BOOK REVIEW: Spinning Karma is an absurd, Boulder-based romp of a novel

Spinning Karma (Camphor Press, 2020) is Joshua Samuel Brown’s first novel, in which he tells a fast-paced, funny, slightly twisted, and uncannily current tale, set mainly in Boulder and Taiwan. Brown knows both places well and has been a prolific guidebook author and travel writer for decades. He and I have crossed paths during numerous research trips; the last was on December 21, 2012, atop a pyramid in the middle of the Belizean jungle on the night the Maya calendar changed B’aktuns (Brown is featured in this outtake video, reacting to the not-pocalypse). Also, for years, JoSamBro and I were both scraggly guidebook authors tramping around Belize and confusing just about everybody. We were both “Josh B,” both mildly unwashed, both scribbling in notebooks, and both taking pictures of rooms, signs, and menus; eventually, I stopped correcting people when they thought I was the “Lonely Planet guy.” But I digress.

Spinning Karma is a fun read, delivering on the absurdity of the plot: “A reluctant American spiritual leader. A fake viral video … this offbeat East-Collides-With-West farce features characters and situations ripped straight from the headlines, mocking religious intolerance, the social media-driven news cycle, and the tumultuous relationship between America and China.” It takes place in Boulder, California, and Taiwan, and Boulderites will appreciated references to local Buddhist institutions and ashrams in the mountains. 

Written last year, it’s quite amazing how well Spinning Karma drops into the current news cycle, especially the accidental, but I suppose sadly predictable, parallels between Brown’s fictional congresswoman in Spinning Karma and Lauren Boebert, the real-life rightwing nut job recently elected to Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. There are other details too, that place this story in a post-Trump world, and that allow Brown to take a swipe at nearly everybody, including both right- and left-leaning media channels and the way information and news are shared in general.

When he sent me the book, Brown reassured me, “it’s an easy read. Vonnegut-esque popcorn,” and he was right. The story flows quickly, and I found my eyes wanting to jump to the next section to see where it would take place and what would happen. The main character, Rinpoche Edward Schwartz is the “reluctant figurehead of Mind of Pure Enlightenment (MOPE), a once-popular New Age group whose current membership has sunk to an all-time low.” I liked the character and felt sympathy toward him, and cringed at his flaws. Schwartz has a Jeffrey Lebowski vibe to him (especially when The Dude meets The Stranger at the end of the film, and they discuss Eastern vs. Western things). My one criticism is that I found myself wanting to know, and perhaps like, Schwartz’s character a little more.

Overall, two thumbs up, a great read for 2021, and hopefully it’s the the first of numerous novels that we’ll be seeing from my talented doppelgänger. Spinning Karma is available at Camphor Press or your local brick-and-mortar.

Spinning Karma, a novel by Joshua Samuel Brown, is a fun Buddhist comedy

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