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Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization Hardcover – 6 May 2008

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd; 3rd Edition edition (6 May 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847372740
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847372741
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.2 x 4.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,077,279 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"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" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Nicholson Baker was born in 1957 and attended the Eastman School of Music and Haverford College. He is the author of several novels, including The Mezzanine, Vox and The Fermata, and four works of non fiction, U and I, The Size of Thoughts, Double Fold (winner of the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award), and Human Smoke. He lives in Maine. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on 1 May 2009
Format: Paperback
Baker is an American novelist who previously specialised in deliciously filthy books like "Vox" and "The Fermata", but here turns his hand to non-fiction, with a history of the 1930s and early 40s, showing the apparently inexorable drift towards totalitarianism and world war. It's a very easy read, eschewing the usual narrative in favour of two or three "soundbites" per page, each with a sort of "countdown clock" - "It was January 30th, 1933", "It was September 1st, 1939", and so on (to be honest, this device begins to get irritating after a while; a simple dateline would have sufficed).

He does make a number of irritating errors of detail (you can tell he's not a professional historian), and the events chosen are - by their very nature - selective. This tends to give a somewhat distorted view of events, and if you're not already familiar with the period you might find yourself thinking "Hang on - how did THAT suddenly happen?"

Perhaps we are supposed to be shocked to learn that Winston Churchill was a belligerent pragmatist, or that Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese in order to assure America's entry into the war. To anyone who has studied this period at all this is hardly news.

As to Mr Baker's avowal that the American pacificts and anti-interventionists "were right", you must make up your own mind.

Despite these reservations, the book still has a "page turner" effect, with much food for thought for the international realpolitik of the present day.

Worth reading, but not the full picture, not by a long way.
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Format: Paperback
This book's power rests in its ability to give a voice to some of the millions of individuals who experienced indescribable suffering during World War II. It is a plea for--and by--humanity. For this, honor is due the man who compiled and edited it, Nicholson Baker.

The book consists of a series of such statements by individuals which are contrasted with the statements and bloodthirsty wishes of those who planned and implemented the mass murder of people, whether through the gassing, shooting and bombing of millions by the German Nazis and their confederates or through the criminal and militarily pointless fire-bombing of numerous civilian cities by the Allies.

Unfortunately, by not telling at least part of the fuller life story of any of the dozens of people it quotes, this book at times feels voyeuristic in its descriptions of human suffering and of human evil. Particularly of human suffering.

Nicholson Baker, as well, is somewhat disingenuous in that he never addresses the question of how Nazi Germany could have been stopped in its destructive and genocidal course once it had begun to invade other countries (after already having commenced its enslavement and killing of Jewish people and others within its own borders).

While most people now would hopefully agree that it is a war crime to bomb and kill civilians (would they?), there was clearly no alternative course of action in the 1940s apart from either fighting the Nazi German regime militarily or accepting its genocidal occupation and rule over Europe, a rule which might well have lasted for generations and whose murderous goals would have been fully achieved within ten years.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
One thing to make clear, this isn't prose as I first thought. This is a huge collection of quotes that tells a story from 1919 up to the main fighting of WW2. It provides very interesting points, provoking internal debates on different perspectives of the war. While I disagree with Baker on the expressed opinion, I cannot be sure how much of the disagreement is because of how revolutionary his ideas are. Worth a read.
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Cunliffe TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 8 Sept. 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Human Smoke attracted a great deal of interest when it was published earlier this year, with controversy in abundance. In essence, the book is seen by many as pacifist, and appears to present both sides in the Second World War as having a moral equivalence, holding equal disdain for the human cost of the terrible conflict they provoked.

The book consists of a compilation of hundreds of first-hand quotations, extracts from papers and articles, accounts of conversations, diary extracts and numerous other detailed sources. These all appear in sequential order and provide a day by day account of the development of the war from the perspective of various world nations. These appear at first to be largely unedited, in "raw" form, but of course, the selection was made by Nicholson Baker, and we read nothing in the book about his selection criteria.

However, it soon becomes apparent that one of his objectives is to show the huge resistance to joining in the conflict, particularly in America, and how this resistance was eventually suppressed. Baker shows that there was a huge concern for European Jewry and the starving people of Europe, with Americans digging deep into their pockets to support relief operations. However, there was strong governmental and labour movement resistance to changing immigration quotas to allow more Jews to escape to America from German persecution. Baker quotes the example of one family who eventually managed to enter America after travelling from Berlin via Moscow, Japan, Costa Rica, Panama and Chile. They were the lucky ones, others of their ilk being deported from Germany to entirely infeasible destinations where they were to perish as stateless persons.
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