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.
It was His vignettes about the treatment of the Jewish population, the deportations and the planned mass murders, are just as carefully chosen, with the same amount of barely contained anger in them as his pieces about what was done to the civilians of Germany and to the civilians of Britain by bombers.
It seems that he wishes to stir up an argument as much as settle one. Churchill emerges here as a most fascinating figure — impetuous, childish, bloodthirsty, fearless, insomniac, bookish, bullying, determined, to name just some of his characteristics. Baker knows he is preaching to readers who already believe that the Nazis were evil, and that the German war machine, including the blitz, was, to say the least, conducted with ruthless carelessness for human life, and that many ordinary Germans were implicated in the Holocaust.
For in drawing our attention to the minutiae of WWII—the minutiae of everyday people within the gears of history—he reminds us to pay closer attention to the present day. At several points in the book, the little packets of history Baker provides seem like glosses on contemporary events. So, thematically speaking, it makes sense that Baker has arrived here, but what about stylistically? His most successful novels— The Mezzanine and Room Temperature —are not actually plotless.
I will tolerate no opposition. Goebbels described Erich Maria Remarque as a "slicked-over fashionmonkey. A curious torpor overcomes this reader about half way through this book, due to the sheer inexorability of the bias; if it had been more nuanced, better researched, or more intelligent, then interest might have been sustained, but no. Mohandas Gandhi walked to the ocean with his followers. Get a FREE e-book by joining our mailing list today! Amazon Kindle 0 editions.
They have stories swirling overhead, but what makes them unique is how Baker picks one moment within the story on which to focus, a moment that then radiates, illuminating the larger life. Human Smoke also picks stories out of crevices, these unknown forgotten stories, the ones that are arguably the most illuminating, while the big wide histories of WWII and our collective memory of WWII swirl overhead.
Though not wholly successful as a history, the book does raise a few important questions, among them, What exactly is a good war? One of the most provocative threads in the book is the mapping of various pacifists and how they reacted to the war. Sufferers need not see the result in their lifetime.
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I found myself sprinting to the defense of the concept of self-preservation, through violence if need be. See full terms and conditions and this month's choices. Tell us what you like and we'll recommend books you'll love.
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About The Author. Elias Baker.
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