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Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II,…

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008)

by Nicholson Baker

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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
GoodReads keeps eating my review (including one several paragraphs long). The book is very good. GoodReads is being an asshole. ( )
1 vote gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
Written in a different style, but an important work in understanding the degradation of human decision making during WWII. ( )
  Jacobflaws | Jan 20, 2015 |
This chronological collection of anecdotes documenting the lead-up into WWII adds up to a profound argument for pacifism. What emerges is not a Good War of Allies vs Axis but rather a global tragedy brought about by warmongers on all sides--Hitler's crazed aggression is joined by the distressingly Cheneyesque lies and manipulations of Churchill and even FDR.

There's the failure of the allies to allow more Jewish emigration out of Germany before it was too late, the multi-year British naval blockade to starve Germany and then occupied Europe, the American naval oil embargo on Japan and military collaboration with Japan's enemy China, FDR's decision to leave the entire American fleet holed up at Pearl Harbor despite numerous warnings that a Japanese attack was inevitable, and much more. There are also sane and reasonable pacifist voices, notably Gandhi, the American congresswoman Jeannette Rankin and numerous relief societies--even Herbert Hoover, who argued against the food embargos, sounds a note of humanity.

My one gripe is that the book wholly consists of discrete chunks, usually just a paragraph or so long, which are separated by far too much white space--probably half the paper surface in the paperback edition is blank. Seems like a waste and making the book about 40% bigger and heavier than it need be. ( )
  AThurman | Dec 7, 2014 |
I didn't finish this. Sometimes the length of time the public library allots me to read a book is not enough. This is when I miss working at a public library and never having a due date, never having to pay fines. Anyway, the book was good, what I read of it. It's organized into little vignettes, bite-sized chunks of primary source history carefully organized to provide a plot line, one which confirms that people have been generally up to no good for much, much longer than I can remember. File under "books that reduce your faith in humanity," a category of which I personally need to stay the hell away from. ( )
1 vote S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
The subtitle for this book is "The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization." I love it when "they" keep subtitles simple, without overstating their case. The first part of the subtitle meant that I wasn't surprised when the book left off at the end of 1941, after World War II had been thoroughly begun, but before things got completely underway in involving the entire world. The second part is a little more problematic, since really it seems that from some of the evidence presented, civilization had ended before the war even started.

The format of the book was to give information and excerpts from a contemporary source, and then to give the date on which those events occurred or opinions were expressed. I imagine that's repetitive on the page, but in audio format, it also reminded me a bit of the "you are there" series of historical reenactments on TV. (Aside: I don't know when or where those actually aired; we only saw them in my 7th grade history class, but boy were they corny.) The through-lines of the information presented were these: 1. Nobody, including the governments of the US and the UK, were fans of Jews, and they weren't too shy to say it, at least in some contexts. 2. Hitler seemed like a weirdo, but the rest of the world tried to pull some sort of self-esteem-building, parental thing on him and just say publicly that they were sure he'd get a handle on things and stop beating up his own citizens soon. 3. The US (FDR, really) was spoiling for a fight with Japan, and essentially baited the hook of Pearl Harbor with the US Navy.

And here's a bonus thing I learned: Bombing things was a lot harder than you might think, particularly if you were trying at all to bomb the right things. On the other hand, that ultimately meant that you could make a lot of "mistakes." This was certainly a different perspective on things; whether the picture painted from various sources was entirely accurate, I'll leave for someone else to decide. I take everything I read with a grain of salt, and this is no exception. I will say that whatever interest the material provided was in spite of the format. I can't imagine many more tedious ways to write a book than "X diarist wrote Y about Germany. It was July 3, 1937. President Roosevelt said Z to the American people. It was August 7, 1940. Person A saw planes fly overhead blah blah blah. It was still August 7, 1940." With the right narrator (Ben Stein?), this could put you to sleep in record time. ( )
  ursula | Mar 25, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
Was Sir Winston Churchill an oafish, bloodthirsty, sadistic, hypocritical, anti-Semitic alcoholic? The American novelist Nicholson Baker—whose previous works have been about phone sex and masturbation—certainly seems to think so, for Human Smoke is intended as nonfiction.

The book has been lauded by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibin in a New York Times review—“riveting and fascinating”—and even the normally sane Simon Winchester has described it as “a quite extraordinary book—impossible to put down, impossible to forget.” Yet once one works out the sly techniques by which the author tries to persuade the reader that Churchill was a foul warmonger, the book is anything but. It uses the technique of juxtaposing bald quotations, ripped out of context, to try to place Churchill on the same moral plane as Adolf Hitler. . . .

A curious torpor overcomes this reader about half way through this book, due to the sheer inexorability of the bias; if it had been more nuanced, better researched, or more intelligent, then interest might have been sustained, but no. Sometimes the sheer ignorance of some of Baker’s statements reignites interest: “If Hitler moved East, England would have no war to fight.” The author clearly believes that Britain should have accepted Hitler’s offer of peace with Britain in August 1940, not realizing that it was an obvious trap designed to facilitate his coming invasion of the USSR, for which he was contemporaneously ordering his senior Wehrmacht Staff to plan.

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that Baker would have done better to stick to phone sex and masturbation rather than to undertake this foray into nonfiction. The book ends in December 1941, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor as a result of President Roosevelt’s supposed “provocations” of Tokyo. Needless to say Baker concentrates . . . on the “dozens” of Honolulu civilians who fell victim to “misfiring American anti-aircraft shells”.
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This wide-ranging, fresh perspective on the political and social landscape that gave rise to World War II delivers a moving indictment of the treasured myths that have romanticized much of the 1930s and 1940s. 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 the gradual, horrifying advance toward global war and holocaust. Baker's narrative unfolds gracefully, tragically, and persuasively, leaving a profound impact on our perceptions of historical events and mourning the unthinkable loss humanity has borne at its own hand.--From publisher description.… (more)

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