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In 'Breakfast with Buddha,' an average Joe meets a Siberian monk

A road trip to North Dakota proves a gentle forum for spiritual lessons.

Breakfast with Buddha By Roland Merullo Algonquin Books 323 pp., $23.95

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Despite his unusual name, Otto Ringling is so very ordinary that he's probably your next-door neighbor. He's a nice boy from the Midwest who found a white-collar job in the city, bought a house in the suburbs and produced two pleasantly ordinary children. He is neither very religious nor particularly political. His marriage works well, he loves to eat, and he's proud of his own intellect. The only thing even remotely oddball about Otto is his sister, Cecelia, a psychic and Tarot-card reader in New Jersey.

It is through the machinations of Cecelia – and the unexpected death of his parents – that Otto suddenly finds himself driving from New Jersey to North Dakota in the company of a genial Siberian monk known as Rinpoche.

If you're worried that Breakfast with Buddha sounds like a half-baked sitcom with cloyingly wacky characters, you probably don't know much about Roland Merullo ("Golfing with God").

Merullo is a pleasing writer, as affable as the Rinpoche he creates. His gift is slipping gentle spiritual lessons into easy-reading narratives. In the case of "Breakfast with Buddha," you can relax and enjoy a road trip – Hershey, Penn.; Youngstown, Ohio; and Duluth, Minn. are all surprisingly endearing – even as you painlessly absorb the notion that life is really about spiritual growth.

Otto and Rinpoche don't actually converse all that much. Instead, they bowl, play miniature golf, see a ball game at Wrigley Field, and drive. And yet somehow Rinpoche manages to awake in Otto the conviction that he should be demanding more from life. Yes, you can call it "spirituality light," but it's still a thoughtful message. And Merullo does readers a favor by serving it up with such effortless charm.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.


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