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Nicotine by Gregor Hens
Hardcover $16.95
Jan 10, 2017 | ISBN 9781590517932

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“Cigarettes function as punctuation for life, argues Gregor Hens, a German author and translator. They make it coherent and add drama, inserting commas, semi-colons and ellipses (and, in the end, an inarguable and often premature full stop). Smoking is bad for you, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.” —Economist, ‘Books of the Year 2017’ Selection

“Part memoir, part discourse on the nature of addiction and withdrawal.” —Wall Street Journal

“…part memoir, part philosophical lament…when Nicotine stays dry, earthy and combustible, like a Virginia tobacco blend, it has a lot to say and says it well…[Hens] sees this book as a chance finally to put the urge behind him, to comprehend it, seal it and bury it…Like any author worth reading, Mr. Hens is sometimes best when he goes off-topic, dispatching obiter dicta…His lapidary prose will sometimes put you in mind of the chain-smoking Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s…” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times 

Nicotine is a chronicle of his year overcoming the habit. The book is a slim but plaintive memoria to a lost love — a philosophical meditation on the nature of addiction, the listlessness, the frustration and the sense of grief one feels at the loss of a fix. Its structure is reminiscent of the memoryscapes of W.G. Sebald, including the strange, captionless photographs. This intelligent, literary volume plumbs Mark Twain, Italo Svevo and Van Morrison. But make no mistake: Nicotine isn’t a self-help book. It’s not an anti-smoking screed. Nor is it a love sonnet to tobacco. It’s an honest exposition of the emotional complexity of quitting.” — The Washington Post 

“In this extended, diaristic essay peppered with Sebaldian photos and the names of forgotten Euro-brands, Hens writes philosophically about his own struggles to break the habit and his memories of a life spent in the long shadow of an extended family of big-league tobacco users. . . Tobacco, labeling, and landscape all combine with a snapshot immediacy, powerful and pleasant, that gives flavor and color to Hens’s discovery of the wider world, in all its variety, and to moments of great personal significance. If it’s hard to communicate to nonsmokers how physically and mentally difficult it is to quit, Hens’s memories of nicotine make it palpable to anyone why, even once you’ve stopped smoking, you’re never quite over it.”Eric Banks, Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU,  Four Columns

 “…it is by association with nicotine that Hens shows us what he wants us to know about his life. People will connect his book with Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception,” and I’m sure Hens had that volume in mind, but if “Nicotine” has a literary progenitor I would say that it is “In Search of Lost Time,” in which Proust made the material of seven volumes bloom out of one French cookie dunked in a cup of tea. “Nicotine” is much shorter, only a hundred and fifty-seven pages, but Hens uses a similar alchemy to transform the things of his world—the family in which he grew up, in Cologne; his former home in Columbus, where he taught German literature at Ohio State; his apartment in Berlin, where he lives with his wife, and produces novels and translations—into whole relay stations of poetic force, humming and sparking and chugging… —an extraordinary act of literary finesse…[with] tinkling little notes of comedy…his story becomes captivating—laced with a saving irony—by being told through the medium of something as humble as tobacco… The book, too, ends with love and cigarettes…It is a strange combination, love and smoke, but there is a long streak of strangeness in German art—colors you didn’t expect (Caspar David Friedrich, Max Beckmann), Venuses who aren’t pretty (Cranach, Altdorfer)—which nevertheless feels like life… [A] dark, lovely, funny book. ” —New Yorker

“A satisfying wisp of an essay about tobacco, addiction, first cigarettes, last cigarettes, breathing, kissing, hypnosis, literature, memory, and marking time… Nicotine is a smoke ring, blown perfectly in a single puff, or — better? — a wafting trail of vapor. Will Self contributes a foreword, a rapid monologue punctuated with vigorous little twists, as though he were grinding out a stub with yellow-stained fingers.” —Harper’s

Nicotine is loosely constructed in short, stream-of-consciousness vignettes. Hens supplements his personal anecdotes by sharing cultural customs related to smoking, especially during his formative years in the 1970s and 1980s. Tidbits of history are woven throughout, including Adolf Hitler’s anti-smoking stance and Mark Twain’s wit on the subject. The writing is detailed, fluid and sensual. The acute memories he shares about people who have crossed his path are especially appealing; he retells stories about those with whom he’s shared smokes, from family members to strangers, and even his attempts to quit, including a visit to an eccentric hypnotist in Columbus, Ohio. Smoking and cigarettes might not be good for the health of the body, but Hens’s glimpse through the prism of addiction offers an enriching and enlightening account that benefits the mind and the soul.” Shelf Awareness

Nicotine is not another finger-wagging treatise on the evils of smoking. Nor is it a boring, triumphant tale of how one can muster the willpower to dump the cigarettes and replace them with a diet of unpasteurized goat’s milk and raw parsnips. Indeed, in the book’s postscript, Mr. Hens reminds readers that he doesn’t want ‘to persuade you to do anything. . . . Help yourself if you want to, or don’t.’ Instead this is a wonderfully meandering memoir, beautifully written, in which Mr. Hens recalls formative experiences through the experience of smoking—because cigarettes were always present— while also exploring the psychology of an addict. But reading Nicotine made me wonder if, like Mr. Hens, “each one of those cigarettes meant something to me,” even the thousands that I don’t recall smoking. Remembering shared cigarettes with long-forgotten friends, chain-smoking ex-girlfriends, strangers in bars and that one time I smoked on a plane, I suspect he’s right.”  — Wall Street Journal

“Hens’s short book is an idiosyncratic and thought-provoking essay on the grip of nicotine, how it shaped his life, and how it still factors into his life despite having quit smoking decades ago… Hens gives readers an understanding of what it is like to have an addiction, albeit a legal one, and how the end of an addiction can be felt as a loss.” —Publishers Weekly

“In his unorthodox and candid memoir, German writer and translator Hens discusses his longtime addiction to cigarettes, his eventual recovery, and the ongoing battle with his addictive personality to fight the ever present urge to smoke. . . The author is an idiosyncratic stylist whose sentences are often terse and elliptical, and Calleja’s translation ably captures his unique voice. In a book that is as much a paean to smoking as it is a eulogy, Hens is both poetic and unforgiving about the pleasures and pains of smoking.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Every cigarette I’ve ever smoked now seems, in retrospect, like little more than preparation for this remarkable essay—though nothing in me could have anticipated its exquisitely surprising brilliance, the precision and play of its intellect. It’s about smoking, sure, but it’s also about a luminous and nuanced exploration of how we’re constituted by our obsessions, how our memories arrange themselves inside of us, and how—or if—we control our own lives.” Leslie Jamison

“Hens endured and he wrote about it, resulting in this excellent personal work on the fetishisation, the ceremony and the compulsions of the smoker. . . Nicotine is a meandering journey through a life of everyday addiction, soaked in memories stained sepia by tobacco smoke. . . The writing is superb, an unclassifiable mix of freeform thought and transcribed memory, reminiscent of the wonderful essayist Geoff Dyer. Its malleable structure, through sheer skill and confidence, allow the many digressions to remain ever valid and precise. . . Insightful and honest.” —The Skinny

“Elegant, lucid and consistently entertaining.” —The  Spectator

“In his short, perceptive and thoroughly absorbing memoir, Nicotine, German author and Ohio State University linguistics professor Gregor Hens differentiates between the putative “last cigarette,” the one butted out on New Year’s Eve or other such occasion of swearing off for good and the “relapse cigarette,” the first one inhaled after a period of going without. And there’s no question which of the two has afforded him greater pleasure. Hens leavens his anecdotal recollections with appreciable humour … Prepare to be hooked from the first sentence.” — Globe and Mail

Nicotine is a serious investigation. Hens’ memories — spun as stories, for he is a piquant, enchanting storyteller — follow one after another, though not before they have been surgically dissected for elements of self-discovery lurking in that memory’s cigarette. Will Self’s introduction is a gloriously mad prelude, dragging luxuriously, gratifyingly on tobaccos of ‘Stygian darkness and Samsonian strength,’ which, the nicotine rapidly absorbed, jump-starts the nasty state of withdrawal, ‘and thus mistakes the relief of these symptoms’…While Hens searches for his addiction’s source — genetics, Freudian, exposure — and submits to hypnosis’ trance, he offers flashes of Cigarette Power [and] despite qualms that the last cigarette might extinguish his access to literarily fertile material, Nicotine is proof positive that Hens still has the stuff.”— The San Francisco Chronicle 

“Readers and smokers and especially readers who smoke will be grateful that Mr Hens wrote Nicotine despite the risk of relapse. It is that rare book on addiction: neither preaching nor self-loathing, lapsing only occasionally into romanticism. And like the best cigarettes, it is over too soon.”  — The Economist 

“Cigarettes are an overwrought cultural fixation. There are too many books, essays, movies, and songs about cigarettes. But Nicotine somehow manages to feel fresh in spite of that. Ultimately, it’s a book about longing, and you don’t need to be a current or former smoker to relate to that.” — Aude White, New York Magazine

“One things that sets Nicotine apart from other books of its kind is that, while firmly planted in the realm of memoirs, it deviates from time to time and becomes a narrative about exploring the self, a story about an entire family and their relationship to smoking, and even turns into something akin to investigative journalism when the author looks at the manufacturing and marketing of cigarettes. Throughout all those, the pace is enjoyable, the chapters go by fast, and the writing is always engaging regardless of what the author is discussing at the time. A series of photos that relate to the narrative are sprinkled throughout and add a touch of visual storytelling to the book. Ultimately, Nicotine shines because Hens’ delivers his personal history while also exploring the way humans are shaped by their obsessions. Gritty, funny, multilayered, and rich in diversity of themes explored, this is a memoir that transcends its genre and demands to be read as much more than just a man’s look at his lifetime inhaling smoke.” — LitReactor

Nicotine is a book about cigarettes merely on its surface, but it feels important that Hens opens with the sheer volume he’s smoked to illustrate, if nothing else, how significantly this object is entwined in his past. Hens no longer smokes, but the question now is: what have all these cigarettes meant, and where does he go from here? What makes this story, and other addiction narratives, so captivating is that, according to Hens, they frequently function as often unexpected insights.”   Kirkus Reviews 
Nicotine is nothing like a manual for giving up smoking; it does not berate the smoker or extol the healthy benefits of giving up the habit. It is more like an ode, ironic but poetic, to the eponymous drug that does irreversible damage, yet gives its user a sensation of control and calm, of time-passing and occasion-remembering that is hard to set aside once one has experienced it. While Hens has clearly quit, and notes good reasons for doing so, including the simple ability to choose to do what he wants, he does not condemn the sinner…or the sin.” –

“Irresistibly humorous, eminently readable and concerned with a contentious issue that continues to be hotly debated, Nicotine is the fascinating autobiographical account of one man’s addiction to smoking. Writing with the passion of an obsessive, the author analyses how his addiction has shaped his thought and behaviour patterns in ways that would initially appear to be entirely unrelated to cigarettes.” — New Books in German

“Nicotine is a fascinating examination of the powerful physical and psychological hold that tobacco holds over its addicts, as viewed through the life experiences of German writer and translator Gregor Hens. Packed with highly personal insights that only someone with a decades-long smoking habit could summon, Nicotine is both a sobering testament to the power of tobacco’s icy grip as well as a counterbalance to the demonizing social pressures that lead many to finally quit.” — World Literature Today 

“Nicotine grows into a deeply personal and philosophical meditation that covers a lot of ground in a short number of pages. Hens examines, with clarity and precision, the mysterious interactions of memory, desire, and free will, not so much by remembering every cigarette, but by remembering everything that happened around each cigarette.” — ArtsFuse 

“[A] sober and serious discourse on what should always be a sober and serious subject: addiction”— PopMatters 

“A passionate attempt to banish the addiction through words.”—sf-magazin

“‘I don’t smoke any more, but there are always moments when I can think of nothing else but cigarettes. This is one of those moments. I really shouldn’t write this book, it’s much too risky …’. But Hens needn’t worry that this book might bring him harm; for even if he does start smoking again one day, Nicotine may well be his most successful book yet.” —Die Zeit
“This is not a story about quitting, but an accomplished and unsettling meditation on one’s own addiction.” —Die Zeit

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