Inhaling Sunbeams

Inhaling Sunbeams

By Michael McLaughlin
Reviewed By Harriet Hart


Inhaling Sunbeams

There may be readers out there who enjoy questions like: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I am not one of them. To me, the answer is simple, there is no sound because one had doesn’t clap, if anything, it waves. Inhaling Sunbeams by M.G. McLaughlin poses that question (known in Zen Buddhism as a koan), not once, but many times.

This is a novel about an American journalist who travels to Tibet to interview a guru and Taoist priest, Michelle Yang, and whose stay in the same monastery as the spiritual leader results in her personal enlightenment. She travels home to New York, has a couple of misadventures en route, and arrives a changed woman.

The bulk of this book is dialogue; approximately one third of it is taken up with an interview between the journalist and the priest, the theme of this interview being a definition of Taoism. You don’t need to read a novel 313 pages long to find one. My copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religions by Brandon Toropov and Father Luke Buckles (which I highly recommend) sums it up in a single sentence: “The Tao may best be described as the way the universe works.”

Having said that, I enjoyed the book. For one thing, the action picks up after our heroine leaves Tibet and the focus changes from Joan’s inner to outer journey. And then there’s the writing. McLaughlin writes very well.

Whether the narrator finds herself in a remote Tibetan village or Times Square, New York City, the setting is realistic. Here we are in Tibet:

“I could see the village better in the morning light. Breakfast smoke floated from metal vent pipes above the houses. Off in the distance I saw slouching farmers carrying hoes, walking to their fields on the sides of the steep mountains. No one was in the streets; I saw only a pack of dogs peeing on the sides of buildings and black rusted bikes leaned up against stone walls. The bikes looked too old to steal. Valuables were protected by rust and despair.”

The characters are well drawn. Take this store clerk in San Francisco for example: “Maybe the deaths of her husbands and the head-on with the lumber truck were true stories, but everything else was fabricated; told by a person high on legal drugs and forced to live in the real world. The woman clerk lived in marriages that were knockdown, drag out fights. I bet she gave as good as she got.”

There is too much dialogue, but it is well written and believable. Here is our heroine being interrogated by the authorities when she returns from abroad:

“Well, you came from China and your clothing and behavior were a little…odd.” My sarcastic smart-ass mouth was now in control. “I didn’t know the N.S.A. had dress codes for passengers at airports. New regulation since I’ve been gone? We all know terrorists have no fashion sense. I’d be looking for guys with black shoes and white socks.”

McLaughlin’s sentences are smooth, his language colorful, his descriptions vivid, his characterizations believable and his settings realistic. Is all this enough to keep the reader entertained? Yes and no.

I am left with several questions. Is the author qualified to teach his readers about Taoism? It’s a difficult subject to tackle. If that was his intent, why choose to write a novel? Why not an essay or series of articles instead? Inhaling Sunbeams is an ambitious book. I leave it to its readers to decide if it succeeds.


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