One of the most pleasant ways to come across an enjoyable book is to be given it by someone who not only has just read it, but who has been talking about it enthusiastically over recent conversations. My Pam is a great reader, but not necessarily a great one for talking about the books she enjoys. Mostly she just likes to enjoy her many and varied books quietly, offering up simple summaries which end in "you'd enjoy it, I did."
This book which she handed to me a week or two ago is an exception to that rule. It has been coming up in her conversation spontaneously at all sorts of odd times; it's one of those books with lots of anecdotes, new stories about amazing people you have never heard about before. You keep on thinking about passages in the book long after you have put it down.
And so, for the formal introductions, this enthralling new book is called 'Lotus Quest', by Mark Griffiths, a British horticultural writer whose credits are many, but in the book department have previously been in the line of writing learned Royal Horticultural Society dictionaries and guides to growing beautiful plants such as orchids.
This book is different, it's all about his passion for the lotus (Nelumbo), a quest that takes him travelling the world, with his longest stay and most enjoyable chapters about his experiences in Lotus Land, Japan.
If Pam hadn't given me this book, I would probably have bought it on the strength of its topic – I love plant explorer stories – and it would have romped in my other bookshop tests of reading the first paragraph, then random paragraphs here and there.
He passes all those tests with aplomb, but it's the first chapter that had me hooked after Pam handed me her copy of the book. One of his Japanese friends sent him three lotus seeds, which he describes as 'diamond-hard'. So he took a file to them to work a nick into the outer shell, then soaked them. Later, 'an emerald comma' of growth appeared. Life! Then he grew the seedling on. As lotuses do, it died back over winter, then next spring, new growth appeared. And the following summer, beautiful yet short-lived lotus blooms which, they say, make an audible 'pop' at dawn as they open.
So far so great, but where did the seeds come from? His Japanese correspondent mentioned something about "an archaeological dig" in her reply. Yikes! It turns out the original seeds from the dig were 3,000 years old. They were successfully struck in the 1950s, and the seeds sent to him were from the original 3000-year-old-timer that is still growing happily in Japan.
I was hooked. Seeds that are still viable after 3,000 years! It turns out that lotus seeds are famous for this ability to survive vast periods of time, but this book then tells so many other stories, of the central place of the lotus in so many religions, cultures and cuisines, from the Mediterranean all the way across the Middle East, India, China and through to Japan. It's a food plant, a sacred religious plant, and a botanical marvel able to withstand any amount of winter cold, and survive millennia underground, waiting for its chance to live again.
The lotus's place in Japanese culture, religion and horticulture is the final half of the book, and it is definitely the highlight. This is a book which gets better as it goes on. My favourite chapter is probably the one set in a restaurant which specialises in lotus-based dishes. His descriptions of the way the Japanese turn food into high art would normally be delicious enough to make the whole chapter very satisfying, but they're just the entree. The main course is his conversation with his two Japanese dining companions, who explain the intricacies of the lotus's various names and meanings, its history, and much more over the course of the meal.
That's always the theme that comes up in any prosaic description of a chapter's contents in this book. Beyond the simple description, you always have to add "and much more".
Finally, there's a spiritual significance of the lotus that is central to the book's quest for the 'sacred lotus'. Now, I'm not much of a religious or spiritual person, but I've always been attracted to the philosophies of Zen Buddhism (as understood by a middle-class Aussie with a love of gardening and nature, that is), and I had a good laugh at his line about Buddhism which goes: "It's an appealing spirituality for someone who has decided that God doesn't exist." I think that's me.