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Breakfast with Buddha
Synopses & Reviews
The only thing certain about a journey is that it has a beginning and an end—for you never know what may happen along the way. And so it is with this journey into the minds and souls of two very different men—one of them in search of the truth, the other a man who may have already found it.
When Otto Ringling, a husband, father, and editor, departs on a cross-country drive from his home in a New York City suburb to the North Dakota farmhouse in which he grew up, he is a man on a no-nonsense mission: to settle the estate of his recently deceased parents. However, when his flaky sister convinces him to give a ride to her guru, a crimson-robed Skovordinian monk, Otto knows there will be a few bumps in the road.
As they venture across America, Otto and the affable, wise, irritating, and inscrutible holy man engage in a battle of wits and wisdom. Otto, a born skeptic, sees his unwanted passenger as a challenge: a man who assumes the knowledge of the ages yet walks a mortal's path. But he also sees their unexpected pairing as an opportunity to take Volya Rinpoche on a journey of cultural discovery, with visits to quintessentially American landmarks (the Hershey's factory, Wrigley Field) and forays into some favorite American pastimes (bowling, miniature golf, dining out).
It is Otto, however, who has embarked on the real journey, that of self-discovery, led by his strange and remarkable passenger. By the time they reach North Dakota, Otto's head is reeling with the understanding that so much of what he had believed—as well as so much of what he had doubted—must be rethought before his journey can truly begin.
Witty and inventive, Breakfast with Buddha takes readers into the heart of America and in the process shows us a man about to discover his own true heart.
"Please don't be put off when I describe this pleasant, engaging novel as a sermon. I admit I was put off during the first 50 pages or so, when I realized what I was in for, but I got to liking 'Breakfast With Buddha' more and more as I went along and was very sorry when it ended. This story concerns Otto Ringling, a successful man in his 40s who has a great job in Manhattan as an... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) editor of food books. He also has a sweet wife, Jeannie, and a couple of decent kids, Natasha and Anthony. He's got a nice house, money for vacations and all that. But since the accidental death of his parents, a farming couple in North Dakota, Otto has been experiencing a certain malaise: 'All this striving and aggravation, all these joys and miseries, all this busyness, all this stuff — a thousand headlines, a hundred thousand conversations, e-mails, meetings, tax returns, warranties, bills, privacy notices, ads for Viagra, calls for donations, election cycles, war in the news every day.' His list goes on and on, and he repeats it one way or another frequently throughout the book. It's not a new complaint, far from it: 'The world is too much with us, late and soon / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,' Wordsworth said; more prosaically, Emerson reminded us that 'things are in the saddle and ride mankind.' And as every depressed person knows, once you start asking 'What's the point?,' the answer comes back to you with disconcerting promptness: There isn't any. Against this background, Otto decides to take a couple of weeks off and drive back to the family farm. He needs to settle the estate, and there are a few nice pieces of furniture he's had his eye on. He'll be making this trip with his sister Cecelia, an embarrassing but kind-hearted New-Agey type who lives in a seedy part of Paterson, N.J., and ekes out a living doing past-life regressions. If that's not bad enough, when Otto swings by to pick her up, she presents him with a substitute passenger, her guru, Volya Rinpoche, a messy monk in a crimson robe trimmed with gold. He was 'built like a middle linebacker, with a wide rough face that could have belonged to a man of thirty-five or a man of sixty. It was almost as if he were a combination of all his predecessors: part yoga master, part biker, with a glint in his eyes like that slimy orchestra guy.' Otto is considerably less than delighted, but there's no arguing with his flaky sister. The monk climbs into the car, and that's that. From Chaucer to Kerouac, the road trip in fiction has always been seen as more than a casual jaunt. At the very least, it's a way to gain access to the larger world, and at most it's a path to spiritual enlightenment. We can take for granted the latter will be happening here — with the mildly disaffected food editor stuck in a car for about a week with Volya, reputed to be the incarnation of many a spiritual bigwig, including Buddha himself. (In fact, Volya isn't necessarily a proponent of any one religion.) As they drive from New Jersey to North Dakota, the two men give each other crash courses in different but not necessarily opposing ways to live. American fun is what Volya wants to learn about. (He's spent more than a few years in a Siberian prison and needs to take in some treats.) And after a day or two of the requisite white-male grumpiness, Otto, who refers to himself as a Christian even though he's grown to detest the militancy of organized religion in America today, agrees to take a crash course in whatever kind of spiritual life this guy in the crimson robe is peddling. Yes, it's all formulaic, but it's such a sweet formula! Otto takes Volya to the Hershey chocolate factory and buys him a bag of Kisses. He takes him bowling and then to play miniature golf (where the two must endure the pompous blather of a particularly awful philosophy professor), then swimming by the banks of a Minnesota lake, where the monk embarrasses Otto by doing elaborate yoga poses in a skimpy powder-blue Speedo before jumping in. They end up gambling in an Indian casino, where Volya fools the credulous Otto, who, in spite of his sophistication, seems born to become the quintessential straight man. Volya is a very big name in his field, as Otto gradually learns. He ends up chauffeuring the famous monk to various speeches and gatherings, and when he finally bends enough to let himself be 'taught,' he is physically wrecked by a marathon yoga class, a two-hour meditation and a 24-hour fast. But it's not these practices that change Otto's life, it's the whole question-and-answer aspect of the trip. 'Why angry?' Volya asks early on when they get stuck in a terrible traffic jam in which some drivers have lost their lives. The pair are accosted at every turn by poverty, sadness, the nightmares of reality television and the electronic horrors of war. 'Why angry?' It only makes things worse. On finishing this book, I decided that Roland Merullo would be a great guy to take a road trip with." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee. com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
When his sister tricks him into taking her guru on a trip to their childhood home, Otto Ringling, a confirmed skeptic, is not amused. Six days on the road with an enigmatic holy man who answers every question with a riddle is not what he'd planned. But in an effort to westernize his passenger—and amuse himself—he decides to show the monk some "American fun" along the way. From a chocolate factory in Hershey to a bowling alley in South Bend, from a Cubs game at Wrigley field to his family farm near Bismarck, Otto is given the remarkable opportunity to see his world—and more important, his life—through someone else's eyes. Gradually, skepticism yields to amazement as he realizes that his companion might just be the real thing.
In Roland Merullo's masterful hands, Otto tells his story with all the wonder, bemusement, and wry humor of a man who unwittingly finds what he's missing in the most unexpected place.
About the Author
Roland Merullo, a critically acclaimed novelist and golfing aficionado, is the author of six books, including Passion for Golf: In Pursuit of the Innermost Gameand the recently published novel A Little Love Story. He lives with his wife and daughters in Massachusetts.
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