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My essay about MI5’s WWII spy-astrologer—commissioned by the brilliant Carrie Frye for The Awl—has been translated into French by Jules Michel-Rodrigues and appears at Ulyces, a new digital publisher dedicated to narrative journalism by writers from France and around the world.

At Kenyon Review Online, I wrote about Savage Coast — poet, journalist, and political activist Muriel Rukeyser’s Spanish Civil War novel, rejected in 1937 and published recently for the first time.

At Kenyon Review Online, I wrote about Savage Coast — poet, journalist, and political activist Muriel Rukeyser’s Spanish Civil War novel, rejected in 1937 and published recently for the first time.

Scott-Clark and Levy’s retelling of the disaster from the vantage points of trapped and imperiled guests and staff, as well as from the perspective of the terrorists themselves, reads like an expertly-constructed thriller that’s all the more heart-stopping because it actually happened. Hiding out in various parts of the hotel, hearing the staccato of gunshots overhead and underfoot as gunmen roamed the building, hundreds of people faced a terrible choice: if you barricaded yourself in a room, you might avoid getting shot, but you might end up burnt or asphyxiated as the gunmen started fires and caused explosions. Will Pike, a 28-year-old Londoner, decided that the only way out of his room, 60 feet above ground, was through the window, whose double-glazed panes he smashed with a marble coffee table. Sabina Sehgal Saikia, a prominent restaurant critic and mother of two, stayed huddled in her magnificent suite. Only one of them survived.
From my review of The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel, Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s fantastically well-researched account of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

Hicks remembers it all with immense charm, wit, and brio, capturing a bygone world of sprawling country estates, glass cigarette holders kept in a petticoat pocket, sapphire-studded powder compacts, dials on bedroom doors that turned to indicate when you’d like to be woken with tea and biscuits, and enough pets to populate an exotic zoo—including two wallabies from New Guinea, a bush baby, an anteater named Schnozzle, and a lion cub named Sabi that Lady Edwina brought home from southern Africa when Hicks was 8. “Sabi was adorable,” she writes, “and became a treasured member of our menagerie … he grew so fast that he was soon much bigger than the dogs, and although he never bit or clawed, he was so strong that he knocked me over a couple of times. When he started to get on his hind legs and rest his paws on people’s shoulders, he was quickly rehoused in a loose box in the stables.”

In Lady Pamela Hicks’ joyously entertaining new memoir, Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten, animals feature as prominently as monarchs and celebrities.

At the end of Casey’s life, she and Woody were not on speaking terms. Nor had Sale seen her in months, since she went to “rescue” Casey’s three-year-old adopted daughter from her “emotionally drowning” mother. January 4, 2010, when Casey was found dead at her West Hollywood home, was “the worst day of my life,” said her father, who had donated millions to diabetes research. But Woody, starkly revealed by Crazy Rich as the world’s least enviable billionaire, was destined to be confronted, like his frustrated grandfather on his death bed, with the limitations of wealth’s potency.

Being really really really rich: not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

At Salon today, I ponder comedy’s last taboo (clue: it has nothing to do with sex).

For Words Without Borders’ August issue, I reviewed Hungarian novelist Ádám Bodor’s The Sinistra Zone, the disturbing tale of a rural totalitarian dystopia.

The impetus for her lifetime of feminine self-flagellation, she reiterates throughout the book, was her conviction that she was profoundly unattractive. “I wish someone had told me, not that I was beautiful because I know I’m not, but that I was normal and acceptable. Then, perhaps, I wouldn’t have spent my life trying quite so hard to be better than I am.” No wonder she was drawn like a proverbial moth to a career in women’s media—although the way she tells it, it’s not so much that fashion magazines aim to stoke women’s inadequacies, it’s that the corrupt symbiosis of advertisers and editors renders irrelevant the interests or wishes of readers. “Ever wondered,” asks Jones, “why all the glossy editors applauded when animal rights protestors were dragged by their hair from the Burberry catwalk by bouncers? They each had shiny Burberry totes at their toes, delivered that morning.”

At The Daily Beast I reviewed and applauded Girl Least Likely To: 30 years of fashion, fasting and Fleet Street by Liz Jones, Daily Mail columnist and perennial lightning rod for outrage.

Some people, Marie knows, smash through life while paying no heed to unseen vibrations, to shadows and subtleties. Though no stranger to violent impulses herself, she prefers to leave as soft an impression as possible, like her careful fingers creating the sea in a 3-D rendering of William Dyce’s ‘Pegwell Bay’: ‘Very gently I pressed my thumbs down on the gold leaf not wanting to tear it, gently gently till the surface became rippled, like a gilt shimmer on water capturing the last of the day’s sun in the low tide, clinging to those last bits of illumination.’

From my review of Chloe Aridjis’s gorgeous second novel, Asunder, out now in the UK and coming out in the US this September.

Such bold-faced aplomb would be deployed time and time again in dealing with the Nazis. When working for SEO (Special Operations Executive, the secret wartime sabotage unit) in the Alps, where she trekked between the French and Italian sides and transmitted vital information about enemy activity, Christine was stopped by the German frontier patrol. In her hand she held a silk map of the region, given to agents to avoid the giveaway rustle of paper in pockets. With no hope of concealing it, she casually shook the fabric out and used it to replace the headscarf she was wearing, greeting the soldiers in French as if she were simply a local on an errand. Another time she and Andrzej Kowerski, her on-off lover and frequent partner in crime, were arrested and interrogated by Gestapo officers in Budapest. Christine had been suffering from flu, so she exaggerated her hacking cough and bit her tongue so hard that she appeared to be bringing up blood. Presumed to be infected with tuberculosis—potentially fatal and frighteningly infectious—she and Kowerski were released.

From my review of Clare Mulley’s amazing biography of Christine Granville, one of WWII’s most breathtakingly daredevilish spies.

Holder, a 22-year-old African-American Vietnam veteran, and Kerkow, a fun-loving 20-year-old masseuse enamored of her bookish firebrand boyfriend, could have been flagged based on one of the official screening criteria: paying for tickets by unconventional means. First Kerkow tried to pass a bad check, then when that was discovered, she successfully exchanged an unused round-trip ticket to Seattle, mailed to her by her father, for two one-way tickets. The remainder of the escapade’s execution, masterminded by Holder, was equally haphazard. Wielding a briefcase that he claimed held a bomb, the lanky bespectacled youth, clad in full army regalia and chain-smoking joints, oversaw a 30-hour saga involving the collection of $500,000 in ransom, a change of planes at San Francisco, refueling at Kennedy, and—instead of Hanoi, his initial choice of destination—a final stop in Algiers, where Holder demanded to be met by exiled Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.

I was enthralled by Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong To Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.

Like the kids on FX’s (totally addictive, imo) Cold War thriller The Americans, foreign correspondent Scott C. Johnson grew up with no idea that his father was a spy — until the secret was uncovered when he was 14. Johnson’s beautifully written, candid, and surprising memoir, The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA, traces his struggle to come to terms with the deception that reverberates through his adult life, and looks back on his own globe-spanning, death-dodging career — which, he comes to recognize, is not so different from espionage. I reviewed the book at The Daily Beast.