Nathan Englander’s new collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, was published in February, 2012. Englander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish New York home, but his adulthood led him on a secular path. In an interview with Book Browse, he said, “If it weren’t for fear of God’s instantaneous and violent retribution, I’d declare myself an atheist.” Nevertheless, among his talents is the ability to make Judaism, the Holocaust, faith, loss of faith, family, love, and growing up in and out of religion both heartbreaking and hilarious. As a religious person myself, I am deeply moved by these characters’ struggles with and embracing of cultural and spiritual traditions. The title story in particular is a trifle of one-time pot-smoking adults until it’s very much not, and packs a gut punch in the last lines. I also loved “Free Fruit for Young Widows” and “Sister Hills” for similar reasons, and for their settings in Israel and Palestine. “Camp Sundown” is a darkly comic tale of old people at a leisure summer camp until it takes a turn that illustrates some profound and deep wounds. Overall this collection is incredibly strong.
I also greatly admire Englander’s beautiful prose, like this from “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” about locating dead relatives in a cemetery: “When you find your star and see the toasted-sand warmness of the name, you feel, in the strangest way, as if you’re being received as much as you’re there to pay tribute.”
If it’s frowned-upon to “trade” on the Holocaust, as some criticism of his stories seems to imply, I give Englander credit here for its every mention looming large over every character, and sometimes informing their actions in very meaningful ways.
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