Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox

This memoir of a talented young woman’s CIA career is that rare combination: enthralling and gorgeously written.

Amaryllis Fox served in the Central Intelligence Agency for eight years when she was in her 20s, and that experience is the impetus for her memoir, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA. But its contents are both broader and deeper, beginning with uncertainties encountered in childhood: when a grade school friend is killed by a terrorist’s bomb, Fox’s father offers her an education in current events, to understand what took her friend away. An insightful, curious child, the young Fox makes early observations about her parents’ hidden or inner lives.

These trends persist from high school to college: before starting at Oxford, Fox poses as an acquaintance’s wife, slipping into Burma to record and sneak out a historic interview with an imprisoned democratic leader. Early in her Georgetown master’s program in conflict and terrorism, this high-achieving, daring young woman with international interests attracts the interest of the CIA (not the first intelligence agency to approach her, but the first to appeal). Fox continues to impress in her training within the agency, often winning coveted, extra-dangerous spots ahead of standard career trajectories. She recounts the challenges, from her analyst work through her field work in 16 countries, with absorbing anecdotes.

Although she’s always had an interest in people, motivations and relationships–it’s what makes her so good, a “velvet hammer,” as one senior case officer calls her–Fox shows an increasing concern for the acts she puts on, the roles she must play. A CIA agent pretending to be an arms dealer pretending to be an art dealer, she wonders “which part of me is she and which part of me is me. Would I be able to make the same impact if I lived life in my true skin?” It is in part this worry about identity that finally leads her out of the agency–that, and the birth of her daughter, in her second marriage since entering her dangerous line of work.

One expects a CIA memoir to be thrilling; this one is positively riveting. But in addition, Fox’s writing is surprisingly lovely, lines often ringing like poetry. “It’s a strange place to find a man who aspires to deal in death, what with the music drifting from the park as the day goes to gloaming and the laughter issuing from pretty, wine-stained mouths along the riverbank.” “My waking self passes me one more note that night…. One of those memories so deeply packed away that I have to unfold its sepia edges gently, in case they turn to dust in my hands.”

Life Undercover is an astonishing book. Readers interested in the high adventure of tradecraft will certainly be satisfied, but Fox offers as well nuanced and sensitive perspectives on international politics, and humanizing views of nuclear arms dealers and terrorists. Her subtle, lyric prose elevates this memoir beyond its action-packed subject matter, highlighting instead its true focus: the breadth and beauty of humanity.


This review originally ran in the September 6, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 carbombs.

Firebird by Mark Doty

It has taken me far too long to branch out in the world of Doty, having read Still Life With Oysters and Lemon at least six times by now. Well, I’ve got three more of his memoirs on my shelf and will rectify this. I may even venture into his poetry. Who knows.

Firebird is the second of his three memoirs (which list excludes Still Life), and focuses on his childhood: in an nutshell, a gay kid’s coming-of-age in a turbulent and troubled family that moved around a lot. From Tennessee to Tucson, Florida to California and back again, Mark’s family followed his father’s profession as an Army engineer. His mother eventually slides into alcoholism. His older sister leaves home in her teens to escape her own difficulties with their parents; she will wind up a single mother of three and later go to prison. Mark, after a traumatic haircut against his will, attempts suicide and confesses for the first time, to a nurse at the hospital, that he is gay. These are the troubled-family highlights, but Firebird does not rely on its sensational headlines for effect. It’s as much about art and beauty, the way these can overhaul pain and save his life, as it is about any particular painful story.

Doty excels at calling forth the beauty of the desert around Tucson, which his mother so loves, a Georgia O’Keefe landscape of color and contrast; her art–his mother’s–which brought her to life, and the entrance into a world of art that she gave him.
I was pleased to see so many echoes between this book and Still Life. I love the way Doty questions, turns back on himself: “Does he mean… Or no–does he meant it this way… But there are two lenses… Is that the point?” And his focus on “the resonant object,” which I absolutely recognize. The book’s prelude, “Perspective Box,” feels pulled directly out of that other book I have so loved. Firebird is as full of things as I could want; it fits right into what I love about his art.

I can’t wait to read more.


Rating: 8 complicated, studded walls.

did not finish: Erosion: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams

I stopped at page 238 of 314, in my galley copy, but that’s three quarters of the book, and I feel warranted to share my reactions. This was to have been a Shelf Awareness review, but I had too many concerns about this book. And you must know how it pains me to criticize a writer I love; but I have to say honestly that this book does not live up to her best work.

Erosion: Essays of Undoing is a collection of Williams’s work in the last few years, in the disturbing times of Trump, concerned in particular with the decimation of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments (but of course all of the disturbing trends we’re seeing). In the spirit and style of Williams as many of us have come to know and love her, she reacts: with pain, with home, with spirituality, with connection, with often lovely writing. But in many ways, Erosion falls short.

For one thing, there are several ways to put together an essay collection, and this one feels clearly like a gathering up of published work of the last several years, putting them into a certain order and stapling them at the corners. There is an enormous amount of redundant information here: in particular, the signing of the two National Monuments into existence by Obama and their undoing by Trump are explicated a number of times in very few pages, and in similar wording. This feels really lazy. I just recently put together my MFA thesis, sort of a memoir-in-essays, and those essays started out with quite a bit of redundancy; I spent months reworking them to be sure they flowed smoothly and didn’t restate; my thesis advisor worked me pretty hard, because we had high standards for that product, which is just a little ol’ MFA thesis that maybe no one will ever read. I certainly intend to hold Williams to the same standard. I think it shows a lack of respect for her readership to throw this collection together like this. The inclusion of several poems, and an interview with Tim DeChristopher, could certainly have worked in a more carefully put together book, but here they feel haphazardly inserted, as if trying to make a certain page count.

The Williams style can be a little vague and mystical; I have a lower tolerance for (shall we say) the woo-woo than some readers, but in the past she’s made it work for me – beautifully, in fact – in the right proportions and with the right subject matter. In those successful books, she earns it with a careful attention to her surroundings, a quiet, humble voice that I read as an authority on her subjects. Here, that signature style failed to perform. I think it’s in part because this book is much more polemic, timely, policy-related; the vagueness doesn’t resonate as wisdom but rather feels like a shortcoming. I marked the line “Scientists credit the ESA for saving 227 species from going extinct,” wondering which scientists and when they said it; but with no bibliography or footnotes, I regret that this author loses some credibility.

An essay about her losing her job was revealing in a few ways. To sum up: in an act of civil disobedience, Williams purchased at auction the oil and gas leasing rights to a plot of public land. Shortly thereafter she was fired from her longtime position at the University of Utah, which she feels was politically motivated (and it makes a lot of sense to me that it was), although that is denied. The university, she says, claims “I was making too much money for doing too little compared to teaching fellows who were teaching several classes a semester, something like that.” It’s the “something like that” that got under my skin; it felt dismissive of the teaching fellows, and dismissive of the concern that the university may need to spend its limited funds (or didn’t you know that education funding is decimated these days, Terry?) on teaching hours rather than the author’s pet project (which I’m sure is a fine one, certainly). She goes on to claim that being asked to teach out of a classroom with four walls, and have field trips approved rather than happen at her whim, felt like a “straitjacket.” This strikes me as a bit shrill, and feels like the voice of privilege: a longstanding professor who is used to going outside the rulebook is appalled that she is being asked to at least start from a classroom. It’s a the-rules-don’t-apply-to-me sort of attitude which I think makes her case much less sympathetic.

From here we learn that, having lost her job, the narrator is interested in selling more articles and essays for publication to make a little income while she figures things out; and this was an aha! moment for me. Aha! Terry Tempest Williams sees that, with her name, she can sell a book of collected essays, a few poems, and an interview, many (all?) of them previously published, without massaging them into place or editing them at all. I see the book in my hands taking shape.

I can see now that Williams’s oldest books have worked best for me, and more recently they fall a little short. You know that my admiration for Pieces of White Shell continues. I had begun to think that maybe my criticism of this book came from my recent time in a writing program, that I was too quick to see where sentences, paragraphs, whole essays needed further editing. But I taught from Pieces of White Shell within the last year, and I’ve read and admired other books recently; it’s not like I’m impossible to please. I’m even forgiving of a few weak lines here and there, because none of us is perfect (although not all of us have access to the editing teams at FSG’s Sarah Crichton Books, either).

There’s something else I noted here that I don’t think counts as a vote against Williams, but it’s something I want to remember for clarification’s sake: I (and perhaps others) had been thinking of Williams as an environmental writer for the U.S., but that’s not right. She’s really about her own region, and not the rest of the country. I think this accounts for part of my concern with The Hour of Land, that she was so hard on Gettysburg and mostly stuck to the west. It’s normal, I believe, for us to have regional loyalties; no one can know a place as big as this country as well as they can know their own backyard. But be clear: Williams is not here for the Pacific Northwest, or Appalachia, or the Midwest or the South or, or – she’s here for the desert Southwest, her homeland and her love. Nothing wrong with that. But I need to remember it and not get confused.

I know I’ve been harsh here. Maybe it’s hard to be let down by an author I’ve admired; maybe I’m harder on her than a new reader would be, because I’m holding her to the high standard of her earlier work as it affected me. It’s hard to see our heroes fall. But this book struck me as lazy, and Williams’s narrative voice as increasingly self-referential and unaware of privilege. I’m disappointed.

On the other hand, of course, her heart is still very much in the right place as far as I’m concerned (although our regional focuses are different), and I have a sense of nostalgia for a voice I recognize. I only wish I didn’t feel like she were phoning it in.


Rating: 5 pronghorns.

Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review, because I was a preexisting Kingsnorth fan.


If I read nothing for a year and if I wrote nothing for a year, would I, could I, begin to clear away the scaffolding which language, written language, conceptual, abstract language, has built up around my poor right brain? Could I fend off the assault which logic, reason, empiricism, analysis has been raining on my inner poet all my adult life? Could I silence the watcher? Could I split the gauze?

(I would quote the entire first two pages to you if I could.)

Savage Gods is a raw piece of questioning nonfiction, an honest and open view into the soul of a writer at a loss for words and mission. Paul Kingsnorth has moved with his family to a home in rural Ireland, where he hopes to finally feel at home in a place, to finally belong. This plan has failed, and he is compelled to contemplate all the ways in which plans fail, and people–especially writers–especially Paul–fail to fit in, even when they think that’s what they really want. This wandering, seeking style of writing is one I especially love, and my feeling of kinship for Kingsnorth made it especially poignant to read these struggles. Also, let it be said that although he feels his words abandoning him, he’s written another remarkably articulate, lovely, moving book.

Kingsnorth pulls in the outside voices of D. H. Lawrence, Annie Dillard, Milan Kundera, a mythologist from Botswana named Colin Campbell, a Zen teacher named Charlotte Joko Beck, poets R. S. Thomas and W. S. Graham, cultural ecologist David Abram, American Indian activist Russell Means, Mark Boyle*, Bruce Springsteen, gods Loki and Buddha and Freya, and many, many more. He spends time with the tension between poets Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, which serves as metaphor for a tension within himself. “My inner Kavanagh is bloody-minded and self-destructive. It wants to strip away the world’s delusions and my own, detach from all notions, be joyful, have fun and do good work and screw the rest. My inner Yeats wants to go hunting for wandering Aengus in the Burren at dusk, prefers the inner flame to the outer ashes and is constantly disappointed that his imagined world is nothing like the real one.” I love the recruitment of other voices, all of these in conversation with Kingsnorth’s fine, inquiring, discerning mind, but it is still his voice that sits center stage.

Having moved to a small rural holding in Ireland, Kingsnorth thought he knew what he was doing, thought he was moving in the direction of his goals: to settle, to be rooted, to be self-sufficient, to be involved with the land, “to be closer to nature and further from the Machine,” to learn new skills, to be the best parent possible, and to write “truer books than I had ever written before.” Instead, he finds his relationship with the thing he does best–words, language, writing–troubled. He worries if language is not in fact part of the problem.

I would love to have access to a searchable electronic version of this book, and some statistics, because I suspect there are far more (literal) question marks in this than in most nonfiction books of similar length. (Not long, scarcely over 100 pages.) The narrator is constantly questioning; the mood of the book is best described as lost. Here, I took a short survey for you from over several pages:

But lessons don’t work like that, do they?… Can you have a concrete cottage?… I knew this, so why didn’t I know it?… What does that incident carry for me?… What would that be like? And could I have it?… What does a writer do when his words stop working?… Can you write from silence?

This is one of those wonderful works of nonfiction in which basically nothing happens but still it leaves my head spinning for days. It’s a beautiful, all-encompassing book, and it captures quite well the sense of nihilism and despair that can come of considering the state of our world; but it captures as well the thrush’s song, which is both joy and pressure: “My kids would just have heard him, reacted, and moved on, but I stood there listening rapt while, at the same time, berating myself for not having the kind of spontaneous experience of the thrush’s song that I wanted to have and I felt I ought to be able to have, especially if I was going to write books with thrushes’ songs in them.” I feel it deeply. I will follow this writer anywhere; I hope he is able to keep working, keep “wrangling that beast and then going down to make dinner for the kids.”


Rating: 8 red-tailed bumbles.

*Boyle wrote in The Way Home of meeting Paul at the pub for conversations of significance, and Paul reciprocates here, which I find strangely thrilling.

Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South by M. Randal O’Wain

Disclosure: Matt O’Wain is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


I was the son who left, after all, the boy who packed a bag and tramped back and forth across the country in place of stability, but what grounded my wanderlust was the belief that I was never too far from my childhood home, my loving parents. And though I had no right to lament the loss of [that childhood home], the act of boxing it all up or throwing it all out or driving it to Goodwill made me keenly aware that the home I’d been fleeing was the very foundation that allowed me to run.

M. Randal O’Wain’s first book is the essay collection Meander Belt, subtitled “Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South.” But to me, it is at least as much about home, the competing human urges to settle and to flee, and a sense of belonging.

I said the competing human urges; but within this narrator, the clear winner is the urge to run. O’Wain is originally from Memphis, where his father Chris works as a carpenter and his mother Linda collects the detritus of other lives off curbs. She is a survivor of childhood polio, and sensitive about her distinctive gait. He is a man who values hard work, preferably the manual kind, and while he loves his sensitive younger son, he doesn’t understand him. Matt (as the young narrator is called) doesn’t see a place for himself in the world he’s born into. He idolizes his father, and his older brother, also named Chris, who follows neatly in the older man’s footsteps and fits into his value system: goes to work as a mechanic, steadily builds toward a home and a family, falls asleep alongside their father in front of the television in the evenings. But Matt, from a young age, feels driven to run. At sixteen, he runs away to Montreal; at eighteen, he moves with his band to Olympia, Washington. He has just moved to Oakland, California when his father dies. He has just (finally, improbably) settled down in southern West Virginia when his brother dies.

These are the losses that give Meander Belt its subtitle, and offer the essay collection a certain shape, but I don’t feel they define it. This is a mostly-chronologic memoir-in-essays, and it ranges beyond family and beyond home. The opening essay is an inspired choice: “Mirrored Mezzanine” briefly, beautifully shows the love of a young child for his father, whom he does not understand. “The Junk Trade” explores trauma, sex, and work. With “Thirteenth Street and Failing,” O’Wain considers death. In “Halfway Between,” he recognizes the importance of place and what we lose in the compromise that is growing up. “Memento Mori Part One” (of three) takes up nearly a third of the book; the other seventeen essays vary in length but none compare to this, the long story of a father’s decline and death. Subtitled “Calls in the Night,” one of the movements it charts is ironically a growing closeness between father and the son who moved away.

After three mementos mori, the collection sees O’Wain’s adult life settle in some ways, and several essays tend to sum up, where many earlier essays stuck more closely to narrative storytelling. The essays marking brother Chris’s death, and a new love with Mesha Maren (she of Sugar Run), fit this more expository model. This is not a criticism, though; as the subtitle promised, coming-of-age is the book’s work, and it feels appropriate to see O’Wain’s later years laid out only in service to the whole, if that makes sense. Also, let me note that the essays take various forms throughout; some are segmented with numbered sections, and “How to Walk as a Nontraditional Graduate” uses the second person.

I appreciate these essays because they are both narrative and essayistic, meaning that they search, seek, question, assay. I trust the narrator because he is so honest about his confusion, the ways in which he’s lost in the world, the ways he is surprised by life. This is a narrative voice with a grasp of the difference between the man or boy these events happened to and the writer telling them now, but even now, he doesn’t claim to know all the answers. I also appreciate a writer equally pleased to bring in the voices of Virginia Woolf, DC Comics, and Leonard Cohen to help him see his own life. These reference points serve as cultural markers but also as conversationalists as O’Wain interrogates the past.

I’m very pleased I got to read an advanced copy of this collection, which will be published October 1; look for my interview with O’Wain coming up at Shelf Awareness (and eventually here as well). Meander Belt is thoughtful, brave, and unflinching, and I think it’s a book for every reader who cares about real lives, whether they have much in common with O’Wain’s background or not.

Preorder here.


Rating: 8 cigarettes.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City by Anna Sherman

These lovely, understated ruminations on time and Tokyo will please those interested in Japanese culture, language or history–or lovers of any city, anywhere.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City is Anna Sherman’s exploration of a city that is not originally her own, but her perspective is perhaps all the more closely attentive, thoughtful and serious. Through Tokyo’s Bells of Time, which rang out the hours for hundreds of years, Sherman examines many aspects of both city and time. Her prose is careful, contemplative, even solemn. The result is philosophy, travel writing, elegy and love letter.

“Tokyo is one vast timepiece,” begins Sherman. “Time is counted out in incense sticks; in LEDs; and in atomic lattice clocks,” and in so many other ways she will consider. Time is ignored, too, in this city where residents “have their eyes fixed on the future, and are impatient when a word is said of their past.” Sherman never states the reasons for her preoccupation with time, clocks and Tokyo’s past, but her book thrums with it. She views the first Bell of Time, at a former prison at Nihonbashi, and the smallest, in Akasaka; seeks the lost bell of Mejiro; meets the man who rings the bell at Ueno; and visits a widow surrounded by “an island of old clocks” in Nezu. She also consults with numerous sources, modern and ancient, and studies the Japanese language and its translations. This is a narrator deeply immersed and committed to her subject; Sherman’s bibliography and notes are extensive for such a slim book.

A point of stillness at the center is a special coffee shop where Sherman makes a friend. “Tokyo is a restless city, where everything changes and shifts, but not Daibo Coffee.” Daibo is the one character she returns to, and his influence is felt in her love for the city and in her questions.

“[Author and composer] Yoshimura believed that a temple bell’s sound was as much about silence as about its ringing.” Sherman’s writing similarly respects white space as much as it does words: her approach is lyric and minimalist, and respectful of the culture she studies. An American living in Japan, she is sensitive to her outsider status, as when writing about the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo: “Growing up, I was part of the old soldiers’ we. I had never thought about what we had done to them.” She is present for the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima reactor explosions that followed, and her writing about these events is spare: “I bought tickets… I wanted to see Daibo… I said nothing.” At times, Sherman slides into prose poetry. “Mirrors and clocks in love hotels and the time they tell, the translucent sheeting over building sites, the streetlamps, the slopes, the signs I can read and the ones I can’t.”

The Bells of Old Tokyo is an elegant series of musings, a beautifully written evocation of a place and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of time itself. Sherman has given the world, and one city in particular, an astonishing gift.


This review originally ran in the July 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bowls of green tea.

reread: Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This is my third review of this book – sorry if you’re getting bored! – and I’m probably close to ten times reading it, what with it being near the center of both my critical essay and my graduate seminar. Obviously a favorite. This time, I am motivated by Jessie van Eerden’s seminar, “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life” (see also Monday’s post). Because I’m traveling and almost all my books are in storage, I bought a fresh copy. (As I’m graduated and attending these seminars not for credit but for fun, Jessie encouraged me to skip the reread, but really.) It was a joyous adventure to mark up a clean copy: you may recall I rarely mark up books at all, but this one is special, and I went for it. I’m pretty sure my markings are very different this time around, which is an interesting story. When I have the two side-by-side one day, I will certainly compare them, which may make for a fourth blog post! Welcome to pagesofjulia, the Still Life With Oysters and Lemon blog… (First two posts here and here.)

This is an increasingly perfect book, at least for this reader, and as is the case with books like this, every read deepens it for me. On my first reading, I definitely didn’t get the full impact; I know the second was significantly more rewarding, but each time since, I see more through-lines and subtle echoes, and I am more appreciative of the lovely language and imagery. The narrator has just given a man a ride home:

On the front porch of the unpainted wooden shotgun house, his ancient wife sat reading her Bible aloud, Praise the Lord after every passage, and as Chris led me inside, she said, Chris, don’t you go gettin’ in that liquor in there, and though he said, Why no, Esther, I won’t do that, he led me right to the big Victorian armoire that concealed his treasure: beautiful glass jars of his own plum brandy, whole fruit preserved in pickled sleep, and poured each of us a shot of the most delicious brandy I’ve ever known, before or since, dusky, fiery, perfect.

And these lines have long been a special place for me in the book, but this is the first time they made me cry. A page later,

jars of plum brandy, whole fruit turning in their sleep like infants in the womb.

Whole fruit turning.

I marked many phrases like this, just a few words that made my heart sing: “floors sloped with fun-house abandon,” “what tugs at my sleeve and my sleep,” “that’s what we are, facts,” “not the thing itself but the way of seeing,” “if bodies could flower out.” “I feel possessed by the things of the day.” “There is nothing anywhere just like this.”

I marveled more than ever at the bodily, physical, intimate nature of all of Doty’s observations. I wondered, did I really never notice this before, how the “sexual presence, physicality, bodiliness” he ascribes to still life paintings of seashells is also inherent in everything else his eyes touch? Paul’s jacket, “shiny and blue-black,” and his black shoes “gleaming with droplets; his shoulder pushes against mine.” The men in the sauna, “these beautiful physical presences, all this skin, framed here–like works of art–by the little doorways.”

I noted again the repetition of a line of Cavafy’s poetry – “They must still be around somewhere, those old things.” But perhaps for the first time I saw its echo in the scent Doty recognizes in his mother-in-law’s house: “Is it still out there, in the houses of old women somewhere?”

I recalled but never before noted how perfect this description is:

An unfinished violin, of bird’s-eye maple, in two parts–the top carved out as a single piece, complete, and the violin-shaped block of uncarved wood that would have been the fiddle’s bottom half, the two parts together purchased for a dollar, and feeling, in the hand, like music emerging out of silence, or sculpture coming out of stone. A perpetual wooden emblem: something forever coming into being.

And I appreciated anew the (I will call it) theory of art he lays out, in saying that old things that belonged to someone else (the things you buy at an estate auction), or still life paintings, are beautiful because of what’s invested in these objects – stories, emotions – even when we don’t know what those stories or emotions are. It reminds me of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor, or the idea that a novelist must know her characters’ backstories even when those backstories never enter the story on the page; the reader will feel them.

Also, having just suffered the loss of a friend, I was comforted in some small way by these lines:

Not that grief vanishes–far from it– but that it begins in time to coexist with pleasure; sorrow sits right beside the rediscovery of what is to be cherished in experience. Just when you think you’re done.

In short, it seems I concentrated on words and sentences this time around, having gotten more or less comfortable with the larger narrative (such as it is) and philosophies presented by the book as a whole. (Recall that this book is really a longform essay at just 70 pages.) I have struggled with the latter, with those philosophies, over multiple readings. This time I just let it feel good to read words and sentences.

I am terribly excited for Jessie to teach from this book. I’ve never had an outside guide to it before, and the subject of Jessie’s seminar is so close to my heart, and she feels so simpatico with my thinking and feeling in general; this will be a real treat. Reading this book is always a real treat. Also, I’m finally going to get around to reading Doty’s other memoirs, I swear it…


Rating: for me, a perfect 10 quinces.
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