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Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker has spent much of his writing career exploring any scene down to its most minute details so that when they are added together they capture the fabric of a life. With Human Smoke, he steps up this process to explain the path to World War II, the brutality of its participants, and the mistakes he believes world leaders, especially Winston Churchill, made along the way. The entire book is a chronicle of vignettes from newspaper and magazine articles, radio speeches, memoirs, and diaries, most of them less then a page long. Together they paint a portrait of a series of events that led to a war that Nicholson Baker, a pacifist, thought might have been avoidable. Human Smoke has received mixed reviews with the Chicago Sun-Times saying, "Still, as much as I found myself disagreeing with Human Smoke, even despising it in parts, I'm glad I stuck with this odd moral shell game of a book. Parts of it read like history as it would have been written by the Nazis had they won the war. But it also takes a nightmare that we are too familiar with, all too comfortable with, and retells it afresh, poking and prodding us, challenging our self-assigned sense of goodness, and ultimately keening at the charnel house that Europe became for six horrible years in the middle of the 20th century."