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What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Cover of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Stories
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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.
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.
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  • From the book What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

    They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right.
     
    Mark is looking all stoic and nodding his head. “If we had what you have down here in South Florida . . . ,” he says, and trails off. “Yup,” he says, and he’s nodding again. “We’d have no troubles at all.”
     
    “You do have what we have,” I tell him. “All of it. Sun and palm trees. Old Jews and oranges and the worst drivers around. At this point,” I say, “we’ve probably got more Israelis than you.” Debbie, my wife, she puts a hand on my arm. Her signal that I’m taking a tone, or interrupting someone’s story, sharing something private, or making an inappropriate joke. That’s my cue, and I’m surprised, considering how much I get it, that she ever lets go of my arm.
     
    “Yes, you’ve got it all now,” Mark says. “Even terrorists.”
     
    I look to Lauren. She’s the one my wife has the relation- ship with—the one who should take charge. But Lauren isn’t going to give her husband any signal. She and Mark ran off to Israel twenty years ago and turned Hassidic, and neither of them will put a hand on the other in public. Not for this. Not to put out a fire.
     
     “Wasn’t Mohamed Atta living right here before 9/11?” Mark says, and now he pantomimes pointing out houses. “Goldberg, Goldberg, Goldberg—Atta. How’d you miss him in this place?”
     
    “Other side of town,” I say.
     
    “That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what you have that we don’t. Other sides of town. Wrong sides of the tracks. Space upon space.” And now he’s fingering a granite countertop in our kitchen, looking out into the living room and the dining room, staring through the kitchen windows out at the pool. “All this house,” he says, “and one son? Can you imagine?”
     
    “No,” Lauren says. And then she turns to us, backing him up. “You should see how we live with ten.”
     
    “Ten kids,” I say. “We could get you a reality show with that here in the States. Help you get a bigger place.”
     
    The hand is back pulling at my sleeve. “Pictures,” Debbie says. “I want to see the girls.” We all follow Lauren into the den for her purse.
     
    “Do you believe it?” Mark says. “Ten girls!” And the way it comes out of his mouth, it’s the first time I like the guy. The first time I think about giving him a chance.
     
    ...
     
    Facebook and Skype brought Deb and Lauren back together. They were glued at the hip growing up. Went to school together their whole lives. Yeshiva school. All girls. Out in Queens through high school and then riding the subway together to one called Central in Manhattan. They stayed best friends forever until I married Deb and turned her secular, and soon after that Lauren met Mark and they went off to the Holy Land and went from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox, which to me sounds like a repackaged detergent—ORTHODOX ULTRA®, now with more deep-healing power. Because of that, we’re sup- posed to call them Shoshana and Yerucham. Deb’s been doing it. I’m just not saying their names.
     
    “You want...
About the Author-
  • Nathan Englander's short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Englander is the author of the novel The Ministry of Special Cases and the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

    www.nathanenglander.com

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from December 12, 2011
    It’s a tribute to Englander’s verve and scope that the eight stories in his new collection, although clearly the product of one mind with a particular set of interests (Israel; American Jewry and suburbia; writing and reading; sex, survival, and the long shadow of the Shoah) never cover the same territory. Each is particular, deeply felt, and capable of pressing any number of buttons. The title story, which features a reunion of old friends, a lot of marijuana, and a series of collisions between Israel and America and Orthodoxy and laxity, starts out funny and gets funnier, until suddenly it’s not a bit funny. “Sister Hills” traces an Israeli settlement from its violent founding to its bedroom community transformation and reads like a myth, simple, stark, and, like many a myth, ultimately horrifying. And as you spend a few days with the beleaguered director of “Camp Sundown,” a vacation camp for elderly Jews, you’ll find, as he does, that things you think you’re sure about—guilt, justice, silence, and the morality of revenge—start to get fuzzy. What we talk about when we talk about Englander’s collection turns out to be survival and the difficult—sometimes awful, sometimes touching—choices people make, and Englander (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges), brings a tremendous range and capacity to surprise to his chosen topic. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Agency.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from January 1, 2012
    Parables of emotional complexity and moral ambiguity, with lessons that are neither easy nor obvious, by a short-story master (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, 1999, etc.). The title story that opens the collection (evoking in its title both the Holocaust and Raymond Carver) is like so much of the best of the author's narratives, with a voice that evokes a long legacy of Jewish storytelling and the sharp edge of contemporary fiction. It presents the reunion of two women who had been best friends as girls but who have married very different men and seen their lives take very different paths. One is now living an "ultra-Orthodox" family life in Israel, with a husband who insists that "intermarriage...is the Holocaust that is happening now." The other lives in South Florida and has married a more secular Jew, who narrates the story and whose voice initially invites the reader's identification. Yet a change in perspective occurs over the course of the visit, both for the reader and the narrator: "It is the most glorious, and silliest, and freest I can remember feeling in years. Who would think that's what I would be saying with these strict, suffocatingly austere people come to visit our house." Every one of these eight stories casts light on the others, but perhaps the most revelatory is "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side," in which a writer named Nathan, described as "completely secular" and called "an apostate" by his older brother, insists that this story is "true...Not true in the way fiction is truer than truth. True in both realms." It's the story of how a family stays together and a relationship falls apart, told in 63 numbered sections of a paragraph or two. Like so much of this volume, it seems to exist in a literary sphere beyond the one in which the ambitions of postmodern fiction have little to do with the depths of existence beyond the page. The author at his best.

    (COPYRIGHT (2012) KIRKUS REVIEWS/NIELSEN BUSINESS MEDIA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from February 15, 2012

    Much like his previous work, this newest collection of short stories from Englander (The Ministry of Special Cases) continues to explore the complexity of Jewish identity through the diasporic experience. An homage to the Raymond Carver short story titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," the first story in this collection features both a secular and an ultra-Orthodox couple discussing the tenants of Judaism under a haze of alcohol and marijuana. The characters in this story oscillate between serious intellectual debate and comical tangents that lead to serious questions, setting the tone for the rest of the collection. Introspective, self-divided, and self-ironical characters recur often in Englander's stories, cutting the heaviness of the darker themes of loss and violence that permeate the narrative. Though many of the stories appear didactic in intention, a man lured into a peepshow is given a performance by his wife, former rabbis, and psychiatrists, Englander suspends the moralizing attitude, passively presenting thinly veiled parables to the reader as open-ended questions. VERDICT A wonderful collection of short stories that will appeal to fans of Etgar Keret and Jonathan Safran Foer.--Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from December 15, 2011
    The sense comes easily that Englander, author of the celebrated short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999) and the absorbing novel The Ministry of Special Cases (2007), will always favor the short story form. In his new collection, the reader feels the musculature beneath the skin of his short fiction and keenly appreciates that this is where his supreme power lies. Englander is his own writer. One may think of, say, Bernard Malamud as a possible influence, but which masters, if any, guided him in the early stages of his career have been bid adieu, as Englander sails his own personally mapped seas. His plots are richly developed, and traditional short story techniques are used only when suitable. A case in point is the complex Sister Hills, which, fablelike in its deep resonance and applicability to human behavior beyond its particular circumstances, sees the growth of a Jewish settlement at various points in time, from 1973 to 2011. But in the drama unfolding in the foreground, one woman gives her child to another woman to protect the youngster from unidentified evil. The stresses between Jewish orthodoxy and a more secular practice of religious life are apparent in the title story, in which two school friends, grown now and with husbands and children, visit together 20 years after one couple moved to Israel and turned Hasidic. Their discussion of lifestyle choices, specifically within the context of a hypothetical second Holocaust, leads to uncomfortable realizations about one woman's spouse.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2011, American Library Association.)

  • Michael Chabon Praise for Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

    "Englander's new collection of stories tells the tangled truth of life in prose that, as ever, surprises the reader with its gnarled beauty . . . Certifiable masterpieces of contemporary short-story art."
  • Geraldine Brooks "Nathan Englander writes the stories I am always hoping for, searching for. These are stories that transport you into other lives, other dreams. This is deft, engrossing, deeply satisfying work. Englander is, to me, the modern master of the form. And this collection is the very best of the best."
  • Jennifer Egan "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank vividly displays the humor, complexity, and edge that we've come to expect from Nathan Englander's fiction--always animated by a deep, vibrant core of historical resonance."
  • Jonathan Safran Foer "Englander's wisest, funniest, bravest, and most beautiful book. It overflows with revelations and gems."
  • Jonathan Lethem "Nathan Englander's elegant, inquisitive, and hilarious fictions are a working definition of what the modern short story can do."
  • Dave Eggers "The depth of Englander's feeling is the thing that separates him from just about everyone. You can hear his heart thumping feverishly on every page."
  • Richard Russo "Nathan Englander is one of those rare writers who, like Faulkner, manages to make his seemingly obsessive, insular concerns all the more universal for their specificity. It's this neat trick, I think, that makes the stories in his new collection so utterly haunting."
  • Kirkus Reviews (starred review) "The fate of Argentina's Jews during the 1976-83 "Dirty War" is depicted with blistering emotional intensity in this start first novel. . . . A political novel anchored, unforgettably, in the realm of the personal. Englander's story collection promised a brilliant future, and that promise is here fulfilled beyond all expectations."
  • Booklist (starred review) "This is a staggeringly mature work, gracefully and knowledgeably set in a milieu far from the author's native New York. . . . Four p's best describe this work: poignant, powerful, political, and yet personal."
  • Bookforum "[A] harrowing and brilliant first novel . . . Englander's great gifts are an absurdist sense of humor and a brisk, almost breezy narrative voice. He handles his unbearable subjects with the comic panache of a vaudeville artists, before delivering the final, devastating blow."
  • Harper's Magazine "Resonates of Singer, yes, but also of Bernard Malamud and Lewis Carroll, plus the Kafka who wrote The Trial . . . You will wonder how a novel about parents looking for and failing to find their lost son, about a machinery of state determined to abolish not only the future but also the past, can be horrifying and funny at the same time. Somehow . . . this one is."
  • Los Angeles Times "A mesmerizing rumination on loss and memory. . . . It's a family drama layered with agonized and often comical filial connections that are stretched to the snapping point by terrible circumstance . . . builds with breathtaking, perfectly wrought pacing and calm, terrifying logic."
  • Publishers Weekly "Englander writes with increasing power and authority . . . Gogol, I. B. Singer and Orwell all come to mind, but Englander's book is unique in its layering of Jewish tradition and totalitarian obliteration."
  • Library Journal "This chilling book of intrigue examines the slow obliteration of culture and families perpetuated by forces seeking absolute political power. Highly recommended."
  • The Gazette (Canada) "This is a rollercoaster of a novel, and while most of the dips are downward, there are memorable moments of hilarity, hope and humanity. Imagine a screwball comedy about one of recent history's darkest and most overlooked periods. . . . The Ministry of Special Cases is a remarkable work of imagination and empathy--a modern-day book of mourning."
  • Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times "Englander's voice is distinctly his own--daring, funny and exuberant."
  • Newsday "Remarkable art. . . . The author fills each of these pieces with vivid life, with characters that jump off the page."
  • Ann Beattie "Every so often there's a new voice that entirely revitalizes the story. . . . It's happening ag
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