From the title story, a provocative portrait of two marriages inspired by Raymond Carver’s masterpiece, to “Peep Show” and “How We Avenged the Blums,” two stories that return to the author’s classic themes of sexual longing and ingenuity in the face of adversity, these stories affirm Nathan Englander’s place at the very forefront of contemporary American fiction.
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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.
“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.”
What People are Saying About This
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 fictionalways animated by a deep, vibrant core of historical resonance.
Nathan Englander's elegant, inquisitive, and hilarious fictions are a working definition of what the modern short story can do.
Nathan Englander is one of our most consistently brilliant, bold and funny writersthat part isn't really in doubtbut the depth of his feeling is the thing that separates him from just about everyone. You can hear his heart thumping feverishly on every page. And his stories are perhaps the most ideal vessel for his gifts.
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.
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.
“Showcases Mr. Englander’s extraordinary gifts as a writer.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“I’m in love. For evidence that collections can be just as satisfying, read as deep, if not deeper, and beat with as much life and insight as a hulking novel, look no further.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
Audacious and idiosyncratic, darkly clever and brightly faceted.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Terrific. . . . When is a short story mightier than a 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 Book Review
“Imaginatively powerful. . . . What makes the stories resonate long after their final paragraphs is Englander’s odd coupling of the morally serious and the deliciously comic. . . . His second collection of short stories more than fulfills the large promises of his first. What do we do when we talk about Englander? We talk about how he has become a master storyteller.” —The Miami Herald
“Humane, philosophically provocative. . . . Each story in the book is essentially a parable, and Englander’s special talent is to burnish his parables with a patina of persuasive realism. . . . Characters tell (and re-tell) stories within stories, and seek to understand themselves by means of narrative, in a way that seems quintessentially, satisfyingly Jewish.” —Boston Globe
“Englander is at his best. . . . He never writes less than gorgeously, but when, from narrow confines, he puts his finger on the universal, he’s Shakespeare.” —Bloomberg News
“Nathan Englander is a master at putting remarks into the mouths of ordinary people that distill entire streams of politics and religion. . . . They ring true and are a funny, chilling, joy to read.” —The Plain Dealer
“Profound and magical. . . . These eight masterful stories also continue the work of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud—authors who mined the Jewish-American experience with tremendous humor, humanity and healthy amounts of guilt.” —USA Today
“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.” —Los Angeles Times
“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.” —Geraldine Brooks
“Grade A. . . . Virtuosic. . . . Each of these meticulously chiseled stories contains a hidden stinger that throws the reader for a wicked loop. . . . These are stories that give you goose bumps.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Englander’s latest short story collection marks him out as one of the finest American writers of his generation.” —Financial Times
“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
“The stories are so tightly wrought, the sentences laid out so cleanly, the dialogue so real and the humor so self-lacerating. . . . If Mr. Englander is in fact the future of Jewish-American prose, then that future looks to be a far more moral and compassionate one than the writing of the recent past. . . . the humor and the brilliance, and the investigation of cultural identity, are all still there.” —The New York Observer
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is Nathan Englander’s wisest, funniest, bravest, and most beautiful book. It overflows with revelations and gems.” —Jonathan Safran Foer
This collection is a jolt of electricity through the heart, the head, the whole body nation. Here is a latitude of exquisitely-wrought prose. Courageous and provocative. Edgy and timeless. In Englander's hands, story-telling is a transformative act. Put him alongside Singer, Carver and Munro. Englander is, quite simply, one of the very best we have.
Nathan Englander's new collection of stories tells the tangled truth of life, in prose that, as ever, surprises the reader with its gnarled beauty. One need look no further than 'Free Fruit for Young Widows' and 'Sister Hills' to find certifiable masterpieces of contemporary short story art.
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. His writing is liberal in every good sense of the word.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is Nathan Englander's wisest, funniest, bravest, and most beautiful book. It overflows with revelations and gems.
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.
Nathan Englander is a master of the short story and one of the great voices of our time. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank showcases Englander's comic genius and lacerating vision of human nature as never before, in stories that are audacious, expertly crafted, and often unforgettably beautiful. The best work yet from a true American treasure.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.
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?