THE BLOG
02/18/2014 03:54 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

Human Smoke and Nazis: The Good, the Bad and the Annoying

It's July 16, 1941. A Nazi SS administrator sends a memo to Adolph Eichmann about Jews in Poland: "There is an imminent danger that not all the Jews can be supplied with food in the coming winter. We must seriously consider if it would not be more humane to finish off the Jews....with some quick-acting means. That would be more agreeable than to let them die of hunger." That "agreeable" solution turns into the final solution.

This bit of twisted empathy is just one of the many, many moments to be heard or read in Nicholson Baker's historical grab bag called Human Smoke, The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. And yes, the smoke does refer to Nazi smoke stacks when humans were burned.

Apparently, the Nazis are here -- again. It's almost 70 years since their big hit, World War II, and we just can't seem to get enough of the people Mel Brooks turned into wacky barbarians in The Producers and To Be Or Not To Be. Cultural anthropologists might well tag us for having a Nazi fixation.

Look around. Did you see the recent news story about Alfred Rosenberg's lost diary? Rosenberg was the Nazi party's chief ideologue and Hitler's close adviser. Front-page story across America.

You certainly can't miss the ads for George Clooney's movie, The Monuments Men, all about recovering stolen art from the brutal Huns. Or Claude Landsmann's current Last of the Just, his follow-up to the devastating Holocaust film SHOAH.

Input "Nazis" in Amazon Books and you get 18,306 titles, which includes all 12 of Alan Furst's WWII novels.

Which brings us back to the current Nazi audiobook and print offering, Human Smoke. We call it the good war and for some, it certainly was good. Baker quotes an Ohio prison warden saying: "This national defense boom has really been a god send. The prisoners are doing war work now. We have 1,000 of them working on two shifts making such things as cases for TNT charges, clothing for aviators, shell covers, tents, pack-backs and mattresses." Disciplinary problems disappeared.

Human Smoke is packed with these kinds of Velcro moments of history that stick to you. For instance, American ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, sent a telegram to the State Department warning that "...an armed conflict with the U.S. may come with dangerous and dramatic suddenness." The cable is dated Nov. 3, 1941, a little more than a month later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In his dairy the next day, Grew wrote, "If war should occur, I hope that history will not overlook that telegram."

Then there's the Nazi's policy toward Jews. People end up in a "grade 1" concentration camp for just hanging out with Jews -- which is like saying if 9 is no-good, then 8 and 7 are also unacceptable.

Human Smoke is chock-full of small, often powerful but unrelated scenes. What you get is a Jackson Pollack painting in audio: a lot of vivid colors and absolutely no shape to any of it. It's a helter-skelter of disjointed events and it's up to us to connect the dots.

The audiobook edition will annoy some. Baker endlessly repeats the date and year for every new item -- which is almost every paragraph. In print, eyes can ignore "It was June 25, 1941." With the audio edition, narrator Norman Dietz's smooth but constant repetition of "It was..." shrieks intrusion and delivers annoyance.

If you care about pronunciations, then Human Smoke will also annoy. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, Gestapo leader Reinhard Heydrich, American diplomat Averell Harriman, and the concentration camp gas called Zyklon B are all mispronounced. Granted, you might call this a bit "picky" but there are too many pronunciation errors for a major audiobook publisher to let go by.

Here's the nub about Nazis: why-oh-why are we so fascinated with them and the war? Is it because we all bonded together in a common goal to defeat an enemy? The pureness of good versus evil? So easily understood. But there is something really twisted here. We call WWII the good war but isn't that a frightening oxymoron -- right up there with the good cancer?