Staff Pick – What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander’s title – What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (M) – pays homage to Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (M) in which two couples sit around a kitchen table drinking gin and talking about the nature of love.

As they grow more intoxicated they are increasingly unable to express what they believe to be indications of real love and the story takes a dark and silent turn. Englander’s couples sit around a kitchen table in suburban Florida and talk about what it means to live a life in the Jewish faith while smoking marijuana. Their talk takes a dark turn as the conversation turns to a childhood game – the Anne Frank game – which speculates about which friend would be likely to hide you from the Nazis, revealing that one of the women has spent her entire life fearing another holocaust.

Nathan Englander’s stories touch on not only the crisis of faith and belief, but also about the perilous state of the written word. In the story, The Reader, an author reads to one solitary fan in a series of bookstores which have been taken over as a hangout by coffee drinkers.

Book reviewers seem to disagree on the strengths and weaknesses of the individual stories, however, the one that I found to be particularly moving is Sister Hills. An Israeli settlement begins with two meagre shacks and eventually grows into an affluent suburban community. The story begins in 1973 when two women are left behind to defend their property and we see them again over three more points in history ending in 2011. As their husbands and sons fight in a modern conflict, the women, out of desperation, turn to superstition to save an infant girl’s life. In order the cheat death the mother declares her daughter worthless and sells her to her neighbour for a paltry sum, but promises to raise her herself so as not to burden her. The child lives and the mother and the rest of the family prosper. Over the years the neighbour falls on hard times and loses all of her sons. In her old age she comes and claims the daughter she purchased so many years ago.

Englander’s exploration of faith, Jewish culture and the ongoing trauma of the holocaust bring to mind short stories by Bernard Malamud (M) and is often compared to Jonathan Safran Foer (M) as both authors are considered to by stylistically complex, experimental, yet still accessible.

If you have enjoyed Nathan Englander’s short stories, you might also Shadows on the Hudson (M) by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

“The late Nobel laureate Singer was fascinated by the collision of the sacred and the profane, the old and the new, the moral and the licentious, the mystical and the concrete, and wove all of his mesmerizing novels between these opposing pairs, including this posthumous masterpiece. Originally published in Yiddish in serial form in The Forward in 1957 and now beautifully translated into English, this impassioned tale of one man’s spiritual crisis and the tragedies it causes exemplifies Singer’s twin gifts for storytelling and dialectics. It is 1947 and a group of Jewish Holocaust survivors living in New York City are reeling from the horrors of Hitler’s reign. How, they ask, could God allow such evil?

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Each character seeks solid ground in the wake of this catastrophe, either by trying to contact the dead in seances, following the tenets of Jewish law with renewed commitment, amassing wealth, or risking everything for love. Hertz Grein and Anna Luria throw their world into chaos by becoming lovers. Anna leaves her husband and causes her father terrible grief; Grein abandons his wife, children, and mistress, but none of these ties can really be broken, and they all remain ensnared in the consequences of the lovers’ rashness like flies in a spider’s web. Both philosophical and poetic, Singer, whose intensity brings Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to mind, uses every moment of doubt, wave of fear, and anguished conversation as a forum for hashing out questions of faith while his exaltedly metaphorical descriptions mirror the intensity of his characters’ emotions.” Booklist


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