"How do you tell a man that he will be killed tomorrow?" With that question, Michel Paradis begins the story of the historic Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, eight American airmen whom the Japanese punished for it, and the war-crimes trial that followed the Allied victory. Last Mission to Tokyo: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raiders and Their Final Fight for Justice is one of the best books I have read this year.
The question supposedly was in the mind of Sotojiro Tatsuta, warden of the Jiangwan Military Prison near Shanghai, on the night of Oct. 14, 1942. I suspect that Mr. Paradis gives the Japanese officer more credit for compassion than he actually displayed, but that does nothing to soften the impact of the execution. "A single bullet," we are told, will "break through their foreheads, scramble their brains, and leave nothing but paperwork." (And it was just a single bullet per man. Very thrifty.)
With doctoral degrees from Fordham and Oxford, Mr. Paradis is an attorney for the U.S. Defense Department, representing accused war criminals jailed at Guantanamo Bay, while also teaching at Columbia Law School. ("Jurisprudence of War" is on the calendar this fall.) For all that, he writes history with an ease and authority that would do credit to a top-ten author.... Continued on Japan at War nearby.
And another remarkable book: Magdalena Grzebalkowska's Poland 1945: War and Peace, brilliantly translated into English. Starting in the 1990s with the rise of women's studies to a privileged place in American universities, we began to read about the home front in the Second World War, and how women standing in line to buy rationed food was presented as equivalent to, say, being shorn of one's arms and legs in a mortar. (Yeah, right....) But Ms Grzebalkowska has redeemed this fatuous nonsense by writing a chronicle of Poland in 1945, the year that most of the Western world regards as a triumph of good over evil. Not so in Eastern Europe, as Joseph Stalin and the Russian Red Army revenged themselves upon Germany and Poland alike. Poles were expelled from eastern Poland; Germans were expelled from eastern Germany, and the forcibly imposed Communist government moved millions of refugees from one place to the other, as Poland itself became "the country on rollerskates," shoved 150 miles to the west. The book is divided into 12 chapters, each introduced by a spread of classified advertisements from Polish newspapers, each a tiny novel in itself:
"Joseph Gruss, New York, Broadway, is looking for his daughter Johanna, age 8, and his mother Mrs. Zelanizkowa, and will be grateful for any information about them. Until May 1944 both were in Belsen."
Like Hemingway's masterful vignettes in the Paris edition of in our time, there's a whole world of pain in those few words, at least to those who know that many of the Jews who survived the Bergin-Belsen camp were dispatched to Auschwitz in May 1944 for final disposition. Though the book sags a bit in the middle, the chapters following these newspaper announcements have the same concentrated power. For Poland and most of Eastern Europe, the peace treaty of May was just a pause in years of horrific suffering. Take a close look at the photo on the dust cover, showing a family at dinner in Warsaw in September, wine and tablecloth in a room that has no outside wall.
I've been pondering how to drag this magnificent mini-series into the Warbird's Forum. But what the heck! The Queen's Gambit takes place in the 1950s and 1960s, and if Beth Harmon is to be the world champion of chess, she must go to Moscow and beat the Russians at their own game. There's a bit of Cold War menace in the background, and Netflix, like most of the entertainment industry, thinks that the Soviet Union's only flaw is that it gave up too soon on Karl Marx. The Americans therefore are crass and the Russians big-hearted, and at the close Beth will find fulfillment in a Moscow park, playing chess with sweet old men with not a speck of sexism in their bones.
The TV and movie critics have gone gaga over Anya Taylor-Joy, who does indeed do a great job as a chess-obsessed and Librium- and booze-addicted girl and woman who wipes the floor with almost every man and boy she plays against. For me, though, the more amazing actor is Isla Johnston, who plays Beth as a 9-year-old whose life is changed by a sad-faced janitor in the basement of her orphanage. With her terrifying calm, Ms Johnston is so good she's spooky. I was disappointed to find her replaced in episode 2 by Ms Taylor-Joy as a teenager adopted by a dysfunctional couple and placed in a standard-issue US high school. Again, chess saves Beth from the Heathers and football heroes who populate the place. Nothing can stop her now, save the occasional Russian! By episode 6, we're on to Paris, with Moscow not far behind. Altogether, and despite the occasional slowdown, this is the best piece of television I have ever seen. (And speaking of addictions, look more closely at the chessmen on that board!) From the novel by Walter Tevis. Blue skies! — Daniel Ford
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