It is possible that Human Smoke will infuriate those who believe that Churchill was a hero and that war, in all its viciousness, is often the only way to defeat those who declare or threaten war. Human Smoke will not be admired by those who argue that methods used to win a war may seem, especially to novelists writing more than 60 years later, impossible to justify. Nonetheless, the issues Baker wishes to raise, and the stark system he has used to dramatize his point, make his book a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism. He has produced an eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified.
The New York Times
"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 2007 Reed Business Information
This book starts in 1892, with explosions manufacturer Alfred Nobel's observation that his factories might "put an end to war" by making it too horrible to wage, and ends on December 31, 1941, with the civilized world enmeshed for the second time in half a century in a life-and-death struggle that would last four more years and kill more people-civilians and combatants-than any other war before or since. Acclaimed author Baker (Double Fold) has made a career of focusing on detail in both his fiction and his nonfiction, a preference that works to effect in this bombshell of a book. In this litany of examples of aggression, inhumanity, and self-deception, Baker's entries typically run a paragraph or two. He seldom editorializes. The cumulative effect of the detail is devastating: it's like a particularly unsettling nightmare, a treadmill you can't get off. You may not agree with Baker that counteraggression doesn't stop aggression ("Churchill ...was wrong") but instead escalates it, with rationality and humanity among its first casualties. But this thought-provoking book may make you reconsider your views on the necessity and efficacy of war. Warmly recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/15/07.]
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A catalog of primary sources creatively fashioned by novelist and National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Baker (Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, 2001, etc.) tells the grim story of the making of two world wars. Using period sources such as newspaper articles, excerpts from speeches and diaries and congressional testimony, Baker presents an in-the-moment reenactment of 20th-century world events. He begins in 1914 with Austrian writer Stefan Zweig's alarm at observing a French movie crowd's angry reaction to seeing Wilhelm II on the newsreel ("how easily people anywhere could be aroused in a time of a crisis") and ends poignantly with Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian's diary entry from Bucharest at the close of the "dreadful year" 1941: "We are still alive. We can still wait for something." Baker's chronological collage juxtaposes official government maneuvers by Churchill or Roosevelt with antiwar activity such as U.S. Representative Jeannette Rankin's vote against declaring war on Germany in 1917 ("I felt . . . that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it"). Eloquent quotes from Gandhi reflect momentous events in India; bombastic speeches by Hitler and Goebbels chronicle the Nazi seizure of power in Germany; evasive utterances by Roosevelt finesse the issue of raising Jewish immigration quotas on the eve of World War II. The mostly brief, descriptive fragments delineate, for example, Charles Lindbergh's perplexity at Germany's "Jewish problem," while eyewitnesses describe the bombing of Guernica, Shanghai and Coventry. Baker reveals a weighty pacifist presence and moral outcry against oppression of the Jews in Europe, whileauthorities hurtled toward a military solution. His 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. Agent: Melanie Jackson/Melanie Jackson Agency
"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