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March 25, 2008



Not sure if you knew, but William Grimes reviewed Human Smoke for the daily NY Times several days prior to Toibin's article. Grimes didn't really review the quality of the book as much as the quality of what he perceived its argument to be, and he slammed that.

As for why Baker used a literary form, I think it's simply because he's a literary writer. I don't believe the book makes any pretense of being a comprehensive history or political analysis. Like the rest of his work, it's really an essay on his own thought process.

Brendan Wolfe

I did read Grimes' review, and you're right, he slammed the book. His piece bothered me, though, because it seemed to start with the premise that Baker was wrong. Well, okay. He may be wrong, but if you start with that premise, you're not really reviewing the book. Even worse was the New York Sun review in which Adam Kirsch writes the following:

"Mr. Baker's ignorance, however, is much more disgraceful than the ignorance he seeks to combat -- first, because he presents it as knowledge, and second, because World War II was, in fact, if not simply a good war, then an absolutely necessary one. In arguing the contrary, Mr. Baker is trying to convince his reader that false is true, and at times even that good is evil."

Complete hogwash -- and I say that despite my tendency to subscribe to Kirsch and Grimes' view of the war.

I haven't read the book, so I can't speak to whether it makes any pretense of being a political analysis. But read Amazon.com's interview with Baker. If his book does not succumb to such pretensions, HE certainly does.

For instance, he justifiably rails against our simplistic representations of the war and then says this:

"If we don't try to understand this one war better -- understand it not in the sense of coming up with elaborate mechanistic theories of causation, but understand it in the humbler sense of feeling our way through its enormity -- then cartoon versions of what happened will continue to distort debates about the merits of all future wars."

His argument, as he presents it in this interview at least, is clearly historical and clearly political. "[A]n essay on his own thought process," as you put it, is not adequate to his own ambitions.

And it's curious to see that word "feeling." Perhaps I wasn't so out of left field (my own critique) in thinking that's what was going on here.

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