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A-Human SmokeNot 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 mélange 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 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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 3 of 5 Stars
"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 3 of 5 Stars
"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 1.5 of 5 Stars
"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 0.5 of 5 Stars
"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 0.5 of 5 Stars
"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

Critical Summary

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.