Thursday, 28 March 2013

Interview with Richard C. Morais – author of Buddhaland Brooklyn

I'm excited to welcome writer Richard C. Morais, who's here to answer some questions about his latest book Buddhaland Brooklyn (its full synopsis can be found at the end of the interview, along with links to his social media accounts and website).

The novel is officially released in mid-April, but you can pre-order a copy now via Alma Books.

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Buddhaland Brooklyn is about a Buddhist priest, Seido Oda, who is forced to leave his native Japan and move to New York City. What was the reason for choosing these particular settings?
The germ for my book was The Year of My Life, a slim work by the great 18th century haiku poet-priest, Issa, and the charming film, Amarcord, by Frederico Fellini. I love both of these very different works of art, and was intrigued by the fact that even though they were created in entirely different cultures, epochs and mediums, they had one important commonality: both are autobiographical works where an entire life has been condensed into a single, symbolic year. For some reason I got it into my head I should try and mash these two great works of art together. So, that's how Buddhaland Brooklyn came about. Instead of Italy, however, I chose as my setting an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, where my wife and I had lived in the early 1980s. In those days our Brooklyn neighborhood, Carroll Gardens, had much more in common with 1950s Sicily than what the fashionable hot-spot it has become today.

Oda is a member of a fictional Buddhist sect. What prompted your decision to create a fictional sect instead of basing the novel around an existing one?
When a lay writer hubristically assumes the voice of a priest, even in fiction, he invites attack for having distorted a faith and its doctrine – not without cause. From the outset, I did not want my novel to be reduced to an "explanation" of Buddhism, nor did I want to inflate myself as an "expert" on religious matters and, specifically, on a particular Buddhist doctrine. Rather, I wanted to focus on the important but little discussed space I call the "psychology of religion" – that place where one's personal history, ethos and worldview intersects with the formal doctrine of the faith one has embraced. I thought the wisest way to achieve this, without stepping on land mines, was to create my own Buddhist "doctrine". For all its embellishments, however, those who know a thing or two about Buddhism will recognize that the doctrine of the fictional Headwater Sect has a great deal in common with the dogma of Japan's Nichiren faiths. Indeed, I was amused to discover, in chat rooms on Yahoo, that Nichiren Shu priests here in America were recommending the book to their flock as a fine explication of Buddhism.

How long has Buddhism played a role in your own life? Did your research uncover any teachings which you felt important to integrate into your own routine?
I have been a practicing Buddhist since I was 19, but my faith has gone through quite a transformation over the course of my life. For the first 25 years I was a rather dour, austere and "pure" practitioner of my Buddhist faith, but, in the later years, I loosened up considerably. I still pray every day, but I am no longer rigid on matters of doctrine. So the arc of my own faith is in some ways captured by Reverend Oda's journey to Brooklyn.

Did your background in journalism influence the way in which you composed Buddhaland Brooklyn?
My novels are often described by critics as "fablesque," which I think is true, but I also ground my fictional worlds in very specific places and times, which infuses my imaginary worlds with heavy doses of "reality." I like the point and counter-point of that combination. That is, of course, where the skills of the journalist become invaluable. My career as a business journalist has taught me how to conduct vigorous, fact-based research, which materializes in my novels in everything from how to cook an artichoke to the planning permission steps needed to get a temple built in New York.

Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
How nice of you to ask. I am working on my next novel, which I don't want to talk about, other than to say that it revolves around fishing, much like The Hundred-Foot Journey revolved around cooking, and Buddhaland Brooklyn revolved around religion. My work in journalism, meanwhile, can be seen at Barrons.com, America's premier finance magazine.

Lastly, is there a Buddhism-related quote you’d like to leave us with?
With pleasure. As I previously said, one of the main inspirations of my novel is my literary hero, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), the poet-priest who plays an important background role in my novel. Here's an amusing haiku by Issa that rather nicely captures the tone of Buddhaland Brooklyn:
Tub to tub
The whole journey
Just hub-bub!
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Book synopsis:
As he approaches his fortieth birthday, the introverted monk Seido Oda is ordered by his superior to leave behind his peaceful refuge in the remote mountains of Japan and set up a temple in Brooklyn’s Little Calabria. There Oda is confronted with an uphill struggle to get to understand the ways of his new host country, and finds his patience and beliefs tested by a motley crew of misguided American Buddhists – a shock which will enable him to come to terms with painful memories of his past and finally experience that sense of belonging he has always sought. 
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Sunday, 24 March 2013

Review: Dancing to the Flute by Manisha Jolie Amin




An unforgettable story of three young friends making their way in the world – told with warmth, music, clarity and simplicity: it speaks directly to the heart.

Abandoned as a young child, the street urchin Kalu has, against all odds, carved out a life for himself in rural India. One day, a travelling healer overhears Kalu playing a melody through a rolled-up banyan leaf and encourages him to build on his raw musical talent. This chance encounter will lead Kalu on an amazing voyage of self-discovery.

A colourful evocation of India and its people, Dancing to the Flute is a magical, heartwarming story of a country’s joys and sorrows, the nature of friendship and the astonishing transformative powers of music. (via Alma Books)

Dancing to the Flute is a wise and inspirational story, framed beautifully around the theme of Indian music.

From the first few lines of chapter one, it grabbed me. I immediately cared for Kalu, who, despite his circumstances, is upbeat, compassionate, and determined. And because of the unique way in which he views the world around him, he is blessed with a natural talent and an opportunity that will change his life for the better.

But Dancing to the Flute isn't exclusively about Kalu. It also tells the stories of the people and places around him all of which are just as interesting. I loved them all, and valued the fact that their personalities are very individual, yet compliment each other wonderfully. It was also fantastic to travel through time with them and uncover how their lives evolve.

Altogether, Dancing to the Flute is a multi-layered story told with wisdom and simplicity. If you enjoy music, spirituality, culture, and inspiration, I highly recommend it. I only wish it didn't have to end!

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Sunday, 17 March 2013

My weather-related desires


Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Admittedly, we don't spend much time thinking about St. Patrick's Day here in England, rather unlike the Americans and, of course, the Irish. But the day is still something to look forward to because it arrives at the tail-end of winter, when spring begins to surface.

Although, that doesn't seem to be happening this year.

One of the year's events I look forward to the most is the hatching of daffodils. They should be out by now, but instead the unseasonably freezing weather is keeping them inside their buds. And now, as I type, it's snowing heavily outside and coating any spring colour in a disagreeable blanket of white.

Still, one of the advantages of being a writer is the ability to create the world you wish to see.

This is something I took advantage of for my latest university assignment, for which we were asked to construct a poem. After a few experiments using different subjects, I found the perfect source of inspiration: my back garden and the craving for more colourful ground. My poem was also somewhat inspired by Valerie Bloom's Two Seasons.

I ended up receiving my best university grade yet; something I'm very proud of because I never thought I'd be able to write decent poetry! And now I feel it's the right time to share some of my own work here.

So, here's the poem. Hope you enjoy!

Sun and Garden
Sunlight frames the garden’s grassy
chest, as shadows paint a kaleidoscope
of bare limbs horizontally,
amongst tumbled leaves of summer’s hope.
Hope that leaves during winter’s stay,
emeralds emaciated and withered,
skeletal limbs begging the sky
and craving warmth that hasn’t dared
stretch past seasonal dictation.
The sun feels silenced and beaten.

For five months, plastic windmills spin
orange and red amongst biting breeze,
garden’s only incline within. 
But, yellow heads soon peer over leaves,
march upward slowly, hope carried
in every surprising spurt, and mouth
eventually appears, opened
wide. The stout sun recognises how
much it resembles this flower,
and beams because it is beating winter’s power.

Now reborn with resolute might,
branching buds join the awakening
prosperously in pink and white
d├ęcor for cherry trees. Heartening
lavender’s calm scent embraces
the gentle atmosphere, and jazzy 
sparrows sing and sway in graces,
for sake of courtship’s clear revelry.
So, it appears to a once defeated sun:
cold is vanishing, spring has come.

As pageants grow over garden,
cherry’s blossom fades, but emeralds
become replenished where fallen
limbs begged in frost. Roses are abled
back to point, standing firmer
with defensive warmth, daring insects
closer using crimson glamour.
And thus, as sun and garden collect
for high solstice, life in full merriment,
summer bustles earnest and elegant.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Enter DK's Easter Egg Hunt and win chocolates!


If, like me, you live in the UK and are addicted to chocolate, you'll love this latest competition from DK!

Hidden around the DK website are three Easter egg banners. Once you have found all three, you can submit an entry to win a deluxe box of chocolates from Hotel Chocolat!

For more information, including egg hunting clues, click here.

You have until March 31st to enter.

Good luck!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Review: The Art of Leaving by Anna Stothard


A haunting story about saying goodbye – showing that even freedom may have its cost after all

Leaving has always come naturally to Eva Elliott: the daughter of a pilot, she spent her childhood abandoning schools and cities. Now an adult, she enjoys the thrill of saying goodbye much more than the butterflies of a first smile or kiss. There’s so much more potential in walking away, and Eva has always had a dangerously vivid imagination.

During a rainy summer in Soho, when a golden eagle escapes London Zoo to prowl the city and a beguiling stranger begins appearing around town armed with a conspiratorial smile and a secret, Eva discovers that endings just aren’t as easy as they used to be. Is it a flirtation playing out amongst the crumbling offices, clubs and alleys of Soho, or something much darker? The line blurs in this haunting story about exits and departures… (via Alma Books)

There is no questioning Anna Stothard's ability to create vivid, hypnotic descriptions. The Art of Leaving has a very cinematic tone (which, considering that Stothard studied at the American Film Institute, isn't surprising), and I enjoyed the ways in which different parts of the world are illustrated. This is done in a very unique and prolific way, and the locations prove to be a very intricate part of the plot.

Although the narrative of the story is told with established warmth and skill, I don't have much praise for the story's lead character, Eva. She is very anti-social, numb, and goes through life in a daze. It is important to note, though, that these aspects of her character are very important to the story I got the impression that you're supposed to feel these things about her. The fact that she isn't a very grounded character prompts her continued desire to leave people, and places, behind.

Even so, I would have preferred The Art of Leaving if Eva was more likable, and if the plot were more apparent (I struggled to see where it was going at times). It was the mesmerising elements of Stothard's use of language which propelled me to read on.

I would recommend The Art of Leaving to readers who don't mind a loose, offbeat plot, and picturesque narratives.

Rating: 3 / 5