I count myself among Baker's biggest fans. I find both his fiction and non-fiction smart and funny. However, Human Smoke was neither in the funny camp nor in the smart camp.
There is no question that Baker did a tremendous amount of research, and, true to his nature, he went after the juciest of details--the way Roosevelt stood, or how Hitler was dressed in certain important events. In that way, certainly, some scenes came alive.
Baker's perspective, on the surface, was journalistic. His aim appeared to be to reporting "just the facts, ma'am." However, by so drawing such a clear pictured of the anti-semitic milieu in the U.S. in the late 30's (leading up to the second World War), which is a topic that is sometimes expunged from the discussion, he does take a position. At the same time, he spends much of his time talking about the anti-war effort in the U.S. before the war, which is to take a position as well.
His ideological perspectives didn't bother me, then; both interested me. It was simply that there was no analysis of the events. Here's the pattern of much of the reporting:
Mrs. X of anti-war group y protested with 56 people in Times Square. It was November 1939.
And then he would move on to the next topic.
That kind of laundry list approach made the book feel less like the work of a journalist or a historian and more like a the book report of a student who flipped through books and jotted down the facts he saw without considering their meaning.
I'm truly disapointed with such work from such a fine, capable writer.
This is is a very scholarly book. It reads a little bit like a scholarly project (maybe a dissertation?) converted to a commercial book. It has some of the case studies that are fascinating analyses of sociopaths that you think you are going to get when you buy this book. Then several chapters between each of the case studies are scholarly discussions about the topic. Some of them are quite interesting, particularly at the beginning, when the author lays out the general ideas about sociopathy. Later on, though, chapters are belabored and difficult, like one on genetics.
Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention the reader's nasal, whining, annoying, voice. Frankly, there were times when I did not think I could finish the book because of it.
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