Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

By Nathan Englander
207 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95

At a reading I attended last week, in response to a question about craft and inspiration, Nathan Englander said something like, “I only know Jewish stories,” so that’s what I write. It is true that all but one of the stories in his new collection prominently feature Jewish characters, but calling them “Jewish stories” is too simplistic. In the eight stories, Englander tackles themes such as trust between a husband and wife, devotion between a mother and child, the unkindness of kids to one another, and family secrets. These are themes that can be understood and appreciated irrespective of the religion of the characters, and yet, the “Jewishness” of these stories cannot be denied. Two stories take place in Israel and at least three are informed by the lingering shadow of the Holocaust. 

One theme that links some of these stories is humor amidst seriousness. In the title story*, a Hassidic and secular Jewish couple – recently reunited old friends – play a “game” where they darkly speculate on who would hide them in the event of another Holocaust. Yet, the whole time they are getting high on marijuana, pilfered from a teenage son’s stash and rolled into joints using tampon wrappers, an “emergency preparedness” method the women developed in high school. In “Camp Sundown,” which takes place at a summer camp (adults on one side of a lake and kids on another), two elderly “campers” are convinced that a newcomer was a Nazi guard at the “other camps.” The humor here, in part, is provided by another couple. They are so worried about a fire in the wooden bunks – they are used to living in an adobe house – that they wear smoke alarms around their necks. And yet, despite the moments of humor, both of these stories have surprising and serious conclusions. In fact, Englander excels at almost all of his endings. Besides the two already mentioned, other stories in the collection – including “Sister Hills,” which follows Jewish settlers in the West Bank – have endings, which although not necessarily shocking, take an unexpected turn, and force the reader to rethink all that has come before.

One of the best stories in the collection, “Everything I Know About My Family On My Mother’s Side,” stands out from the others stories, stylistically. It reads, somewhat, like an extended prose poem, with short numbered vignettes. Told in the present tense, there is a sense that the reader is discovering family secrets at the same time as the narrator. In fact, the narrator is a writer, and must have known everything in advance; he is merely using the tense as a technique. In lesser hands this style of storytelling might seem disjointed and contrived, but Englander pulls it off with deft and grace.

On the back of the collection there is advanced praise from ten (yes ten!) authors, among them are four Pulitzer winners, two National Book Award winners and one finalist, and one National Book Critic Circle award winner and one finalist. It is a collection of praise which seems almost too good to be true. A naysayer might think that Knopf was recruiting comments from Englander’s close friends to cover up a less-than-stellar collection. This could not be further from the truth. These stories are almost flawless. They take you into others lives’ so seamlessly that you may want to remain there even after the stories end. This collection deserves all of the accolades it has received.

* Some readers may know of Raymond Carver's short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Unfortunately, I haven't yet read this collection, and thus I am unable to draw the comparisons that you will find in other reviews. Still, I have learned that Englander's title story not only mirrors Carver's in title, but also in narrative structure.

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