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'Breakfast with Buddha' a healthy alternative

“Breakfast with Buddha,” by Roland Merullo. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 336 pp. $12.95 paperback.By Jenni Koerner
For the Salisbury Post
Algonquin Books, founded in Chapel Hill in 1982, has become well-known for its eclectic, high-quality offerings. This tradition continues in the light and pleasant “Breakfast with Buddha” by Roland Merullo.
In the book, Otto Ringling is a successful cookbook editor who lives with his wife and two teenage kids in an upscale New York suburb. He is not the type you’d expect to have an existential midlife crisis, but that’s exactly what happens after his parents are killed in a freak automobile accident.
Needing to settle the estate and sort out his own emotions, he plans a cross-country road trip from New Jersey to the family farm in North Dakota with his eccentric New Age sister, Cecelia. However, at the last minute she begs off and talks him into taking her guru instead. This is Volya Rinpoche, a monk who follows Buddhism, wears a crimson robe, and answers questions with riddles.
Otto finds his oddball travel companion both irritating and alluring, and decides to make the best of it by giving the monk a taste of American culture. Rinpoche returns the favor with quirky spiritual lessons as the two see the sights in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and other locales. They go bowling, tour a chocolate factory, play miniature golf, watch a baseball game, gamble, sample restaurants and debate the mystery of existence.
We learn how although Otto is a loving husband, good father and decent citizen, he is also unhappy and conflicted. He is willful, prone to temper tantrums when he cannot get his own way, and in moments of weakness slips into a cynical narrow-mindedness. He is materialistic and somewhat of a glutton. Forced to come to terms with his faults and foibles through the gentle prodding of his travel companion, Otto begins to realize that there might be more to life than career, money and worry.
Merullo is excellent in his ability to sketch a scene, and the stops along their journey are funny and interesting. The author also tosses in a plot twist which sets the journey in a new light as the road trip ends at the family farm in North Dakota.
“Breakfast with Buddha” is an enjoyable and uplifting read, which is also an illuminating introduction to Buddhist philosophy. It will also appeal to readers who enjoy travelogues as Merullo paints a vivid portrait of the sights and sounds of America from an on-the-road perspective. In these troubled economic times, it is welcome to come across a book which reminds us that there is more to life than material things.Jenni Koerner owns Laughing Sky Books in downtown Salisbury.

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