Lunch with Buddha – An entertaining, engrossing, thought-provoking American road-trip novel – #bookreview

Lunch with Buddha
Roland Merullo
(PFP/Ajar, Kindle, paperback)

To be honest, I was not really aware of Roland Merullo until his publisher contacted me offering a review copy of an enticingly titled new novel, Lunch with Buddha.

I could blame my “Who?” reaction on my intense focus toward reviewing technology books over the past two years. And I could blame it on empirical evidence that it’s really tough to sell works of fiction these days.

Indeed, several writers of novels and short story collections have told me they don’t get much publicity help from their publishers. Some also have declared they were taking up self-publishing so they could (a) get their books into print (or its digital equivalent), (b) keep more of their paltry earnings, and (c) try their hand at book promotion. Furthermore, I have data — very hard data — showing that virtually no one on Planet Earth has yet read my novel, Erwin’s Law, nor my experimental novella, Jump.

Thus, bottom line, I have not been paying very close attention to the world of fiction lately.

Immediately, I was impressed  (and jarred) to learn that (1) Roland Merullo’s seventh novel, Breakfast with Buddha, is now in its 14th printing; (2) Lunch with Buddha, published late last year, is his eleventh novel and already in its second printing; AND (3) Lunch with Buddha’s completion and publication was funded, at least in part, with significant Kickstarter contributions from Merullo fans.

Intriguingly, Roland Merullo turned down a six-figure advance from a major publishing house and chose a small, independent publisher to bring out his new book.

So he must be good, right?

He’s better than good, actually. Roland Merullo is one of the best, most entertaining writers I’ve encountered in a long time. Seldom am I hooked by a book’s first few paragraphs. But, in Lunch with Buddha, Merullo blends verbal calmness, clarity, wit and depth to create an engaging, absorbing story that flows smoothly from darkly humorous opening to meaningful end.

His new tale is a road-trip novel that covers an odd, yet very American, route: from Seattle to North Dakota, in a borrowed, battered pickup truck nicknamed “Uma.”

Otto Ringling, a New York editor of culinary books and recent widower, is taking the journey with reluctance, while searching for peace of mind and new meanings for his suddenly altered life.

His traveling companion on the drive is his sister’s former guru, “His Holiness” Volya Rinpoche, a Siberian “semi-Buddhist” who now is the sister’s husband and father of their young daughter, Shelsa. Volya still has many questions and misconceptions about life in these not-so-United States. But he also has an infectious spirit, an unshakable spirituality, and plenty of confidence that all will be well and work out in the end.

Otto, meanwhile, is just trying to get a renewed grip on existence. “One of the side effects of losing a spouse–at least for me–had been a peculiar inability to perform the most mundane tasks,” he says in the book, adding:

“Making plane and hotel reservations, shopping for food, setting out the trash on time–these duties, which ordinarily I would have completed with a practiced ease, now seemed as daunting as the learning of a Chinese dialect. I let things slide. For the first time in family history, bills were paid late. The dry cleaners had to call three times to remind me to pick up my shirts. My children could be harsh with me about these failings, but I took their casual criticisms like a battered old fighter takes punches. I would stand. I was determined to stand. I was determined to stay sane, and love them, and help them envision a new life after our old one had been ripped to pieces.”

While Otto and Volya drive across Washington state, Idaho, Montana, and into North Dakota, Otto’s sister, Cecelia, her young daughter Shelsa, and Otto’s children Anthony (20) and Natasha (22), are all riding Amtrak, taking a separate route. They’ve been to Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington state, to witness Otto scattering his wife’s ashes. Now they are heading for Dickinson, North Dakota, where Celia and Volya live — in Otto’s view – “on the far side of some line that marked the boundary of ordinary American reality.”

Along the way, Otto and Volya have several humorous–and sometimes troubling–encounters with contemporary American culture and values. Otto, for example, tries to explain to Volya the meanings of some strange signs they see along the highway, such as “REPTILE ZOO AND EXPRESSO” and “EAT BIG FOOD.”

Otto and Volya also have debates over religion and spirituality as the widower seeks understandable meanings he can attach to life, death, and whatever lies beyond our mystery-shrouded finality. For example:

 “What is the goal?” I asked, trying to slip away from it. “What’s the whole point? Enlightenment? Eternal life? What?”

He patted me on the shoulder for the millionth time, and said, “You purify. You go and go. Life cuts you and you try and try and try and pretty soon–”

“You become beautiful.”

“Yes. Good.”

“But toward what are we going and going? What does the beauty look like?”

He shrugged almost helplessly, and for a moment I was gripped hard by the hand of doubt. He seemed only an ordinary man then, and I wanted more than that from him, more than cryptic answers and shrugs. A small inner voice suggested he’d been fooling us all these years, playing a role, maybe even working a scam.

“I can show you,” he said. “I can’t tell you.”

“All right. Please show me, then. I’m having a crisis of faith. I’m a little bit lost.”

He nodded sympathetically. “We find you,” he said. “Don’t worry too much….”

Lunch with Buddha has the same key characters as Roland Merullo’s best-selling Breakfast with Buddha. And a third book, aptly titled Dinner with Buddha, is said to be in the works.

Fortunately, Lunch is written so it can be picked up and immediately enjoyed by those who have not previously read Breakfast. Indeed, Lunch with Buddha will make many readers go back and devour Breakfast, then eagerly anticipate Dinner–and check out some of Roland Merullo’s other works of fiction and nonfiction while waiting for the next serving.

Geoffrey Chaucer and Jack Kerouac are the two names that  pop most quickly to mind when the debate topic is “classic road-trip novels.”  I move that we now add Roland Merullo to that short, but esteemed, list.

Si Dunn

What Makes You Tick? – Do we exist only inside our brains, or does the mind have a longer reach? – #bookreview

What Makes You Tick? A New Paradigm for Neuroscience
Gerard Verschuuren
(Solas Press, paperback)

What is the connection between the mind and the brain? Does the mind exist independent of the brain? And does the human mind communicate with something—or someone–beyond its “biological substrata and physics”?

Gerard Verschuuren tackles these and other mystery-laden questions in his book that proposes a “new paradigm for neuroscience.” While he hopes to expand the thinking of neuroscientists—to look beyond the brain for answers to what and who and how we are—he also has written What Makes You Tick? with general readers in mind.

Verschuuren contends: “Science can’t possibly explain all of what we are . Apparently , it is not just a clockwork mechanism that makes us tick; there is so much more to it.”

The author is a human geneticist with a doctorate in the philosophy of science. He also is a computer specialist who has published several other works. As writer, speaker, and consultant, he works “at the interface of science, philosophy, and religion.”

He brings all of these aspects together in his new book, and he draws from notable scientists and others who believe that the mind has connections and workings that reach beyond the complex processes at work inside our skulls.

You may not agree with all of Dr. Verschuuren’s assertions, conclusions and evidence. But his book is well written, and his points are well argued. What Makes Us Tick? likely will stir up some new debates and possibly some expanded thinking, too, about where the mind actually resides within – and beyond? – the human body.

Si Dunn

Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story – #football #biography #bookreview

Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story
By Jim Dent
(Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99 hardback; $12.99 Kindle)

In my one and only fall semester as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I went to a couple of football games and watched Freddie Steinmark play safety for the Longhorns. I sat high up in the cheap seats and gazed down upon players who appeared to be about two inches tall. Football has long been a big deal in the Lone Star State.

Steinmark was good, very good, and he had a great reputation for hustling, hitting and knocking down opponents’ passes.

However, several other members of the Longhorns team also were getting good press. And the Horns were striving to recapture a national title. So, like many other fans, I didn’t focus much on one player.  I was more into watching the overall X’s and O’s and trying, mentally, to help drive the pigskin down the field.

Unknown to us all, tragedy would strike down Freddie Steinmark in just a few weeks. And, over the next two years and beyond, he would become a nationwide symbol of personal courage and inspiration.

When Steinmark moved to Austin in 1967, he was fiercely determined to play football for the University of Texas Longhorns. He was fresh out of high school in Wheat Ridge, Colo., and he weighed just 150 pounds. Many observers and coaches initially considered him too small for big-time college football.

But, as author Jim Dent points out in his well-written and poignant new sports biography, Courage Beyond the Game, Steinmark’s small stature had not stopped him from being a standout in every major high school sport. Off the field, he had been an academic leader, as well.

At UT-Austin, his determination and drive quickly convinced many that he might succeed after all, both in the difficult field of chemical engineering and as a player for one of America’s top gridiron teams.

Steinmark was “the golden boy from the moment he walked onto the campus,” writes Dent, whose five previous books include a New York Times best-seller, The Junction Boys.

Dent quotes one of Steinmark’s teammates, wide receiver Cotton Spreyer, as stating: “No one was better than Freddie. He could run like a deer and he was quick.”

Darrell Royal, UT’s head football coach at the time, once praised Steinmark by calling him “as focused a young man as I’ve ever seen in my life.”

But a dark time soon — too soon — was coming, and Dent’s book smoothly moves beyond the traditional paeans of sports biography. It becomes a cautionary tale about placing too much trust and faith in the power of physical toughness.

Dent notes: “In the 1960s, a code existed that said players worth their salt did not complain about pain. You were expected to play through the bleeding, bumps, and bruises even if they did not subside in a reasonable time. Each afternoon, Darrell Royal and his assistants walked through the training room for the purpose of counting heads and identifying the players they considered ‘malingerers.’”

Steinmark had arrived at UT with a physical-toughness reputation that stretched back to early childhood. “In the midget leagues,” Dent reports, “he played an entire quarter with a broken arm. In high school, he played three quarters over two games with a broken leg. As a senior, he decided against seeking medical attention when he broke his right hand.”

The ethos of toughness was well embedded in Freddie Steinmark’s personality and values.

In his first season, Steinmark became a starting safety on UT’s freshman team. By the next fall, he was the Longhorns’ pass defense captain and co-leading the Southwest Conference in pass interceptions. He continued making top grades in his classes, and he continued dating his high school sweetheart, who now was attending UT, as well. 

He was “golden,” indeed. Prominent sportswriters now were labeling him one of America’s best and brightest football players.

His world suddenly spun a different way his junior year, while the 1969 Longhorns fought to regain college football’s top national ranking. He developed a pain that grew to feel “like a hot poker had been stuck into his left thighbone just above the knee.” Steinmark now limped in workouts and games but did his best to hide it. He also refused to tell his trainers and coaches for fear he would be pulled as a starter.

 Dent details how Steinmark continued the excruciating ruse all season until “the Game of the Century,” UT versus Arkansas, in Fayetteville, with President Nixon in the stands and the national championship on the line. The game also celebrated the 100th anniversary of college football.

In the great game’s last quarter, the worsening pain finally left Steinmark unable to cover pass receivers. Coach Darrell Royal sent in a substitute, and Texas held on to win 15-14.

 What happened next to Freddie Steinmark is movingly described in Jim Dent’s bittersweet and engaging book. Bone cancer — osteogenic sarcoma — was dicovered, and it took the young man’s leg but not his spirit. For the next year and a half, Freddie Steinmark was able to bounce around full of life on crutches, becoming Dent says, both an inspiration to other cancer patients and “a national symbol of courage” in the game of life.

Mack Brown, the Texas Longhorns’ current head coach, was a high school football player the last year Steinmark played. He watched “the Game of the Century” and the scrappy junior safety on TV. He never met the junior safety, but he hasn’t forgotten that Steinmark had his leg amputated, then showed up on the UT sidelines just three weeks later, on crutches, to watch Texas play Notre Dame in the Coton Bowl.

“In recognition of that courage,” Brown states in the foreword to Dent’s book, “to this day we have the players touch a picture of Freddie with the Longhorn salute before they go down the ramp to the field. Armed with the pride of the All-Americans, and in honor of the courage of Freddie, we ask them to go out and play as hard as they can.”

Si Dunn

Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Apricot Jam and Other Stories’ – #bookreview #fiction #Russia – updated

Apricot Jam and Other Stories
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
(Counterpoint, $28.00)

A major literary work is now available for readers who relish the works of modern Russian writers, particularly the ones who rebelled against communism’s restrictive censorship and social, legal and economic rigidities and achieved international acclaim during the final decades of the Soviet Union.

Apricot Jam and Other Stories,  an engrossing collection of eight short stories by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has been published by Berkeley, Calif.-based Counterpoint.

Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, primarily on the strength of three novels, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, In The First Circle (better known as The First Circle), and Cancer Ward. These books shone glaring, shocking spotlights on the Gulag, a USSR government agency that operated a brutal, sprawling system of forced labor camps for political prisoners, criminals and others who ran afoul of  Soviet laws, officials, informants and secret police.

Significantly, the eight short stories in this 352-page collection are making their first appearance in English. They were initially published in Russia in 1994, after Solzhenitsyn ended years of exile in the West and returned to his native land. He died in 2008.

The title story provides an excellent example of the unusual “binary” writing style that Solzhenitsyn employed in these eight works of short fiction. In “Apricot Jam,” the son of a kulak (a relatively affluent peasant) has almost lost everything in his life except the memories of the apricot jam his mother used to make for him before communism and collective agriculture destroyed his family and his farm. He is now nearly starving to death while serving internal exile and doing hard labor in a distant town. In desperation, he writes a letter to a famous Russian writer who has published a book touting that the “meaning of life is labor in a communist society.”  He humbly begs the famous writer to send him a food parcel, because he is working hard to try to stay alive, yet now nearing death from lack of nourishment.

In the second part of the “Apricot Jam” story, the exile’s letter has arrived at the famous writer’s elegant dacha outside Moscow. There, the famous writer entertains a professor of cinema, as well as a neighbor, the head of the literary department in the State Publishing House, a man who “held the reins of the whole of literature in his hands….”

In the posh dacha, the men also enjoy some apricot jam, but it is just one minor trapping amid the surrounding opulence as they speak in praise of Comrade Stalin, socialist realism, and how “Creating an art of world significance–that is the task of the writer today.” The apricot jam briefly figures into their discussion as a symbol for a type of  “amber transparency” that “should be present in literary language, as well.” 

Soon, the famous writer mentions the unusual letter he has received from the exiled, starving worker. And, as they discuss its text, their final analysis of it is devastating.

In the story “The New Generation,” a principled and disciplined engineering professor finally gives in to pleadings by a failing student and hands him a passing grade. The professor is, after all, under orders to “make allowances” for the students now being sent to him from factories, some of whom would be “better off making pots and pans” rather than being forced to become engineers.

 Two years later, in the second part of the story’s binary structure, the engineering professor is arrested, and his interrogator from the GPU (the State Political Directorate) is none other than the failing student who had talked him into a passing grade. The ex-student cannot undo the professor’s arrest, yet he can and does, as a sort of return favor, offer him three grim choices of fates. 

Solzhenitsyn served with distinction as a captain in the Red Army during World War II, but was arrested after he wrote a letter that included disparaging remarks about Josef Stalin’s leadership of the war effort. The writer spent the next eight years in Soviet labor camps and another three years in internal exile.

Much of his fiction in Apricot Jam and Other Stories draws its creative spark from his grim wartime and Gulag experiences. Yet some of the stories also deal with post-Soviet issues in the times of Yeltsin and Gorbachev. For example, in the concluding story, “Fracture Points,” characters face the difficulty of trying to adapt to new freedoms and new economic structures at a time when “[t]he word ‘privatize’ was as frightening as a sea monster.”

If you have never before read any Solzhenitsyn, Apricot Jam and Other Stories can be a good introduction that may inspire you to also delve into his earlier works of fiction, particularly the ones that brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature 41 years ago.

This new book, translated by “TK” and published by Counterpoint, demonstrates once again why Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn continues to deserve his ranking as one of the world’s great writers.

 — Si Dunn

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The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011 – #bookreview

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011
By Melvyn Bragg
(Counterpoint Press, $28.00 hardback; $20.00 Kindle)

As a child, I liked and respected the King James Bible. But I hated religion. I had been born into a “Christian” demonination that tried incessantly to pound hellfire, damnation and, sadly, white supremacy, into my young head. And it used the King James Version as its grim hammer.

Some of my less-educated relatives, in fact, believed not only that the King James Version was the literal Word of God but that it had come directly from God, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, as well as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — in English.

Once I turned 18 and moved away, I abandoned that denomination quickly. But I took a King James Bible with me. And, 50 years later, I still keep one close by and sometimes refer to it — not always as a writer’s reference.

Melvyn Bragg’s The Book of Books is a magnificent work of religious and historical scholarship, adroitly timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’s first publication in 1611. His book is eye-opening, entertaining reading and full of surprises as he pulls together startling examples of the King James Bible’s powerful and pervasive reach within English and American culture. 

 “You may be a Christian. You may  be anti-Christian, or of any other religion, nor none. You may be an athiest fundamentalist and think the Bible is monstrous, a book to be dismissed or derided,” Bragg writes. “But whoever you are in the English-speaking world, I hope to persuade you to consider that the King James Bible has driven the making of that world over the last 400 years, often in the most unanticipated ways.”

His 370-page book smoothly covers an amazing amount of religious, historical, political and cultural ground, both in England and the United States. And he makes the compelling case that America owes much of its language, government, literature and national values to the King James Bibles that accompanied the early colonists and settlers to the New World. 

“There has never been a book to match it,” Bragg states. “It has a fair claim to be the most pivotal book ever written, a claim made by poets and statesmen and supported by tens of millions of readers and congregations.” In his view, “everyone. even athiests, has benefited from many of its unexpected consequences.”

Not all of its consequences have been good, of course. “It was the consolidating voice of two world empires [Great Britain and the United States]. It unleashed and motivated philanthropic movements of a size and effectiveness which bettered the lives of ordinary people throughout the English-speaking world.” But it likewise encouraged a “ferocious sense of mission” that “transformed and sometimes destroyed native cultures.”

Also: “For centuries the King James Bible fed some of the finest thinkers and artists and men of science and politics; others it persecuted.”

For me, one intriguing aspect of Bragg’s book is its examination of the King James Bible’s strong influence on American literature all the way into the 20th century and beyond. Writers such as William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Golding,, John Steinbeck and many others composed novels and short stories with strong echoes of Bible stories no doubt heard and learned in childhood from the King James Bible.

Bragg also examines how America’s Civil War was “a war of the Bible,” for both sides. “The King James Version provided the intellectual and emotional structure for the politics” of that devastating conflict. He notes: “It would be overly simplistic to conclude that the Bible alone ’caused’ the Civil War. But: “The Bible was the gate through which the thoughts and passions of the majority were marshalled.” 

Bragg’s well-honed skills as a novelist and nonfiction author help enrich The Book of Books as a reading and learning experience. He keeps his focus carefully centered on demonstrating the impact of the King James Bible and does not wander off  into wider examinations of Christianity and its myriad controversies.

Si Dunn