Book of the Week: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

This week, I bring you Nathan Englander‘s short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne FrankPeople made a metric tonne of noise about this when it came out early last year, and I just now got around to reading it myself.

what we talk about

So, the great thing about short story collections if you don’t somehow already know this (maybe you majored in engineering in college or something) is that you pretty much always have time for them. It’s not like getting Anna Karenina in your hands and thinking “I’ll just do this later.” You have time right now.

Anyway, more specifically about these short stories: I loved them. Like any collection of short stories, there are some that are better than others, but three of the eight stood out to me. The eponymous story, “Sister Hills”, and “Camp Sundown” are outstanding examples of stories that grapple with Jewish identity in America, the confusing feelings some American Jews have about their coreligionists in Israel, and the ways in which the trauma of the Shoah still reverberates loudly in contemporary society.  The others take on these themes, too, but when I was reflecting on these stories after I finished, those specific ones resonated with me.

The great thing about Englander is that he’s a Jewish writer unafraid of being pretty Jewish (there’s no glossary of terms or parenthetical insert about what this means or whatever, so keep up), but he doesn’t beat you over the head with it the way Michael Chabon sometimes can or Phillip Roth almost always does. “What We Talk About…”, for example, touches on the universal-but-still-weird feeling you get when hanging out with friends from childhood with whom you no longer have anything in common. “Sister Hills” and “Camp Sundown” tangle with how frustrating your family can be, and the changing nature of filial piety. There’s so much to unpack page to page that I won’t even try to summarize it.

I also loved that he isn’t afraid to be a little funny, or to talk about the Holocaust in ways that are…unconventional, to say the least. “Free Fruit for Young Widows”, for instance, is a fairy tale set up that talks frankly about the horrors of war while making use of magical language. If there’s another example of that somewhere, I don’t know where it is.*

Anyway, I can’t recommend this highly enough, even if you feel like you’ve had your fill of Jewish-American writers writing about Jewish-American topics. It’s a collection with a great mix of gravitas and humor, and his word-pickin’ skills are second to none.

Have any of you read this? What did you think about his stories? Which were your favorites? Did you hear him read his favorite Singer story (also one of mine) on the New Yorker podcast? OMG PLEASE GO LISTEN.

Next week, I’m reading another short story collection. Please join in!

*readers, please note that I love magic realism and will revisit this love early and often.

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