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What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank [Paperback]

Nathan Englander
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Feb. 1 2012
Nathan Englander's new collection proves that he is a true master of the short form. Some of the stories are comic masterpieces, some embody as dark a vision of the universe as you are likely to encounter, and all of them showcase a writer grappling with the great questions of modern life.

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Review

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."--Michael Chabon "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."--Tea Obreht" ""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."--Jonathan Franzen" ""Courageous and provocative. Edgy and timeless. In Englander's hands, storytelling is a transformative act. Put him alongside Singer, Carver, and Mun

About the Author

Nathan Englander was born in New York in 1970. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and numerous anthologies including The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Anthology, and The Pushcart Prize. Englander's story collection, FOR THE RELIEF OF UNBEARABLE URGES earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kauffman Prize. In 1999 he was named one of the Top 20 Writers under 40 by the New York TImes. He lives in Manhattan.

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By John Kwok TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Nathan Englander is one of our great young American writers of fiction and his latest short story collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank", is one of the finest I have read lately, replete with ample instances of humor and tragedy. Although Englander's stories deal with the vicissitudes of fortune experienced by Jews in America and Israel, his stories are quite insightful explorations of human character whose universal themes of love, remorse and revenge should appeal to those ignorant of Jewish culture and traditions. The title story is a literary homage to one of Raymond Carver's best stories, recounting how two long-lost friends from childhood compare and contrast their lives one afternoon, culminating in the sharing of a pot joint between themselves and their husbands; it's a most humorous fictional exploration of two rather divergent segments of Jewish society and culture. "Sister Hills" is a most vivid evocation of the trials and tribulations faced by some Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, spanning four decades in a few pages. Most of the other stories touch on various aspects of Jewish life in the United States, though the final story in the collection, "Free Fruit for Young Widows", is a rather harrowing exploration of the emotionally wrecked soul of one Holocaust survivor still haunted by the demons of his youth despite enjoying years of relative tranquility in Israel. "Peep Show", one of the middle stories in this collection, is the one most unlike the others, a fantasy-inspired romp about an older Jewish man's experience in a Times Square peep show parlor that's uncannily reminiscent of some of noted American science fiction and fantasy writer Michael Swanwick's fantasy tales in the latter's "The Dog Said Bow Wow" short story collection. Without question, Englander's second story collection is a most memorable set of tales emphasizing his high literary art.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  125 reviews
42 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars To Extremes Jan. 2 2012
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The allusion to Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" in the title piece is a little stretched, but it is a terrific story just the same. The similarity is mainly the situation of a alcohol-fueled conversation between two married couples that reveal some uncomfortable truths. Englander does not go for Carver's compact elegance, but his truths would strike home under any title. The story explores the position of Jews in the modern world. Debbie and Lauren were best friends in yeshiva school, but have taken different directions. Debbie has married a secular Jew, relaxed her observance, and now keeps touch with her heritage mainly through an obsessive interest in the Holocaust. Lauren has become ultra-orthodox, changed her name to Shoshana, and moved with her husband Yerucham (formerly Mark) to Israel, where she has borne ten children, all girls. For Yerucham, the real Holocaust is not what happened in the past, but the dilution occurring now as Jew marries Gentile.

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.
37 of 47 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Praise Inflation March 15 2012
By Eric Maroney - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Nathan Englander is reckoned a great writer now, and it shows in the constellation of literary stars who have endorsed this book of short stories with a blurb. Jonathan Franzen calls this work a "fine-grained comedy and large scale-tragedy." Jonathan Safran Foer, Englander's friend, says the work "overflows with revelations and gems." Michael Cabon sums it all up when he calls this collection "Certifiable masterpieces of contemporary short art." Other no less brazen blurbs are provided by Jonathan Letham and Gary Shetyngart, completing the Ponzi pyramid of admiration.

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.
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought Provoking Stories Jan. 14 2012
By A. Silverstone - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This collection of 8 short stories by acclaimed Jewish-American author Nathan Englander is sure to make you think. They revolve around Jewish or Israeli themes, but what unites these stories is always an O'Henry-like twist at the end coming from where least you expect. The first, eponymous story involves a religious American couple from Israel visiting their secularized friends in Florida. At first, what seems to be a clash of cultures evolves into the definition of love. One of the most amusing stories in the book is Camp Sundown. The head of a camp that has a youth section and an elder hostel is going slowly insane because a group of seniors suspect one of their bridge-playing members of being a former concentration camp guard. Okay, writing that description does not sound like a good basis for humor, but then that is why Englander is the author, and I, a reader. In another story, Peep Show, another secularized Jew finds his mind playing tricks on him when he goes to a Times Square, of course, peep show, and the women start morphing into rabbis and then worse.
Englander has his characters struggle with identity, morals, and sometimes just making it through the day intact. His stories do not come to a conclusion as much as just end, leaving the reader to contemplate what does it all mean, and what does this say about my life. Englander continues to be a master story teller, who leads us down roads we didn't know existed and weren't sure we wanted to follow.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars One of 2 books I have ever read and returned March 5 2014
By B. Stanley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I hated this book. The witty, clever story in the sample ended in the first chapter and the book descended into completely unorganized stories that jumped around. Each was worse than the last. I kept hoping the book would find a way to redeem itself if I kept reading--it did not.
The middle section is a collection of 60+ numbered paragraphs that jump from random point to random point in an attempt to tell a story. This is not a style choice as far as I'm concerned. It is sloppy, lazy writing. If you publish a book and want me to pay for it, you need to put time and energy into developing your story--not list a bunch of numbered points and be finished.
I disliked this book so much, it's one of only 2 books I have returned in my life after reading. I'm not usually a book returner.
20 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Reader reads on Feb. 11 2012
By JoAnne Goldberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The Ministry of Special Cases (http://www.amazon.com/review/R1XIT7POQVIH3F/ref=cm_cr_pr_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0375404937&nodeID=&tag=&linkCode=) is a book I have recommended to many, so when I saw Englander's short stories on Vine, I snagged the book without hesitating.

Ministry described a phantasmagorical era in Argentina, and the Kafkaesque travails endured by two parents searching for an abducted son. The book managed to sustain a note of fantasy and fear, with a dose of Jewish sensibility. I was expecting more of the same with WWTAWWTA Anne Frank. And I was disappointed.

The title story isn't bad, beginning with its inside-jokish-Carver+holocaust title. The "what is a Jew?" debate takes the reader down a oft-trodden road, and the couples in this story rehash well-worn points of contention: orthodox vs secular, religion vs culture, sponge cake vs Fig Newmans. And: would you risk your life for a chance to save your loved one? At this point the story ends:"No one will say what cannot be said--that this wife believes her husband would not hide her."

Thus warmed up, and prepared for a romp through the land of the pilpul (a knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish vocab will come in helpful as you make your way through the stories) I headed over to Sister Hills, which has a promising start (pioneers in Israel!) but morphs into a recasting of the story of Job, without divine intervention or any kind of redemption. It is with some irony that the story concludes: "this is the kind of hill on which to make a life." Yes, but such a life! I was so depressed I could barely rally the emotional stamina to continue. The next stories, which I'll abbreviate as Blums, Peep Show, and My Family, all contain the germs of provocative ideas. But instead of working those ideas into potent images or messages or characters or something, Englander allows them to fizzle.

By the time I finished My Family (63 vignettes) I came up with this theory: a publisher had been hassling Englander to finish a book, and Englander just wasn't ready to move beyond Ministry. So he resurrected some old workshop stories, laid on the tsuris, and mailed them in. I was getting upset.

Story five, Camp Sundown, got me out of my funk. It's charming, with a quirky rhythm and fresh dialog. Maybe Englander had bookended his collection with his best stories? Not so fast: The Reader was a dismal portrayal of a has-been author. I couldn't help but wonder if the protagonist was Englander, and if so, I feel bad on his behalf. And the final story, Free Fruit, really belonged in the middle of the book with all the nice-idea-but-needed-development stories.

The book will be an attractive addition to my bookcase: black and red cover with bold red and black type. But after Ministry of Special Cases and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, I know Englander can do better.
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