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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...
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As a Holocaust educator, I see that, in general, most of us see the victims as sinless. We tend to block the concept that every group has its honorable populace as well as those with less than stellar reputations. Furthermore, we have not seen our families killed, our homes taken from us, nor, had to live through degrading times. We haven't had to emerge back into the world and create a new normal. We haven't had to steal, lie, cheat, and kill for our families or ourselves to survive. The good people we think of when we speak of Anne Frank and the Holocaust, did not emerge from it as the same people they were. Today we understand the concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and can give patience and pity to those sufferers.
The author didn't attempt to prepare his readers for the characters in each vignette. For the most part, they aren't nice people. Their behavior is often irrational and selfish. And that's shocking when we are expecting sensitivity and innocence, as in Anne herself.
I finished the stories only by forcing myself to read to the bitter end. This is not a book I enjoyed reading. It definitely is not one I would recommend to anyone under the age of 16 and surely would not want anyone to read it prior to studying the events that led up to Holocaust, the genocide, and its aftermath.
The characters' voices and points of view are written clearly. Overall, the mood is depressing and the reader will have difficulty bonding with the characters. Because it's well-written, it deserves four stars, yet, my dislike for the content would rate it only two stars. Since reviews should not punish the author for the reviewer's personal tastes, it will remain a four-stars book. Readers, beware; you have been warned.
1) The title story was far and away the best. It was cute & terrifying all at once. That’s kind of hard to do.
2) The Reader. Worth looking at for anyone who’s written anything--even so much as a term paper. Deals with the questions of ‘why do we write in the first place?’ and ‘who cares?’
3) The other stories. They were okay, I guess. I’ll have to think about it.
4) Lots of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions throughout. It was kind of neat seeing these words so naturally interwoven into the flow of the narrative, but it would have been nice if there were an appendix listing these expressions and their meanings. I’m not Jewish, so I’m not familiar with most of them. It’s probably wishful thinking to suppose that an American Jew would know all of them. So a little help here would be appreciated.
Englander is kind of a cool last name. I like it. It honors England but at the same time has a Germanic feel to it. Can we expect great literature from Mr Englander? Probably, but I’ll be satisfied with a well-told story. It might be great literature, it might not, but I don’t really care. I’m not passing out grades here, but rather looking for stories to pass the time. This collection of stories fits the bill.
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Of the eight stories, I thought the first which is also the title story was the best. It is essentially about two couples who have reunited after many years of the wives being in college together. Both Jewish, one couple has essentially assimilated while the other became more religious. They meet and talk about the good days in college when they were doing drugs, drinking, and engaging in all sorts of other bad habits. The Holocaust becomes a topic of conversation and they quickly evolve the discussion into what they would do if they had to hide Anne Frank. This story appeared in The New Yorker some time ago and it is the strongest of the entire collection in my option. The rest of the stories are quite good as well although I wonder how someone who is not Jewish or even a practicing Jew would enjoy them as there are so many "inside baseball" jokes you need to know. I thought "Camp Sundown" which talks about a Jewish camp for the elderly was remarkable. The senior citizens stage a revolt and the new camp director is powerless to stop it. "Sister Hills" and Free Fruit for Young Widows" are also quite good and touch upon important topics like the Yom Kippur War and territorial disputes. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to read a compelling set of short stories.