Monthly Archives: February 2010

Holocaust Echos

This review appears in the March 2010 issue of the (Jewish Federation of Collier County) Federation Star.

Dead Man’s Float, by Nicholas Maes. Esplanade Books of Véhicule Press. 438 pages. $17.95

Engrossing and repelling, inventive and filled with echoes, Dead Man’s Float is a highly original, emotionally charged representation of the Holocaust’s aftermath.

At seventy, Nathan Gelder is paralyzed by a stroke that renders him unable to speak but sharply perceptive. While floating in a memory pool (thus the title), a realm of shifting boundaries and realities, he remains fully aware of family faces and voices, the activities of hospital workers, and the police who suspect him of murdering a rock star. Maes’s artistic premise is that we can access Nathan’s memories, “hear” his narrative and his reflections upon what’s going on around him. Nathan is driven to balance the weights of self-recrimination and self-justification that have seesawed for many decades.

Canadian Nicholas Maes projects the story of this Dutch “half-Jew” with great skill. We learn of Nathan’s upbringing in a Jewish corner of The Hague, where he lived in the embrace of his mother’s family. His father, exiled from his Frisian Protestant family for marrying a Jewish woman (stepping beyond accepted boundaries), is accepted – after a period of resistance – into his wife’s world. Hard-working and with an admirable moral compass, he is an attractive version of the Righteous Christian.

As Hitler’s Third Reich blooms, threatening its European neighbors and destroying Jewish communities along the way, Nathan’s parents send their teenage son to Canada. They accept a longstanding offer from Nathan’s wealthy maternal uncle, Moshe, who has invited him to live in Montreal.

For years, Nathan is spoiled and shiftless. Material needs and luxuries are provided with few demands made upon him. He explores his new city but finds no direction for his life. He seems a usurper to his aunt and her daughter.

Nathan’s guilt about having escaped the probable, then the actual, fate of his parents and extended family in Holland motivates him to account for his good fortune and redeem himself.

He seizes upon the idea that conflicts between nations, races, and cultures are essentially language problems. Drawing upon the remarkable facility that allowed him to master biblical and prayer book Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah many years back, Nathan embarks upon a disciplined program to conquer English, German, and French. For him, rightly or wrongly, translation will be the key to harmony.

Nathan’s career as a translator, first in Montreal and later in Toronto, is largely focused on business correspondence and advertising copy. He makes a decent living, but translating cheesy slogans from English to other languages is not a world-healing enterprise. He remains restless, haunted, more and more seeking a supreme act of “payback” for what he has lost. Nathan’s sense of victimhood, within acceptable boundaries during his young manhood, grows during his marriage and child-rearing years until it becomes outrageous and lunatic.

In his late sixties, Nathan’s comfortable middle-class life masks an obsession for a grand act of retribution. He becomes fixated on a pop music icon, egomaniacal Leonard Barvis, whose huge cult following and dangerous utterances provide a warped mirror of the Hitler phenomenon. Nathan initiates a relationship with Barvis, following him from concert to concert, scheming a final solution to his own nightmares.

Nicholas Maes’s Dead Man’s Float is a marvelous tour de force, with exceptional supporting characters (including several intriguing women) and brilliantly realized settings. It is a bit “over the top,” but that quality is also its strength. The invention of Leonard Barvis’s hypnotic song lyrics is in itself a significant achievement, and yet only one of many powerful ingredients in this stunning, unsettling first novel.

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Anny’s Hat

NOTE: This sketch of Anny Kast was written many years ago and rewritten from time to time. For many who knew her, it captures something of her spirit. Anny passed away on March 1, 2010. Now this is a reminder of her, a tribute to someone we loved.

When Anny called from the airport, Ruth could barely make out the plea – or command – filtered through her aunt’s excited, thick Belgian accent.

“Anny, slow down, what is it?” Ruth asked.

“The hat, you have to bring my hat. I left it at the apart­ment.” Her voice quavered with hysteria.

Some weeks before the date of departure, Ruth had helped Anny shop for a hat to go with the stylish dress she had bought for a wedding in Tel Aviv. She had to have a hat for this affair, which would be conducted in a synagogue. And not just any hat, but a hat that would seem to belong with the dress. Anny was thrilled when Ruth discovered the hat at the umpteenth store. It was perfect, a silvery cloche with pleated folds. Sophisticated but not showy, or perhaps quietly showy. But in all the excite­ment of packing for a return from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. to Israel, the country that had once again become her home, she had left the hat on a closet shelf.

The return had been planned for some time, hinged largely to the return of Molly, Ruth’s mother and Anny’s sister-in-law by marriage to Molly’s brother, Isaac, who had passed away a half-year earlier. Anny, at seventy Molly’s junior by almost fourteen years, had been designated as the caretaker for Molly’s last years. Indeed, Molly had done the designating. She loved Anny and wanted to live with her in a new Tel Aviv apartment they planned to buy. This time, Molly was coming to Israel, where she had already resided for several years, as a new immigrant. Failing both in body and mind, she was coming to what she knew would be her final home. And Anny loved Molly; she looked on her truly as an older sister, or as a replacement for the mother she had lost during the holocaust. They felt lost without each other.

Ruth and her two brothers had anguished over their mother’s desire to go back to Israel with Aunt Anny as her companion and helpmate. No one felt comfortable about having her so far away, yet none felt any compelling reason to choose one of the more traditional arrangements for a parent’s last years. And Molly would not hear of “assisted living” or any other rubrics for the horror of “old age home” that her generation held. What the older women wanted was each other, though clearly the effort of making a home was all on Anny’s shoulders.

So when Anny called about the hat, the one thing missing in the overload of baggage they had schlepped to the airport in the hired van, assisted by Ruth’s younger brother, Ruth was tempted to make the trip, even though it was pouring rain and her husband’s brother was visiting. But when she hung up, the hat issue hadn’t been resolved. 

Anny, Melody & Ruth 2006

“What would Madonna do?” offered Warren, Ruth’s brother-in-law who had flown in from L.A. to conduct an old friend’s wedding with his mail order ordination. “She’d send her chauffeur or bodyguard out on the errand.”

But Ruth still first had to drive over to her mother’s apartment, soon to be sold, and find the hat. She might as well continue to the airport. Besides, if she paid some taxi driver to make the trip, he might just pocket the money – or he might never find them.

“You’re crazy to go out in this,” said her husband. “Just put that hat in some kind of air express tomorrow.”

But Ruth was getting ready to say her goodbyes to her mother and aunt all over again. Anny had already blamed her for the hat problem: “you made me forget it; you asked me a question just when I was going to go take it down from the closet. I need the hat. The wedding is in four days, and there are no deliveries on Shabbat.” This inarguable logic and guilt-fillip sent Ruth to find her rain slicker. There are things that you do for Anny. Even make a three-hour round trip in the pouring rain to deliver her hat. Even if you are sick and have company.

“She’ll drive Mom crazy about that hat,” said Ruth. “I’d better go.”

Anny’s needs didn’t always accommodate a tidy logic. She was in many ways still the young teenage girl nearly buried alive by the Christian family who had saved her from the Nazis. Hidden in closets, under flooring, and beneath garden soil, Anny’s life was a miracle. If she chain-smoked long after everyone else quit, if she talked a mile a minute even on tranquilizers, if she became shaky in elevators and other closed places, if she traveled with a cup of water always in her hand, if she got her several lan­guages mixed up, if her mind leapt from one topic to another on the wires of her own unique circuits . . . if, in short, she was a little strange, it was an understandable and ultimately a loveable strangeness.

When Anny had become attached to Ruth’s family, she was al­ready in early middle age. Chic, fun-loving, and outgoing, she pulled against the insular and somewhat dowdy life of her new re­lations. She had had enough of despair. Anny clowned with all of her young nieces and nephews; she ran them ragged in ways their other aunts and uncles could never do. Lovable and eccentric, perhaps her nervous energy was all that compressed, hushed, hid­den childhood let out.

Anny had learned to fend for herself; she had become – for all her childlike exuberance – a type of the independent woman unusual in her generation. Too nervous to drive, she could give a driver directions to anywhere. She developed networks of doting friends who could help her solve any difficulty. For Anny, get­ting medical appointments on short notice – even for others – was never a problem. She had long ago befriended just the right people in any office with which she had dealings. On the telephone, her accent was familiar to them all; she never identified herself. Anny just had to say “Hello” and make her request and she’d hear – I’m sure we can fit your sister in, Mrs. Kast. How about tomorrow morning?”

And she was quick to take charge, for all her anxious man­nerisms, in any emergency.

For example, there was the time when she and Molly and Molly’s older sister Rose were on their way back from the hair­dresser to Molly’s car. This was down near Dupont Circle in D.C. It was one of those warm early autumn days when the yellow jack­ets know their time is short and go nuts. When Rose got stung, Anny wasted no time rushing into the nearest drug store and push­ing to the front of the line at the pharmacist’s counter.

“Aim,” she shouted, “I must have some Aim. It’s an emergen­cy.”

Well, of course she sounded crazy to everyone around her, especially given her Belgian accent and sky-blue, wide-eyed stare. When is toothpaste an emergency? Someone directed her to the proper aisle. And do you know? Anny was right on target. She had remembered hearing that something with fluoride was an effec­tive remedy for insect stings. Anny got some Aim onto Rose’s neck in a timely fashion, and she saved the day. We love that story, the off-kilter life force of Anny prevailing.

For a person like this, you can make a special trip, search for a hat she forgot, drive it out to the airport, and try to get past El Al security. “My aunt forgot her hat.” Sure. Can you explain how she danced with your children? How she cared for your uncle? Can you explain to them about the Aim? About Belgian winters without parents and being wedged into crevices while Nazi soldiers shout threats and rattle walls, the falling dust and dirt making you frantic for breath? Making her frantic for breath?

Anny is our survivor. She is the other side of tragedy, though not its opposite.

So Ruth got that hat into Anny’s hands, and Anny’s outfit was a big hit at the wedding. She told us so over the phone a few days later.

Soon after, she called about an apartment she and Molly had found. It was just right; maybe one or two things needed to be changed. For instance, Anny hoped that the seller would agree to put in a divider between the kitchen and the dining area: “I want harmonica doors,” she vamped like a chanteuse.

Harmonica doors? We didn’t get it at first, but we soon understood what she meant. We knew her so well, we even followed the Anny logic by which she had made her mis­take.

“You mean ‘accordion doors,’ ” Ruth offered.

“You know,” said Anny, “the kind that fold. They call them ‘harmonica doors’ here.”

Well, who could argue? What was there to win? Here is this woman whose dark memories are stored on videotape in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum but whose life is a blessing and a bright flame of love. A woman who had nursed her frail husband through several horrendous years and who in her own old age cared for her dead husband’s sister. Anny, have any doors you want. Accordion, harmonica, call them what you will. You will probably keep them open. Anny, your good heart takes the sting away. Send us a picture, Anny, a smiling picture from the Holy Land, a picture of you wearing your silvery hat.

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Karen Harper’s 50th: an Alaskan Thriller

“Down River,” by Karen Harper. Mira Books. 388 pages. $7.99.

Part-time Neapolitan Karen Harper has published fifty novels (several as Caryn Cameron) beginning in 1982. Many of her titles are historical romances such as “The First Princess of Wales.” She also writes contemporary suspense novels, like “Dark Angle” and “Down to the Bone,” as well as historical mysteries. Her most significant achievement may well be the nine-part Queen Elizabeth I Mystery Series that concluded a few years back with the “The Hooded Hawke.” Ms. Harper continues to explore the Tudor world with the brand-new “The Queen’s Governess.” And for those who missed it in hardback, her well-received “”Mistress Shakespeare” was just released in trade paperback. Whatever the genre, this nonstop writer provides perfectly crafted settings that allow readers to trust in the worlds she creates. “If I have setting,” Harper asserts, “everything else seems to follow.” Such is the case with her latest contemporary romantic thriller, “Down River.”

Lisa Vaughn does not understand how her husband-to-be, Fort Lauderdale law partner Mitch Braxton, could have abandoned his career for a new life in the wilds of Alaska running a lodge. Mitch seems to have made the decision without considering Lisa’s needs; in effect, he abandoned her as well. Of course, he sees things differently. Now the law firm they both have worked for has chosen that lodge as the site of a retreat designed to assess three candidates, one of whom will be elevated to senior partner. Which one will prevail? How will Lisa and Mitch deal with the unfinished business of their failed relationship?

To see the entire review, as published in the Naples Florida Weekly for February 11-17, 2010, go get a copy, purchase an online subscription, or click here Florida Weekly – Karen Harper for free access on February 25. Also appears in the February 24-March 2 edition of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly.

Readers and aspiring writers can enjoy Karen Harper’s workshop on “Setting as Character,” the lead-off session of the Naples Authors and Books Festival, on April 10 at the Naples Center, Florida Gulf Coast University. Information about the Festival is available at

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Compton’s “Rescuing Olivia” Delivers

 “Rescuing Olivia,” by Julie Compton. Minotaur Books / St. Martin’s. 352 pages. $24.95.

Julie Compton is a lawyer and former U. S. Justice Department trial attorney who moved to the Orlando area some years ago and turned novelist. “Rescuing Olivia” will make readers happy about that career change.

Florida country club groundskeeper Anders Erickson has talents above his employment status and a beautiful girlfriend, Olivia Mayfield, from a wealthy family that she seeks to leave behind. When a car runs his motorcycle off the road while the two are riding it together, Olivia ends up hospitalized in a serious coma. Her father, head of a pharmaceutical company, blames Anders for the accident and does all he can to keep him from seeing Olivia or finding out about her condition. Then Anders receives the news that she has died.  

This review, published in the January 28-February 3, 2010 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly, is available online in its entirety at Florida Weekly – Julie Compton (It also appears in the February 3-9 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly.)


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