Book of the week
Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
by Nicholson Baker
(Simon & Schuster, $30)
Franklin Roosevelt baited Japan into war, reports the critic and novelist Nicholson Baker. Winston Churchill, in the eyes of a rival European leader, was a man who “walks over dead bodies” to satisfy his “blind” ambition. Both Allied leaders also exhibited strongly anti-Semitic habits of mind. But the most tragic legacy of their wartime partnership, says Baker, may have been a capacity to view the bombing of civilian populations as “a way of enlightening city dwellers” in Germany and, later, in Japan, by killing them. Though World War II has often been called “the good war,” that claim needs to be re-examined. “Did waging it help anyone who needed help?”
Human Smoke is an “often infuriating” book, said Tom Nagorski in The Wall Street Journal. Baker almost never expresses his arguments directly. Instead, his account of the buildup to the war is delivered in nearly 1,000 anecdotal snapshots that together “stack the deck” against conventional wisdom about the righteousness of the Anglo-American response to Nazi Germany and its allies. Baker isn’t trafficking in mere conjecture, though, said Mark Kurlansky in the Los Angeles Times. It’s only because the selling of the war was “one of the biggest, most carefully plotted lies in history” that we forget how Britain and the U.S. helped arm Hitler during the 1930s when they should have been aiding German moderates. Baker’s larger point seems to be that wars aren’t born of appeasement; they’re sired by the industries and governments that promote war. Because Human Smoke conveys this idea with unusual visceral force, it “may be one of the most important books you will ever read.”
That bold assessment reveals Human Smoke to be “not just a stupid book but a scary one,” said Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun. Baker pretends to objectivity, but he omits facts and shuffles sequences at whim. Shockingly, the expert he cites when characterizing Churchill’s bloodlust is none other than Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Baker’s title itself demolishes his credibility, said William Grimes in The New York Times. The phrase “human smoke” immediately calls to mind the “prisoners of Belsen, Dachau, and Buchenwald.” Baker’s deepest sympathies clearly lie with Hitler’s millions of victims, but he never bothers to tell us “how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms.”
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America
by David Hajdu
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26)
A single drawing of a woman’s severed head all but destroyed the comic-book industry half a century ago. The ghastly image appeared on the cover of a 1954 crime comic, and when a U.S. senator held the offending periodical aloft during televised hearings that year, its publisher argued weakly that the artwork exhibited tasteful restraint. Sure, the ax used by the killer was blackened by gore. But a truly irresponsible outfit, he said, would have shown the open neck wound instead of hiding it from the viewer’s gaze. The nation was unimpressed. Comic books were burned across the land and more than 100 state and local restrictions on their distribution became law. By 1956, more than half the industry’s business had disappeared.
The “parent-baiting” comics targeted by the crackdown prefigured what would become the “defiant youth-oriented culture” of the next decade and beyond, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. David Hajdu’s “incisive and entertaining” account of their rise and fall doesn’t defend the excesses of the crime and horror genres. He “positions the drive to clean up comics as a response to larger fears” about the future of a planet that soon enough would be handing its nuclear weapons over to a generation of juvenile delinquents. Hajdu has included more insider history “than most readers will want to follow,” said Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly. But his “smart, sobering” look at one “long-forgotten skirmish” highlights the black comedy of the culture wars we’re still fighting today.
The Ten-Cent Plague delivers less than it promises, though, said Craig Seligman in Bloomberg.com. Despite its subtitle, “there’s very little” analysis inside about how the war on comics “changed America.” By all appearances, the America that imagined a link between comics and juvenile delinquency “was pretty much the same dumb, scared America before the bonfires and after.” Hajdu also ducks the most “ticklish” questions raised by the story he tells, said Daniel Akst in The Boston Globe. “What, for example, is the proper response of society to junk culture aimed at kids?” Censorship is a dirty word, but there has to be some middle ground established between cultural witch hunts and “the screening of snuff films in nursery schools.”