lex still together after Lana's breakup with Clark. For most of the season, as we watch Lana and Lex dancing around their trust issues, we can't help but think that this may be one of the worst couples in television history. It's plain to all Smallville fans that they're so terribly wrong for each other. Lex even tricks Lana into believing that she's pregnant with his child so that she will agree to marry him.

Well, she does end up marrying Lex despite all Clark's efforts (or lack thereof) to break them up. Lana had actually decided at the eleventh hour not to marry Lex, but then was forced into it because of Lionel's threats against Clark. I was resisting, praying all the way to the altar for something to stop the wedding, but I guess it had to happen. It's what kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the whole season, that's for sure.

This season is also when Lana finally finds out the truth about Clark for real, with no losing her memory or whatever nonsense that usually happens after she comes even remotely close to the truth. It's actually part of the reason she decides not to marry Lex, though it happens just a little too late.

My favorite thing about this season, though, is the introduction of DC Comics' Green Arrow intojustin the show. Justin Hartley makes his debut as Oliver Queen a.k.a. the Green Arrow, and he is deliciously hot! He's so hot I'm getting a fever just thinking about him in his green tights (which as it happens, his character wears to a costume party that Lex organizes). Oliver Queen is a young millionaire who used to be Lex's schoolmate, but they weren't exactly the best of friends, and we find out later that the apparent death of another schoolmate was what ended their acquaintance all those years ago.

Lex isn't happy about Oliver's appearance in their lives, but I sure am thrilled about it! The show desperately needed more good guys; there were too many meteor freaks using their powers for evil, and while Clark may be a superman, sometimes even Superman can use some help. Oliver Queen a.k.a. the Green Arrow is the perfect addition to the show, and I hope to see a lot more of him in the coming seasons.

If babelicious Justin Hartley isn't enough to make you want to go out and get Smallville Season 6 on DVD now, then wait until you hear about the special features. "Green Arrow: The Legend of the Emerald Archer" is a special documentary about the evolution of Green Arrow through the decades. I must admit I had never heard of Green Arrow until his appearance in Smallville, but this documentary is a really intriguing look at the character's history.

"Smallville Legends: The Oliver Queen Chronicles" are short computer-animated stories about the Oliver Queen character. There's also "The Making of Smallville Legends: The Oliver Queen Chronicles." "Smallville Legends: Justice & Doom" is an animated feature about the superheroes introduced in the season. These special features give so much more depth to the Oliver Queen character, and to the other superheroes, Cyborg, Aquaman, and Impulse. smallville_justicepic

The best extra, though, is "Smallville: Big Fans," a feature on Smallville fans from all over the country. They talk about what Smallville means to them, how much they've gotten out of it, how much more meaningful their lives are because of it - basically how great the show is. It's truly wonderful and amazing to see the effect Smallville has had on people. It has brought so many people closer. Just watching this feature made me feel closer to fans halfway around the world. This feature in itself is worth getting the DVD for. I'm not a die-hard fan of Smallville like most of the fans profiled, but like them, I've been given something deeply inspiring in my life by Smallville.

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