Saturday, August 23, 2014

Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley


Title: Florence of Arabia
Author: Christopher Buckley
Publisher: Random House
Rating: WARTY!

Buckley wrote the novel which gave rise to the movie of the same name Thank You For Smoking which starred Aaron Eckhart and which I found amusing. It was one more reason to pick up this novel, the first being: how can you not like one with a title like this? Well it turns out that this novel failed to keep its promise which is no doubt why it's likely to be made into a movie.

Florence's real name is Firenze Farfaletti, an American of Italian descent who started using the Anglicized version of her name after too much teasing at school. In later years, she married a minor royal figure of the ruling family of Wasabia (yes, some of the names and other items are quite amusing). Florence discovered what a huge mistake that was, and she literally escaped his clutches to move back to the US, where she eventually wound-up working for the State Department.

After a traumatic encounter with an old friend, another bride of a prince, who she couldn't help and who was subsequently beheaded, Florence comes up with an outrageous scheme to liberate Islamic womanhood, and gets unexpected government backing in the form of a guy she thinks works for the CIA.

She refers to him as Uncle Sam, and he loads her up with massive volumes of cash. She uses this to fund her scheme, beginning with the recruitment of her team: a gay friend from the State Department, a James Bond style ex-marine, and a PR guy who has the morals of an alligator, and who took his tutelage from Nick Naylor, the morally-challenged protagonist of Thank You For Smoking.

Florence sweet-talks the Emir of Matar (which borders Wasabia) into allowing her to approach his wife on the topic of setting up a TV station, and she also then sweet-talks Laila, the wife of the Emir (and first lady), into running the TV station. They start transmitting rather slapstick and demeaning shows across the Middle East. In reality, no Arab nation would even allow this kind of condescending nonsense, yet here we're expected to accept that it causes a sensation and starts making money for the Emir from advertising. While i could see where Buckley was going here, I found this portion truly amateurish.

The Sheika is thrilled because it gives her a chance to get back at her husband who is constantly running off to his harem and he's thrilled because he's becoming ever more rich, yet things start going badly very quickly, and given the content it's hardly surprising. The neighboring nation denounces the TV transmissions. The news reader, a young woman, is stoned to death one day, and the Emir is killed in a coup.

This problem arises when the Emir's brother, who has been nothing but a playboy, is talked (by the French, who supply him with his Formula One race cars) into making a power-play for the throne. Civil disorder starts to brew, the marine ends up shooting someone in self-defense, a bomb explodes downtown, and the mullahs are stirred up by more French moolah into becoming vocal about the Emir's lifestyle. Oh and the ayatollah of the neighboring fundamentalist nation of Wasabia issues a fatwa on the westerners involved in producing the TV show.

The Emir's bother comes to power, yet despite all we've been told about his newly-found religious fanaticism, he fails to dispatch Florence despite having her in one of his jails for some time. Instead, she's inexplicably freed.

There were some real moments of laugh-out-loud humor in this novel, but for the most part it was plodding, juvenile, amateur, and worse: not very funny or very entertaining. I just kept reading wanting it to be over so I could go read something more interesting. When I put it down I didn't want to pick it up again and I found no reason for the story to drag on as long as it did.

Most of the humor simply wasn't that great, and this conceited fiction of having, once again, the white American come in and save the wee cute colored people (substitute which particular skin shade/ethnic region you wish here) from themselves simply wasn't funny at all. I can't recommend this one at all.


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