Monday, March 24, 2008

Briefly Noted

I haven't yet read Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Simon & Schuster, 2008), but it certainly has gotten a lot of attention, including the cover of yesterday's New York Times Book Review (March 23, 2008). Baker's theory seems to be that there is a equivalency between the actions and attitudes of Germany, Great Britain and the United States that makes each of them morally responsible for the events of World War II. I have a difficult time buying that premise--the "moral equivalency" part--and it isn't entirely clear what role Baker assigns to Stalin and the Japanese leadership,--but the book does sound interesting, particularly Baker's method.

Colm Toibin writes:

There is, it seems at first, a sort of madness in [Baker's] method. He does not offer a straightforward narrative as a historian or a polemicist might do, but instead his book is made up of a set of vignettes, each containing a fact or a quotation from one of the main participants, or from someone who kept a diary. Most vignettes carry a date. Sometimes these entries come three to a page, sometimes they are slightly longer. Slowly, as you read, because of the variety in the tone and the shocking or tragic nature of the quotation, and because of how well chosen they are, “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization” becomes riveting and fascinating. It is as though a brilliant film editor, with an urgent argument to make, began to work with gripping newsreels.

The main figures in the book are Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt; members of the pacifist movement including Gandhi; Hitler and his entourage; and diarists like Victor Klemperer in Dresden and Mihail Sebastian in Bucharest. But sometimes it is the simple stark fact that makes you sit up straight for a moment, like this one from early in the book: “The Royal Air Force dropped more than 150 tons of bombs on India. It was 1925.” This, coming soon after an account of the proposed bombing of civilian targets in Iraq in 1920 (with Churchill writing: “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes”), sets a theme for the book, which Baker will skillfully weave into the fabric of events mainly between 1920 and 1942 — that the bombing of villages and cities from the air represents “the end of civilization.”

Also noted in yesterday's Book Review was Samantha Hunt's novel about Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008). Reviewer Louisa Thomas writes that the book "fairly pulses with life."

Congratulations to Samantha.


Blogger Collin said...

Nicholson Baker is, to me, the Oliver Stone of literature. He has made a career out of throwing curve balls at both fiction and non-fiction. His third book of fiction, Vox, was controversial for its graphic phone sex scene, while The Fermata took sex to a whole other place. The character having sex in the back of a UPS truck remains with me today. Checkpoint caused a big stir as it's an imaginary conversation between two old friends, one who is planning to assassinate Bush. I saw the write up on Human Smoke yesterday in the Book Review and plan to pick it up.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Leslie said...

He pretty much had me at the title.

8:29 PM  

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