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Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilizationby Nicholson Baker
Synopses & Reviews
Bestselling author Nicholson Baker, recognized as one of the most dexterous and talented writers in America today, has created a compelling work of nonfiction bound to provoke discussion and controversy — a wide-ranging, astonishingly fresh perspective on the political and social landscape that gave rise to World War II.
Human Smoke delivers a closely textured, deeply moving indictment of the treasured myths that have romanticized much of the 1930s and '40s. Incorporating meticulous research and well-documented sources — including newspaper and magazine articles, radio speeches, memoirs, and diaries — the book juxtaposes hundreds of interrelated moments of decision, brutality, suffering, and mercy. Vivid glimpses of political leaders and their dissenters illuminate and examine the gradual, horrifying advance toward overt global war and Holocaust.
Praised by critics and readers alike for his exquisitely observant eye and deft, inimitable prose, Baker has assembled a narrative within Human Smoke that unfolds gracefully, tragically, and persuasively. This is an unforgettable book that makes a profound impact on our perceptions of historical events and mourns the unthinkable loss humanity has borne at its own hand.
"'Burning a village properly takes a long time,' wrote a British commander in Iraq in 1920. In this sometimes astonishing yet perplexing account of the destructive futility of war, NBCC award — winning writer Baker (Double Fold) traces a direct line from there to WWII, when Flying Fortresses and incendiary bombs made it possible to burn a city in almost no time at all. Central to Baker's episodic narrative — a chronological juxtaposition of discrete moments from 1892 to December 31, 1941 — are accounts from contemporary reports of Britain's terror campaign of repeatedly bombing German cities even before the London blitz. The large chorus of voices echoing here range from pacifists like Quaker Clarence Pickett to the seemingly cynical warmongering of Churchill and FDR; the rueful resignation of German-Jewish diarist Viktor Klemperer to Clementine Churchill's hate-filled reference to 'yellow Japanese lice.' Baker offers no judgment, but he also fails to offer context: was Hitler's purported plan to send the Jews to Madagascar serious, or, as one leading historian has called it, a fiction? Baker gives no clue. Yet many incidents carry an emotional wallop — of anger and shock at actions on all sides — that could force one to reconsider means and ends even in a 'good' war and to view the word 'terror' in a very discomfiting context." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Nicholson Baker is a prolific, consistently interesting writer who likes to take risks. Some pay off, some do not. 'Human Smoke,' I am afraid, belongs in the latter category. The subject is familiar enough: the origins and early stages of World War II in Europe and Asia. But the way he tells the story is highly idiosyncratic. His 474 pages of text are divided into a series of separate segments, most... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) no more than a few lines, none longer than two pages. There is no connecting narrative or unifying analysis. Instead, we have a historical mosaic composed of individual anecdotes, quotations and vignettes. They are drawn from a wide variety of sources, all of them in English, most of them about the United States, Britain and Germany. The mosaic is shaped by a number of recurrent themes: the destructiveness of modern weapons, especially aerial bombardment (the book opens with a remark from Alfred Nobel, 'manufacturer of explosives'); the intensity and ubiquity of anti-Semitism (Eleanor Roosevelt regrets having to attend a party where there will be 'mostly Jews'); the irrationality of patriotism ('Every German woman and child killed is a contribution to the future safety and happiness of Europe,' wrote Gerald Brenan in 1941); the ruthlessness of those in positions of power (Churchill, quoted more often than anyone else, comes off as a bloodthirsty thug); and the brave but futile efforts of the men and women who opposed the war (Baker's heroes are Quaker pacifists and others who struggled for peace). In the two-page afterword, Baker finally speaks directly to the reader. 'Was it a "good war"? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? Those are the basic questions that I hoped to answer when I began writing.' That he believes the answer to these questions is 'No' becomes abundantly clear from the way Baker has selected and arranged his material. In the book's final lines, he makes this point explicitly: 'I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They've never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.' Let us set aside the question of whether World War II was a 'good war.' Only Americans, who suffered least and profited most from the conflict, could even imagine such a question. How could it have been a 'good war' for the citizens of Poland or Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, where millions died and vast territories were laid waste? The question of whether the war was necessary also takes a different shape depending on where it is posed. Citizens of the United States and Britain might entertain the possibility that the war was 'unnecessary,' provided, of course, they were willing to cede Asia to Japan and Europe to Germany. For the other belligerents, war was unavoidable because they lay in the path of Japanese and German racial imperialism. Baker's second question — did the war help anyone who needed help? — is the most complex because it requires us to compare the very real evils caused by the war — extensively documented in 'Human Smoke' — with the evils that would have resulted had the Japanese and Germans been free to do what they wanted, as long as they wanted. Were the pacifists right to suppose that more harm was done resisting Hitler than in appeasing him? I continue to believe that the pacifists were wrong and that Churchill was right, but I would be prepared to listen to an argument for the other side. There is, however, no argument in this book; at best, there are pieces from which an argument might be constructed. These pieces come without context and, unless one already knows the story, are often difficult to understand. For instance, as Baker presents it, Neville Chamberlain's speech promising support to Poland seems merely bellicose if one doesn't already know that it was a reaction to Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia two weeks earlier, which had revealed the bankruptcy of the prime minister's policy of appeasement. In addition to its fragmentation, Baker's approach is curiously flat. Each piece seems more or less of equal interest and importance, each seems to have the same historical and moral weight. Among these pieces are some vivid and moving anecdotes, but their sum does not advance our ability either to understand or to evaluate the 20th century's most terrible and most significant events. James J. Sheehan teaches at Stanford University and is the author of 'Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Europe.'" Reviewed by James J. Sheehan, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[Baker's] selections contrast the inhumanity of the powerful with the heart-wrenching testimony of victims and survivors. Similar to but less noisy than John Dos Passos's U.S.A.: Selective, well-chosen fragments add up to a living history." Kirkus Reviews
"Beyond its profoundly revisionist central arguments, Human Smoke pioneers a fresh mode of serious nonfiction." Very Short List
"The cumulative effect of the detail is devastating....
"Absolutely fascinating, engrossing. I can't imagine anyone, no matter how knowledgeable about the period, who won't be astonished and moved while reading Human Smoke" Daniel Ellsberg, author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers
"Nicholson Baker movingly pierces the lies, hopes, fears, and myths we so easily imbibe on the road to war — painful reminders that what has happened in the past can happen again and again and again until we shake loose and react." Gar Alperovitz, Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy, University of Maryland, and author of The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb
"In Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker turns his unrivaled literary talents to pacifism. His portraits of Churchill's imperial arrogance, Franklin Roosevelt's anti-Semitism, the machinations of the arms merchants, the Germans' death wish, and the efforts of pacifists are unforgettable. Baker's book is truly original." Chalmers Johnson, president and co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute and author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic
"This quite extraordinary book — impossible to put down, impossible to forget — may be the most compelling argument for peace ever assembled. Nicholson Baker displays in astonishing, fascinating detail mankind's unstoppable descent into the madness of war — slowed only occasionally, but then invariably most movingly, by the still, small voices of the sane and the wise." Simon Winchester, author of The Man Who Loved China and The Professor and the Madman
"Read Human Smoke. It may be one of the most important books you will ever read. It could help the world to understand that there is no Just War, there is just war — and that wars are not caused by isolationists and peaceniks but by the promoters of warfare." Los Angeles Times
"[A] heavily researched, date-by-date chronology that concludes on New Year's Eve 1941, a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Events are allowed to speak for themselves, yet it is through the needle and thread of selection and omission that an agenda is sutured into historical narrative." Miamo Herald
From bestselling author Baker comes a highly researched and surprising new book about the decades preceding World War II. Human Smoke is a superbly assembled narrative that encompasses the vast political, social, religious, and economic landscapes throughout the world.
About the Author
Nicholson Baker has published seven novels and three works of nonfiction, including Double Fold, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001. He regularly contributes to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.
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