Book Review #9: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Author: Nathan Englander
Genre: Short story collection, literary fiction
Days to read: 2 (short book, long plane ride)
Synopsis (as taken from Random House.com): These eight new stories from the celebrated novelist and short-story writer Nathan Englander display a gifted young author grappling with the great questions of modern life, with a command of language and the imagination that place Englander at the very forefront of contemporary American fiction.
The title story, inspired by Raymond Carver’s masterpiece, is a provocative portrait of two marriages in which the Holocaust is played out as a devastating parlor game. In the outlandishly dark “Camp Sundown” vigilante justice is undertaken by a group of geriatric campers in a bucolic summer enclave. “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is a small, sharp study in evil, lovingly told by a father to a son. “Sister Hills” chronicles the history of Israel’s settlements from the eve of the Yom Kippur War through the present, a political fable constructed around the tale of two mothers who strike a terrible bargain to save a child. Marking a return to two of Englander’s classic themes, “Peep Show” and “How We Avenged the Blums” wrestle with sexual longing and ingenuity in the face of adversity and peril. And “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is suffused with an intimacy and tenderness that break new ground for a writer who seems constantly to be expanding the parameters of what he can achieve in the short form.
Beautiful and courageous, funny and achingly sad, Englander’s work is a revelation.
My thoughts: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is well-curated short story collection bound together by the theme of Jewish (and mostly male) identity. Through these stories he thoughtfully explores topics such as intermarriage, the lingering psychic impact of the holocaust, cultural vs. religious Judaism, toughness in the face of bigotry, loneliness, guilt and shame. While the lens of the book is distinctly Jewish, many of the underlying tensions are universal. From what I know of Englander through his first collection and interviews, this collection seems more personal if not out-right autobiographical in certain respects. The title story, and arguably the best story, feels extremely modern and accessible on certain levels, yet is also voyeuristic in the best possible way. Englander is a beautiful, but not overly flowery, writer and creates and inhabits vivid, though sometimes one dimensional characters. He is also an athletic story teller switching effortlessly from first person to third person from farce to dark comedy to even darker tragedy. My one complaint is that he got a little lazy in one of his stories set in an elderly Jewish camp, by the second page I had guessed the story arc. I’ll save you the spoiler, though doubt you will be surprised. He is more than forgiven as there are plenty of surprises and interesting choices throughout the book (especially in “Sister Hills” and “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side”). What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re usually not inclined to read short stories- Englander does them far better than most. If you’re new to Englander’s work, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is also a great introduction. I also highly recommend and have I recently finished Englander’s first short story collection, For Relief of Unbearable Urges you can find my short review here.
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