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

Advertisements

EPUB 3 Best Practices – A solid guide to the EPUB digital publishing process – #bookreview

EPUB 3 Best Practices
Matt Garrish and Marcus Gylling
(O’Reilly – paperback, Kindle)

If you publish ebooks and other documents or hope to publish some soon, you definitely need to be aware of EPUB 3.

“EPUB is a format for representing documents in electronic form,” the two authors of EPUB 3 Best Practices point out. “Ebook, on the other hand, is just an abstract term used to encompass any electronic representation of a book, including formats such as PDF, HTML, ASCII text, Word, and a host of others, in addition to EPUB.”

They add: “EPUB is designed to be a general-purpose document format, and it can be used to represent many kinds of publications other than books: from magazines to newspapers to journals, and on through office documents and policies and beyond.”

This 345-page, 11-chapter book is not a digital publishing how-to guide that you can zip through in a weekend. Indeed, its contents are, by nature, a bit dense. But Garrish and Gylling do a fine job of explaining and illustrating each key aspect of EPUB. And their book contains essential information that you will need to know — or at least be aware of — if you intend to be a serious publisher of online publications.

You can, after all, hire the services of an EPUB consultant to help you with the technical details. Yet, it can be very beneficial to have a good sense of what you will be paying to have done.

Likewise, you should consider this book if you are thinking of becoming an EPUB consultant. The two authors are EPUB experts;  Gylling, in fact, led the development of the EPUB 3 specification.

“On a practical level,” they note, “EPUB defines both the format for your content and how reading systems go about discovering it and rendering it to readers….” And: “One of the most common misconceptions about EPUB is that its a ‘flavor’ of XML. (‘Should I use EPUB or DocBook?’ or, even worse, ‘Should I use EPUB or HTML5?’ Hint: EPUB (pretty much) = HTML5.)”

If you have little or no experience with EPUB, you may want to check out two ebooks–both free–before diving into EPUB 3 Best Practices. Those books are: What is EPUB 3?  and Accessible EPUB 3.

Si Dunn

Go APE (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur) with Guy Kawasaki & Shawn Welch – #bookreview #amwriting

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book
Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch
(Nononina Press,
Kindle)

Okay, confession time. I know a bit about the book business—what used to be the book business.

Years ago, I was a freelance developmental book editor for a trio of well-known publishing houses; I’ve had a couple of book agents; books I wrote have been put into print by not-so-major publishers (and later dropped out of print); I’ve written hundreds of book reviews; and I’ve self-published a few books and ebooks: nonfiction, fiction and poetry.

To misquote the late actor-comedian W.C. Fields, on the whole, I’d rather be in self-publishing now.  There isn’t much of an alternative.

And not just basic self-publishing but artisanal self-publishing, which Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch define, in their well-written and well-designed new book, as “a new, cool form of publishing…authors lovingly crafting their books with total control over the process.”

Many writers, of course, already are trying to do that, often with abysmal results, because it’s not enough to commit a book to print (or its digital equivalent) and then wait for the world to recognize your genius and surge forward to buy it on Amazon.

To succeed in self-publishing, you really do have to be, as Kawasaki and Welch contend, an APE: an author, a publisher, and an entrepreneur. 

With APE, Kawasaki and Welch aim to “help people take control of their writing careers by publishing their books. The thesis of APE is simple but powerful: When a self-publisher successfully fills three roles—author, publisher and entrepreneur—the potential benefits are greater than with traditional publishing.”

There’s plenty of truth in that. Three publishers turned down my Vietnam War memoir Dark Signals, even after it received a prestigious award. And several other publishers did not bother to respond to my queries. So I published it myself as a CreateSpace paperback and Kindle ebook, both available through Amazon.

It has not been a runaway best-seller; I knew from the outset that I was writing for a limited audience: readers of military memoirs. Yet several hundred copies have been ordered thus far. And a book that I really needed to push out of my soul finally is out there for posterity, with five-star reviews.

No doubt I could have sold more copies at the outset if I had had APE in hand. Knowing the traditional book business is one thing. Knowing the new ways of book creation and marketing are quite another.   

Filling the three roles — author, publisher and entrepreneur — is “challenging, but they are not impossible—especially if people who have done it before explain it to you.” That’s the key premise behind APE. Kawasaki, a successful author, has become a successful self-publisher with help from Shawn Welch, and together, they are now offering up their hard-earned secrets in a 300-page book that many authors will want to read, repeatedly.

Indeed, many of us likely will value APE as a Chicago Manual of Style for self-publishing that also has entertaining writing and dozens of how-to tips thrown in for added value. APE is comprehensive. And it’s very realistic about what it takes to succeed as a self-published author.

Three points in particular stand out for me.

  1. Yes, I have been a professional editor and proofreader of books. But I still should never do the final edits and proofreading of my own text. (Neither should you.) “The self-edited author is as foolish as the self-medicated patient,” Guy Kawasaki points out. Indeed, I have had to create new editions of at least two of my ebooks, because I found glaring typos that I had completely overlooked while doing my “final” edits. As Kawasaki notes: “The going rate for copyediting is $35 per hour, and copyeditors can work their magic at the rate of roughly ten pages per hour (although this can vary depending on the complexity of the material), so you’ll pay approximately $1,000–$1,500 for a three-hundred-page manuscript. This is one of the dumbest places to try to save money, because poor copyediting destroys the quality of your book.” (Unfortunately, you will have to sell a lot of ebooks to cover that cost.)
  2. At least two of my CreateSpace books have boring covers. I am not a graphic artist, and I should not attempt to save money in the future by “designing” my own book covers or settling for one of the available “standard” covers. As Kawasaki notes: “Not to get too metaphysical, but a cover is a window into the soul of your book. In one quick glance, it needs to tell the story of your book and attract people to want to read it. Unless you’re a professional, hire a professional to create a great cover because, in spite of how the old saying goes, you can judge a book by its cover. Or at very least, people will judge a book by its cover.”
  3. While I have dabbled at business for many years, I am not much of an entrepreneur. And I don’t have the soul of a self-promoting guerilla marketer. I grew up believing modesty is a virtue. (Or, perhaps I merely had that notion spanked into my britches when I was an Eisenhower-era kid.) In any case, when my first books were published, others hired by the publishers did the editing, bragging, selling and distribution. Sometimes I talked to small groups of people and signed a few autographs. But mostly, I just stayed home, started a new project, and waited for the (small) checks to arrive. Now, in APE’s chapter on “How to Build an Enchanting Personal Brand,” Kawasaki states: “Call me idealistic, but your platform is only as good as your reality. If you suck as a person, your platform will suck too.” Cool. Memo to self: Improve personal enchantment platform immediately. (By the way, Guy and Shawn, I would add a comma between “suck” and “too.” You’re welcome.) Seriously, if we self-publish books, we have to sell ourselves to readers, right along with, and often ahead of, our books. And the eight chapters of APE’s “Entrepreneur” section provide excellent guidelines on how to do that.

Even if you already know a lot about self-publishing and self-marketing books, if you’ll go APE, you can learn some profitable new tricks from Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch.

Si Dunn