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.

Chasing the Sun: How the Science of Sunlight Shapes Our Bodies and Minds by Linda Geddes

This broad study of the sun’s power over humankind, even in an age of electric lights and bright screens, is both absorbing and potentially life-changing.

Linda Geddes (Bumpology) illuminates the importance of one singular star in our human lives with Chasing the Sun: How the Science of Sunlight Shapes Our Bodies and Minds. The sun is life: allowing photosynthesis, warming the earth, providing solar power–it’s no wonder humans have long worshipped it. We have “assimilated starlight into the very fabric of our beings.”

People have resorted to the sun for medical purposes since early times, as well, and it is health and wellbeing that concerns Geddes in this lively, enlightening study. Circadian rhythms, her research reveals, are vital to many aspects of human life, governing blood pressure, body temperature, alertness, immune reactions, sleep cycles and quality and much more. “Almost half of our genes are under circadian control, including ones associated with every major illness investigated so far–including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, schizophrenia and obesity.” Shift work has recently been recognized as a probable carcinogen. In other words, the importance of sunlight to human existence can scarcely be overstated.

For this thoroughly researched investigation, Geddes consults history, international medicine, chronobiologists and NASA. She’s learned we get far too much artificial light and too brightly at night, while daytime interior lighting in most homes and offices is not nearly bright enough to simulate the sun’s power over our bodies. She also outlines light therapies for mental health issues, as well as for tuberculosis, and the special struggles and successes of populations at high latitudes, like Iceland. She speaks with fascinating people, like the man with non-24-hour sleep-wake disorder and the woman whose grandmother stuck to a strict meal schedule well into her 90s, and she visits the German “Chronocity” of Bad Kissingen, which advertises itself as “a place where internal time is as important as external time, and sleep is sacrosanct.”

While helpful to those interested in seasonal affective disorder or jet lag, this journey to the sun and back will certainly expose any reader to new concerns and marvels as well. Chasing the Sun offers many sobering lessons (sunlight and sleep cycles are life-and-death issues) and helpful tips (the utility of melatonin and vitamin D, and the importance of putting down that smartphone at least 30 minutes before bedtime). Geddes’s hopes for using what she’s learned, however, lean toward technological advances, not a return to older ways. This is also a riveting read, filled with characters, places, anecdotes and histories sure to fascinate. Geddes brings a sense of wonder to her work that is infectious, and makes scientific and medical concepts easy to understand through simple, serviceable prose. Caution: Chasing the Sun may inspire readers to try eating by candlelight and waking with the sun.


This review originally ran in the August 27, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 excited submariners.

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.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty

The heavy questions about death and dead bodies are answered with honesty and hilarity by the creator of the webseries “Ask a Mortician,” for children and adults.

Caitlin Doughty wrote Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to share what she’s learned about the mortuary business and, more importantly, about death, with adult readers. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death is a delightful follow-up and expansion on that project, aimed at younger readers but absolutely for adults as well. Doughty’s continuing experience in the business (from crematory operator to mortuary owner, with a degree in mortuary science) means her expertise has grown. Her sense of humor and fun when approaching topics often considered morbid, however, is her most valuable contribution.

“Every question in this book is 100 percent ethically sourced (free range organic) from a real live child.” And children do ask “the most distinctive, delightful questions”: We eat dead chickens, why not dead people? Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral? What would happen if you died on a plane?

Doughty’s answers are as delightful and distinctive as the questions. She blends humor with respect for the dead, joking around but repeatedly reminding her readers that it’s never okay to do something with a person’s remains that they wouldn’t have liked. (“Did Grandma want a Viking funeral?”) Her investigations of ritual, custom, law and science are thorough, and she doesn’t shy from naming the parts of Grandma’s body that might leak after she is gone. She uses big words sometimes, but explains what they mean; she keeps her explanations simple enough for younger readers, but there are asides for grown-ups, too, including references to Justin Timberlake and vinyl records that she winkingly tells the kids to ignore.

Can I preserve my dead body in amber like a prehistoric insect? First of all, Doughty is on to us: she knows this is really a question about being brought back to life, √† la Jurassic Park, and she informs the reader that a second species will be required to graft that DNA onto. “Hybrid panther humans of the future! (This is made up, it’s not going to happen–don’t listen to me, I’m just a mortician.)” As for the title question, Doughty begins: “No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs. Not right away, at least.” (Spoiler alert: “Snickers is more likely to go for the tongue,” but only out of necessity, or maybe because he’s trying to wake you up.) Will I poop when I die? “You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” This irreverent voice is winning, and pitch-perfect for her younger audience, but, honestly, adults need a little humor as well when considering “postmortem poo.”

Diann√© Ruz’s accompanying images keep the same tone of playful but plainspoken discussion. “Don’t let anyone tell you your curiosity about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird,’ ” Doughty reminds readers. If they try to say so, “it’s likely they’re scared of the topic themselves.” This informative, forthright, comical guide to bodies after death is just the antidote–and surprisingly great fun as well.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 gallons of unpopped popcorn.

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.
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