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Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization [Paperback]

Nicholson Baker
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 3 2009
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.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

"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. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"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

"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

"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 cofounder of the Japan Policy Research Institute and author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic

"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

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Customer Reviews

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting, Moving, Thought Provoking Sept. 9 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In Human Smoke Nicholson Baker takes a fresh look at the vast set of interconnected events that was World War II. He does so by making a kind of collage of contemporary articles, diary excerpts and other quotations, some of which are startling or even shocking today.

These artfully arranged fragments reveal the thoughts of persons both famous and obscure. They are shards of an enormous image that no one at the time could see, and that no one can ever entirely take in. Some shed an unappealing light on leaders of the Allied nations.

Of course, the chosen vignettes do not tell the whole story, nor are they supposed to. They are like flashes in the dark, illuminating the moral complexity and numbing confusion in which participants groped their way forward.

Certain critics have complained that Baker is a '"revisionist"' or that in his selections he tries to '"equate"' leaders like Hitler and Goebbels with Churchill and Roosevelt. That is an obtuse complaint: the author enriches our understanding of these human beings by showing various aspects of their characters. He does not want to revise the simple story (suitable for four year olds, perhaps) of "'Hitler bad, Churchill and Roosevelt good"' by replacing it with the equally childish '"Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt all bad'". Nowhere does he suggest that there is nothing to choose between Nazi crimes and the actions of the Allies. Nor is he an uncritical admirer of Gandhi, as is sometimes suggested, though he admires many of Gandhi''s actions.

Baker may be wrong about some things.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Jan. 29 2012
An excellent read, esp to give some persepctive to various issues surrounding the war. I've read a ton of WWII books, and this one is definitely unique, and worthwhile looking at.
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Revisionist history? Jan. 3 2009
By J. C. Mareschal TOP 1000 REVIEWER
This book is a collage of very short news items, declarations, and interviews, starting in August 1892 and ending in December 1941 when the US went officially to war with Germany, more exactly when Germany declared war on the United States. This compilation, which describes the events that preceded the US entry in the war, makes very easy reading. The careful selection of the events and declarations has a definite purpose, to lead us to share the author's conclusion "American pacifists 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."

It is difficult to have much sympathy for such "revisionist" version of the "beginnings" of WWII. In December 1941, the war was already happening with extreme brutality in Europe. Many more people were to die between December 1941 and May 1945, but the Nazis did not wait for the US to be drawn in the war to engage in mass murder in Eastern Europe and Russia, as suggested.

WW II was an unprecedented tragedy in human history. It left more than 50 million dead, Europe ruined and near starvation. Very few historians and political leaders in Europe today, including in Germany, question that war against Nazism was necessary. The book challenges the dominant view about WW II and the US involvement in the war. However useful it might be to question history, I found reading this book to be very frustrating and annoying. There is confusion between two questions: the necessity of the war, and the means to fight the war against Hitler. Was the war against Germany necessary? Were the blockade of occupied Europe and strategic bombing of Germany necessary? There is an obvious bias in this book.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No such thing as "a good war" March 24 2009
Nicholson Baker's unique and profound examination of the barbarous run-up to global cataclysm exposes how capitalism and militarism united to create a universal tragedy. He shows conclusively that there is no such thing as "a good war."
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The worst case for pacifism May 5 2010
By Prairie Pal TOP 500 REVIEWER
You can't tell a book by its cover. That is certainly true in this case where the cover of 'Human Smoke' is filled with the most extravagant praise. 'The most compelling argument for peace ever assembled', says popular historian Simon Winchester. 'Absolutely fascinating, engrossing', says Daniel Ellsberg, anti-Vietnam war activist. 'Meticulously researched and well-constructed', says someone named Mark Kurlansky.

If I were to do a cover blurb for 'Human Smoke' it would read: 'Infuriating ... shallow ... juvenile.' This book makes the worst possible case for pacifism and sets the anti-war cause back by its very appearance.

Nicholson Barker has assembled out of newspaper clippings and other long-published sources (so much for 'meticulously researched') an indictment of both Allied and Nazi actions early in World War II. Since the Nazis are no long around to hear his accusations, his real target is clearly those in the West who supported war against Hitler's crowd and the Japanese empire. This amounts to an argument of moral equivalency, unsurprising coming from a pacifist for whom all war is abhorrent. Hitler was bad, Churchill was bad, Hirohito was bad, Roosevelt was bad, Gandhi was good.

The irony, of course, is that had Mr Barker's and Gandhi's advice been heeded in 1939-41, evil would have triumphed and advocates of pacifism would have been among the first to the crematoria or slave-labour camps. The luxury of attacking defenders of democracy can only occur when other, and better, men have died to protect that freedom of speech.
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