Books June 2008
Up in smoke
On Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker.
Was Sir Winston Churchill an oafish, bloodthirsty, sadistic, hypocritical, anti-Semitic alcoholic? The American novelist Nicholson Baker—whose previous works have been about phone sex and masturbation—certainly seems to think so, for Human Smoke is intended as nonfiction.
The book has been lauded by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibin in a New York Times review—“riveting and fascinating”—and even the normally sane Simon Winchester has described it as “a quite extraordinary book—impossible to put down, impossible to forget.” Yet once one works out the sly techniques by which the author tries to persuade the reader that Churchill was a foul warmonger, the book is anything but. It uses the technique of juxtaposing bald quotations, ripped out of context, to try to place Churchill on the same moral plane as Adolf Hitler.
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