Friday, November 30, 2012

Lunch with Buddha

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo
PFP Publishing, 11/28/2012
Trade Paperback, 392 pages
ISBN-13: 9780984834570

On the surface, Lunch with Buddha is a story about family. Otto Ringling and his sister Cecelia could not be more different. He's just turned 50, an editor of food books at a prestigious New York publishing house, a man with a nice home in the suburbs, children he adores, and a sense of himself as being a mainstream, upper-middle-class American. Cecelia is the last thing from mainstream. For two decades she's made a living reading palms and performing past-life regressions. She believes firmly in our ability to communicate with those who have passed on.
It will turn out, though, that they have more in common than just their North Dakota roots.
In Lunch with Buddha, when Otto faces what might be the greatest of life's difficulties, it is Cecelia who knows how to help him. As she did years earlier in this book's predecessor, Breakfast with Buddha, she arranges for her brother to travel with Volya Rinpoche, a famous spiritual teacher - who now also happens to be her husband.
After early chapters in which the family gathers for an important event, the novel portrays a road trip made by Otto and Rinpoche, in a rattling pickup, from Seattle to the family farm in North Dakota. Along the way the brothers-in-law have a series of experiences - some hilarious, some poignant - all aimed at bringing Otto a deeper peace of mind. They visit American landmarks; they have a variety of meals, both excellent and awful; they meet a cast of minor characters, each of whom enables Rinpoche to impart some new spiritual lesson. Their conversations range from questions about life and death to talk of history, marijuana, child-rearing, sexuality, Native Americans, and outdoor swimming.
In the end, with the help of their miraculous daughter, Shelsa, and the prodding of Otto's own almost-adult children, Rinpoche and Cecelia push this decent, middle-of-the-road American into a more profound understanding of the purpose of his life. His sense of the line between possible and impossible is altered, and the story's ending points him toward a very different way of being in this world.
My Thoughts:

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo follows the second road trip of Otto Ringling and Volya Rinpoche. Their first road trip is in Merullo's 2007 novel Breakfast With BuddhaIn the first few pages of Lunch with Buddha, Otto informs us that: 
"My children and I were headed to Washington State to distribute my wife's ashes, according to her wishes, near the banks of a certain stream on the eastern slope of the Cascade range. I am not a person who has much affection for ceremonies, and we were still buried to our necks in grief, and so I'd put it off for as long as I could.... Jeannie had died in the first week of January, and here we were at the end of a steaming July, just getting around to it. (pg. 3)"

Otto and his children are searching to find meaning in their new lives. Otto says:
"I would stand. I was determined to stand. I was determined to stay sane, and love them, and help envision a new life after our old one had been ripped to pieces. (pg. 7)"  They are meeting his sister Cecelia and her husband, Volya Rinpoche, and their daughter. Rinpoche is a well known Buddhist who runs a retreat with Cecelia on the old family farm in North Dakota.  

After scattering Jeanne's ashes Otto and Rinpoche are going to be taking a truck that was donated by a follower and drive it back to North Dakota. The truck is an old '83 model named Uma after Uma Thurman. The young man donating her informs them:  "Uma's all set. Tank's full. Fresh oil. Papers in the glove box, all signed. Muffler's got a little pinhole, and you might just keep an eye on the temp gauge from time to time and if you see it moving toward the red just turn the heat on. (pg. 13)"

So Otto's children head to North Dakota with his sister while he has another road trip with Rinpoche. While it might be assumed that Lunch with Buddha would be a dense novel full of spiritual teaching, in reality it is a light read. There are moments of depth and insight juxtaposed with moments of humor and tourism. Along the way they encounter a wide variety of meals in various places, an assortment of characters running the gamut from transvestites to bigots, and interesting places to stay and/or swim.

While there is a religious element to the book, obviously, Merullo has some keen insights and captures some profound common truths for everyone, even for those of us who are not Buddhist.
"The thing about self-pity is that it feeds on itself. It's akin to depression in that way and almost as painful. It hides from the world in a black-walled closet, urging you toward a masturbatory negativity. (pg. 53)."
 "You're intrigued by the way other people eat," I said. "I'm intrigued by the way other people live. By the idea that maybe we shouldn't be making some of the assumptions we make."
"Such as?"
"Such as that the main purpose of our being here is to earn money and collect things and pleasures and insulate ourselves from discomfort to the extent humanly possible before the hour of our death. (pg. 210)"
"According to my wise brother-in-law, doing nothing about your flaws was a kind of spiritual laziness for which one eventually paid a heavy price. (pg. 256)"

Merullo is an excellent writer and some of his descriptions just sing. This is a fun road trip book with a message included if you choose to catch it. It seems that there will be a Dinner with Buddha too. I haven't read Breakfast with Buddha, and that didn't prohibit me from enjoying Lunch with Buddha, although it probably wouldn't hurt to start with it if you are interested in Lunch with Buddha.

Highly Recommended

Roland Merullo is an awarding-winning author of 14 books including 10 works of fiction. Breakfast with Buddha, a nominee for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, is now in its 14th printing. The Talk-Funny Girl was a 2012 ALEX Award Winner and named a “Must Read for 2012” by the Massachusetts Library Association and the Massachusetts Center for the Book; Revere Beach Boulevard was named one of the “Top 100 Essential Books of New England” by The Boston Globe, A Little Love Story was named one of “Ten Wonderful Romance Novels” by Good Housekeeping and Revere Beach Elegy won the Massachusetts Book Award for non fiction.

A former writer in residence at North Shore Community College and Miami Dade Colleges, and professor of Creative Writing at Bennington and Amherst Colleges, Merullo has been a guest speaker at many literary events and venues and a faculty member at MFA programs and several writers’ conferences. His essays have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Outside Magazine, Yankee Magazine, Newsweek, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Magazine, Reader's Digest, Good Housekeeping, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His books have been translated into German, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean and Croatian.

Roland Merullo lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.

Quotes:   excerpt chapter 6

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the author and TLC for review purposes. 

(The giveaway has ended and the winner has been notified.)

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