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A great collection from a masterful storyteller,
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This review is from: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories (Hardcover)
There's a blurb on the back of this book from the great Richard Russo that really captures what makes this collection so special: "Nathan Englander is one of the rare writers, who like Faulkner, manages to make his seemingly obsessive, insular concerns all the more universal for their specificity." Englander's characters are all Jewish, struggling with antisemitism, memories of the Holocaust and the pull between religion and the secular world. As someone raised Catholic, I may not get all the Hebrew and Yiddish words that pepper some of these stories, but I found every one of the stories riveting. Englander is one of those amazing writers that you just sit back comfortably to read, knowing that with every turned page he's going to delight and amaze you. The other startling things about this collection is the range - he takes you from the silly revenge fantasies of a pack of teenage boys to the gripping reality of a violent, soul-deadened man whose ability to empathize was killed off by the horrors he lived through in a concentration camp. I highly recommend this collection to anyone.
The eight stories in the collection are:
1. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank -- 30 pp - An Orthodox couple living in Israel visits another secular couple living in Florida so the two wives, who were childhood friends in Brooklyn, can reunite. The story, told from the secular husband's perspective, starts off with a very funny take on the man's annoyance at his Israeli's counterpart's constant attempts to prove he and his wife are living a more Jewish life than their American friends. But when the couples play the "Anne Frank game" to determine who they could depend on to save them if they needed to be hidden in a secret place, the Orthodox wife comes to a startling realization about her husband.
2. Sister Hills - 39 pp - A great story about two women from families who founded a small Jewish settlement near the Palestinian border that grew to a bustling city. One woman loses her husband and three sons to various wars and accidents, and when she is left without family, she expects her neighbor to honor a contract they made when the other woman's daughter was an infant and feverish. Hoping she could trick the angel of death, the other woman "sold" her daughter to her neighbor, for a minimal amount and then continued to raise her, never thinking the other woman would ever really consider the daughter hers.
3. How We Avenged the Blums -- 21 pp - A very funny tale about a pack of boys plotting their revenge against a bully who likes to pick on Jewish kids. Part of their plan includes getting very unorthodox martial arts training from a Russian refusenik who works as a janitor at their school. This story was in the 2006 Best American Short Stories collection.
4. Peep Show -- 15 pp - Another funny, but this time surreal, story about a young, married lawyer who steps into a Times Square peep show, but gets very excited by one of the girls who works there. When he deposits more coins in the machine, to open his window and view her again, the stage has been taken over the rabbis, now naked, who taught him as a boy and want to know why he has abandoned his religion.
5. "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side" - 21 pp - A story written in short numbered sections about a writer with a Bosnian girlfriend who worries that he doesn't have as interesting a family life as she does - and therefore may not have enough material to create interesting fiction. When he starts to piece together his family history, he discovers there are more interesting stories than he realized - all the while mourning the loss of his girlfriend after she leaves him.
6. Camp Sundown - 25 pp - One of my favorite stories in the collection. Starts off as a very funny tale about the frustrations of a counselor at a Jewish camp for the elderly, but takes a movingly darker turn when some of the older folks plot revenge against a fellow camper they are convinced was a guard at a concentration camp they managed to survive.
7. The Reader -- 18 pp - A writer was once the toast of the town, but 12 years elapsed before he published his next book, and now he's forgotten. He goes on a book tour and faces empty seats at bookstores for his readings - except for one loyal fan who shows up at every reading, in cities across the country, forcing the author to put on the standard show, even though there's no one else in the audience. The slightly surreal piece becomes a great contemplation of the relationship between writers and their readers.
8. Free Fruit for Young Widows - 17 pp - Englander saves the hardest hitting story for last. The story begins with a description about a heartless Israeli soldier who kills four spies in the Israeli army and then savagely beats the man who questions why he did it, when he could have just as easily taken them as prisoners. Years later, the victim of that beating treats that man to fruit from his stand whenever he encounters his former adversary, who has become a professor. The fruit seller's son, knowing the story, wonders how his father could be so kind to a man who was so brutal to him, but then he learns about the soul-deadening atrocities the man experienced in a concentration camp, and the further heartlessness he experienced after the war when he tried to reunite with the non-Jewish family who worked the farm his family owned before they were shipped off to the camps. A grabs-you-by-the-throat powerful story that selected for the 2011 Best American Short Stories collection.