The Avengers: A Jewish War Story
Alfred A. Knopf
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
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.
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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...
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
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
Fluff up the pillow, take a sip of water and admit it: you're
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
Besides, you can catch up on your sleep next weekend, right?
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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
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.
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One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver
and the Screw
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
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
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