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Human Smoke

The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

By Nicholson Baker

A pastiche for peace.

Not only do most Americans perceive World War II as the "good" war, but they think of it as a war that they already understand, a conflict whose narrative can be known simply by growing up in our culture. Nicholson Baker challenges both assumptions in Human Smoke. Eschewing the bird's-eye view of many military histories as well as the personal narratives of many popular authors, Baker presents the war in a series of about 900 chronological short snippets, culled from newspapers, magazines, journals, speeches, diaries, and other documents, which conclude just after Pearl Harbor. What emerges from Baker's melange is highly debatable, but one thing is clear: in his snapshots of the warmongers (FDR and Churchill, for example), he presents a picture of war and wartime leaders that is premeditated and anything but glorious or grand.


Simon & Schuster. 576 pages. $30. ISBN: 1416567844

Los Angeles Times *****

"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." MARK KURLANSKY

Christian Science Monitor ****

"Whatever the drawbacks of [Baker's] method, it is hard to deny the power of Human Smoke. Especially at a moment when the US finds itself deep in a military engagement that many consider avoidable, it is hard not to be unsettled by the fragments reproduced in this book." MARJORIE KEHE

Miami Herald ***

"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. ... Even liberal-minded readers may shift uncomfortably at his use of juxtaposition to distribute blame between the Axis and the Allies." ARIEL GONZLAEZ

San Diego Union-Tribune ***

"Nicholson Baker's re-evaluation of the events that led to World War II is kaleidoscopic, pointillist shattering. Although obviously a man of pacifist leanings, the author has assembled a stunning catalog of human cruelty, weakness and folly; by the end, it seems preposterous even to imagine that such creatures could ever simply agree not to slaughter one another." ARTHUR SALM

Boston Globe **

"Baker's methodology is idiosyncratic--and infuriating. ... [His snapshot] approach allows him to endorse or excoriate--at least implicitly--without having to qualify or defend any assertions." GLENN C. ALTSCHULER

New York Times *

"World War II was a deeply unfortunate conflict in which many lives were lost. Mr. Baker is right about that, but not about much else in this self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book." WILLIAM GRIMES

Wall Street Journal *

"What is so distressing about this is that readers with limited knowledge of the war may accept Human Smoke, because Mr. Baker provides so little context along the way. ... Mr. Baker gives uncritical treatment to Western newspapers and Nazi press organs alike. ... The result is an often infuriating catalog of moral equivalency." TOM NAGORSKI


It's no surprise that a pacifist portrayal of World War II will invite controversy. Yet what really seemed to divide reviewers of Human Smoke was not Baker's dovishness but his devices: the many short anecdotes and quotations that comprise this book. This style, which allows readers to reach their own conclusions, won over some critics, even if they remained unconvinced by Baker's pacifism. Yet many others found the book's form an offense in itself, charging that Baker takes quotations out of context and disingenuously portrays Allied leaders as the equivalents of Hitler or Stalin. Other reviewers were confused rather than incensed by Baker's many snippets, suggesting that Human Smoke might not be the best book for someone just learning about the war, or even for someone looking for a pacifist take. Alternatively, one reviewer suggested Hiroshima by John Hersey or Stalingrad by Antony Beevor--books that describe how any war results in horrific acts of violence by both sides.

CITED BY THE CRITICS STALINGRAD: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 | ANTONY BEEVOR (1998): Beevor uses firsthand accounts from the Germans and Soviets, as well as archives and letters, to tell the story of Hitler's fateful decision to take the city of Stalingrad. After successfully moving through Russia in 1941, coming within 25 miles of Moscow, the Germany army stalled and was slowly wiped out outside Stalin's namesake city.




This Republic of Suffering

Death and the American Civil War

By Drew Gilpin Faust

Whispers of heavenly death.

Every American high school student has probably heard the statistics: more soldiers died in the Civil War than in all other U.S. wars combined, and more Americans died in one day at Antietam than have died in the entire Iraq War. Historian and Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust focuses entirely on the causes and consequences of this unimaginable loss of life in her new book on the war and its aftermath. Exploring the impact of such great mortality on everything from religion and ideas of the afterlife to death rituals and the role of the state in citizens' personal affairs, Faust crafts a narrative of the war perpendicular to the timeline on the wall of America's history classrooms. In so doing, she renders intelligible many of the deep feelings about the war that Americans profess but can never quite explain.


Knopf. 368 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 037540404X

NY Times Book Review *****

"[Faust] overlooks nothing--from the unsettling enthusiasm some men showed for killing to the near-universal struggle for an answer to the question posed by the Confederate poet Sidney Lanier: 'How does God have the heart to allow it?'" GEOFFREY C. WARD

Providence Journal *****

"The familiar--Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Ambrose Bierce--share the stage with the forgotten, whose voices Faust captured in her wide-ranging research. This Republic of Suffering is comprehensive, compassionate, and highly recommended." MARK DUNKELMAN

Rocky Mountain News *****

"So much has been written about the Civil War that it's a surprise to find a subject that hasn't been exhausted. This Republic of Suffering makes you think about the Civil War in a completely different way." DAN DANBOM

Christian Science Monitor ****

"[Faust] makes a convincing case that since the heartbreak of the Civil War the US has never been the same. ... But more poignantly, Faust argues, the Civil War raised questions about individual worth that we have yet to answer today." MARJORIE KEHE

Houston Chronicle ****

"This is an important book, one a nation at war should be aware of. Faust demonstrates how so much death impacts religion, philosophy and the national character, and can alter a civilization." CLAY REYNOLDS

Minneapolis Star Tribune ****

"In This Republic of Suffering, [Faust] not only has illuminated a neglected aspect of the great conflict with signature erudition, insight and grace, but in the process she has put to rest Walt Whitman's famous lament that the 'real war will never get in the books.'" MICHAEL J. BONAFELD


Those who fret over the state of American universities will embrace this history by Drew Gilpin Faust. Academics appreciate how Faust explains so many social and cultural changes by recentering the story of the war on its massive toll in lives: the estimated 2 percent who died, or 620,000, would be equivalent to 6 million today. She also breaks new ground by reexamining the relationship of the war to modern institutions like the welfare state. Yet Faust constructs This Republic of Suffering in a way that will appeal to every reader--from the Civil War buff to the casual nonfiction reader. Some critics were a little queasy about the book's level of detail, both in describing death and the lives of its victims. But as more than one reviewer pointed out, for a nation at war, such writing and such reading are a duty.
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Date:May 1, 2008
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