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Category Archives: Newish Books

Reviews of books printed in or after the year I happened to be born: 1982

I purchased¬†Hard Travel to Sacred Places¬†for $3 at a library book sale three years ago. It’s been in my collection ever since. It’s a Buddhism-themed book by Shambhala Publications, a publisher I like, so I’ve been saving it for a period of time where I need a little refuge. I needed that these past two days, so I pulled it off the shelf.

It’s a simple travelogue, describing a trip to Southeast Asia by Wurlitzer and his wife, Lynn. They visit Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. The couple have a business reason for being there (Lynn is a photographer and is assigned to photograph ancient sites). In addition, they are in a period of grief following the death of Lynn’s natural and Wurlitzer’s adopted son, Ayrev, in a car accident.

I’ll be brief: I did not like this book very much. What I liked about it is twofold. First, what I like from all and any travelogue: descriptions of foreign lands, their peoples, their customs. It’s always intersting. Second, Wurlitzer is observant, patient and thoughtful, and the couple’s journey through the three countries plays like a single, slow, deliberate meditation in three movements. You really do feel the strong current of emotion in the author’s life, and it is touching in that respect. You are also grateful for the moments of insight that Wurlitzer shares with you. My favorite is when he contemplates the statue of the walking Buddha at Wat Mahathat, near Sukhothai, Thailand. He successfully translates how the frozen gestures of a statue can invoke a great amount of feeling and a sense of wonder.

The book suffers from a couple major flaws, though, that mostly diminish any of the positive effects.

The first is that we barely get anything about Lynn or Wurlitzer’s feelings towards her. There might be a good reason; there might not be; but whatever it is, Lynn is almost a non-character, and this is jarring. I feel a big lack. I know she is grieving, but I doubt she is as silent as she appears. Towards the end of the book she suffers a severe episode of mixed physical and emotional pain, and it’s dealt with using the same detachment as everything else. It could have happened to a strange woman sleeping in the next hotel room, for all the narrative is concerned.

The second might actually be a reason to explain the first. This book is overloaded with quotes from Buddhist books. It distracts from the narrative. Personally speaking, I have a serious dislike for quotes and footnotes in literature- I feel that if something cannot be explained in the narrative itself, it should be left out. Exceptions abound (Melville), but, for the most part, they ruin a book for me. And the quotes in this book ruined it for me.

Here it goes a little farther. Here the quotes don’t just add extra time – they seem to be a replacement for the author’s own thoughts and reactions to situations, which is what I would like to read in a book like this in the first place. Interestingly enough, at the very end of the book Wurlitzer wonders if all the quotations aren’t hiding him from the reality that Buddhist teaching is supposed to get him to face. The answer is yes. I suppose this gives a self-conscious quality to the detachment from the story that the quotes cause, but, even so, it was not worth it. They were tiresome, and I missed more of Wurlitzer’s own perspective on his travels. This makes it less of a travelogue: it feels like we are getting less of a description of the places he visited than of the books he was reading while he was there.

The emphasis on Buddhist texts makes the Buddhism invoked in this book very academic. I cannot ever know ultimately what Wurlitzer’s understanding of Buddhism is or was, but, for the duration of this book, it’s very idealized and not of much value to anyone interested in what I consider to be an active, practical understanding.


This book would be enjoyable for people enjoying a quiet meditation on Buddhism, grief and Southeast Asia (in that order). But – and this is important – readers must also either like or not mind a large amount of quotes from other books. If those things are true, the beautiful heart of this book will warm you.

The book has its good moments, but a lot of the passion and insight is filtered through a deadening devotion to literary Buddhism.


I just finished reading The Ramen King and I, by Andy Raskin (2009). It was a gift from a friend, who insisted that I would love it.

Yes, I loved it. It has obvious flaws, but it was both really fun to read and provided great insight into the human condition, so there you go: a good read.

Brief Summary: The story, which is mostly true, follows two threads that weave sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely around one another: Japanese culture – particularly its very charming form of gourmandism – and sex addiction. The focus on Japanese culture surrounds Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant Ramen. You get a lot of biography on and quotes from the guy, who I must say is definitely worth writing a book about. The sex addiction is Andy’s own memoir. The connection? Most simply, Andy ends up going to a 12-Step program and decides that Momofuku is his higher power.

What could be called the core of the narrative is the story of Andy’s spontaneous trip to Japan in an attempt to meet, well, God. The rest of the book is more a collection of longer stories, brief anecdotes, musings and selections from his 12-Step notebooks.

So, this was going to be brief. The Good: It’s really fun to read. Part of that is that I love reading travelogues about Japan. This is mostly one, but not entirely. Andy is also a pretty entertaining writer – it moves quickly, and you enjoy yourself. He brings a lot of very bold honesty to the table, and it’s envigorating to read.

I also like how the threads are not so tight. This has its problems in holding a story together, but after thinking about it, I decided I like how the food thread and the 12-Step threads don’t feel the need to really join up any more than Andy chooses for them to. That’s how life works, and I often find it distracting when authors try too hard to wrap everything up at the end. We have many kinds of threads wrapping around our lives; they are connected merely by being important to us. They don’t need to intersect.

Finally, I must say, his insight into his life at the end is really inspiring. To sum it up: all of his struggles – including his addiction – are an attempt to struggle with the voice of criticism in his head. Dealing with the problems in his life is dealing with that problem. How, I won’t go into. I will mention, however, that this is a very valuable thing for me to be hearing right now, in my life. It’s very true. Perhaps I will revisit this thought, as I think about it.

The bad of this book is twofold: first, the structure, which cycles between different narratives, is very confusing. I was left without truly grasping the order of events. It jumps around too much. Very simple problem; too bad Andy didn’t work it out better.

The other is that it is too long. It’s a short book, in terms of the amount of words. What I mean is that the book continues long after the narrative has lost its momentum. This was a little disappointing, but, fortunately, the first four fifths of the book had more than enough momentum to carry me to the end.

But despite these two flaws, it’s a solid read. I recommend it to a wide variety of people. There are, of course, the japanophiles, ramenophiles and foodies. However, I think people participating or interested in 12-Step programs would enjoy this book the most. If my memory serves me right, it’s a big, fat lesson on Step 2. The book is an excellent illustration of what it means for the non-religious to find a higher power. But, what’s more, it really shows you the details of how the higher power can help you – how to use it best. Maybe this is par for the course for 12-Steppers – I’ve never been through a program so I don’t know.

I’m led to sincerely wonder how a higher power might fit into my own life. And I’m also wondering if maybe so quickly assigning this role to a traditional deity is a serious hindrance to the program doing its work. But that’s for another discussion.