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.

movie: The North Star (1943)

By Source, Fair use, Link

Another quick movie review: I’ve had this one in a queue for a long time. Lillian Hellman wrote the screenplay for this drama about a Nazi attack on a Ukrainian collective farm, where the locals rather romantically undertake to defend their land and resist the greater power at whatever cost. Wikipedia says “the film was an unabashedly pro-Soviet propaganda film at the height of the war,” and they are not wrong. Romantic, yes; propaganda, yes; and yet it’s neatly done and who doesn’t sympathize with romantic guerrilla resistance to Nazis?? I certainly do, and I enjoyed this movie, found it heartwrenching even as I saw its machinery working to just that effect.

[In the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee took exception, and the film was re-cut to remove the idealized portrayal of Soviet collective farms, and to include references to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.]

Teenage romance, children and pets, a principled stand taken by an aging doctor, homegrown guerrilla tactics, hometown pride, fraternal bickerings set aside in the face of larger enemies – I say The North Star has it all. I was impressed that this one from all the way back in 1943 was available for free on Amazon Prime (Amazon is evil but here we are). Go check it out.


Rating: 7 guns.

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll

I read this socio-historical study of Appalachia in part to investigate my new homeplace (however temporary) in central West Virginia.

It is quite good. Steven Stoll takes a wide-angle view of “the ordeal of Appalachia” (centering on West Virginia), which he sees as a social, political, economic, ideological problem that fits into global patterns. He compares the experiences of Appalachians with those of other groups across time and place: in particular, English peasants in the 1600s, American Indians in the early 1800s, and Malian smallholders in the 2000s. As he draws these comparisons, he is careful to note that “no two dispossessions are the same.” On the other hand, “historians emphasize the distinctness of the stories they tell. They tend to make few observations across places and times,” and Stoll I think does us a service by making those observations. For one thing, I find it makes each story clearer to have analogies to draw from. For another, as he shows in these pages, the story of Appalachia has been told in a way that oversimplifies, and blames the poorest people with the fewest options for their own situation. To contextualize those experiences within world history and within patterns makes it clear that this is a story about humans and their systems and about capitalism, not about a specific race of holler dwellers.

At the risk of simplifying, again, what has been well communicated in nearly 300 pages here… Stoll argues that what has gone wrong in Appalachia, what has resulted in devastating extractive industries, wealth flowing only outward, the impoverishment and degradation of local residents, environmental destruction, and damage to a culture, is about the forced movement from makeshift agrarian economies to capitalism and industrial scales. (The term ‘makeshift’ for household economies is not intended to be disparaging. Stoll spends time with this. What he refers to we might call subsistence living: a combination of small-scale agriculture and husbandry, hunting and gathering, and local and regional trade that yields a sufficient or comfortable living with no stockpiled profit. It does not indicate an absence of currency.)

The enclosure of the commons is a central element in this shift. The ecological base that used to be used in common by all for timber, hunting and gathering, fodder for livestock, and rotation of small garden plots was enclosed and divvied up as private property following the American Revolution, largely to absentee landowners. Later lumber and coal mining industries robbed that land of the richness that had once provided, so that now if we were to return to the commons model (something Stoll cautiously recommends, with a drafted piece of legislation late in the book) that base will not yield what it used to. Part of that shift as well involves a shift from makeshift or subsistence economies – I make what I need, plus enough surplus to feel secure – to growth-at-all-costs capitalism – make as much as you can and then make more by any means possible; seek efficiencies; clearcut. And part of that is a move from largely self-sufficient households to currency-based wage-earning ones. (Again, Stoll is careful to point out that there never was a makeshift household that provided all its needs – trade was always a component of any system – and that currency is not in fact absent from, for example, barter economies.) Well, these 300 pages do a better job of it than this paragraph does. But it’s a gist.

I appreciated the breadth of history, sociology, politics, economic theory, and more that Stoll employs to teach these lessons. It’s a broad and rich book. And I appreciate as well that he consults so many outside sources, and not just academic ones. While the tone and style of this book is still rather dry and textbook-y, its reference points include fiction and the visual arts as well as primary sources, journalism, and fellow academics. I dig the interdisciplinary result: that one can see policy unfold alongside environmental change, social history and the arts. The writing style is no-nonsense informational, lacking the personal perspective that I prefer, and with no especial sense of fun. It’s better than the classic history text in style. But it still took me longer to read, in smaller pieces, than my usual fare.

I regret that Stoll doesn’t appear to have invited local opinion or sought specifically Appalachian experts. His back-of-book blurbs are all from professors at either Columbia or Yale. And one characteristic of this region, one of its challenges, is the tendency of outsiders to judge; Appalachia, in my observation, is sensitive about that. I wish Stoll had sought a blurber from within the region! It’s not like there aren’t academics from Appalachia, and I know it would have earned him credibility in these parts. I guess that wasn’t a priority; I don’t think he’s writing for a specifically Appalachian audience, and that’s fine, but this oversight I fear means he’s written for an audience from everywhere but Appalachia. [Please note that I make these observations as an outsider, myself; these opinions are my own and do not reflect those of etc. etc.]

On these lines, a very brief section of this book is likely (again, from what I’ve seen) to raise hackles here: he devotes about a page to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, mostly nodding in agreement, although he does acknowledge that “it might be construed as saying that the tragedy of Appalachia is the sum of its individual failings or the insularity of its families.” Here’s a tip: praising Vance within Appalachia will make you no friends.

I also note that Stoll doesn’t address the nonhuman community that Brian Doyle and Terry Tempest Williams and my father and I recognize: he worries for the fate of people, chiefly, and I appreciate that he wants better for a disadvantaged population which has been taken advantage of. He seems concerned as well for the rich and biologically diverse hills and mountains of a unique geographical area, but I think this concern is chiefly for what that land could offer people. I would personally rather he also cared for rivers and cougars and mushrooms for their own sake, but his is the majority perspective, that’s for sure.

While I wanted to note these issues I found with Ramp Hollow, I admire it and I learned a lot and I do recommend it as a way to put “the ordeal of Appalachia” into a larger context and understand some of what’s challenging here, and why it’s not the fault of the people here who are unfortunately characterized as lazy, backwards, or primitive. This book is well researched, with over 50 pages of notes and a thorough bibliography. I consider it a great introduction to a lengthy and complicated history, and I’m so glad I read it. Thank you, Doug, for my copy.


Rating: 7 morels.

movie: Matewan (1987)

Having recently visited the museum, I knew I had to track down this movie, which was not easy – thanks Barrett for your help!

Matewan is the retelling of the story of Bloody Mingo County and the Battle of Matewan, where the humble coal miners stood up to the bosses and lives were lost. It’s an iconic story in American labor rights history, and it’s movingly told here.

We begin with Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his film debut) arriving in the town of Matewan, West Virginia as a union organizer sent to help the locals with their ongoing strike. (I was immediately reminded of the adage that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.) On the same train that brings Kenehan are a group of Black miners from Alabama who are being brought in as strike-breakers; the local miners attack these men before they even reach Matewan, presaging racism and violence that will plague organizing efforts. Kenehan exhorts the locals, however, telling them that it’s workers against bosses, not white against Black or anybody else (there is a recently arrived group of Italian miners in town, too).

It’s uphill work getting the white WV miners to let Blacks and Italians into the union, just as it’s uphill work getting the latter groups to strike, but Kenehan’s speeches, and the poor conditions and disrespect of the mine bosses, do achieve this. Everyone puts down their tools; the miners and their families construct a tent city on the edge of town (as their housing is all company-owned), and the workers bumpily navigate their union. Meanwhile, hired guns with the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency try repeatedly to do the work of intimidation: evictions, repossession of food and furnishings, and general pressure and violence. They are repeatedly thwarted by the town’s major and sheriff, and once by armed “hill people” from outside of town. For a time, it looks like the ragtag union bunch are well-positioned to win their fight, because of the tight local community. But hanging over this impression is knowledge that the company, and Baldwin-Felts, has only to bring in more and bigger guns, and eventually the town will be outnumbered.

The action of Matewan proceeds from Kenehan’s arrival through organizing and early conflicts and concludes just after the Battle of Matewan, the shootout where the mayor and Kenehan, and seven Baldwin-Felts guys, are killed. Voiceover by Danny from a later date (he is now a grown man, and still a coal miner) indicates that the union was eventually defeated in the West Virginia Mine Wars by the US military, and that conditions have more or less returned to their starting point.

Remarkable characters include the boarding-house proprietress who initially puts Kenehan up – a miner’s widow – and her teenage son Danny, a coal miner, budding Baptist preacher, and passionate union man; Few Clothes (delightfully played here by James Earl Jones), leader of the Black contingent; a flirtatious widow with a role to play; and two miners’ wives in the camp, one West Virginian and one Italian, who begin as antagonists but forge a friendship even without benefit of a common language. Several miners, union men and Baldwin-Felts thugs play individual roles, as well, but these are less developed personalities. While there is no question that this is a film with a message and that takes a side, these flawed human characters make it something more and better than propaganda.

While Few Clothes, the sheriff and mayor, and several union men and Baldwin-Felts guys were true historical characters, Kenehan and Danny are both inventions for the purpose of this film. On the one hand, I find they work very well as central characters to focus our sympathies and make the story come alive. On the other hand, I regret that it took fictional characters to do this work, and I wonder if the same emotional results could have been achieved using only true figures. I believe so; but I guess it would have been harder to focus it, with a larger cast and no one central hero like Kenehan. But isn’t that a beautiful fact of the union, that there is no one, single hero?

True events are also compressed, and sometimes conflated. I feel more forgiving of this move; this being not history, but a stylized version thereof, it’s okay with me that we made the storyline a little tighter and easier to follow, and more dramatic for its brevity. Inserting a fictional central hero feels less faithful to me that compressing a timeline. Maybe that’s just me? At any rate, if you’re learning the history of Matewan and West Virginia’s Mine Wars, do look further than this film, excellent though it is. (This should go without saying and applies to all historical fiction.)

Although a sad story and therefore hard to watch, I found this movie also beautiful and well done. I appreciated the cinematography, darkness and shadow moving, the feelings of tragedy and betrayal; it made me cry. I highly recommend it, if you can find it. Know your history, friends.


Rating: 7 rabbits.

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.

PNC Broadway at Kentucky Center for the Arts presents Hamilton (2019)

You already know I love the soundtrack and concept. I felt so lucky to get to see this production in Louisville, Kentucky, with a friend of mine.

Jefferson in Hamilton (photo credit)

A few thoughts of my own here, and then I’ll respond to some observations from Pops.

I found every moment of this performance thrilling. I came in so heavily invested in and in love with the show as I knew it, from the soundtrack and from videos I’d watched online of other productions – I know this made me both harder to impress (because each actor was being held up to another actor’s interpretation) and easier (because I had already bought in). I think I had a fixed grin for several numbers; then when people started getting heartbroken and dead, I felt those things deeply, too. We had impressive vocal performances as well as acting throughout; it’s a blockbuster. I agree with Pops’s comment that some familiarity with the lyrics is helpful in appreciating their richness, depth and cleverness; don’t miss any of these lines!! but with my thorough study beforehand, I got a lot out of this. My admiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda and the whole production was confirmed, expectations satisfied. I still wish I could have seen the original cast. But this was amazing, outstanding, and something few people get to see (those ticket prices, whew $$$). I’m overjoyed.

My date (who is a novelist) and I talked some about the characters we appreciate most. Hamilton is a big one – the show is definitely built around the idea of his being a complicated, sympathetic, fascinating guy – and I find Burr a close second. He is the more tragic figure, I think, what with his final ambitious leap and disappointment, and his fatal mistake and instant regret. I enjoyed the comedy of Jefferson, and the gravitas of Washington. My date and I agreed that while Eliza was performed beautifully, Angelica is by far the more interesting and complex character, something of a tragic figure herself; that seems to be the nature of their true roles in history, though, and each actor beautifully performed her role as written.

One thing I hadn’t realized was how little script there was in addition to the soundtrack that I already knew so well – in other words, the whole story is sung; there is very little dialog. The notable exception is the news of John Laurens’s death: seeing that shared onstage, I finally understood why I’d been confused by the soundtrack on this point! No plus or minus here, just good news for fans of the soundtrack: you’re getting pretty much the whole thing. I guess I find it an interesting artistic choice on Miranda’s part. Everything in song!

A difference from the soundtrack and videos: our version of Burr (Alexander Ferguson) was a much slighter and less burly, macho man. The rest confirmed previous impressions. Mulligan and Jefferson each had their own swagger, and Jefferson onstage gets an infusion of pure silliness which was delightful to watch, and I think an important element toward the story – he was the comedic influence, and a foil in other ways as well for Hamilton. Hannah Cruz as Eliza was powerfully voiced, and I dug her haircut which was decidedly modern. And don’t let me pass up mentioning Peter Matthew Smith as a hilarious and beautifully sung King George.

The set was apparently simple, although it had a number of moving parts (not stationary as Pops reports the SF one); set changes (including furnishings coming on and going off) were part of the choreography, which was very smooth. The ensemble of backup singer-dancers made a definite contribution. Each actor filled their role nicely, although Burr was the biggest change. Funny Pops mentioned Van Jones – that man at least physically matches the original Broadway’s Burr much better than ours did.

In rereading Pops’s comments: I did not watch our audience very closely, I’m afraid. But my impression was that it was pretty white, and older than you noted yours. Also not rowdy or terribly involved; at Jefferson’s big entrance he had to ask for more applause (which he got, in moderation). SF has more pep than Louisville?

As far as Pops’s note about politics being mostly in casting rather than lyrics: this is true for the most part, and I appreciate that, sort of understated and unavoidable at the same time. (Funny story: after immersing myself in this play beforehand, I at one point found myself double-checking the appearances of some of these historical figures, wondering, were they brown? Silly question, of course – the powerful figures of American history are absolutely white – but that’s how involved I got in this play, that it let me imagine an alternative.) But! one notable exception would be repeated reference to the power and talent of immigrants. I love these lines.

Funny that Pops mentioned having seen the #2 Hamilton actor – I don’t see how I’d know such a thing, except that when I went looking for photos to accompany this review, I couldn’t find any of our Hamilton (Edred Utomi) in his role. I also can’t find any other Louisville Hamilton (which is why there is a picture of our very funny Jefferson [Bryson Bruce] at the top of this post instead). Hmm. No complaints about Utomi at all, though – I think he embodied the character perfectly. As I’ve mentioned above, Burr was the only one who didn’t feel quite right in his role; but I think that’s just because I had an impression in my head going in, and not the actor’s fault for having a different interpretation. The double-edged sword of my familiarity, is all.

Clearly I had a wonderful time. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. If I were made of money, I’d go see multiple productions of this genius play. If you can get in, do go see Hamilton wherever you have the chance.


Rating: 10 coattails.

guest review: the Orpheum Theatre presents Hamilton (2019), from Pops

Some months ago now, my parents went to see Hamilton in San Francisco (lucky them!), and I am now sharing with you Pops’s remarks – because the next post you see here will be my own response to another Hamilton production, 2300 miles away. Briefly, then, here’s Pops.

The audience was surprisingly white; guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the price and the world-class tourist destination of San Francisco.

I was impressed there were so many teens with families, young people, and couples; there is a cross-generational attraction.

It was like a rock concert: excitement building just waiting; with the first chord of music, they cheered and hooted like these were rock idols; the conductor was obviously pacing the opening song to allow for applause and cheering, so we didn’t miss too many opening lyrics.

The stage set was huge, simple, stationary and visually rich to my eye, smacking of heavy-timbered construction, shades of dark brown; it was open, no curtains, enticing the awaiting crowd; the show began with Aaron Burr simply striding out on stage and letting loose!

The talent on stage was overpowering; wonderful, top to bottom; the audio system was good, and the powerful music will move you; but the rapid fire lyrics were still sometimes lost to individual diction or presentation; good to be familiar!

It strikes me that the ‘politics’ of this production are largely in the ‘meta’ of presentation, not so much the content of lyrics: i.e. diversity of skin color, musical style, physical character portrayal, etc.

The cast presented a broad palette of skin color; very few racial or ethnic stereotypes appropriate here; it was wonderful how that quickly faded to background as each character established their identity with other features.

The acting adds so much to the songs! Characters were sometimes surprising as fleshed out by actors, with body language and expression adding so much; good seats up front paid off; so many of these ‘familiar’ historical ‘founding fathers’ were so different as portrayed, Jefferson especially (as a buffoon!); George Washington retained the most tradition I thought, with great gravitas; I thought our Aaron Burr was by far the powerful character, as portrayed by a handsome man who I thought to be a doppelganger for Van Jones, if you know him.

There is great dancing too! Again, totally missed listening to only audio; it’s fun how the ensemble women also play male or ambiguous gender roles in other scenes.

We saw the relatively inexperienced #2 Hamilton actor, and he was great; I suppose the #1 is saved for weekends – he has a much longer and showier background including a Broadway tour. One wonders about different interpretations…

Act 1 is all upbeat, high energy, uplifting; the shorter Act 2 brings the steady decline to denouement, like a Shakespearean tragedy; it’s a sad ending – no attempt to sugar-coat history.

I’ll be responding to these thoughts in my own review. It was so fun to get this email and whet my own considerable appetite for the same show…

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