Click here to find any book!



Table of Contents | Archives | FAQ | e-Mail Us

The Avengers: A Jewish War Story
Rich Cohen
Alfred A. Knopf
262 pp.


In 1977, when he was in fifth grade, Rich Cohen traveled with his family to Israel and met an aunt who had been--despite her then-grandmotherly appearance--a central figure in the Avengers, a group of "veteran fighters who slogged out World War II in the gloomy forests of Eastern Europe, later fought for Bible-bleached Middle-Eastern wastes, and were the kind of people who inspired Joseph Goebbels to write in his diary: 'One sees what the Jews can do when they're armed.'" In time, Cohen became obsessed with the Avengers' story, and in 1998, he returned to Israel to interview the surviving partisans.

The three figures central to The Avengers: A Jewish War Story, the book Cohen drew from these interviews, are fascinating in themselves. Abba Kovner, Cohen writes, was "the first Jew in Vilna to see the scope of the Nazi plan," and he helped initiate and lead the Vilna Ghetto uprising. (He later became a national hero in Israel.) Vitka Kempner was a young woman who--when the war began--believed you should meet heavy-handed seriousness with frivolity, and yet she led the first act of sabotage against the Nazis "in all of Occupied Europe." And Ruzka Korczak (Cohen's aunt) was a humble but determined "Jewish girl from Poland, typical in every way, who happened into the worst place in history." Before they escaped from the Vilna Ghetto and formed the Avenger fighting group in the forest, Abba, Vitka and Ruzka shared a bed in a small flat:


The relationship of these young people was the cause of much sensation and gossip. Seeing them walking arm in arm down the ghetto streets, Jews, with little else to entertain them, would smile and say, "Abba and his women." Their affair grew into one of the great romances of the War, fighting apart, meeting each night. A young man recruited to the movement still talks of his first meeting with Abba. "Vitka brought me to the flat where they lived," he says. "I saw this tiny room with a bed on the floor and I asked who slept there. Abba said, 'The three of us. I sleep in the middle.'"


The Avengers is a beautifully written, powerfully moving book, with well-drawn characters and an irresistible narrative pull. Cohen lends his scenes an unnerving sense of immediacy, and the text reads almost like a novel, it's so well-visualized. Cohen's greatest achievement, though, is getting a history of the Jewish partisan movement into print. The standard narrative of the war--boxcars and death camps--is, Cohen acknowledges, "an important story; maybe the most important. It is what happened to the vast majority of Jews in the War. And yet: It is not the only story."

This history is not to be missed.

--Woody Arbunkle

Back to Archived Short Takes

The Vault
Peter Lovesey
Soho Press
336 pp.



Readers who enjoy imbibing a few chapters before nodding off should probably avoid Peter Lovesey's new police procedural, The Vault. Lovesey knows how to produce enough surprises and plot twists to make it seemingly impossible to find a good, safe stopping point--one, that is, that won't demand that you turn on the light and start reading again.

Take, for example, his opening scene. A worker from the Roman Baths shows up at the Bath Police Station with a grim find: a severed human hand. "The hand was skeletal," Lovesey tells us, "enclosed in a thin casing of concrete or cement that had partially collapsed. Some of the small bones had broken off and were lying loose. Shreds of what looked like dry skin tissue were attached. It could have passed for a damaged piece of sculpture." In a gesture that strikes just the right tone for Lovesey's sort of grimly lighthearted comedy, the worker has wrapped the hand up in a pizza box. (A food / murder merging worthy of Hitchcock himself, no?) The exact age of the hand isn't obvious. Is it destined to become a museum piece or Exhibit A in a homicide trial?

A severed hand in concrete...maybe historical, maybe recent....Maybe another chapter then, to see how it moves along.

Chapter two: an American professor on holiday with his wife has bought an edition of John Milton's poetry that apparently once belonged to Mary Shelley, and the address she wrote in the book (under her initials) is number five, Abbey Courtyard--the exact site where the hand was found. Although it's not well-known, Shelley in fact wrote her famous Frankenstein there. A fictional creature made from pilfered body parts...more body parts turning up in the writer's basement, as it were...

Keep reading.

A few chapters later, the professor's wife disappears while he is out trying to buy another Shelley artifact. Then the antiques dealer with whom the professor was haggling turns up dead. Lovesey presents the professor as an Innocent, an absent-minded professor so obsessed with his Shelley pursuits that he neglects his long-suffering wife unconscionably. But ask yourself: is Lovesey overplaying the professor here? Doesn't he seem too stereotypically absent-minded? Is Lovesey winking at us, telling observant (and wakeful) readers that the professor is in fact not what he seems? Or is he a red herring?

Keep reading. You can take a nap tomorrow.

Lovesey's detective--a loveably gruff bear with a wicked (if misunderstood) sense of humor--isn't the sort to share his clues readily or discuss his own theories in lengthy asides, but you do pick up every now and then on his general direction...which happens to lie in William Blake paintings, at the moment. But why?

Fluff up the pillow, take a sip of water and admit it: you're hooked.

Lovesey is one of the world's great masters when it comes to plot mechanics, and he performs his virtuoso twists with such confidence and sheer talent that you feel, facing his artfully managed false clues and even more subtly managed true ones, that he's simply got the better of you this time, fair and square--a hard trick to pull off repeatedly, when you stop to think about it. But of course you can't stop now: you've got to keep reading. Now--now--you're pretty sure you know who the murderer is.

Besides, you can catch up on your sleep next weekend, right?

--Daphne Frostchild

Back to Archived Short Takes

Blue Ridge
T.R. Pearson
243 pp.



The idea of following more than one plot line through a novel certainly isn't new, but T.R. Pearson's latest novel, Blue Ridge (his first in seven years), pushes the envelope a bit by keeping his two plot lines completely separate for nearly the length of the book.

Bloodlines and crime draw the parallel plots together. Ray Tatum, a newly hired deputy sheriff from Mobile, Alabama, is occupied with an Appalachian Trail murder case in the small town of Hogarth (near Lexington, Virginia) for the course of the book while his cousin Paul (an actuary who lives in nearby Roanoke) travels to Manhattan to identify the body of his murdered son. They both meet new people who prove important--Ray is teamed up with a park ranger from Washington, D.C. (she's black and runs into racial bias in Hogarth, particularly once her relationship with Ray turns romantic), and Paul (despite his anal-retentive orderliness and law-abiding nature) manages to fall in with a dapper drug dealer and his Somoan bodyguard. While Ray's story is told in the third-person, Paul narrates his story in a mellifluous, languid, gratifyingly Southern voice that is particularly appealing.

Comparisons to other notably quirky crime stories are inevitable, of course. Blue Ridge is decidedly more compelling--and complete--than Patricia Cornwell's non-Scarpetta forays into cops-as-comedy, and with its rural rhythms and quirky minor characters who are accommodating and amusing in their eccentricities, Blue Ridge reminds the reader more of Fargo than Blue Velvet. And while they both explore criminal antics across seemingly loose plot lines, Blue Ridge is certainly more gentle than Carl Hiaasen's Sick Puppy.

But it's Pearson's themes that separate his book from the eccentric-cop crowd. At first glance, Blue Ridge's secondary characters seem harmlessly eccentric: the man who calls each night for a dog lost years ago; the widow who cooks for her nephew, the sheriff; the cop who still--years after the fact--hasn't recovered from his wife's leaving him for a dentist. But a common (and important) thread draws them together with the Tatum cousins: they're all lonely. And loneliness, the power of family, and the need for love are the deeply Southern themes that Pearson explores so subtlety in what on the surface might look like a strangely disconnected pair of mystery stories.

The subject matter is a change of pace for Pearson, but the gentle storytelling skills for which he became known in his first three novels (A Short History of a Small Place, Off for the Sweet Hereafter and The Last of How It Was) will keep his fans reading happily through Blue Ridge.

--Charlie Onion

Back to Archived Short Takes

One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw
Witold Rybczynski
173 pp.



Witold Rybczynski takes his assignments seriously.

When a New York Times editor called and asked if he'd like to do a story on the millennium's best tool, he was a little depressed at the seemingly minor subject ("The best tool is hardly as weighty a subject as the best architect or the best city"), but he didn't shirk his task. After a brief quandary over what exactly is the best tool of the last thousand years, he settled wisely on his wife's suggestion--the screwdriver--and set to his research.

And I mean research.

Indeed, on one level--made more apparent than usual by the book's brevity--One Good Turn can be read as an instruction manual on how to do your research thoroughly, no matter what the subject. From the obvious beginning point (The Oxford English Dictionary), Rybczynski moves to various dictionaries and handbooks and eventually travels to the Mercer museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (Henry Chapman Mercer was the author of the first history of American tools), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and a traveling exhibit in Montreal (in order to examine a working replica of an early turret clock). By recounting his steps for us, Rybczynski actually draws us into the hunt, and even readers who don't find themselves aflutter at a lengthy description of a revolving book wheel or the mechanics of screw-cutting should find it a wonderfully entertaining mystery.

Who'd have thought the modest screwdriver could achieve so much, eh?

I won't reveal the answers here, but I will give a few hints of what Rybczynski found: the screwdriver is a lot older than many experts suggest (Rybczynski did the history of hand tools a service, it turns out), and much of the research fell not on the screwdriver but...yes, that's right, the screw. (Hey, where there's smoke, there's fire.) Like a lot of Rybczynski's discoveries, this one makes perfect sense, once you stop to think about it: the screw survives intact in its museum-bound applications (muskets, coats of armor) long after the tool that turned the screw broke and was discarded.

This is certainly not one of Rybczynski's most complicated or grand projects (last year's A Clearing in the Distance might take first prize, with Home a close second), but virtually anything by Rybczynski is guaranteed to be whoppingly entertaining--and (dare I say it?) educational. Truly, readers who love trivia will revel in A Good Turn. And trivia lovers with ten thumbs will especially appreciate Rybczynski's talent for describing how complicated, mechanical objects work.

But Rybczynski does have a bigger argument looming behind his text: he wants us to believe that the individuals who design things like the screwdriver (or the unjustly ignored button--Rybczynski has a wonderful section on its brilliance) are every bit the unique geniuses that we recognize in people who write great novels or soaring symphonies.


[W]hile most of us would bridle at the suggestion that if Cézanne, say, had not lived, someone else would have created similar paintings, we readily accept the notion that the emergence of a new technology is inevitable or, at least, determined by necessity. My search for the best tool of the millennium suggests otherwise. Some tools were developed in direct response to a particularly vexing problem--this was the case with the Roman frame saw, or the socketed hammer. No doubt these devices would have appeared sooner or later. But the sudden and "mysterious" appearance of tools such as the carpenter's brace or the medieval bench lathe cannot be explained by necessity. Such tools are the result of leaps of an individual's creative imagination. They are the product of brilliant, inventive minds whose intuitive perceptions of complex mechanical relationships really are poetic.


For all its brevity, this is an exhilarating, fact-filled odyssey. Trust me: read One Good Turn and the next time you're helping a friend do some handiwork and you ask for a screwdriver, the question "Regular or Phillips?" will be decidedly more provocative.

--Woody Arbunkle

Back to Archived Short Takes Click here to find any title!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Archived Short Takes

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 2000
riverrun enterprises, inc.