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Editorial Reviews

At the beginning of this production, with its squibs of historical memorabilia, vignettes, diary entries, speech fragments, and the like, one worries that 14 hours of the same might be too much. But soon the shape of Baker's narrative emerges. Drawing mainly on material from the 1930s and '40s, he gives listeners a fresh look at "the good war" and the Holocaust. We hear comments from sources as diverse as Gandhi, Himmler's masseuse, ghetto occupants, and Roosevelt, who, along with Churchill, doesn't come off too well with respect to the events that took place. Norman Dietz doesn't imitate any of the well-known voices. Instead he lets the momentum build naturally, sometimes horrifyingly, sometimes poignantly, until the impact is stronger than it might even be in print.

Publisher's Summary

Human Smoke delivers a closely textured, deeply moving indictment of the treasured myths that have romanticized much of the 1930s and '40s. Incorporating meticulous research and well-documented sources---including newspaper and magazine articles, radio speeches, memoirs, and diaries---the book juxtaposes hundreds of interrelated moments of decision, brutality, suffering, and mercy. Vivid glimpses of political leaders and their dissenters illuminate and examine the gradual, horrifying advance toward overt global war and Holocaust.

Praised by critics and readers alike for his exquisitely observant eye and deft, inimitable prose, Baker has assembled a narrative within Human Smoke that unfolds gracefully, tragically, and persuasively. This is an unforgettable book that makes a profound impact on our perceptions of historical events and mourns the unthinkable loss humanity has borne at its own hand.

©2008 Nicholson Baker; (P)2008 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"Serious and conscientious.... An eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified." (The New York Times)
"This quite extraordinary book---impossible to put down, impossible to forget---may be the most compelling argument for peace ever assembled." (Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman)

What members say

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  • Overall
  • Roy
  • Beaumont, TX, United States
  • 02-20-09

Not a "History Book" per se

This is a well read, informative book about WWII and related events. It is not a history book so much as a series of stories and anecdotes bringing the era to life. If you are interested in the flow of events moving to WWII, but don't like typical "history" this book might be for you.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

A great book

This book was mind boggling and beautifully read...

Althoguh not a history bookin the classic sense, it is a must read to understand the insanity of war...

One of the best audio books that I have enjoyed!!

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Surprisingly Good

I only bought this because it was on sale for less than 5 bucks. Otherwise I would have passed on it. I know Baker's fiction and appreciate its innovative qualities, but I was skeptical of his competence as an historian. I was also familiar with his reputation as a pacifist, and Hitler always seems to stump pacifists. But Baker is thoughtful and original. He certainly makes no apologies for Hitler, or Stalin, for that matter, but what he implies with this chronologically arranged string of historical nuggets is that since the end of WW1 the whole world, not just the Axis Powers, was preparing for and relentlessly hurtling toward war, in spite of what might be appearances to the contrary. The thrust of the book moves in defiance of pretty much all of the conventional wisdom on WW2. He can't be pigeonholed as a Howard Zinn leftist or a Pat Buchanan "unnecessary war" rightist. Rather than try to create a grand explanatory, ideological narrative, he presents us with an interesting array of factoids, anecdotes, and micro-histories, the significance of which we are left to interpret on our own.

Don't read this as a work of conventional, scholarly work of history. Read it as an exemplar of experimental creative nonfiction.

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Misses the point

I hate war too. But baker bends too far over backward in damning churchill (and FDR). No "peace" would have stopped Hitlers genocidal war, it would just have given the Nazis more time.
But the source material is useful. And surely the Allies were lacking in critical ways, but not because they did not take up Hitler's hypocritical offers of compromise.
Other books do a better job of showing this.

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  • Heidi
  • Arlington, VA, United States
  • 02-23-12

Disappointing for Baker fans and historians

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.

2 of 4 people found this review helpful