What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank Paperback – Feb 1 2012
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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.See all Product Description
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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.
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.
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.