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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Florence of Arabia - Christopher Buckley In the spirit of Lawrence of Arabia who freed the Arabs, so also Florence of Arabia bravely set out to free the women of the Middle East from gender injustice in an oppressive theocracy. Every sentence in this story is packed with humor, farce, irony, satire, irreverence, mockery, or exaggerated stereotype. An example of this writing style is contained in this example where the author describes a fictional country as the Middle East's preeminent "no-fun zone," unless"one's idea of fun includes beheading, amputation, flogging, blinding and having your tongue cut off for offenses that in other religions would earn you a lecture from the rabbi, five Hail Marys from a priest and, for Episcopalians, a plastic pink flamingo on your front lawn." As you can see, Christopher Buckley is an equal opportunity insulter with his politically incorrect view of the world. The whole book is a satire about American-Oil-Arab relations. But since this book is focused on the middle east, the Arab Muslim part of the word takes a big hit. The United States, France and the United Nations receive their licks as well. However, it appears that he let Israel off easy. He probably didn't want to hurt book sales.

The following are some example quotations from the book that illustrate Buckley's clever japes and juicy bits:
About the Israelis:
''A single Israeli fighter pilot could shoot down the entire Royal Wasabi Air Force and still have one hand free to hold his bagel''
About the native population:
"Wasabia's population was booming, owing to the fact that every man could take up to four wives. You were hardly considered manly unless you had twenty children. As a result, it was an increasingly young and thirsty nation."
About the French:
"Did not France have her own proud history of screwing things up? Look at Algeria, Vietnam, Syria, Haiti -- Quebec -- all still reeling from their days of French rule. Clearly, France was ready and eager to show the world that she, too, could wreak disastrous, unforeseen consequences abroad, far more efficiently and almost certainly with more flair than America."
About American officials:
"Senators pounded their podia, demanding answers. The president declared that he, too, wanted answers. The CIA said that although it had no official comment, it, too, perhaps even more than the president and the senators, wanted answers. The secretary of state said that there might in fact be no answers, but if there were, he certainly would be interested in hearing them."
About the United Nations:
"The secretary general of the United Nations said that he was reasonably certain answers existed, but first the right questions must be asked, and then they would have to be translated, and this would take time."

Beneath the silly stuff contained in the story there is an underlying political thriller plot that involves matters of life and death. The kind of the justice system to be contended with is illustrated by this quotation from the book where it describes the harsh justice dealt to two women who were apprehended while out to pick up some milk and the dry cleaning. They were picked up by the religious police because they were unveiled and unescorted by a male. "It was quite obvious, declared the mukfellah official who announced their sentences, that they had been on their way to fornicate with loathsome blackamoor cooks. There was no actual evidence of this, but the advantage of a religious judiciary is that you don't need evidence." As the tension builds in this environment toward the end of the book, the humor takes on the ambiance of gallows humor. (Not gallows in this case, but rather a chopping block for beheading. -- Chopping Block Humor?) The reader knows from earlier incidents in the book that execution of uppity women by beheading, stoning or being whipped to death are real possibilities. Florence is guilty of being uppity to the extreme, so her fate is very uncertain as the plot nears its climax. There's even a high speed chase scene. If the humor were stripped out of the book's narrative, the remaining plot would be grim indeed. This is not a children's book.

Since problems caused by investment bankers are currently in the news, it is interesting to note that readers who make it to the end of the book will learn that money fund managers play a role in the story. Is it possible that Mr. Buckley was providing an early warning, in 2004 when the book was published, that investment bankers can be counted on to make a mess of things in 2008? Thus, the book is prophetic in addition to being humorous.

Christopher Buckley must have inherited his writing skills from his father, William F. Buckley Jr. The younger Buckley is obviously a very intelligent and skilled writer to be able to pack so many, and often subtle, humorous barbs into the text. Mr. Buckley may be intelligent, but I'm not so sure he showed wisdom in mocking the culture and faith of millions of people. Furthermore, a few among those millions of people have a record of reacting in less than desirable ways to such irreverence. There's a general inference that the fictional countries in the book are stand-ins for two of the emirates located on the Arabian Peninsula. I trust that the conditions described are exaggerations of conditions in those countries. So upon reflection I don't think this book contributes much that is helpful to intercultural understanding.