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.

From the Shelf: “Memoir: Commonalities in Differences”

This column ran on October 22, 2019 in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

I love reading: stories, novels, poetry, magazine articles, listicles, all sorts of things. But the genre that strikes closest to my heart is memoir. I love finding commonalities among differences, noting the ways we’re all tied together.

In The Wild Boy (Atria, $16.99), Paolo Cognetti recounts the year, at age 30, in which he returned to the Italian Alps with a sense of yearning for something earlier, simpler, purer. In these circumstances and in its literary cast, Cognetti’s memoir recalls Phillip Connors’s transcendent Fire Season (Ecco, $14.99), about a summer spent working as fire lookout in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Connors’s slim, moving book considers the history of fire management, family ties, solitude and so much more. That season became a career for Connors, and readers can follow his lovely, lyric writing, tender storytelling and heartbreak for the natural world in his sequel, A Song for the River (Cinco Puntos, $16.95).

Following numerous essays and novels (Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, The Wake, Beast [all Graywolf, $16]), Paul Kingsnorth offers a vulnerable core of himself in Savage Gods (Two Dollar Radio, $14.99), a memoir in part of writer’s block and in part of the more general frustration, stagnation and despair brought about by years of fighting for the Earth and her nonhuman inhabitants. Only Kingsnorth could express anguish so beautifully–in the midst of a claimed inability to write.

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick (Unnamed Press, $28) is a stunning, layered memoir, with photos, that reveals a passionate fascination with language as well as the story of two sisters, their devotion and devastation. It is a stylistic masterpiece, a narrative puzzle and an intelligent book to get lost in. In its elegiac consideration of family, it is cousin to fine work like Kelly Grey Carlisle’s We Are All Shipwrecks (Sourcebooks, $15.99) and Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye (Tin House, $15.95).

Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali

An angry queer Somali boy navigates race, family and sexual discovery in a series of countries before writing this startling, incisive memoir of pain and resilience.

Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the mid-1980s; he was stolen away from his home at age four by his father, a stranger to the young boy. With his stepmother and several new siblings, the young Ali lived for a time in the United Arab Emirates and in various cities in the Netherlands. When he was in high school, the disjointed family relocated again to Toronto, where Ali still lives, writing Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir from a homeless shelter.

The traumas start early, with the national distresses of Somalia represented by Ali’s socialist grandparents and his mostly absent businessman father. “I saw him as a philistine, but he was in tune with the flow of history, unlike his parents.” Ali’s stepmother and stepsisters are violently abusive toward him and toward each other: the genital mutilation the girls endure happens off-screen but nevertheless forms a visceral, horrific scene in a chapter titled “Torn Desert Flowers.”

Ali suffers in the increasingly white countries he is moved to, as an immigrant, foreigner, African–“since the words for African and slave are interchangeable in Arabic, my schoolmates thought hurting me was their holy right.” Bullied at school, he must also deal with discovering his sexuality in an immigrant Muslim family disinclined to accept a gay son. Eventually, his coping mechanisms for these and other difficulties will include addictions to Valium and alcohol. Later, en route to an arranged marriage in Somalia that he will manage to avoid, Ali spends time in London, a place he finds “more alive” than Toronto and where museums are free.

His book is filled with suffering, but Ali avoids self-pity with his matter-of-fact reportorial style and the odd, acerbic interjection. His focus is global as well as personal, as he considers Somali history, colorism within nonwhite communities, the way one marginalized group can abuse another and observed trends in racism, homophobia and xenophobia. Among the pain are poetic, searing images, like the white teacher who hands out sugar cane to accompany a story about Barbados, “to taste the sweetness that had claimed so many black lives…. Armed with the taste of sugar cane, I made my way to the library.”

This is a memoir of raw agony and uncomfortable histories, told in a style alternately lyric and stark. Ali’s life experience has ranged widely, geographically and otherwise, and the stories he shares here are both particular and universal truths. Angry Queer Somali Boy is painful but recommended reading for anyone hoping to look directly at this world.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 sticks.

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.

Homesick by Jennifer Croft

This stunning memoir with photos is a love letter from one sister to another, a celebration of language and a story of devotion and disaster.

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick is a startling memoir, stylistically as well as in its content and in the unusual mind it reveals.

Amy and Zoe are very close. This is the defining feature of their young childhood and arguably beyond. The sisters grow up in Tulsa, Okla., where their mother worries over all the possible disasters in the world and their father teaches college. Then the younger sister, Zoe, has her first seizure, and their lives become dominated by seizures, hospitals, surgeries; the girls are both home-schooled from then on. A tutor, Sasha, comes in the afternoons to teach Zoe Ukrainian and Amy Russian–the girls’ choices. Amy loves numbers and letters; she is entranced by the Cyrillic alphabet. Partly out of devotion to Sasha, she throws herself into this study with all her considerable will.

Zoe’s health continues up and down, while Amy’s academic achievements soar. She enters college at age 15, moving into the Honors House dorm, and this separation from her sister is both catastrophic and necessary. “Something new has begun to be erected between them, something like a wall, and on Zoe’s side it must stay safe, and on Amy’s side it can’t. Amy is responsible for repelling her sister as her sister tries to scale this wall.”

This memoir is told in a close third person from Amy’s perspective–that of Croft’s persona–and interspliced with photographs captioned by an ongoing direct address, apparently from Amy to Zoe in a later time. The snippets of text under these photographs offer meditations on words, clearly one of Amy’s passions: “For dozens of centuries, the word leave meant stay…. And a scruple was at first a pebble you couldn’t quite shake from your shoe.” The words accompanying the photos form a separate narrative thread, so that the book can be read cover to cover, or as two discrete stories. Amy is a photographer from a young age, and her younger sister is her chief subject, in ways that Amy does not yet understand.

Disjointed, sometimes heavy with foreshadowing, lush with a love for words and language, the dual narrative of Amy and Zoe’s intertwined lives and shared pain seems the right artistic choice for this twisting dual story. Among other threads or themes is the difficulty of translation, in its literal and more metaphoric meanings. “When you consider the plenitude of any word’s experience you might think all words are untranslatable.”

Homesick is astonishing in its emotional reach, its evocation of a child’s discovery and a young adult’s suffering and all the wonder of words. What is translatable is perfectly communicated here.


This review originally ran in the August 8, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 letters.

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.
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