Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a contemporary YA novel from Jeremy Phillips. MY BUDDHIST CHRISTMAS relates the ups and downs of life for a young Buddhist American whose biggest aspiration (at first) is for his band to not suck in the school talent show. By the end he’s freezing his toes off eluding cops and trying not to let his father see how big a disappointment he really (believes he) is. Poor Chris!
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After all, he’s a Buddhist kid in America—during the Christmas season. Add in the fact he plays guitar in a punk rock band called The Dharma Bhumz, and his life is one giant paradox. Caught between the principles of his religion and the influence of his hard-partying bandmates, Chris is in a constant struggle for balance.
An upcoming talent show is his chance to shine—or fail spectacularly…
It’s already hard enough preparing for the show, since his friends are more interested in getting high than practicing. And now Chris has to worry about impressing pretty Mary Simpson. To make matters even worse, Mary’s parents are fundamentalist Christians, a few steps above his family on the social ladder, and they firmly believe Chris isn’t good enough for their precious daughter.
Conflicted about his friends, lying to his family, and still mourning a devastating loss, Chris wonders if being an American Buddhist guitar wizard wanna-be is worth it.
Or does any of it even matter anymore?
Chris is a 16 y/o boy struggling with the loss of his mother, now almost two years later. His father is a loving and caring parent, shouldering the burden of working and parenting three teen/tween kids. Chris is the eldest with Tom a few years behind and Annabelle a few years behind him. They are a middle-class white family with a lifelong faith in Shin Buddhism, and have a regular temple in Spokane, Washington.
The story opens in the height of the Christmas season, and Chris explains that his family celebrates a secular Christmas–a tree and all–which, let’s be honest is a good portion of Americans do. (I have a bi-faith family, and this aspect resonated with me completely.) Chris has no feeling regarding Christmas, per se. He likes the overall joyousness, but it’s not really his faith so he doesn’t get worked up over it, as some others in the book do. He’s a closet smoker, and does drink a bit in the book–both rebellious acts of Chris trying to take control of his world. His band is a punk-rock styled affair, with two losers from his school who are dabbling rather heavily into drugs. They regularly get high and up the drug use into LSD trips, with Chris as an unwitting babysitter, especially when he expected for them to practice. The talent show is looming and they can’t even finish a song.
To make things worse, Chris meets Mary, who loves the idea of Chris being in a band, and also enjoys his musical display on one of their dates. The frustration of being a laughingstock makes Chris more and more angry with his band mates and their addictions. It seems, at first, that the talent show will be a turning point, and it is of sorts, but not for the story. Chris is less humiliated than he expected, and not because the band was good. It was all in his perspective-shift, one of triumph in the worst of circumstances. Mary isn’t impressed, but it doesn’t change how things sit between them.
I was really struck by Chris’ interaction with Mary’s bigoted parents. These affluent people had zero empathy and even less aplomb. I got really mad on Chris’ behalf for his treatment as “other” at a time when all should be welcome. It leads to the biggest climax of the book, and more problems for Chris. His decision-making is typical teen, so expect his impulsive, ‘going along for the ride’ mentality to lead him into bad situations. The light at the end of his muddle is getting back to his roots, and living the life that would make himself proud. We think. It sorta ends with Chris making several good decisions, and the reader trusting that trend will continue.
I liked Chris. He read as a truly approachable teen boy. His motivations were fully understandable. He’s not out to conquer the world, and he’s not terribly aggressive. He has simple goals which revolve around making music and talking to his girlfriend. At times I thought the Buddhist “lessons” were too lengthy in their explanation, and that slowed the pace for me. I also found there was dialogue that struck me as odd, or cliched, for a (supposed) teen boy which pulled me out of the story. The writing is clean, though expect plenty of drug/alcohol moments, including driving while under the influence.
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About the Author:
Jeremy Phillips has been interested in Buddhist philosophy for more than twenty years and attend services at a Shin Buddhist temple in Spokane. When he isn’t writing or keeping busy being a father and husband, he works as a respirator therapist at several different hospitals.