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What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 7, 2012
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*Starred Review* 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. --Brad Hooper
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.”
“A resounding testament to the power of the short story from a master of the form. Englander’s latest hooks you with the same irresistible intimacy, immediacy and deliciousness of stumbling in on a heated altercation that is absolutely none of your business; it’s what great fiction is all about.”
“It takes an exceptional combination of moral humility and moral assurance to integrate fine-grained comedy and large-scale tragedy as daringly as Nathan Englander does.”
“Courageous and provocative. Edgy and timeless. In Englander’s hands, storytelling is a transformative act. Put him alongside Singer, Carver, and Munro. Englander is, quite simply, one of the very best we have.”
“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.”
"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."
“Englander’s wisest, funniest, bravest, and most beautiful book. It overflows with revelations and gems.”
—Jonathan Safran Foer
“Nathan Englander’s elegant, inquisitive, and hilarious fictions are a working definition of what the modern short story can do.”
“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.”
“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.”
“A marvel … At home in many idioms, Englander unerringly finds the right one for each of his stories…few literary works have better demonstrated their veracity lately than this glorious collection.” – Financial Times
“Outstanding…In the title story, two Jewish couples spar relentlessly, and Englander shows an unerring ear for dialogue” – The Independent
“Nathan Englander, a master of short fiction, writes about West Bank settlers and Orthodox families, the Holocaust and mixed marriages, but not to editorialize about them. His real subjects are memory, obsession, choices, and consequences…In Nathan Englander’s eyes, human beings make choices for admirable and regrettable reasons, with good and bad outcomes. His compelling storytelling, his compassion, and his startling originality make Englander an essential writer. This collection confirms his exceptional talents yet again, and it is not to be missed.” –Jewish Book Council
“Few collections are ever heralded as ‘big books’ or are met with as much excitement as Nathan Englander’s. Relieving our unbearable urge for more is What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, stories that possess the age-old wisdom of folktales populated by characters trapped in the net of history confronting the universal capacity for evil and the depths of our longing.” –Vanity Fair
One of Newsweek’s 12 for 2012
“While so much of today’s Jewish-American fiction revolves around the inheritance of loss and the ancestral need to remember, Englander brilliantly, often hilariously, and occasionally quite jarringly tackles the very nature of memory itself, how extreme the difference can be between generations, and what exactly one owes one’s forbearers when it comes to a heritage of pain and dislocation.” –Interview
One of The Millions’ Most Anticipated: The Great 2012 Book Preview
“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.” –Booklist
“Parables of emotional complexity and moral ambiguity, with lessons that are neither easy nor obvious, by a short-story master…The author at his best.” –Kirkus (Starred Review)
“Although most of the stories center on Englander’s clear interest in the role religion and history play on his characters’ lives, they also transcend these narrow themes to address the universal with humor and subtle observation…In his wide-ranging new collection, Englander masters the art of the short story with all its craft, humor and compassion.” –Shelf Awareness
“What Englander is saying is that we know ourselves, or don’t, on different levels, that we exist individually and as part of a heritage…Who will hide us? Who are we, really? How do ritual and culture intersect? Such questions exist at the heart of this accomplished collection, in which stories are what make us who we are.” –LA Times
“What’s wonderful about Englander is that all of his stories seem like they would fall flat or foolish in someone—anyone—else’s hands, but somehow he manages to pull it off and leave you breathless at the end.” –Flavorpill (10 New Must-Reads for February)
“This volume showcases Mr. Englander’s extraordinary gifts as a writer…a combination of psychological insight, allegorical gravity and sometimes uproarious comedy…to explore how faith and family (and the stories characters tell about faith and family) ineluctably shape an individual’s identity.” –Michiko Kakutani
“Englander has sharpened his focus. His subjects are mercy, vengeance and their moody, intractable stepchild, righteousness. He is never deaf to the past or willing to grant us that luxury…A kind of hard-won wisdom spills out on every page…Terrific collection.” –New York Times Book Review
“In What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Englander brilliantly weaves the sacred and secular together so deftly as to make them impossible to separate. In doing so, he reveals the ways in which what is holy can be both heartbreaking and hilarious.” –BookPeople’s Blog
“Englander’s stories are at times startling, even transgressing. But they ring true and are a funny, chilling joy to read.” –Cleveland Plain Dealer
“In a style that successfully mixes humor and seriousness, these are stories to savor. Englander writes with a special gentleness in creations that can e deeply, poignantly sad, or darkly humorous, although never cruel.” –Chicago Jewish Star
“The title story of Englander’s book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” is one of the funniest and most impressive stories I’ve read in years…Amusing, tender and insightful.” –Highbrow Magazine
“Masterful…sacred, profane and sometimes bitterly funny.” –USA Today
“Englander’s second book of stories deserves high praise. It’s audacious and idiosyncratic, darkly clever and brightly faceted…Illustrate why Englander is the world’s best young interpreter of the Jewish dilemma.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is a wonderful collection: entertaining, profound and gently powerful. It confirms Englander’s stature as a serious comic voice.” –Times Literary Supplement
“[A] humane, philosophically provocative new story collection.” –Boston Globe
“[Englander] never writes less than gorgeously, but when, from narrow confines, he puts his finger on the universal, he’s Shakespeare.” –Bloomberg
“Englander’s fictional worlds are fully realized places that celebrate the whole glorious morass of humanity, the ugly and the beautiful, the deadly and the divine, the despairing and the hilarious. In fact, there are few writers alive that are as funny as Englander…Stellar.” –Tottenville Review
“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…A wonderful collection.” –Library Journal
“[Englander’s] finest work yet. He has a rare range; his clean writing feels fresh, but it vibrates with a c...
Top Customer Reviews
The extremes possible in Jewish belief are shown even more strongly in the second story, "Sister Hills," my favorite of the collection. Set in a pioneering settlement in Samaria over the course of four decades (1973, 1987, 2000, and 2011), it represents both the heroism of the settler movement and the stubbornness that, rather than give up on a principle, would persist with a situation in which nobody wins. Similar issues are raised by the next story, "How We Avenged the Blums," about a group of suburban boys getting their own back on an anti-Semitic bully, only to have to confront the violence they have unleashed in themselves. But it is a looser story that leads to a distinct drop in tension in the middle of the book, with the phantasmagorical "Peep Show," about the guilt felt by a Jewish apostate when he indulges in a momentary taste for porn, and "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side," a sprawling though often touching memoir.
But Englander picks up again with two of the final stories: "Camp Sundown," a black tragicomedy about vengeance in a lakeside camp for retirees in the Berkshires, and "Free Fruit for Young Widows," which takes us back to Israel and beyond that to a Holocaust survival story which raises moral issues that will not easily be set aside. Englander fills his stories with fierce characters who speak fractured English laced with untranslated phrases of Yiddish, and who harbor convictions hard as basalt. They are uncomfortable people to meet, but their extremes are compelling. Someone in almost every story will transgress some norm of accepted behavior, posing the intense moral and political question of what is justifiable by history or by belief. I have not seen such writing since Etgar Keret's GAZA BLUES; if only Englander could avoid his occasional tendency to dilute it.
Unfortunately, this collection does not nearly meet up to his hyperbole of acclaim. These stories as a whole are weak. It would be hoped, in a of collection eight stories, there would one or two which could redeem the collection, but in this case it is not so. Englander misses the mark again and again, producing a collection that can be called embarrassing on the one end and a failure on the other.
What goes wrong? First, there is language. Englander's previous work had daring sentences, interesting syntax, and bold juxtapositions of words. These stories are flat and dry on the level of language. Englander is not doing anything real or new with his words. He is just producing them with no sense of the poetry of language. Second is character development. Almost to a story, Englander fails to provide a living, breathing portrait of a person. His characters dance around the fringes of believability, making bad jokes and common observations about life that do nothing to enliven the reader. By and large they are stereotypes, not characters. Finally, the structure of the stories fall well short of being masterpieces of short art. There is no sense, in reading them, that some great mystery is being unfolded. The stories end without much fanfare; the themes he develops in them are treated and then dismissed without any deep import. Englander wants to say profound things about the human and the Jewish condition, but these stories are terrible vehicles for doing so. The profound just becomes silly.
Nathan Englander has proven himself to be a great writer. This collection, however, gives no evidence of this.