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What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank

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These eight new stories from the celebrated novelist and short-story writer Nathan Englander display a gifted young author grappling with the great questions of modern life, with a command of language and the imagination that place Englander at the very forefront of contemporary American fiction.

The title story, inspired by Raymond Carver’s masterpiece, is a provocative portrait of two marriages in which the Holocaust is played out as a devastating parlor game. In the ...

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What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank

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Overview

These eight new stories from the celebrated novelist and short-story writer Nathan Englander display a gifted young author grappling with the great questions of modern life, with a command of language and the imagination that place Englander at the very forefront of contemporary American fiction.

The title story, inspired by Raymond Carver’s masterpiece, is a provocative portrait of two marriages in which the Holocaust is played out as a devastating parlor game. In the outlandishly dark “Camp Sundown” vigilante justice is undertaken by a group of geriatric campers in a bucolic summer enclave. “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is a small, sharp study in evil, lovingly told by a father to a son. “Sister Hills” chronicles the history of Israel’s settlements from the eve of the Yom Kippur War through the present, a political fable constructed around the tale of two mothers who strike a terrible bargain to save a child. Marking a return to two of Englander’s classic themes, “Peep Show” and “How We Avenged the Blums” wrestle with sexual longing and ingenuity in the face of adversity and peril. And “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is suffused with an intimacy and tenderness that break new ground for a writer who seems constantly to be expanding the parameters of what he can achieve in the short form.

Beautiful and courageous, funny and achingly sad, Englander’s work is a revelation.

Finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2012 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award
A 2013 Sophie Brody Honor Book

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Nobody can dispute that Nathan Englander is a writer's writer: This collection of eight short stories arrives with accolades by Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Richard Russo, and others. Jonathan Lethem declares that Englander's "elegant, inquisitive, and hilarious fictions are a working definition of what a modern short story can do" and Jonathan Safran Foer praises What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank as his "wisest, funniest, bravest, and most beautiful book." Book club worthy.

Sessalee Hensley

Publishers Weekly
It’s a tribute to Englander’s verve and scope that the eight stories in his new collection, although clearly the product of one mind with a particular set of interests (Israel; American Jewry and suburbia; writing and reading; sex, survival, and the long shadow of the Shoah) never cover the same territory. Each is particular, deeply felt, and capable of pressing any number of buttons. The title story, which features a reunion of old friends, a lot of marijuana, and a series of collisions between Israel and America and Orthodoxy and laxity, starts out funny and gets funnier, until suddenly it’s not a bit funny. “Sister Hills” traces an Israeli settlement from its violent founding to its bedroom community transformation and reads like a myth, simple, stark, and, like many a myth, ultimately horrifying. And as you spend a few days with the beleaguered director of “Camp Sundown,” a vacation camp for elderly Jews, you’ll find, as he does, that things you think you’re sure about—guilt, justice, silence, and the morality of revenge—start to get fuzzy. What we talk about when we talk about Englander’s collection turns out to be survival and the difficult—sometimes awful, sometimes touching—choices people make, and Englander (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges), brings a tremendous range and capacity to surprise to his chosen topic. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Agency. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Much like his previous work, this newest collection of short stories from Englander (The Ministry of Special Cases) continues to explore the complexity of Jewish identity through the diasporic experience. An homage to the Raymond Carver short story titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," the first story in this collection features both a secular and an ultra-Orthodox couple discussing the tenants of Judaism under a haze of alcohol and marijuana. The characters in this story oscillate between serious intellectual debate and comical tangents that lead to serious questions, setting the tone for the rest of the collection. 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. Though many of the stories appear didactic in intention, a man lured into a peepshow is given a performance by his wife, former rabbis, and psychiatrists, Englander suspends the moralizing attitude, passively presenting thinly veiled parables to the reader as open-ended questions. VERDICT A wonderful collection of short stories that will appeal to fans of Etgar Keret and Jonathan Safran Foer.—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
Kirkus Reviews
Parables of emotional complexity and moral ambiguity, with lessons that are neither easy nor obvious, by a short-story master (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, 1999, etc.). The title story that opens the collection (evoking in its title both the Holocaust and Raymond Carver) is like so much of the best of the author's narratives, with a voice that evokes a long legacy of Jewish storytelling and the sharp edge of contemporary fiction. It presents the reunion of two women who had been best friends as girls but who have married very different men and seen their lives take very different paths. One is now living an "ultra-Orthodox" family life in Israel, with a husband who insists that "intermarriage...is the Holocaust that is happening now." The other lives in South Florida and has married a more secular Jew, who narrates the story and whose voice initially invites the reader's identification. Yet a change in perspective occurs over the course of the visit, both for the reader and the narrator: "It is the most glorious, and silliest, and freest I can remember feeling in years. Who would think that's what I would be saying with these strict, suffocatingly austere people come to visit our house." Every one of these eight stories casts light on the others, but perhaps the most revelatory is "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side," in which a writer named Nathan, described as "completely secular" and called "an apostate" by his older brother, insists that this story is "true...Not true in the way fiction is truer than truth. True in both realms." It's the story of how a family stays together and a relationship falls apart, told in 63 numbered sections of a paragraph or two. Like so much of this volume, it seems to exist in a literary sphere beyond the one in which the ambitions of postmodern fiction have little to do with the depths of existence beyond the page. The author at his best.
The New York Times Book Review
Generally Englander works with a light touch, a nearly whimsical sobriety. He has pared down his style as well. He is more of a minimalist here…A short story is by definition an odder, more eccentric creature than a novel: a trailer, a fling, a warm-up act, a bouillon cube, a championship game in one inning. Irresolution and ambiguity become it; it's a first date rather than a marriage. When is it mightier than the novel? When its elisions speak as loudly as its lines. Englander knows where to hold back, a particular gift when writing about and around the martyr of his title, the locked up and locked in. A kind of hard-won wisdom spills out on every page.
—Stacy Schiff
The New York Times
…Mr. Englander's tales use allegory and folkloric techniques (reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer) to tackle the largest questions of morality and history…At his best, Mr. Englander manages to delineate…extreme behavior with a combination of psychological insight, allegorical gravity and sometimes uproarious comedy. He can be as funny and outrageous as Philip Roth in describing the incongruities of modern life.
—Michiko Kakutani
From the Publisher
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.”
—Téa 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 Munro. Englander is, quite simply, one of the very best we have.”
—Colum McCann
 
“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.”
—Geraldine Brooks

"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."
—Jennifer Egan
 
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.”
—Jonathan Lethem
 
“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.”
—Dave Eggers
 
“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.”
—Richard Russo

“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 charming old-world sensibility…Englander reveals his grasp of the small moment, the modest gesture, which can reveal unexpected beauty or something unspeakably dark.” –The Economist
 
“Nathan Englander is fearless, big-hearted and incredibly funny…Cut in line to buy this book; chances are, you’ll cry; guaranteed you’ll laugh.” –Oregonian
 
“Virtuosic…meticulously chiseled…These are stories that give you goose bumps. Grade: A.” –Entertainment Weekly

“Particular, deeply felt, and capable of pressing any number of buttons…What we talk about when we talk about Englander’s collection turns out to be survival and the difficult—sometimes awful, sometimes touching—choices people make, and Englander brings a tremendous range and capacity to surprise to his chosen topic.” –Publishers Weekly  
 
“With his meticulously crafted language, Nathan Englander is always unsettling and provocative. He rarely takes, or gives the reader, the easy way out—and that may be precisely why he’s such a pleasure to read.” –World Literature Today
 
One of Anderson Cooper’s Top 5 Summer Book Recommendations

The Ministry of Special Cases
 
“The fate of Argentina’s Jews during the 1976-83 “Dirty War” is depicted with blistering emotional intensity in this start first novel. . . . A political novel anchored, unforgettably, in the realm of the personal. Englander’s story collection promised a brilliant future, and that promise is here fulfilled beyond all expectations.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“This is a staggeringly mature work, gracefully and knowledgeably set in a milieu far from the author’s native New York. . . . Four p’s best describe this work: poignant, powerful, political, and yet personal.”
Booklist (starred review)
 
“[A] harrowing and brilliant first novel . . . Englander’s great gifts are an absurdist sense of humor and a brisk, almost breezy narrative voice. He handles his unbearable subjects with the comic panache of a vaudeville artists, before delivering the final, devastating blow.”
Bookforum
 
“Resonates of Singer, yes, but also of Bernard Malamud and Lewis Carroll, plus the Kafka who wrote The Trial . . . You will wonder how a novel about parents looking for and failing to find their lost son, about a machinery of state determined to abolish not only the future but also the past, can be horrifying and funny at the same time. Somehow . . . this one is.”
Harper’s Magazine
 
“A mesmerizing rumination on loss and memory. . . . It's a family drama layered with agonized and often comical filial connections that are stretched to the snapping point by terrible circumstance . . . builds with breathtaking, perfectly wrought pacing and calm, terrifying logic.”
Los Angeles Times
 
“Englander writes with increasing power and authority . . . Gogol, I. B. Singer and Orwell all come to mind, but Englander’s book is unique in its layering of Jewish tradition and totalitarian obliteration.”
Publishers Weekly
 
“This chilling book of intrigue examines the slow obliteration of culture and families perpetuated by forces seeking absolute political power. Highly recommended.”
Library Journal
 
“Englander secures his status as a powerful storyteller with this book about the disappearance of the son of a down-and-out Jewish hustler during Argentina’s Dirty War in the seventies.”
Details
 
“Englander’s prose moves along with a tempered ferocity—simple yet deceptively incisive. . . . Englander’s book isn’t so much about the search for a lost boy. It’s about fathers and sons and mothers and faith and community and war and hope and shame. Yes, that’s a lot to pack into 339 pages. But not when a book reads at times with the urgency of a thriller.”
Esquire
 
“Wonderful . . . Since much of the book’s power comes from its relentlessly unfolding plot, it’s not fair even to tell who disappears, let alone whether that person reappears. . . . Englander maintains an undertone of quirky comedy almost to the end of his story.”
Newsweek
 
“[Englander’s] journey into the black hole of paradox would have done Kafka or Orwell proud.”
People
 
“Brace yourself for heartbreak . . . most of the story is so convincingly told that it’s hard to imagine that Englander hasn’t weathered political persecution himself.”
Time Out New York
 
“A vibrant, exquisite, quirky and devastating historical novel—and a gift to readers. . . . This is a story propelled by secrets, and part of Englander's achievement is how well he builds nerve-wrecking tension. . . . Written in crisp, unsentimental prose, The Ministry of Special Cases is as heartbreaking a novel as Sophie's Choice.”
—The Hartford Courant
 
“[S]pare, pitch-perfect passages . . . Through deft, understated prose, Englander evokes the incremental way in which fear grips a community, citizens accustom themselves to ignoring those small outrages and how those outrages gradually but inexorably give way to larger atrocities, tolerated by an ever more complicit populace.”
—Miami Herald
 
“The combination of a gift for narrative, a proclivity for pathos, and a lode of arcane knowledge is put to great use in Nathan Englander’s first novel.”
The Boston Phoenix
 
“Nathan Englander bravely wrangles the themes of political liberty and personal loss with the swift style and knowing humor of folklore. In the spirit of the simple ambiguity of its title, The Ministry of Special Cases is carefully contradictory, wise and off-kilter, funny and sad.”
New York Observer
 
“Engrossing . . . Englander perfectly captures the language of disorientation, the tautologies through which the country's oppressors support their own positions and thwart pleading citizens at every turn.”
Rocky Mountain News
 
“As remarkable as Englander’s evocation of a country at war with itself is, his greatest achievement might be the way he manages to do it with a lightness of touch and even a few delicately comic insertions. The heaviness of the subject doesn’t result in correspondingly weighty prose; rather, a risky but flawlessly executed contrast is carried out. And there’s a sting in the tail. How exactly do you come up with an ending for a story about disappearance? . . . Englander finds the answers, and provides a suitably stunning finale to one of the most powerful novels in years.”
Edmonton Journal
 
“This is a rollercoaster of a novel, and while most of the dips are downward, there are memorable moments of hilarity, hope and humanity. Imagine a screwball comedy about one of recent history's darkest and most overlooked periods. . . . The Ministry of Special Cases is a remarkable work of imagination and empathy—a modern-day book of mourning.”
The Gazette (Canada)
 

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
 
“Englander’s voice is distinctly his own--daring, funny and exuberant.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
 
“Taut, edgy, sharply observed . . . A volume of polished gems.”
The New York Times Book Review
 
“Often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud. . . . An exemplary fusion of what T.S. Eliot called ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ and a truly remarkable debut.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“Remarkable art. . . . The author fills each of these pieces with vivid life, with characters that jump off the page.”
Newsday
 
“Every so often there’s a new voice that entirely revitalizes the story. . . . It’s happening again with Nathan Englander, whose precise, funny, heartbreaking, well-controlled but never contrived stories open a window on a fascinating landscape we might never have known was there. It's the best story collection I've read in ages.”
—Ann Beattie
 
“His characters are marvelously sympathetic creations. . . . What is most striking about the collection is not the subject matter but Englander’s genius for telling a tale. . . . Invite[s] comparison to some of the best storytellers--Gogol, Singer, Kafka and even John Cheever.”
Time Out New York
 
For the Relief is that rare case of writing that follows the lead of past masters, yet mostly manages to feel fresh. . . . This is a collection worth celebrating.”
Vogue
 
“In For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander has constructed a deeply affecting treatise on the caprices of fate and the inevitability of laughter.”
The Wall Street Journal
 
“Superb. . . . Englander’s memorable characters and equally memorable circumstances of their struggles make all nine stories a pleasure to read an contemplate.”
Booklist (starred review)
 
“This is a knowing collection. . . . The domestic and professional ramifications read like a collaboration between Cynthia Ozick and Mel Brooks.”
Time
 
“Unforgettable...an awe-inspiring voice.”
San Francisco Examiner
 
“Pitch perfect . . . Englander’s wit has glimpses of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow; its subtlety recalls James Joyce’s Dubliners.”
Newsweek
 
“The stories [from For the Relief of Unbearable Urges], Talmudic in their simplicity, invite interpretation, then repel simple meaning. . . . They offer multiple meanings, each tempting in its own witty way. Englander has been compared to Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the comparison is just.”
The Boston Globe
 
“Assured, imaginative, humorous, and even fearless. . . . It isn’t often, though, in our day, that we encounter a tale spinner of such breadth as Nathan Englander.”
Houston Chronicle
 
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges isn’t merely a promise of better things to come. It’s an astoundingly wise and bliss-inducing collection.”
—Austin American-Statesman
 
“Fresh, compassionate, urgent and often astonishingly wise.”
The Miami Herald
 
“It is not just the clarity and virtuosity of Englander’s stories that makes them outstanding. It is Englander’s voice, which comes to us bold, unwavering, and with a whiff of prophecy.”
The Boston Phoenix
 
“This is not just a writer to watch, he is a writer to listen to.”
Seattle Weekly
 
“His style transcends genre, though his voice is clear and even. . . . [For the Relief of Unbearable Urges] is a stunner.”
The Boston Book Review
 
“The special grace of Nathan Englander’s stories is their ability to evoke, richly and authoritatively, a circumscribed milieu, while reaching out to the turbulences of flesh and spirit that are . . . comprehensively human.”
Bookforum
 
“Englander’s stories are full and meaty meals, about men and women in intense situations
 
“Nathan Englander has created nine little worlds in as many tales, so complete that the images he brings and the characters he gives us will stay with many readers long after the last page is turned.”
January Magazine
 
“Englander’s stories are artfully written with grace and humor and narrative power. . . . He has been compared with Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud. While he shares their storytelling talent, his voice is distinctive.”
The Jewish Week

The Barnes & Noble Review

There's a moment in Raymond Carver's imperishable story "What We Talk About when We Talk About Love" that might be described as one of unregistered revelation. Two middle-aged couples perch at a kitchen table consuming an anesthetizing amount of gin while trying to converse about the fundamentals of love. Mel McGinnis, a cardiologist and the table's chief discourser, for whom "gin" is literally a middle name, offers a heuristic anecdote: He once administered to an elderly husband and wife, married for eons, who were almost snuffed out in a heinous car wreck. Supine in the same hospital room as his wife, the old man despairs not because of his own injuries but because he can't see his wife through the eye holes in his full-body cast. "Can you imagine?" Mel asks. "I'm telling you, the man's heart was breaking because he couldn't turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife."

Carver's story is less a narrative than Mel's monologue, his inebriated apologia on amore, and one that perhaps would have been better served by the title "How We Talk when We Talk About Love," since the how is Carver's real concern: in circles, platitudes, and tautologies, and always without certainty or complete comprehension, drunk or otherwise. Mel concludes his anecdote by asking, "Do you see what I'm saying?" But of course none of the four does see, least of all Mel himself. In true Carverian fashion, all present have had multiple marriages and all kneel at the altar of alcohol. The god of the bottle, like covetous and insecure Yahweh himself, requires one's complete fealty: Eros becomes another casualty of consumption. The revelation that Mel unknowingly offers — true love matures by paradox, by simultaneously vanquishing and uplifting the self — passes unregistered.

In the title story of Nathan Englander's charismatic collection What We Talk About when We Talk About Anne Frank, revelations abound. Two Jewish couples — one secular and American, the other Hassidic and Israeli — spend a Sunday afternoon in the former's Florida home downing vodka and sparring over Jewishness. The Israeli husband, Mark, is a convincing example of exactly what we find obnoxious and, worse, outright yawnful about religious zealotry: chauvinism and moral superiority wedded to a fondness for bullshit and the very pressing need to spread it. The narrator oscillates between acceptance of and contempt for this oaken blowhard, though alcohol and marijuana help ease the afternoon.

But the marijuana, palliative in one regard, is also cause for the narrator's unheralded discovery: his wife, Deb, has filched the weed from their teenage son's bedroom. The narrator is unnerved to learn that his boy has a drug habit and, more menacing, that his wife has kept that fact from him: "It feels to me a lot like betrayal," he muses. "Like my wife's old secret" — she and the Israeli wife, Lauren, smoked copious pot as teenagers — "and my son's new secret are wound up together and that I've somehow been wronged." One senses that this awkward unmasking, this destruction of trust, will deliver a lightning bolt to an otherwise cloudless marriage.

The story's second unheralded revelation belongs to Lauren. In a spacious pantry with the post-pot munchies, the four play an Anne Frank game devised by the Shoah-obsessed Deb: should another Holocaust occur, which of their Gentile friends would protect them? Short on Christian comrades to hypothesize about, they turn to each other, and when Mark pretends to be a Gentile asked to safeguard his wife, Lauren realizes, in a tense and exposing moment, that he would not do it, despite his paltry assertions to the contrary.

Englander's clever version of Carver's famous story sacrifices precisely that element that makes the Carver so effective — the affirmation that epiphanic awakenings are rare, that people don't improve because they are adverse to revelations that might challenge their fought-for complacency and force them to confront the inadequacies they've spent a lifetime hiding from — and yet the sacrifice yields its own potency. The narrator and Lauren will never behold anything in their homes quite the same way again. Carver's story occurs on a quotidian day in denuded lives, Englander's on an uncommon day in lives nearly whole. All eight will wake up the next morning hung over, but only two will wake up changed.

Englander must be one of the most charming, most likable storytellers in America. From his first collection, the wildly successful For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, to his novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, to this collection, he crafts expert fiction with a close to saintly absence of self- congratulation and, more important, with a Cervantean facility for navigating the narrow strait between hilarity and heartwreck. In her magisterial study of Holocaust literature, A Thousand Darknesses, Ruth Franklin rightly contends that Englander's story "The Tumblers," from his debut collection, "is the most brilliant treatment of the Holocaust in contemporary American fiction." It achieves this brilliance partly by way of a comedic absurdity that would feel at ease in Ionesco or Beckett — not the well-worn route for Holocaust literature.

In the final story of Anne Frank, "Free Fruit for Young Widows," Englander revisits the Holocaust, this time without the absurdist hand. A Jerusalem fruit vendor tells his son the life story of a certain patron, Professor Tendler, a survivor of the Shoah and former soldier who served with the fruit vendor in the 1956 Suez War with Egypt. Tendler was a savage killer in the years following the liberation of the camps and in the requisite wars he fought for Israel. He had survived the camp by burrowing into "a mountain of putrid, naked corpses, a hill of men," helped by fellow prisoners who colluded in his concealment and brought him "the crumbs of their crumbs to keep him going" until the Americans arrived. Upon returning home, Tendler slaughtered an entire family, including an infant, who had taken up residence in his house. The fruit vendor's son is befuddled by how this individual could have turned so monstrous when his father, also a survivor, emerged with his morality intact. "He walks, he breathes," the fruit vendor tells him, "and he was very close to making it out of Europe alive. But they killed him?. They killed what was left of him in the end." The story is both a deeply unsettling and oddly touching meditation on the enigma of evil, and — in Kant's famous metaphor — on the crooked timber of humanity from which no straight thing can ever be made.

No offering in Anne Frank fails to accomplish the objective of eminent storytelling: an aptitude for entertainment and instruction affixed to a faultless aesthetic sensibility. "Peep Show" unfurls as if in a Freudian nightmare. "Sister Hills" includes an elegant sparsity and faintly fabulist bent reminiscent of the great Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld. A twist on the classic bully tale "How We Avenged the Blums" extols the deliciousness of retribution while mining the dysphoria that deems it necessary. The most searing, sinister story in the collection, "Camp Sundown," should be the envy of suspense writers everywhere: At an idyllic summer camp, a pair of survivors becomes convinced that a fellow camper was a Nazi guard during the Holocaust. Josh, the young camp director, grows slowly incensed: "Doley Falk, a Nazi. An old Nazi hiding in the Berkshires under the guise of a blue-toed low- sodium bridge-playing Jew. It is madness." And by plot's end that madness will morph into horror, as madness will do given half a chance.

If Englander has a shortcoming as a storyteller it's his apparent inability to imagine a human predicament that is not insistently Jewish. The least pernicious effect of this can be the ennui involved in asking one to traipse over the same landscape again and again, while the most pernicious can be akin to proselytizing. Despite his frequent critiques and satirizing of the Orthodox, Englander writes as if he's still one of them. One shouldn't wish to be tagged a Jewish writer any more than one should wish to be tagged a female writer or an atheist writer, and yet Englander screams for that nomenclature.

He himself hints at an awareness of this potential snag. In "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side," the girlfriend tells the narrator, a writer named Nathan, "What you do is tell the stories you have, as best you can." And when Nathan suggests that his stories might be too recognizable, too rote, the girlfriend changes her mind: "You find better stories than that." In Englander's case, though, better is not the problem — other is the problem.

Perhaps Bellow is an unjust contrast for any living fiction writer to be set against, but consider how his journeys of mind are never restricted by a single religio-cultural passport; consider his steadfast resistance to being cubicled. Updike's immortality has been assured in part by an intrepid willingness to go almost anywhere as witness (how many novelists who happen to be secular Protestants would risk the anomie, the chutzpah, to birth Henry Bech, occluded Jewish writer with an inclination to homicide?). Carver, on the other hand, will always be just shy of greatness because his imagination was tranquilized by his circumstances. No one better understands a heaven-less working class ambushed by the fallacy of the American Dream, but Carver simply has no other subject. "Write what you know" sits among the worst advice ever uttered.

Which is not to suggest that Englander has an equally tranquilized imagination. All three of his books indeed contain stretches of superb imaginative and fabulist strength. Englander has had a Borgesian streak in him from the start and more in common with Bruno Schulz than many have been willing to propose. But the incessant likening of him to Jewish writer par excellence, I. B. Singer, is mainly on target. If Englander intends to join the immortals he'll have to obviate over-trodden territory and widen his range.

For now — no American storyteller writes more beautifully about Jewish identity, and What We Talk About when We Talk About Anne Frank is an indelible confirmation of Englander's observant integrity, one more attestation to the promise of his greatness.

William Giraldi's novel, Busy Monsters, will be published in August. A regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review, he teaches at Boston University and is a senior editor for the journal AGNI.

Reviewer: William Giraldi

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307958709
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/7/2012
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Nathan Englander’s short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Englander is the author of the novel The Ministry of Special Cases and the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right.
 
Mark is looking all stoic and nodding his head. “If we had what you have down here in South Florida . . . ,” he says, and trails off. “Yup,” he says, and he’s nodding again. “We’d have no troubles at all.”
 
“You do have what we have,” I tell him. “All of it. Sun and palm trees. Old Jews and oranges and the worst drivers around. At this point,” I say, “we’ve probably got more Israelis than you.” Debbie, my wife, she puts a hand on my arm. Her signal that I’m taking a tone, or interrupting someone’s story, sharing something private, or making an inappropriate joke. That’s my cue, and I’m surprised, considering how much I get it, that she ever lets go of my arm.
 
“Yes, you’ve got it all now,” Mark says. “Even terrorists.”
 
I look to Lauren. She’s the one my wife has the relation- ship with—the one who should take charge. But Lauren isn’t going to give her husband any signal. She and Mark ran off to Israel twenty years ago and turned Hassidic, and neither of them will put a hand on the other in public. Not for this. Not to put out a fire.
 
 “Wasn’t Mohamed Atta living right here before 9/11?” Mark says, and now he pantomimes pointing out houses. “Goldberg, Goldberg, Goldberg—Atta. How’d you miss him in this place?”
 
“Other side of town,” I say.
 
“That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what you have that we don’t. Other sides of town. Wrong sides of the tracks. Space upon space.” And now he’s fingering a granite countertop in our kitchen, looking out into the living room and the dining room, staring through the kitchen windows out at the pool. “All this house,” he says, “and one son? Can you imagine?”
 
“No,” Lauren says. And then she turns to us, backing him up. “You should see how we live with ten.”
 
“Ten kids,” I say. “We could get you a reality show with that here in the States. Help you get a bigger place.”
 
The hand is back pulling at my sleeve. “Pictures,” Debbie says. “I want to see the girls.” We all follow Lauren into the den for her purse.
 
“Do you believe it?” Mark says. “Ten girls!” And the way it comes out of his mouth, it’s the first time I like the guy. The first time I think about giving him a chance.
 
...
 
Facebook and Skype brought Deb and Lauren back together. They were glued at the hip growing up. Went to school together their whole lives. Yeshiva school. All girls. Out in Queens through high school and then riding the subway together to one called Central in Manhattan. They stayed best friends forever until I married Deb and turned her secular, and soon after that Lauren met Mark and they went off to the Holy Land and went from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox, which to me sounds like a repackaged detergent—ORTHODOX ULTRA®, now with more deep-healing power. Because of that, we’re sup- posed to call them Shoshana and Yerucham. Deb’s been doing it. I’m just not saying their names.
 
“You want some water?” I offer. “Coke in the can?” “
 
‘You’—which of us?” Mark says.
 
You both,” I say. “I’ve got whiskey. Whiskey’s kosher, too,
right?” “If it’s not, I’ll kosher it up real fast,” he says, pretending to be easygoing. And right then, he takes off that big black hat and plops down on the couch in the den.
 
Lauren’s holding the verticals aside and looking out at the yard. “Two girls from Forest Hills,” she says. “Who ever thought we’d be the mothers of grown-ups?”
 
“Trevor’s sixteen,” Deb says. “You may think he’s a grown-up, and he may think he’s a grown-up—but we, we are not convinced.”
 
“Well,” Lauren says, “then whoever thought we’d have kids raised to think it’s normal to have coconuts crashing out back and lizards climbing the walls?”
 
Right then is when Trev comes padding into the den, all six feet of him, plaid pajama bottoms dragging on the floor and T-shirt full of holes. He’s just woken up and you can tell he’s not sure if he’s still dreaming. We told him we had guests. But there’s Trev, staring at this man in the black suit, a beard rest- ing on the middle of his stomach. And Lauren, I’d met her once before, right when Deb and I got married, but ten girls and a thousand Shabbos dinners later—well, she’s a big woman, in a bad dress and a giant blond Marilyn Monroe wig. Seeing them at the door, I can’t say I wasn’t shocked myself. But the boy, he can’t hide it on his face.
 
“Hey,” he says.
 
And then Deb’s on him, preening and fixing his hair and hugging him. “Trevy, this is my best friend from childhood,” she says. “This is Shoshana, and this is—”
 
“Mark,” I say.
 
“Yerucham,” Mark says, and sticks out a hand. Trev shakes it. Then Trev sticks out his hand, polite, to Lauren. She looks at it, just hanging there in the air—offered.
 
“I don’t shake,” she says. “But I’m so happy to see you. Like meeting my own son. I mean it,” she says. And here she starts to cry, for real. And she and Deb are hugging and Deb’s crying, too. And the boys, we just stand there until Mark looks at his watch and gets himself a good manly grip on Trev’s shoulder.
 
“Sleeping until three on a Sunday? Man, those were the days,” Mark says. “A regular little Rumpleforeskin.” Trev looks at me, and I want to shrug, but Mark’s also looking, so I don’t move. Trev just gives us both his best teenage glare and edges out of the room. As he does, he says, “Baseball practice,” and takes my car keys off the hook by the door to the garage.
 
“There’s gas,” I say. “They let them drive here at sixteen?” Mark says.
 
“Insane.”
 
...
 
“So what brings you,” I say, “after all these years?” Deb’s too far away to grab at me, but her face says it all. “Was I sup- posed to know?” I say. “Jeez, Deb must have told me. She told me, for sure. My fault.”
 
“My mother,” Mark says. “She’s failing and my father’s get- ting old—and they come to us for Sukkot every year. You know?”
 
“I know the holidays,” I say.
 
“They used to fly out to us. For Sukkot and Pesach, both. But they can’t fly now, and I just wanted to get over while things are still good. We haven’t been in America—”
 
“Oh, gosh,” Lauren says. “I’m afraid to think how long it’s been. More than ten years. Twelve,” she says. “Twelve years ago. With the kids, it’s just impossible until enough of them are big. This might be”—and now she plops down on the couch—“this might be my first time in a house with no kids under the roof in that long. Oh my. I’m serious. How weird. I feel faint. And when I say faint,” she says, standing up, giving an oddly girlish spin around, “what I mean is giddy.”
 
“How do you do it?” Deb says. “Ten kids? I really do want to hear.”
 
That’s when I remember. “I forgot your drink,” I say to Mark.
 
“Yes, his drink. That’s how,” Lauren says. “That’s how we cope.”
 
...
 
And that’s how the four of us end up back at the kitchen table with a bottle of vodka between us. I’m not one to get drunk on a Sunday afternoon, but I tell you, with a plan to spend the day with Mark, I jump at the chance. Deb’s drinking, too, but not for the same reason. For her and Lauren, I think they’re reliving a little bit of the wild times. The very small window when they were together, barely grown-up, two young women living in New York on the edge of two worlds. And they just look, the both of them, so overjoyed to be reunited, I think they’re half celebrating and half can’t handle how intense the whole thing is.
Deb says, as she’s already on her second, “This is really racy for us. I mean really racy. We try not to drink much at all these days. We think it sets a bad example for Trevor. It’s not good to drink in front of them right at that age when they’re all transgressive. He’s suddenly so interested in that kind of thing.”
 
“I’m just happy when he’s interested in something,” I say.
 
Deb slaps at the air. “I just don’t think it’s good to make drinking look like it’s fun with a teenager around.”
 
Lauren smiles and straightens her wig. “Does anything we do look fun to our kids?” I laugh at that. Honestly, I’m really liking her more and more.
 
“It’s the age limit that does it,” Mark says. “It’s the whole American puritanical thing, the twenty-one-year-old drinking age and all that. We don’t make a big deal about it in Israel, and so the kids, they don’t even notice alcohol. Except for the foreign workers on Fridays, you hardly see anyone drunk at all.”
 
“The workers and the Russians,” Lauren says.
 
“The Russian immigrants,” he says, “that’s a whole sepa- rate matter. Most of them, you know, not even Jews.”
 
“What does that mean?” I say.
 
“It means matrilineal descent, is what it means,” Mark says. “It means with the Ethiopians there were conversions.”
 
But Deb wants to keep us away from politics, and the way we’re arranged, me in between them and Deb opposite (it’s a round table, our kitchen table), she practically has to throw her- self across to grab hold of my arm. “Fix me another,” she says.
 
And here she switches the subject to Mark’s parents. “How’s the visit been going?” she says, her face all somber. “How are your folks holding up?”
 
Deb is very interested in Mark’s parents. They’re Holocaust survivors. And Deb has what can only be called an unhealthy obsession with the idea of that generation being gone. Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to me, too. I care, too. All I’m saying is, there’s healthy and unhealthy, and my wife, she gives this subject a lot, a lot, of time. “Do you know,” she’ll say to me and Trevor, just absolutely out of nowhere, “World War Two veterans die at a rate of a thousand a day?”
 
“What can I say?” Mark says. “My mother’s a very sick woman. And my father, he tries to keep his spirits up. He’s a tough guy.”
 
“I’m sure,” I say. And then I look in my drink, all serious, and give a shake of my head. “They really are amazing.”
 
“Who?” Mark says. “Fathers?”
 
I look back up and they’re all three staring at me. “Survivors,” I say, seeing I jumped the gun.
 
“There’s good and bad,” Mark says. “Like anyone else.” And then he laughs. “Though there isn’t anyone else in my par- ents’ place.”
Lauren says, “You should see it. The whole of Carmel Lake Village, it’s like a DP camp with a billiards room. They’re all there.”
 
“One tells the other,” Marks says, “and they follow. It’s amazing. From Europe to New York, and now, for the end of their lives, again the same place.”
 
“Tell them that crazy story,” Lauren says. “Tell them, Yuri.”
 
“Tell us,” Deb says. And I can see in her eyes that she wants it to be one of those stories of a guy who spent three years hiding inside one of those cannons they use for the circus. And at the end of the war, a Righteous Gentile comes out all joyous and fires him through a hoop and into a tub of water, where he discovers his lost son breathing through a straw.
 
“So you can picture my father,” Mark says, “in the old country, he went to heder, had the peyes and all that. But in America, a classic galusmonger. He looks more like you than me. It’s not from him that I get this,” he says, pointing at his beard. “Shoshana and I—”
 
“We know,” I say.
“So my father. They’ve got a nice nine-hole course, a driving range, some greens for the practice putting. And my dad, he’s at the clubhouse. I go with him. He wants to work out in the gym, he says. Tells me I should come. Get some exercise. And he tells me”—and here Mark points at his feet, sliding a leg out from under the table so we can see his big black clodhoppers—“‘You can’t wear those Shabbos shoes on the treadmill. You need the sneakers. You know, sports shoes?’ he says. And I tell him, ‘I know what sneakers are. I didn’t forget my English any more than your Yiddish is gone.’ And so he says, ‘Ah shaynem dank dir in pupik.’ Just to show me who’s who.”
“The point,” Lauren says. “Tell them the point.”
 
“So he’s sitting in the locker room, trying to pull a sock on, which is, at that age, basically the whole workout in itself. It’s no quick business. And I see, while I’m waiting, and I can’t believe it. I nearly pass out. The guy next to him, the number on his arm, it’s three before my father’s number. You know, in sequence.”
 
“What do you mean?” Deb says.
 
“I mean, the number tattooed. It’s the same as my father’s camp number, digit for digit, but my father’s ends in an eight. And this guy’s, it ends in a five. That’s the only difference. I mean, they’re separated by two people. And I look at this guy. I’ve never seen him before in my life. So I say, ‘Excuse me, sir’ to the guy. And he just says, ‘You with the Chabad? I don’t want anything but to be left alone. I already got candles at home.’ I tell him, ‘No. I’m not. I’m here visiting my father.’ And to my father, I say, ‘Do you know this gentleman? Have you two met? I’d really like to introduce you, if you haven’t.’ And they look each other over for what, I promise you, is minutes. Actual minutes. It is—with kavod I say this, with respect for my father— but it is like watching a pair of big beige manatees sitting on a bench, each with one sock on. They’re just looking each other up and down, everything slow. And then my father says, ‘I seen him. Seen him around.’ The other guy, he says, ‘Yes, I’ve seen.’ ‘You’re both survivors,’ I tell them. ‘Look, look,’ I say. ‘The numbers.’ And they look. ‘They’re the same,’ I say. And they both hold out their arms to look at the little ashen tattoos. ‘The same,’ I tell them. And to my father, I say, ‘Do you get it? The same, except his—his, it’s right ahead of yours. Look! Compare.’ So they look. They compare.” And to us now, Mark’s eyes are pop- ping out of his head. “I mean, think about it,” he says. “Around the world, surviving the unsurvivable, these two old guys end up with enough money to retire to Carmel Lake and play golf every day. So I say to my dad, ‘He’s right ahead of you,’ I say. ‘Look, a five,’ I say. ‘And yours is an eight.’ And the other guy looks and my father looks, and my father says, ‘All that means is, he cut ahead of me in line. There, same as here. This guy’s a cutter, I just didn’t want to say.’ ‘Blow it out your ear,’ the other guy says. And that’s it. Then they get back to putting on socks.”
 
Deb looks crestfallen. She was expecting something empowering. Some story with which to educate Trevor, to reconfirm her belief in the humanity that, from inhumanity, forms. So now she’s just staring, her mouth hanging on to this thin, watery smile.
 
But me, I love that kind of story. I’m starting to take a real shine to both these two, and not just because I’m suddenly feeling sloshed.
 
“Good story, Yuri,” I say, copying his wife. “Yerucham,” I say, “that one’s got zing.”
 
Yerucham hoists himself up from the table, looking proud. He checks the label of our white bread on the counter—making sure it’s kosher. He takes a slice, pulls off the crust, and rolls the white part against the countertop with the palm of his hand. He rolls it up into a little ball. He comes over and pours himself a shot and throws it back. And then he eats that crazy dough ball. Just tosses it in his mouth, as if it’s the bottom of his own personal punctuation mark—you know, to underline his story.
 
“Is that good?” I say.
 
 “Try it,” he says. He goes to the counter and slings me, through the air, he pitches me a slice of white bread, and says, “But first pour yourself a shot.”
 
I reach for the bottle and find that Deb’s got her hands around it, and her head’s bowed down, like the bottle is anchor- ing her, keeping her from tipping back.
 
“Are you okay, Deb?” Lauren says. She’s got a hand on Deb’s neck, and then switches to rubbing her arm. And I know what it is. I know what it is and I just up and say it: “It’s because it was funny.”
 
“Honey!” Deb says.
“She won’t tell you, but she’s a little obsessed with the Holocaust. And that story, no offense, Mark, it’s not what she had in mind.”
 
Mark is staring back and forth between us. And, honestly, the guy looks hurt. And I should leave it be, I know. But I just have to go on. It’s not like someone from Deb’s high school is around every day offering insights.
 
“It’s like she’s a survivor’s kid, my wife. It’s crazy, that edu- cation they give them. Her grandparents were all born in the Bronx, but it’s like, I don’t know. It’s like here we are twenty minutes from downtown Miami, but really it’s 1937 and we live on the edge of Berlin. It’s astounding.”
 
“That’s not it!” Deb says, openly defensive, her voice just super high up on the register. “I’m not upset about that. It’s just the alcohol. All this alcohol,” she says, and rolls her eyes, mak- ing light. “It’s that and seeing Lauren. Seeing Shoshana, after all this time.”
 
“Oh, she was always like this in high school,” Shoshana says. “Sneak one drink, and she started to cry.”
 
“Alcohol is a known depressive,” Yerucham says. And for that, for stating facts like that, he’s straight on his way to being disliked again.
 
“You want to know what used to get her going, what would make her truly happy?” Shoshana says. And I tell you, I don’t see it coming. I’m as blindsided as Deb was with that numbers story.
 
“It was getting high,” Shoshana says. “That’s what always did it. Smoking up, it would just make her laugh for hours and hours.”
 
“Oh my God,” Deb says, but not to Shoshana. She’s point- ing at me, likely because I look as startled as I feel. “Look at my big bad secular husband,” Deb says. “He really can’t handle it. He can’t handle his wife’s having any history of naughtiness at all—Mr. Liberal Open-Minded.” And to me, she says, “How much more chaste a wife can you dream of than a modern-day Yeshiva girl who stayed a virgin until twenty-one? Honestly,” she says, “what did you think Shoshana was going to say was so much fun?”
 
“Honestly-honestly?” I say. “I don’t want to. It’s embar- rassing.”
 
“Let’s hear,” Mark says. “We’re all friends here. New friends, but friends.”
 
“I thought you were—,” I say, and I stop. “You’ll kill me.”
 
“Say it!” Deb says, positively glowing. “Honestly, I thought you were going to say it was something like competing in the Passover Nut Roll, or making sponge cake. Something like that.” I hang my head. And Shoshana and Deb are just laughing so hard, they can’t breathe. They’re grabbing at each other, so that I can’t tell, really, if they’re holding each other up or pulling each other down. I’m afraid one of them’s going to fall.
 
“I can’t believe you told him about the nut roll,” Shoshana says.
 
“And I can’t believe,” Deb says, “you just told my husband of twenty-two years how much we used to get high. I haven’t touched a joint since before we were married,” she says. “Have we, honey? Have we smoked since we got married?”
 
“No,” I say. “It’s been a very long time.”
 
“So, come on, Shosh. When was it? When was the last time you smoked?”
 
Now, I know I mentioned the beard on Mark. But I don’t know if I mentioned how hairy a guy he is. It grows, that thing, right up to his eyeballs. Like having eyebrows on top and bot- tom both. It’s really something. So when Deb asks the question, the two of them, Shosh and Yuri, they’re basically giggling like children, and I can tell, in the little part that shows, in the bit of skin I can see, that Mark’s eyelids and earlobes are in full blush.
 
“When Shoshana said we drink to get through the days,” Mark says, “she was kidding about the drinking.”
 
“We don’t drink much,” Shoshana says. “It’s smoking that she means,” he says. “We smoke,” Lauren says, reconfirming. “Cigarettes?” Deb says.
 
“We still get high,” Shoshana says. “I mean, all the time.”
 
“Hassidim!” Deb screams. “You’re not allowed! There’s no way.”
 
“Everyone does in Israel. It’s like the sixties there,” Mark says. “Like a revolution. It’s the highest country in the world. Worse than Holland, and India, and Thailand put together. Worse than anywhere, even Argentina—though they may have us tied.”
 
“Well, maybe that’s why the kids aren’t interested in alcohol.”
 
And Yerucham admits that maybe this is so.
 
“Do you want to get high now?” Deb says. And we all three look at her. Me, with surprise. And those two just with straight longing.
 
“We didn’t bring,” Shoshana says. “Though it’s pretty rare anyone at customs peeks under the wig.”
 
“Maybe you guys can find your way into the glaucoma underground over at Carmel Lake,” I say. “I’m sure that place is rife with it.”
 
“That’s funny,” Mark says.
 
“I’m funny,” I say, now that we’re all getting on.
 
“We’ve got pot,” Deb says.
 
“We do?” I say. “I don’t think we do.” Deb looks at me and bites at the cuticle on her pinkie.
 
“You’re not secretly getting high all these years?” I say, feeling honestly like maybe I’m about to get a whole list of deceptions. I really don’t feel well at all.
 
“Our son,” Deb says.
 
“He has pot.”
 
“Our son?” “Trevor,” she says.
 
“Yes,” I say. “I know which one.”

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Reading Group Guide

1. The narrator of the title story suggests that his wife’s preoccupation with Holocaust survivors is excessive.  “And Deb has what can only be called an unhealthy obsession with the idea of that generation being gone. Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to me, too. I care, too.  All I’m saying is, there’s healthy and unhealthy, and my wife, she gives this subject a lot, a lot, of time.”  How do you feel about this? Later, the narrator suggests that Deb was disappointed by the story about the two survivors meeting years later in the locker room in Florida because she was expecting something that would “reconfirm her belief in the humanity that, from inhumanity, forms.”  What does it mean to have an unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust?  How do you feel about Deb as a character?

2. Yerucham and Shoshana used to be called Mark and Lauren, before they became ultra-Orthodox. Early in the title story, though, Shoshana confides, “We still get high. . . . I mean, all the time,” and that, in relation to traveling with drugs, “it’s pretty rare that anyone at customs peeks under the wig.”  What do you think Nathan Englander’s point of view is about religious Orthodoxy? What point is he trying to make?

3. Appearance and reality, secrets and hidden truths, are themes in the title story. These are approached comically, at first, when Deb and her husband discuss Trevor, and the discovery Deb had made and kept a secret. “But he’s the son. . . . I’m the father. Even if it’s a secret with him, it should be a double secret between me and you. I should always get to know—but pretend not to know—any secret with him. . . . That’s how it goes. . . . That’s how it’s always been. . . . Hasn’t it?” What is at stake here? Why does the narrator suddenly feel “desperate and unsure”? What fears are gathering force in this moment?

4. The idea above—the possibility that we don’t know our spouses, or even ourselves, and that perhaps our lives are something quite other than what we believe them to be—is echoed with powerful, indeed tragic, implications at the story’s conclusion. Discuss the terrible parlor game the couples play in the story’s final pages. What do the couples learn about one another? About themselves? How does this change your understanding of each character and the portraits the author had painted of them in the story’s opening pages?

5. The story “Sister Hills” is divided into four discrete sections. Why? Discuss how the story’s structure relates to its themes.

6. “Sister Hills” can be read as a political allegory based on the story of a bargain struck in order to save the life of a critically ill child.  In this reading, who or what does the child represent, and what meaning can be inferred from the exchange of money? What is the relevance of the two mothers? 

7. Rena changes dramatically over the course of “Sister Hills.” Describe her journey and discuss the difference between her true relationship with Aheret and the way the young couple perceive the nature of their relationship at the story’s end. What point is the author trying to make through his use of irony here, and how does this irony relate to the story as a whole?

8. What statement, in “Sister Hills,” is the author trying to make about the history of the Israeli settlements? What do you think the author believes about their cost? About their fate?  Look in particular at pages 64 to 66, where Rena discusses with the rabbis the nature of a contract, both symbolic and real, and the nature of justice.

9. How does the story of Masada relate to the story of Zvi Blum and the bully known as the Anti-Semite in “How We Avenged the Blums”?

10. On page 88 of the story above, Englander writes, “We weren’t cohesive. We knew how to move as a group but not as a gang. We needed practice. After two thousand years of being chased, we didn’t have any hunt left in us.”  What does he mean? How is he suggesting Jewish history relates to the fate of these neighborhood boys and their plight?

11. “How We Avenged the Blums” concludes with a powerful image of a circle of boys clustered around the Anti-Semite, and the narrator’s unexpected insight about the nature of helplessness and power, dignity and victimhood: “As I watched him, I knew I’d always feel that to be broken was better than to break—my failing.” What does he mean? And why does he consider this his failing?

12. At the start of “Peep Show,” Allen Fein reflects on his transformation. “He had only wanted a peep. He’d gone up the stairs a loyal husband and lover, a working man on his way home to the burbs. And now, minutes later, a different man emerges: a violator of girls and wives and matrimonial bonds.”  Then, when the partition rises and unexpectedly reveals a rabbi, Allen muses: “Where the rabbis are involved, there is always a path to be followed. Either you stay on it or you stray into darkness: This is the choice they offer. And, much as Allen feels bitter and lied to for all these years, he half wishes he could live in their realm, where a man is religious or he is not, a good husband or bad.”  How are these two moments related? What is the author saying about the nature of identity, morality, and truth?

13. How is “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” different from the other seven stories in this collection, thematically and tonally? Did you feel it was more personal, intimate? Why do you think the author chose to narrate this story in the first person?

14. “Camp Sundown” is a story about vigilante justice undertaken by a group of geriatric campers at a bucolic summer retreat.  Discuss the author’s views on guilt and innocence. Look in particular at the passage on page 166, where one of the campers confronts the director and implores, “It’s your choice, Director. You take one crime to bed with you every evening; take a second one tonight.” What is happening in this scene?

15. What do you think the director should have done in “Camp Sundown”? What should the campers have done? Why?

16. “The Reader” is an exploration of the relationship between authors and readers. Is there a social contract between writers and readers? What is an author’s responsibility to his or her reader?

17. Discuss the contrast between the narrative form of “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in which a father is lovingly recounting a story to his son, and the story’s actual substance. How does this dissonance contribute to the story’s power? What is the significance of the comment Etgar’s father makes when Etgar is twelve: “Do you want to know why I can care for a man who once beat me? Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.”

18. In “Free Fruit for Young Widows” Englander distinguishes between two kinds of survival, saying that Professor Tendler “made it through the camps. He walks, he breathes, and he was very close to making it out of Europe alive. But they killed him. After the war, we still lost people. They killed what was left of him in the end.”  What does he mean?

19. At the heart of several of these stories is the relationship between religious orthodoxy and contemporary American culture. How do you think the author views religion and issues of faith and belief?

20. The title story, “Sister Hills,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” all pivot around incidents within Jewish history, and the question of how essential stories—stories that define us, that shape both our understanding of the past and our vision of the future—are told and retold over the course of many years. What do you think Englander is suggesting about history, tradition, and storytelling itself?

21. Many of the stories in this collection are comic in tone, despite the tragic nature of Englander’s dramatic predicaments.  How does humor serve the author’s intentions? How does it express his view of life?

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Customer Reviews

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( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2012

    Wonderful

    Intelligent and deceivingly complex. While Mr. Englander writes about subjects that individuals might find uncomfortable or even intolerable, it is the underlying meaning and motivations of the characters in these stories that are the reward.
    Highly recommended.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2012

    Good book

    I think ann was a brave girl in general but to tell u the truth i would be scared if u were hiding from nazies to . Ann is the kind of girl to look up to she had a humble attitute when she went to concintracin camp. Sorry for the wrong spelling on bumpy road

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2013

    Gfdgy

    Ddsasrddgw

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2012

    One of the most interesting collections I've read in many years.

    One of the most interesting collections I've read in many years. The title story reflects several themes that scholars are wrestling with right now.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2012

    five Star

    For me ,this has truly become a page turner............funny, informative. Many Thanks.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 9, 2012

    Worthless!

    Nazis, a young girl hiding in an attic, and an american elitist snob having a few laughs at her expense. What's not to love? Brain candy for the mentally hypogylcemic.

    0 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2012

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    Posted June 9, 2012

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    Posted March 17, 2013

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    Posted July 11, 2014

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    Posted April 2, 2012

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