Book review: ‘Lunch With Buddha’ by Roland Merullo

New Yorker Otto Ringling is traveling cross-country with his kids on a devastating errand. Adrift and in mourning, Otto and his college-aged son and daughter join up with Otto’s sister, Cecelia, as well as her young daughter and husband: a charismatic, eccentric spiritual guru named Volya Rinpoche.

In Seattle, the group completes their sad task and prepares to head home — back east for the Ringlings; home to a North Dakota retreat for Cecelia, Rinpoche and Shelsa. Otto’s children will leave and scatter. He will retreat into his work as a food editor, trying to swallow around a hard lump of grief. Unable to turn his mind elsewhere, Otto’s wounds will fester. He will dwell. He will struggle from one day to the next, searching and alone.

Unless . . .

Life and its detours — an endless circle of paths and sanctuaries. Tasked with driving a recently-purchased old truck back to North Dakota, Otto joins Rinpoche on a road trip that will transport them from one coast to the Midwest — through a series of byways, spiritual and physical, that will change them both.

Roland Merullo’s Lunch With Buddha is lyrical, thought-provoking, exquisite. I knew I was in for a treat from the first page, basking in the rich language, and Merullo’s novel is truly a joy for the senses.

Narrator Otto is the perfect mix of skeptic and believer. Hanging with Rinpoche, a revered holy man with an unending philosophical appreciation for life, is enough to change anyone — but Otto doesn’t have accept it. Still smarting from a recent tragedy, he’s not always in the mood for Rinpoche’s musings and non sequiturs — but knows his brother-in-law means well. Traveling together from Washington to North Dakota in a rickety old vehicle allows the pair plenty of chats on life, love and what comes next. And for Otto, a foodie and family man, these chats transcend the simple road trip. (And by the way — how much do I love road trips? This one was great.)

Rinpoche himself is a true character. Enigmatic and fascinated by the strange habits of Americans, his observations — in broken English — reflect U.S. culture through a very unique prism. I loved the questions he asks Otto about the American way of doing things, and his devotion to Cecelia and Shelsa is very sweet. He’s someone completely comfortable in his skin — a man who doesn’t think of vanity, selfishness, cruelty. Regardless of one’s religion, Rinpoche’s thought-provoking prompts and explanations are fascinating.

There’s so much to love about Lunch With Buddha, a review book I accepted with some trepidation. I was worried I wouldn’t connect with the characters, would find the religious aspects too preachy, wouldn’t relate to Otto and his sad quest. I hadn’t read the first in Merullo’s series, Breakfast With Buddha, and worried I’d miss something by starting with the second book. But something about the description tugged at me — and despite its length, I was completely drawn into Rinpoche and Otto’s tale. No previous knowledge of the Ringling family necessary.

The story’s first-person narration clinched it for me. As Rinpoche and Otto meandered across state lines, meeting others who would teach lessons along the way, I felt like I’d wedged myself into the yurt they were supposed to share or hitched a ride in the back of the cab. Their journey is just that: a journey. One with a destination, yes, but also one without. One that continues long after we’ve closed the book.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0984834575 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

The sad state of a car sick reader

Nine hours to. Nine hours from.

I thought I’d prepared myself for the journey. Spencer and I were up and back to Western New York over Labor Day weekend — two and a half days of fun before back to the grind on Tuesday. Since I depleted all of my vacation time going to England and whatnot, we couldn’t get on the road until after work on Friday . . . and that had us parking at Spencer’s parents’ home around 1 a.m. Saturday.

We had a wonderful time with Spence’s family. It’s always so relaxing in New York — far from the hustle and bustle of the D.C. area and the myriad of obligations that plague me at home. Though the trip back is really going “home” to Spencer, it just feels like an extended vacation to me. No worries. Nothing to fuss about or fret over. Just time to hang out and be.

And that? That’s awesome. And fun.

But what’s not so fun?

Getting there.

We looked into flights to Buffalo weeks ago and found the fares to be . . . well, a bit cost prohibitive. Since it was a holiday weekend, Southwest milked the end of summer for all it was worth — and poor, weary travelers like us couldn’t pony up that kind of dough for a three-day stay. So we threw our stuff in the backseat and sailed away in Spencer’s car, though D.C.-area traffic doesn’t really let anyone “sail” anywhere.

It was a mess.

Being a seasoned traveler, I knew enough to bring a “stuff bag” to sit in the front seat with me. You know how your parents would pack a bag full of crayons, coloring books, games and puzzles for those long road trips? Or, you know, if you’re of a more recent generation, maybe an electronic device with movies or video games and such?

I still do that. Except now it’s full of books, candy and magazines.

But here’s the thing I can never remember — and the thing that aggravates me more than anything else: I cannot read in the car. It makes me queasy and anxious and sick. Sometimes I can peruse a few pages before I feel that dull headache building at the base of my skull, and by that point I’m kicking myself for bringing on a dreaded case of car sickness. And I usually feel bad for the rest of the journey.

It makes me insane. Here I am with hours upon hours stretching before me, all crisp and fresh and new. Spencer’s iPod created the soundtrack to our trip; we crawled along I-270 to the tunes of The Beatles, Rammstein, Ben Folds and whoever else popped up on shuffle mode. It was ample time to chat about life, get reconnected and think.

It was also ample time to read. But that’s never to be.

The drive back last night was killer. Poor Spence was responsible for getting us home unscathed in driving rain from New York to Maryland. The ground is so saturated from recent storms that tree limbs dangle precariously close to the road. As we finally hit the Beltway after a long, slow drive through Pennsylvania, the roads in Virginia had no reflective markers to let you know where the lanes actually were. It was dark and stormy and scary. And after already cruising for eight hours in similar conditions, all we wanted was to be out on solid ground.

Reading wouldn’t have helped that. But maybe it would have made me calm down.

Can you read in moving vehicles, or are you also doomed to a life of car sickness? I’m good on airplanes, boats and things of that nature. But cars? Forget it. (Though I can’t — and keep trying.)

Book review: ‘Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour’ by Morgan Matson

In the months since her father’s death, Amy Curry has stumbled through life with a weight the size of her small California town on her shoulders. Without her dad there to keep everyone on track, her twin brother’s substance issues run rampant as her demanding mother refuses to acknowledge them — until she has no choice. After her mom decides to move the remaining Currys to Connecticut, Amy stays behind to finish her junior year of high school — and at the end of the school year, she’s to drive cross-country and rejoin her mom. 

The only trouble? Amy can’t drive — or won’t, actually. She needs someone to accompany her on the 3,000 mile trek from coast to coast, and in steps Roger — a family friend and former neighbor, a young man who used to play basketball in the neighborhood with the Curry twins when they were small.

But they’re all grown up now — and Roger? With his golden boy good looks and tender heart, Roger becomes the perfect road trip companion. Bringing perfect iPod mixes and easy conversation, Roger agrees to drive Amy, an aspiring actress, to the East Coast in exchange for a train ticket to Philadelphia. But as Amy constantly worries, why would Roger — gorgeous, sensitive, funny Roger — agree to trek so far with a high school kid, a girl he barely knows? And what secrets and guilt of his own is Roger harboring?

Morgan Matson’s Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour is an engaging, touching and ultimately hopeful novel centering around one broken girl and the adventure that begins to heal her. On par with Justina Chen Headley’s North Of Beautiful, one of my favorite young adult novels, this Detour was a welcome respite from mundane, uninteresting plot points and static characters that can plague contemporary fiction.

There isn’t too much to dislike in a fast-paced, engrossing novel like this. Amy’s growth from cover to cover is astounding, culminating in all of the daring experiences she wouldn’t have even thought of attempting months before. Watching the progression of her feelings for Roger was really sweet and powerful, and it was just as clear that Roger’s affection was mutual.

At the heart of the novel is the road trip itself — unpredictable, wild. While Amy’s mom had carefully planned the entire journey from start to finish, complete with hotel reservations, Amy and Roger leap wildly off the path from the start. I loved reading about places I’ve visited through the eyes of our travelers, relishing in all the funny anecdotes (like having to stuff food or anything  attractive to bears in a bear locker while camping at Yosemite) and new friendships. Roger exposes Amy to a whole world — a world outside herself — and gently tugs her from the cell of her grief. While sometimes I wanted to shake Amy, screaming that her dad’s death was not her fault, I greatly empathized with her. The trip was what she needed to escape, grow and heal.

Multi-layered and boasting a cast of memorable characters, even on the periphery, Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour provided plenty of entertainment while still getting me to hastily wipe tears from my eyes. The incorporation of “real” photos from the trip — scrapbook pages, receipts, itineraries, Roger’s playlists — added another dimension of the story that really made me feel like I, too, had gone on a trip. And by the time I closed the last page, I didn’t want it to end.

Fans of young adult and realistic fiction will enjoy this fresh look at family and love, life and death, and find plenty of humorous moments to balance out the serious, often philosophical tone of the book. Not your average “road trip” novel — and that’s what I loved most about it. Don’t hesitate to pick this one up — especially not with a cover that gorgeous!

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1416990658 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Personal copy purchased by Meg