The Spy, Paulo Coelho, 2016

The cover of Paulo Coelho's novel The Spy features an actual photo of Mata Hari wearing an ornate swan head dress.

Yes, I turned gossip into “secrets” because I wanted money and power. But all those who accuse me now know I never revealed anything new. Paulo Coelho


Brazilian author Paolo Coelho brings Mata Hari to life in his espionage novel, The Spy. Formatted as Hari’s final letter to her attorney, Édouard Clunet, and his response, Hari’s life and death unfold in this fictional retelling of real events.

Born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands, she had an idyllic childhood until her early teens when her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced and her mother died, all within a three-year span. At 18, she married Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, a man twenty years older than her. He whisked her away to Indonesia, far from her turbulent life and money problems. An unhappy marriage and the loss of a child caused her to flee to Paris.  There, with a dash of cultural appropriation, she transformed herself into Mata Hari, a supposed Javanese princess and exotic dancer. She was the definition of overnight success and supplemented her dancing income by becoming what one could politely call a courtesan.  These connections to high society movers and shakers would be her downfall.

Her rise to fame was quick, but once World War I started, she lost her status. She received an offer of employment as a German spy which she accepted with the intention of actually working as a double agent for France. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong man to trust in the French government and he sold her out.

These facts are available almost anywhere. Wikipedia,, are some of the first sites that pop up when you type Mata Hari. Coelho supplements the facts, imbuing the space between bullet points with Mata Hari’s imagined feelings, motivations and intentions.

The Spy was translated from Coelho’s original native tongue, Portuguese.  As with any translation, the reader wonders what was lost between one language to the next.  How close to the author’s vision was the translator while maneuvering over idiomatic barriers.

I bring this up because Coelho’s Mata Hari doesn’t come across as likeable. I don’t know if he didn’t write her sympathetically or if some linguistic artistry got lost.  I get the feeling if she were alive today, her IG captions would be variations of “I’m so ugly, right?” or esoteric Facebook posts asking for prayers but not saying why. Her attention seeking seems insatiable and exhausting even while her bold resourcefulness is admirable.

Despite her poor choices, Mata Hari’s punishment had nothing to do with spying (she never gave the Germans information). Her fatal offense was cashing in on her own sexuality and parlaying her appeal into social currency. No matter how it gets translated, that comes across clearly.

Embroideries, Marjane Satrapi, 2005

…Okay! I’m going to tell you this story. But you have to promise never to repeat it to anyone! Marjane Satrapi

In Persopolis, Satrapi shared her childhood with the reader. In Embroideries, she’s a young woman, sitting at the grown-up table with the women in her family as they share their stories about men, relationships and sex. Told in her irreverent voice and illustrated with her bold black and white strokes, Satrapi captures the casual conversations of these friends as they share secrets.

Through memories and insights revealed by Satrapi’s relatives and friends, the reader learns about a rarely considered topic, the sex lives of Iranian women. Each woman has her own story, ranging from humorous to heartbreaking, from predictable to scandalous. They talk about affairs and arranged marriages, human anatomy and reconstructive surgeries.

Some of the women have had fulfilling experiences, some not so much. One woman, Parvine, shares her horror story of being married at thirteen to a sixty-nine-year old general. Luckily, she escaped on her wedding night. Azzi, a desolate young woman, admits that her husband married her for the wedding gifts and asked for a divorce soon after consummating the marriage.

The conversation isn’t just about sex. The title is slang for hymenoplasty, a surgical procedure to “restore” virginity. This leads to other topics like Iran’s unfair obsession with female virginity or the expectation placed on women to keep themselves attractive even if it requires surgeries like butt lifts, breast augmentation, nose jobs and the titular embroidery.

Through it all the women retain their humor. There are serious differences between the way Iran and the west view and legislate sex.  That grown women could face serious social repercussions for being sexually active is ridiculous but that certainly isn’t unique to Iran. Even in the United States, virginity is considered a character trait rather than a temporary state. Women are shamed for engaging in sexual activities. Hell, women are shamed for rape by people who don’t understand consent. Yet, for Iranian women, there seems to be this looming entity, intangible and abstract. Sex comes with more serious repercussions. There’s a cost for sexuality that there isn’t here in the United States.

This review was difficult for me to write. The book itself is filled with brutal honesty and acerbic humor. It was a joy to hear from an oft-ignored demographic. I guess my hesitation comes from my ignorance about Iran and the social constructs in which these women live. I feel like the stupid American discovering a society that’s been there for centuries and staring slack-jawed at the realization that Iranian women are just like me in many ways. I’ll admit that they have more freedoms than I realized. They’ve found ways to retain their sense of selves in a system that tries to keep them invisible.

The Book of Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor, 2015


To them, I was like a plant the grew for the sake of harvesting. Nnedi Okorafor


Science fiction isn’t my favorite genre (2018 Book Challenge). Star Trek the Next Generation and Black Mirror aside, I just don’t dig the genre.

Dystopian bleakness, intrusive governments and removed humanity—none of it really appeals to me, partly because in the United States we’re living it. The worlds portrayed in sci-fi are never ones I want to inhabit and the stories leave me with an uneasiness that makes me want to go outside and take deep breaths.

The Book of Phoenix ticks off all the sci-fi tropes:

Dystopian future. Check.

Corrupt government. Check

Technology run amuck. Check

What sets The Book of Phoenix apart from the other sci-fi I’ve read (and admittedly, that’s not many) is the blatant inclusion of social messages. In other books, the issue is disguised in metaphor—such as Vonnegut’s Ice Nine as a stand in for nuclear weapons. In The Book of Phoenix the issue–the misuse and abuse of black bodies for medical advancement and war—is the entire point of the book. Okorafor uses the United States’ own history by referencing the Tuskegee Syphilis trials by name. A character named HeLa is the actual embodiment of Henrietta Lacks’ pilfered undying cells. Most of the SpeciMen are Black Americans or taken from countries in Africa, a colonizing of the human body rather than natural resources.

The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Okorafor’s award-winning Who Fears Death. The actions of main character Phoenix set up the world for heroine Onyesonwu Ubaid-Ogundimu. (I haven’t read Who Fears Death, so I don’t know if there’s a stronger link between the books).

The story begins when an elderly Okeke man, Sunuteel, stumbles upon ancient technology hidden away in a cave. He uses his portable device to access The Book of Phoenix, like an audio book.

Told in her own worlds, the book chronicles the life of Phoenix, an “accelerated” woman. Even though she functions as an adult and appears to be about forty-years-old, she is only two. For her entire life, she’s lived in Tower 7 alongside other creations and mutants called SpeciMen created by The Big Eye, an ominous organization separate from the government yet just as powerful and far-reaching. The SpeciMen’s purposes are kept secret, sometimes even to them. To prevent curiosity about her own existence, she’s allowed to read any book she wants, a pastime that gives her great joy. She’s also allowed to have close, though structured, relationships with a few of the others.

An emotional and traumatic loss triggers a physical reaction in her and she realizes her purpose. She was born to be a weapon of mass destruction. True to her name, she can combust on command, destroying everything around her. She can rise from her own ashes to be used over and over again.

With nothing to lose Phoenix becomes a one-woman uprising, bent on destroying The Big Eye. For much of the book, Phoenix seeks revenge. Freeing, or in some cases unleashing, other SpeciMen is more of a bonus than an objective. She’ll stop at nothing to annihilate the oppressor even if it means forever changing the landscape of the earth and its future.

Then we go back to Sunuteel. I’m not going to give away his role because the end of the book is like a punch to the gut.  I will say it is jaw-droppingly, eye-rollingly, painfully infuriating in a very intentional way. His actions may even have more to do with shaping the world of Who Fears Death than Phoenix’s. And despite the exasperation I felt, I couldn’t help but pity Sunuteel, a victim of generations of self-loathing, as he did what he thought was best.

This book is definitely sci-fi, but transcends the genre as I know it. Like all good stories, it uses the tropes to get to the humanity of the characters. It isn’t about the technology or magic. It’s about one woman, using the powers forced on her, to right the wrongs by any means necessary. Phoenix is a wonderful character, raw and human. I found myself drawn to her and I love the fact that she is the one telling her story as opposed to a narrator or other character.

Okorafor’s storytelling and narrative voice is compelling. Ghana and it’s culture play a large part in the book as does the entire continent of Africa. But it doesn’t feel exploitative like an author looking for a foreign landscape to set the mood. It feels organic and necessary, as if the story could only take place with these elements. The entire story has that feeling, as if everything that happens must happen the way it does. Not that it feels predictable or trite, but that this is the history of the universe that Okorafor created.


A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain, 1998


I wanted kicks – the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I’d yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I’d found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books.  Anthony Bourdain

I’ll admit, when Anthony Bourdain came onto the scene, I didn’t like him much. His disdainful alpha male attitude wrapped in a scrawny frame smacked of male posturing. And a chain-smoking food expert? Did he have any taste buds left to really make judgement calls on cuisine? I found him needlessly acerbic given his job was to literally fly all over the world and eat delicious food. But people change. As he got older, he mellowed and seemed to make peace with the commercial side of the tv programming that bankrolled his lifestyle.

His death in June shocked and saddened me deeper than I expected so I was compelled to read one of his many books. I had trouble deciding the category, since I have a slot for travel and one for a book with food on the cover (2018 Reading Challenge). I opted to give him the travel category.

Another confession, Bourdain’s death overshadowed my impression of the book. I found it hard to read the words he wrote 10 years ago without reflecting on how his story ultimately ended. Because of this, I’m not sure I can give it a fair review. I will say, that Bourdain writes the way he speaks (or vice versa). I heard his voice as if he was narrating an episode of a show. And the book was written as they were filming the show. So that gives you some indication of what the book is like.

His travels take him all over the world (Russia, Japan, Morocco, Mexico etc.). He didn’t just visit countries as a curious outsider, looking askance and mocking the “strange” foods set before him. He sat down with his hosts and learned about them and life in their country, the good and the bad. He became a reminder for us self-absorbed Americans that yes, other countries have amazing histories and cultures worth celebrating. He was a great ambassador, using food as the bridge between cultures. Despite his gruff exterior he also had a way of making people open up, even those who lived under regimes that would not appreciate the frankness.

Simply put, Bourdain respected people’s right to be different.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, 1963

Cat's Cradle

No damn cat, no damn cradle. Kurt Vonnegut



Happy Banned Book Week! (2018 Reading Challenge)

In 1972, the school board of Strongsville, OH banned Vonnegut’s work for… no specific reason. Apparently, someone just didn’t like it (Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District)

And what’s not to like?

A not-so-veiled critique of the self-serving fluidity of organized religion.

A not-so-covert jab at the sincerity of organized religion.

A not-so-subtle anti-nuclear weapons message.

A not-so-hidden contempt for authority figures who arrogantly assume they know what’s best.

I can’t imagine what entities would find these thoughts threatening.

So it goes.

Vonnegut’s story follows our narrator, John, who prefers to be called Jonah, as he goes from would-be-author to would-be-dictator in a short amount of time. We end up in a place not opposite of where we expected but more up, over and to the left.

Jonah’s wacky adventure…well, it’s too bizarre to really summarize and if I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure how we got from the beginning of the book to the end. It all seemed organic at the time. The short chapters propel the story forward at a brisk pace so there isn’t really time to take in the absurdity until the end when you realize just how much has transpired.

Vonnegut tackles big subjects in big ways.

He uses the fake religion of Bokonism to skewer the false comfort of organized religion. Jonah becomes enamored with Bokonism, a faith filled with dubious wisdom and bizarre rituals and built on lies. Even after finding out the religion was designed with disingenuous motives, Jonah still finds comfort in the teachings.

The non-existent Ice Nine stands in for nuclear weapons and Vonnegut doesn’t pretend there are pros and cons to its use. The bleak hopeless end of the novel pretty much sums up Vonnegut’s anti-nuke stance. The crux of the book asks the question “We can, but should we?” Vonnegut’s answer is clearly “No.”

The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, 2004


We can only feel sorry for ourselves when our misfortunes are still supportable. Once this limit is crossed, the only way to bear the unbearable is to laugh at it. Marjane Satrapi

Originally written in French and translated (2018 Reading Challenge) into several languages, Marjane Satrapi’s recounts life from childhood to young adulthood during Iran’s Islamic Revolution. As a Bildungsroman, a type of memoir focusing on one’s years of educational or spiritual growth (I learned that skimming the Wikipedia article for Persepolis) she not only discusses the historical events, but what it meant to her as a child and how it impacted her young adulthood.

Satrapi’s story begins just before the Revolution. She lives the best of both worlds. Her father’s job as a government engineer offers a life of privilege and security. Her Uncle Anoosh, a revolutionary, is a source of awe and inspiration giving her cache among her politically aware school mates. Her parents encourage her education and political awakening even as an oppressive force looms in the distance.

The new regime quickly chips away at the people’s freedoms—requiring the veil, segregating schools by gender, jailing and executing those who speak out against the fundamentalists—and erodes Satrapi’s childhood. Eventually, her parents send her to Austria for her safety and well-being. Upon her return years later, she finds she is a foreigner in her own homeland.  She writes, “I was a westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West. I had no identity.”

Satrapi’s stark images—black and white, no greys—fit the tone and content of her life’s view perfectly. Like most young people, she believes the world should function according to her limited viewpoint. It’s her way or it’s wrong.

She portrays moments of despair—sacrifice, separation and death are companions to war—yet the story never gets maudlin. In fact, like most survivors, she finds humor in the absurdity of her rapidly changing world. She doesn’t dwell too long on the gory details, but she doesn’t shield the reader from them either. War and oppression are not pretty, and life doesn’t go back to normal. The book is surprisingly uplifting in many ways. As the society in which she dwells gets crushed under the weight of a new normal, Satrapi, her parents and grandmother really stay the same. The rebellious fire may have to be hidden, but it still burns.

I’ll be Gone in the dark, Michelle McNamara, 2018

Goneinthe dark

I’ve written about hundreds of unsolved crimes, from chloro­form murderers to killer priests. The Golden State Killer, though, has consumed me the most. Michelle McNamara

At 15 weeks, Michelle McNamara’s I’ll be Gone in the Dark qualifies for the Ten Weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List challenge (2018 Reading Challenge).

McNamara pursues the Golden State Killer (GSK), one of the most prolific yet ignored serial rapist-turned-killer in recent memory. Devouring decades worth of police notes, newspaper articles and witness testimony she follows every lead she finds to its disappointing end. According to notes by the author herself, she didn’t expect to find the killer by the end of the book. She hoped the story would inspire others to join the search.

Unlike many true crime books, McNamara doesn’t revel in the gory details of the crimes. She doesn’t inadvertently glorify the nameless murderer by building him up to be the essence of looming terror a la Charles Manson. It’s about the labyrinthine process of searching for one nondescript man whose crimes span over twelve years, 500 miles and 70+ victims. It’s about the humanity of the victims– the ones who survived, the ones he killed, and those left grieving. And it’s about the ones who search for him, those on the force and those “armchair” detectives who devote just as much time as the professionals.

Or at least that’s the spirit of the book.

Michelle McNamara died on April 21, 2016, midway through writing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. In some places editors culled from her earlier essays about GSK. Lead researcher Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jenson “worked together to tie up loose ends.” But I don’t know if the finished product is the book she envisioned.

Perhaps it’s a trope of true crime novels to skip around. I’ve read several books that never finish a thought before jumping to a new topic, a new case, a new location. This book follows that formula. It begins by recounting a later GSK crime and continues out of chronological order. The author, or editor most likely, then inserts memoir-like passages that McNamara wrote about her current day search. In these parts we get to know McNamara and the detectives working the case. We get to see their obsessive perseverance despite crushing disappointment. We also hear from surviving victims and family members. This is where the humanity of the book resides, reminding us that what piques our interest as readers is a vexing nightmare for those who lived it.

I don’t recall a book having such a bittersweet backstory as this. Here is a debut novel by a talented, professional voice that promises great things. But that voice is now silenced.  She never got to see this killer “walk into the light”, but he was eventually caught two months after I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was released, forever binding her hard work to as happy an ending as this story can have.