Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Book review: "Farewell to Manzanar" by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Americans have grown to realize that the confinement of 110,000 U.S. residents of Japanese descent in internment camps during World War II was one of the most shameful chapters in this nation's history.

Yet the topic remains in the shadows, an uncomfortable chapter of history that Americans know little about.

In "Farewell to Manzanar," Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston puts a human face on the episode and takes us inside one of the most famous of the internment camps. Wakatsuki lived from age 7 to 11 at Manzanar, the camp created in a bleak desert landscape in eastern California, .

While there's no justifying the internment, Wakatsuki's portrayal of life in the camp is warmer and less harsh than you often hear. These were not, she makes clear, anything like the Nazi death camps.

Wakatsuki recounts how her family, like others of Japanese descent, lived relatively unremarkable lives in Southern California before the war. But once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Japanese-American community immediately knew that their lives were about to change.

Forcibly relocated to Manzanar, families did their best to create a "normal" life amid cramped and drafty wooden barracks. People decorated their creaky homes the best they could, got jobs, and sent their children to school. Residents could attend church, takes classes and get items from the Sears catalog delivered.

The harm of the camp came in many, sometimes subtle, ways. Wakatsuki recalls the internment camps helped break up her family for a simple reason: They stopped eating meals together. The camps had large dining halls and in Wakatsuki's large family, the children drifted off to regularly eat dinner with their friends.

"My own family, after three years of mess hall living, collapsed as an integrated unit. Whatever dignity or feeling of filial strength we may have known before December 1941 was lost, and we did not recover it until many years after the war."

Watasuki recalls that even after leaving the internment camps, she retained a sense of shame, as if she had done something wrong. Sometimes she was excluded from a white friend's home, or from a group like the Girl Scouts simply because she was of Japanese descent.

"What is so infuriating, looking back, is how I accepted the situation," she writes. "If refused by someone's parents, I would never say, 'Go to hell!' or "I'll find other friends," or "Who wants to come to your house anyway?' I would see it as my fault, the result of my failings. I was imposing a burden on them."

"Farewell to Manzanar" is an easy and worthwhile read, bringing color and light to a period once kept in the dark.


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)

Friday, October 2, 2015

Book review: "The Billion Dollar Spy" by David E. Hoffman

Remember those old spy movies that featured things like letters written in invisible ink, tiny cameras hidden in pens, suicide pills, and messages stashed furtively under park benches?

Real spies work much the same way, it turns out. One of the biggest takeaways from the true-espionage book "The Billion Dollar Spy" is discovering how much real life is like those movies.

In "The Billion Dollar Spy," author David E. Hoffman tells the story of Adolf Tolkachev, a Russian engineer who passed an incredible volume of military secrets to American CIA agents during the Cold War from 1979 to 1985. The value of this intelligence was once estimated at over a billion dollars in terms of how it allowed the United States to adapt its military technology. Indeed, it's likely that Tolkachev by himself contributed mightily to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

In telling this story, Hoffman has to do a little "Spying 101" for readers. He describes, for instance, how CIA agents in Moscow went through elaborate steps -- driving in circles, switching from a car to a train to walking -- to make sure they weren't being followed. He describes the sometime elaborate disguises they wore. He describes how something as simple as a painted "V" on a pillar, or an open window could be a signal to a spy.

It's notable how little role technology played. They weren't hacking into computer networks or anything like that -- it was a nitty-gritty, person-to-person, street-level actions that made the difference.

Hoffman constructs the story largely from now-declassified documents that give a detialed look at how the CIA "handled" spies like Tolkachev.  Unfortunately, late in the book, the Americans lose Tolkachev and Hoffman can only give us the basics of what happens then.

Still, it's a fascinating book that reads like a John Le Carre page-turner.


(Please support this blog by clicking on ad.)