| A note from Roland . . .
Greetings from the hills of Western Massachusetts, where we have been baked and fried and doused with tropical downpours all summer. Typically, here at 900 feet, we'll have low to mid-eighties during a summer day, and not especially humid. Nights will be in the high fifties. On average, we'll see five days or so above 90 each year, but we've had fifteen so far, and nights that are muggy and in the low seventies. I honestly don't know how people live through months of this in places like Florida and Arkansas. They must have an exceptionally solid emotional core, a great patience, a superior tolerance for air conditioned interiors and tepid swimming. I'm a great lover of summer. I love not having to wear a lot of clothes. I love being outdoors. I love golf, and swimming in the open air, and the fresh vegetables and fruits, and the abundance of light in the late evening. I could have seven or eight months of summer and not complain. But I have to admit that I've had enough of this hot stretch. I can feel the cool air coming tonight, and I'm glad.
I have finished the private biography project, and the fine man about whom I wrote - Richard Schifter - is pleased with it. In a month we will take to the road for the Dinner with Buddha trip, so now I have the luxury of fooling around with a couple of new projects. They might amount to nothing, or one of them might turn into a book, but the first flush of creation is always enjoyable.
On a fairly regular basis, friends and acquaintances offer me ideas for stories and projects. It's kind of them, and the suggestions are often good, but I have more ideas of my own than I know what to do with. It's like being in a great restaurant and trying to choose among eight meals you imagine you'd love. Long ago I learned to take hold of one or two ideas and run with them for a while, rather than jumping from one to another to another like someone always in search of the absolutely flawless companion or lover.
Perfection seems to exist only in the imagination; it's a kind of infatuation. The minute you commit yourself to a project, or at least by the twenty-page mark, you see the troubles and weak spots. It's easy to give up and jump over to the next imaginary perfect novel. But I try not to abandon anything once I'm a good ways into it. We'll see if one of these two books seem worth the effort once I'm 200 pages in.
Dinner with Buddha will most likely be the last in this series. Rinpoche still has a few things to teach Otto, and there is another section of the country to experience. Otto's sister and niece will play more of a role in this book, at least as I now envision it. I still have more work to do in this area - philosophical humor, it could be called - but that work will probably take a different shape, in a different place, with different people.
That's it from here. I send wishes for a healthy, enjoyable summer to all readers and I'll hope to see some of you at the Falmouth, Massachusetts, public library on the night of July 31st, at the Merrimac College convocation on September 3rd, or at the community read for The Talk-Funny Girl in upstate New Hampshire on October 24th.
All the best,
Congratulations to Gillian from Manchester, Massachusetts, Jeff from Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts and Doug from New York City, New York - all winners of last month's book giveaway Passion for Golf.
"Merullo provides more than enough food for thought for even he most contemplative golfer," wrote the Washington Post.
| Recent and Upcoming Appearances
| Breakfast with Buddha - This Month's Book Giveaway
"My name is Otto Ringling (no circus jokes, please) and I have a strange story to tell."
A rather unassuming first sentence, from a narrator who is as equally humble and who, a few sentences later reveals, "I think of myself as Mr. Ordinary - good husband, good father, average looking, average height, middle-of-the-road politics, upper part of the American middle class."
Yet, Breakfast with Buddha went into its 15th printing a few weeks ago - with over 150,000 copies sold to date.
At the very end of a craft interview I conducted with Roland in Northampton during the Fall of 2006 - long before the thought of becoming a publisher was even on my radar, I asked him what was next.
"I'm finishing up a book called Bowling with Buddha," he said. "About a guy who takes a road trip from New York to North Dakota... very straight- laced person - upper middle class. His sister is a flake . . . parents die in North Dakota. He's going to take her back because she won't fly, she tricks him into taking her guru, her spiritual master back with them - so they're stuck in the car . . ."
For you writers out there, can you imagine how that "treatment", that "pitch" would be received by a potential agent?
Thank you very much. We'll get back to you.
But, six plus years later, readers still seem to be interested in Otto, Volya and the gang. For the most part, the critics have been kind. However, perhaps an early sign of things to come was that one of the novel's first reviews appeared in Diagnostic Imaging, a magazine that appeals to members of the Radiology community and one that was probably not at the top of the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award committees' reading lists.
In his review, Dr. Bradley Tipler stated, "The book is a stealth attack. You laugh at Otto's thoughts and predicaments, and then you're thinking of your own life. The ultimate message for me was pretty simple: Be kind to those around you, don't expect too much from anyone or anything, and try to minimize your screwups. . . .At home and work, I tend to expect a lot from people. I have really high standards for my kids, which is a little surprising because I was a juvenile delinquent. Because of Breakfast, I am trying even harder to cut them some slack....Periodically, it is good to refocus. Why are you doing what you do?...."
For publishers, Roland's talent, drive, literary pursuits - as well as his ability and desire to cross disciplines and appeal to different readerships can sometimes be frustrating. He once said, "I've had editors counsel me to write the same book over and over, and some readers who complained that I haven't kept writing books set in greater Boston. But, it would be like trying to keep a migratory bird in your backyard. I just want to go places, to see things, to observe the human predicament in different forms..."
Most artists want to experiment of course, but it makes it all the more challenging to classify, define, package and market their work. Even to the discerning reader, it is sometimes difficult to draw any specific parallels across Merullo titles. What does A Russian Requiem have in common with The Talk-Funny Girl? Or, Revere Beach Boulevard with American Savior? Golfing with God with A Little Love Story?
Roland might say that most of his books focus on how people attempt to overcome hardships -- abuse, addiction, loss etc. Whatever the reason, I remain grateful that he chose to leave that "backyard" and soar. How else could he have gotten inside the mind and soul of Marjorie and tell her tale in The Talk-Funny Girl?
Congratulations Roland, for Algonquin's 15th Printing of Breakfast with Buddha.
* * *
This month, three / 3 readers will be chosen at random to receive an autographed copy of the FIRST EDITION HARDCOVER version of Breakfast with Buddha.
In the News / On the Web, Lists, etc
The Boston Globe recently published an essay by Roland entitled: "A Day to Appreciate Our non-Adults."
The piece suggests setting aside a day for children -- in a similar way that we honor fathers and mothers, etc.
You can view the article by clicking on the link below:
Boston Globe editorial
The Talk-Funny Girl:
In a posting entitled "Books We Dig" the Northborough Library in Northborough, Massachusetts included The Talk-Funny Girl on their Summer Reading List -- calling it a "powerful and inspiring story."
Speaking of that novel, we wonder if Marjorie would ever dream of being included as an assignment for a book group in a city called Niceville? On July 18th, The Young Adult and Young at Heart book club discussed the book at the Niceville, Florida Library.
Note from a Reader:
Business consultant and author Jessica Lipnack shared the following:
I recently received an email from a friend.
It wasn't the first I've received on the subject of Roland's books because I have recommended his work before - many times before. I've bought his books for friends...and been a bit of a volunteer one-woman marketing agency for his work. "I am so indebted to you," Sarah's email stated. "I have been reading Roland Merullo's books and savoring them. I really enjoyed his memoir, moving and so honest with wonderful reflections. I like the way he writes and his choice of content...He is both honest and reflective."
I met Roland by accident seven years ago when I impulsively signed up for a writing workshop and was assigned to his class. I was in the middle of writing a novel and found his remarks about writing to be direct, guileless, and remarkably consistent with my own thinking. In a world where egos are often considerably larger than people's bodies of work, Roland's was just the opposite: unpretentious and forthright.
Writing is difficult, he said, time-consuming, and not to be taken on unless the writer has no other choice. Then, I read what has become my favorite all-time novel,In Revere, In Those Days, a tender and affecting coming-of-age-in-an-immigrant-family story whose complexity is barely captured in that string of hyphens...which turned me into a zealot. I think most people would call me a fan but when I think of how Roland's work makes me feel, well, zealot is more accurate.
I've subsequently read nearly all of Roland's body of work - memoir, op-eds, short stories, and, of course, the Buddha-meal series. How he keeps sharpening his observations astounds me. How he writes with such humor about the silly ways in which we complicate our lives causes considerable head shaking. And how he never stops working is just plain inspiring.
If you can make it to hear the man speak, you're in for a wildly absorbing experience. Few are as honest as Roland; even fewer are as gifted or, as my (invisible) marketing program puts it, Roland Merullo is the most talented writer of our time.
Lunch with Buddha:
Lunch with Buddha is now available in Kobo eBook format. Digital versions of this sequel to Breakfast with Buddha have previously been released in Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble NookBook and Apple iBook formats.
Kobo has formed a partnership with Independent Bookstores to be their eReader provider.
You can view the Kobo version at their online catalogue by clicking the link below:
Lunch with Buddha Kobo
Breakfast With Buddha:
In a page on Fairfield University's website entitled, "What We're Reading This Summer", professor Gail Ostrow recommends Breakfast with Buddha calling it "Charming, funny, serious" and adding, "I couldn't put it down."
Reading Groups / Book Clubs:
If your group would like a Reading Group Guide for one of Roland Merullo's books, please contact us and we will try to locate one for you.
St. John's United Methodist Church, Anchorage, AK: Breakfast with Buddha
South Bay Bruins Book Club, Palos Verdes, CA: Breakfast with Buddha
Literary Ladies, Goffstown Library, Goffstown, NH: Breakfast with Buddha
Page Turners Book Club, Marlboro Library, Marlboro, NJ: Lunch with Buddha
Intergenerational Book Club, Thomaston Library, ME: Breakfast with Buddha
Kingston Free Library, Kingston, RI: Breakfast with Buddha
Downtown Athletic Book Club, Eugene, OR: Breakfast with Buddha
Beverly Farms Library, Beverly, MA: In Revere, In Those Days
January 21st 2014:
UMCD Book Club, United Methodist Church, Danbury, CT: Breakfast with Buddha
April 16th 2014 !!:
Beebe Memorial Library, Wakefield, MA: The Talk-Funny Girl
Roland presents workshops and presentations in both corporate and academic settings.
If you think your organization may benefit from an event of this type, please contact:
Taking the Kids to Italy (part 14)
(Juliana & Alexandra / Acaya, Italy)
TAKING THE KIDS TO ITALY
(c) Roland Merullo
(Starting with their May 2012 newsletter, AJAR Contemporaries, began serializing an unpublished book of mine entitled, Taking the Kids to Italy.
This is a funny (I hope) account of a disastrous trip we all took with my mother to Italy in 2003. Juliana got sick, I got sick, and there were other wonderful adventures that included hospital visits, golf troubles, driving the wrong way through one-way tunnels, freezing houses, eccentric neighbors, good fried octopus, etc.
It was so bad I came home and tried to write something humorous about it to ease the pain. I haven't tried to publish it yet and appreciate this opportunity to share these experiences with you.
The fourteenth installment follows. I hope you enjoy it. R.M.)
You can now access passages of Taking The Kids To Italy that were published in previous newsletters by clicking on the link below:
Previous sections of Taking the Kids to Italy
* * *
The next morning, Juliana is listless again at breakfast. Usually she has the appetite of an infantryman in basic training - three bowls of cereal, a whole apple, toast, crackers - but today she takes only a couple of mouthfuls of cereal and says, "Down, down."
My mother keeps the girls occupied while Amanda and I spend two hours packing up, cleaning up, washing the bedclothes and turning all gauges, levers, knobs, and dials back to their original positions. As I am gathering our things I pick up one of Alexandra's dolls, a miniature Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. I accidentally squeeze her belly and - this is absolutely true - she squeaks the only sentence she knows: "There's no place like home. There's no place like home."
For some reason - maybe they sense our impending departure - Agnese's aggressively friendly mongrels have come up the hill again to pay us a visit, en masse, and it is all we can do to keep them out of the house whenever we open the door to carry out another suitcase. I look at Lecce on the map and think:it looks warm there; it looks interesting; we'll be able to walk out our door and be in a city rather than having to drive everyplace. The ocean is nearby; the guidebook says there is a good eighteen-hole golf course a short distance away. The cities we want to visit will be only half an hour away, not two hours, not three.
I am doing what I always do when I look at maps: imagining paradise.
(used by permission)
Shortly after ten o'clock we finish packing the Kangoo and start off down the bumpy road. At Agnese's I get out to hand over the keys. She seems unsurprised. "La casa e' molto isolata," she says kindly, and I say it's a beautiful house, but yes, isolated, and the girls haven't been feeling well. She is sorry to hear that, tells me about her own daughter - who died after a motorcycle crash, age 16 - and her husband, who died from cancer a few years back. She says there is no feeling on earth worse than the feeling of worrying about your children's health. "But I have serenity," she says. And it seems to me that she does.
We head south. One last drive through Contigliano, one last trip across the pretty plain and through the outskirts of Rieti. This time, as if the curse has been lifted, we find the road we are looking for - toward a place called Avezzano - without any trouble, and begin the scenic drive down Italy's spine, with the snowy four, five, and seven-thousand-foot mountains for company. Somewhere in the first part of that drive I say to Amanda, "I'm feeling a little flu-ish."
"Me, too," she says. "My stomach isn't right. Maybe it was the eggs Agnese gave us."
As far as Avezzano on State Highway 578 we encounter no problems, though I'm feeling worse by the mile and stop twice, the first time for a breath of fresh air, and the second for a dose of ibuprofen. In the back seat, my mother is teaching Alexandra a card game called "Snap!" I do not know how this game is played, I know only that when someone puts down a certain card she has to yell out SNAP! At top volume and slap the back of her grandmother's hand. I had three hours of sleep last night. With each beautiful, mountainous mile it is becoming clearer that what I am feeling has nothing to do with Agnese's fresh eggs - which Amanda scrambled for breakfast. No, the bitter truth is that I am sinking into the influenzal muck Juliana is just climbing out of. I remember that I had a bad visit to the bathroom that morning as we were packing up. I remember that, on our first evening in the house we mistakenly took our drinking water right from the faucet and only later found out it wasn't potable. SNAP! The road winds. SNAP! Juliana stirs, coughs in a way I don't like. Amanda takes off her seatbelt and turns around to look at her, but she goes back to sleep.
We find Avezzano with no trouble, and then, somehow, despite the fact that Mimmo - who drove a truck on these roads for thirty years - advised us that the best route to Lecce was the Autostrada from Avezzano to the Adriatic coast, Amanda and I decide on a different, more inland road that continues down through the mountains. I have no explanation for this, no defense. We have a lot of traveling experience, we've read a lot of maps, we are not stupid or especially proud people. According to our map it just looked like the better way to go, that's all I can say. We head off toward Benevento, planning to spend the night there at an excellent agriturismo that exists in my imagination.
But south of Avezzano, on glorious Highway 17, things go very bad very quickly. I have promised the passengers that we will stop in the first good-sized town we see, and have lunch there. But there is no good-sized town after Avezzano, unless you count Sulmona, which, for reasons lost to me now, we don't like. I am feeling worse and worse, some kind of pressure in the head, an awful buzzing sourness in my belly. Juliana is awake and crying. Alexandra yells, "SNAP!" We wind through the old gray mountains of the province of Abruzzo and, at last, come upon a good-sized town that meets our aesthetic standards. Testa del Abruzzo.
"Lunch, coming up!" I say, through the miserable fog of my illness. The cheerful dad. Lunch, coming up.
Testa del Abruzzo is a moderately attractive town, set tight on a hillside with forested mountain slopes in all directions. The streets are straight for only a few meters at a stretch, the stone houses stand in orderly curving rows, and it is clearly the type of place that draws a lot of tourists and abounds in good trattorie. Just after we come into town, the main road snakes around a corner, between houses so close on either side that we feel we can reach right in through someone's window and steal a loaf of bread. Beyond the first corner the narrow road winds a bit more, and then suddenly leads out into the mountain wilderness again.
"There has to be a restaurant in that town," I say. "We must have missed it. People there have to eat."
I let the carabinieri behind us go past, then, once the police car is out of sight, make a U-turn on the tight road. We glide back down the hill into Testa del Abruzzo. A man is working in his garage there, cutting wood, door open. I stop and ask about restaurants qui vicino, half expecting him to look at the children, at my mother, ask us where we're from and then invite us upstairs for home-cooked pasta. But that's a scene from another dream. "There's a restaurant just around this next corner," he says, unsmiling, all business, focused on the boards at hand. "But no place to leave your car."
"Can we leave it here?" I ask him.
He pauses half a beat and says, "No."
So we go around the hairpin corner again, and see, just where the amicable wood-cutter said they would be, signs for a trattoria. And, just as he said, there is no place to park anywhere in the vicinity. We drive slowly on. Half a mile further down the road is a bar with a three-car parking area in front and some disaffected youth hanging out there on the stone steps of a stone church. "Why are they smoking, Dad?" Alexandra wants to know.
I think: Because there is no hope of eating.
The bar itself is presided over by a kind, plump woman who leans down, smiles at the girls, and happily points the way to the bathrooms. We ask if it would be possible to get a dish of pasta here, but she says no, sfortunatamente, only drinks, brioches, candy bars. I want something more substantial for my girls and for Beetlebah. But it seems that I am in one of those streaks where every decision is the wrong one. This happens to me sometimes, even at home. I'll cruise along beautifully for days, writing the sentences I want to write, putting the kids to bed with just the right words, having one fruitful conversation after the next with my agent, my editor, picking the four-iron instead of the five-iron out of the bag to stroke my Titleist up onto the green. And then it will all go sour, all of it, all at once, in an unbelievable cascade of failed judgment and foolishness and pure rotten luck. For me, because of some misalignment of the stars or some odd past-life karma, the good and the bad come bunched together in long stretches: on the day my first novel was accepted, after twelve years of writing, I came home to a letter from the Massachusetts State Lottery commission telling me I had won $400 on my season ticket. On the day my father died, unexpectedly, I was immersed in a house painting project so poorly estimated that I was halfway through six weeks of working for nothing.
The bad stretches are as unnerving as the good stretches are exhilarating; for the past few days now I've been thinking about this, a bruised, scratched-up man standing waist-deep in heavy surf watching the next enormous wave roll in. I ask the woman behind the little bar in Testa del Abruzzo what the other options for lunch might be, and she tells us about a restaurant, half a mile back, at the corner.
"But no place to park," I say.
"Could we leave our car out front, here, and walk?"
"The police will come by," she says. "Give you a ticket."
"How much would the ticket be?"
"Sixty Euros," she says, and it is testimony to the state of my health mental and physical - that I stand there for a few seconds wonderingwhether or not it is worth it. Sixty Euros, seventy bucks, let's see. . . .
Outside, the disaffected youth are focusing all their intermittent and wandering attention upon us, this naive-looking family of five with a fully-packed car. My laptop rests conspicuously in the back window of the Kangoo. Golf clubs beside it. Altogether it is a few thousand dollars' worth of merchandise, enough to keep them in cigarettes and nose rings for years.
"Let's drive on," I say. "There's bound to be a restaurant along the highway."
No one objects, so we load ourselves back into the car-Ma in the middle, the girls to either side, well strapped in, Amanda beneath a pile of maps, crackers, sippy-cups, notepads, plastic earrings, crayons and tissues in the passenger seat. Me behind the wheel. We wind away through the Abruzzan hills, this cold, rugged terrain to which so many Italian American families can trace their roots. A hundred years ago, before the wars, before Mussolini, before a complicated amalgam of foreign aid and social, political, and economic changes brought southern Italy into the modern world, the mountain towns of Abruzzo offered little or nothing in the way of upward mobility. Poor, bleak, disease-ridden, presided over by corrupt officials and choked by a rigid caste system, this land was the perfect breeding ground for a dream pronounced "America."
Italian American Farm Workers
What strong, smart, ambitious young man or woman, hearing the claims of gold and milk and honey, dreaming dreams of freedom and equality, would not have been tempted to pack up a few belongings, ride a horse-drawn cart to Naples, and book passage for the land of opportunity? It occurs to me that I am the inheritor of those kinds of inflated dreams, only in reverse. It's not gold I think about when I think about this land across the ocean, but warmth, unadulterated food, beautiful churches and sublime works of art, a slow-paced, family-oriented way of living. It's not property and kin I've abandoned in search of those dreams, only a cold house and a stack of bills, but there is a link, I can feel it. Some kind of genetic predisposition to the pursuit of something better, for my family, and for me.
It can work out well, that kind of ambition, that urge for a real meal - instead of candy bars - for the kids, a warm house instead of a cold one. It can work out well. And it can also lead you south, along a winding highway, into a deep swamp of trouble.
(To be continued in next month's newsletter)