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The Orient Express

The Fiction that Brought the East to the West

When yoga studios are ubiquitous and meditation apps are on millions of smart phones, once exotic terms like karma, zen, and nirvana have entered into everyday English, business consultants have appropriated the meditation terms "mindfulness" and "equanimity," and Buddha statues and Shinto shrines are common in American yards, we forget that things weren't always this way, and that what is now considered cliche was once unknown. So how did the spirituality of the East come to permeate the culture of the West? Answering that question is what The Orient Express is about.

To do so, Harvard scholar Randy Rosenthal explores the four works of fiction he finds most responsible for bringing Eastern religion to the Western mainstream: The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger, and The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Through the lives of their characters, these authors introduced countless readers to the spiritual practices and philosophies of yoga, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and the hesychast prayer tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. A compendium of spiritual wisdom in the form of literary criticism, The Orient Express tells the story of these stories, providing illuminating context and clarifying misconceptions along the way.

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Dear Burma

A Novel

In 2007, neuroscientist James Stone decides to become a Buddhist monk and takes a one-way flight to Burma (Myanmar), one of the world’s most undeveloped and oppressed countries. Yangon is hot, humid, and generally unpleasant, but at the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda James meets U Nanda, a flamboyant monk who brings him to a nearby monastery, where he takes robes.


Quickly dissatisfied with the laxity of mainstream monastic life, James joins an intensive Vipassana meditation course, where he meets Daw Vira, a beautiful but mysterious British nun whom he follows to an idyllic monastery in the middle of the country.

James wants to stay there forever, but his plans are diverted when he and Vira leave on a pilgrimage, participate in the massive anti-government Saffron Revolution protests, and are then confined in Burma’s notorious Insein Prison. By the time Cyclone Nargis brings destruction to the country, James understands that his desire for Vira is stronger than his desire to achieve enlightenment.

Written as a letter from James to his brother, Dear Burma is ultimately a love story—the story of an impossible love between a monk and a nun, and a love letter to Buddhism and a Burma now lost.

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The Messiah of Shangri-La

A Novel 

After a year traveling around Asia, American author Joshua Parousia just wants to find a mountain cottage where he can write a novel about the Messiah. In Kathmandu he meets Maria, a bold Polish woman who attracts and repels him, and together they stay with a Bhutia family in Sosing, a picturesque Himalayan village in the Indian state of Sikkim.


With a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and golden Buddhist temples in every direction, Sosing seems like a real-life Shangri-La. But Sikkim is known for human rights abuse, and Joshua learns that Indian soldiers are committing ethnic cleansing against the indigenous Lepcha people, pagans who missionaries have converted to Christianity.


Struggling with writer’s block and his passion for Maria, plagued by Dionysian dreams and enchanted by a Lepcha woman he glimpses in the forest, Joshua has increasingly bizarre experiences: time slows down, the dead appear as living, and a dense black fog just won't lift. As myth mixes with reality, a series of surreal events funnel to a wild, bacchanal finale.


A deep physical and spiritual journey into the Himalayas, The Messiah of Shangri-la is a uniquely profound exploration of the mythologies that lie at the heart of the human experience.

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