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.”
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.
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.”
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.’
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.
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.
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.
Keen to outline his various admirable qualities and relieved when his exemplariness is recognized—asked to accompany Emilia to her sister’s coffin, Huberman remarks that it is “always a comfort to encounter individuals capable of valuing my qualities as a spiritual guide”—the good doctor’s heroic stance does tend to falter slightly whenever anything gets between him and his food. On the morning the dead body is discovered, he goes to the kitchen to request his “habitual broth with toast points,” only to be “met with a disagreeable sight: Andrea was pale and a tremble in her jaw foretold the imminence of a sob. Barely hiding my impatience, I realized that a delay in the arrival of my soup was all but inevitable.” Bad enough that Mary’s untimely demise is interfering with his writing, for it to disrupt his meals is scarcely tolerable.
Mila 18 doesn’t, by a long shot, qualify as great literature—the characterization is mostly crude, everyone inexplicably speaks in the cadence and idioms of 1950s America (“Heck!” says a teenage boy during his first romantic tryst. “This isn’t the way I figured it would be”), and the style is serviceable at best—but as a sensational yet historically accurate account of a pivotal episode in history, its value cannot be underestimated. Contemporary audiences certainly read it in droves: it became a Book of the Month selection, spent thirty-one weeks on the bestseller lists, and forced Joseph Heller to change the title of his debut novel from Catch 18 to Catch 22.