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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Good Reading Weather; Oasis; Sad Loss

Complaining about rain and cold would not bring warm sunshine, so I’m looking on the bright side of this week’s wet, dreary stretch. It is indeed good reading weather, and, as always, I have a lot of reading to do.

One book waiting on my bedside stack is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. A small reading group together for many years now chose that for our second book of the season, and the group meets right after Thanksgiving. But that gives me some time, right? I don’t have to get into this book immediately. I’m very curious and interested in it, however, as people I know who have read it—or part of it before bailing out—have had such very different responses. It seems to be a book readers either hate or love.

Recently I received an advance reading copy of The Book of Lost Fragrances, by M. J. Rose, and am devouring chapters of that whenever time permits this week. The publishers were not kidding when they described it as “a novel of suspense”! Set in Egypt, New York, Paris and the south of France, the story also ranges across time, from the French Revolution to our own day. Is Griffin’s reappearance in her life a dream come true for Jac, or does it portend nightmare? Are Jac’s visions psychotic episodes, memories of past lives, or is she merely extremely suggestible? Is she really (this is the point I reached in the story last night) going to search for her brother in the catacombs beneath the city of Paris, 100 feet below ground, long ago sealed off and illegal to explore? And what of the other mysterious young woman hoping to rise to a man’s position of power in the Triad by helping the Chinese nationalists frustrate Tibetans’ traditional manner of finding a successor to the Dalai Lama? There is that danger to Robbie lurking in the background, too. The plot is complex, but it is fast-moving and absorbing. One thing I haven’t mentioned at all is the search for an ancient and elusive perfume, a search that ties all the subplots together. And in keeping with the perfume theme is the way the author notes not only what the characters are seeing and hearing at any given moment but also what their sense of smell brings them, as well as the associations different aromas and odors bring. It is unusual for a novel to make so much of our oldest, strongest and most powerful sense, and I am enjoying this aspect of the story every bit as much as the settings and the suspense. Fragrance is the only part of this novel that would not translate to cinematic interpretation.

Another book I began reading on Tuesday begs not to have its pages turned too quickly. The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, creates for the reader a wondrous island of thoughtful calm, beginning on the very first page. The essential difference between time and space brings Henri Bergson’s philosophy to my mind. Bergson would have appreciated this book, I know.
The primitive mind finds it hard to realize an idea without the aid of imagination, and it is the realm of space where imagination wields its sway.


We are all infatuated with the splendor of space, with the grandeur of things in space. Thing is a category that lies heavy on our minds, tyrannizing all our thoughts....

Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space. Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.

Even our thinking of time, as Bergson famously observed and as Heschel is well aware, is deformed by being spatialized. The purpose of the Sabbath, Heschel tells us, is to leave behind our obsession with the things of space and to build a palace in time where we can become attuned to holiness in time. The word that comes to my mind here is oasis. If you prefer to identify your oasis in the desert of space as meditation rather than the Sabbath, a daily rather than a weekly shift from schedule to eternity—if this better fits your system of belief and practice, it is doubtless better to have the oasis than not. Another appropriate word is harbor.
In the tempestuous oceans of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity.

For days I have been struggling with how to acknowledge and recognize the loss of someone many in Northport remember. Jay Farr ventured outside the protected harbor in the terrible winds on Saturday to move his anchored sailboat closer to shore. He succeeded in his objective but did not regain the shore safely. He was one of three boaters in our area lost to recent waves. Everyone who shops at Tom’s Market in Northport remembers Jay. He had a ready smile and a cheery greeting for all.

And now I think I’ll wait until another day to tell you about new books in my bookstore. Today doesn’t seem like the right day for that. Please remain safely in harbor, friends, as our autumn gales continue! Do not go out on Lake Michigan today!


Dawn said...

Oh no PJ. That is so very sad. I just posted on your other blog that I had heard you had big waves and that it would have been interesting to see them. Now the comment seems a bit insensitive. Though of course I didn't mean it that way. I've very sorry for the community's loss and for his girlfriend's loss as well.

P. J. Grath said...

Of course you were not insensitive, Dawn. You didn’t know, and the waves ARE something to see. (Lake Superior is kicking up, too.) And didn’t I do two previous posts without mentioning this sad news? So much is always happening at once: that's the way the world is. I will note now that Jay had not been working at Tom’s Market for a while, though that’s where I used to see him regularly. More recently he worked at Northport Highlands, a residential retirement and care facility in what used to be our small local hospital.

Hannah said...

The harbor of Shabbat sounds like just the right book (and idea?) for you right now as you work through the loss. My thoughts are with your community.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you. Some books work as spiritual retreats, and this is one that does.

I've been thinking, too, that the very response Dawn had is the way so many of us in Northport responded to the news. We were going along as always, invigorated by the weather or crabbing about it, photographing fall color and waves on the lake and sharing images--and then, suddenly, comes a sharp reminder of mortality and a reminder that these storms are serious, that the lake can be dangerous. And then we realize that we knew one of the people who lost their lives in the storm, and we cry, "Oh, no!" Altogether, very sobering.

dmarks said...

"The Book of Lost Fragrances" is the perfect title for a book with old flowers pressed between the pages.

P. J. Grath said...

I should press some flowers in this book when I finish reading it, dmarks. Good idea.

The catacombs are scary! What's around the next corner? Yikes! Bones!

Gerry said...

No way I am going down into the catacombs, or even into my crawlspace without my neighbor nearby keeping tabs on me. Nor out on Big Blue in a gale. We love it so that we can forget it is not only cradle but grave.

Count me as one who loved The Lacuna. The key is to let go and go along for the ride.

P. J. Grath said...

A couple of women in my booktore today raved THE LACUNA, too. I'm looking forward to it. Catacombs? No, thanks! But I WILL finish that exciting and suspenseful story!