The spring installment of the National Book Critics Circle’s Good Reads list is out and, once again, neither of the books I voted for made the top five. For the first time, though, I’ve read books that made the top 10 in both the fiction and nonfiction lists, even reading the top vote-getter in nonfiction.
Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization was the No. 1 book in nonfiction. Baker’s book is an atypical look at World War II. Not only does it advocate the pacifist view, it raises the question of whether our “white hats” were all that white. Part of Baker’s problem, though, is that by challenging traditional views in asking if the Allies really held a moral high ground over Germany and Japan, he can be viewed as winking at Nazism or being indifferent to the Holocaust. (Although the book reinforces that the U.S. and Great Britain were themselves fairly indifferent to the plight of European Jews before and during the war.)
I actually thought about casting my vote for Human Smoke. I didn’t because of the issue I struggled with in reading it — a feeling some of the statements and quotes Baker cites were not necessarily in context. Still, I can understand why it might reach the top of the list.
His Illegal Self by Peter Carey was the only work I’d read of the top 10 fiction selections. It tied with six others for fourth in the voting. I have to say, though, that it wouldn’t have come close to being in my top five. His Illegal Self tells the story of a young boy who is the son of 1960s radicals who have gone underground. A visit from the woman he believes to be his mother leads to the two of them going to ground in Australia. Despite the praise it has gathered in the mainstream reviews, I found it inconsistent and ultimately unsatisfying.
Given that the books I voted for again didn’t come close to the top 10, it seems fairly clear that if and when the book I vote for finishes at the top of one of these lists, it’s gotta be one helluva book.
I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.
Winston Churchill, quoted in Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke