What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

by Nathan Englander

Book, 2012



Call number




New York : Knopf, 2012.


"The author of the sensational national best seller For the Relief of Unbearable Urges returns with a commanding new collection of short stories: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank establishes Nathan Englander beyond all doubt as the heir to Roth, Malamud, and Babel. A tour de force. The title story, inspired by Carver's masterpiece, is a comic classic, a provocative portrait of two marriages in which the holocaust is played out as a devastating parlor game. "Camp Sundown" is an outlandishly dark story of vigilante justice undertaken by a troop of geriatric campers in a bucolic summer enclave who recognize a fellow vacationer as a former Nazi guard. "Free Fruit for Young Widows" is a small, sharp study in evil. "Sister Hills" chronicles the history of the Israeli settlements from the eve of the Yom Kippur war through the present, a political story constructed around the tale of two mothers who strike a terrible bargain to save a child. A great leap forward from one of our most audacious and important writers, and a sensational literary event"--… (more)

Media reviews

It’s the title story and “Everything I Know About My Family” that point to Mr. Englander’s evolution as a writer, his ability to fuse humor and moral seriousness into a seamless narrative, to incorporate elliptical — yes, Carver-esque — techniques into his arsenal of talents to explore
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how faith and family (and the stories characters tell about faith and family) ineluctably shape an individual’s identity.
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1 more
Light on technical and formal fireworks, heavy on savoury comedy and possessed of a somehow uncontemporary moral gravity, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is instead a short story collection of atypical seriousness and grip.

User reviews

LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
Nathan Englander writes about families with insight and great sensitivity. He digs behind the surface dialog to reveal what is hiding beneath. In the title story—“What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank”—a wife asks her husband if he would save her in the Holocaust, if he would
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risk his own life to hide her in the attic. He says yes, but, in a feat of miraculous writing, we all know the true answer is no. The second story, “Sister Hills,” is a kind of epic allegory covering decades that challenges deep tenets of the Jewish faith. In “Peep Show,” a successful lawyer faces down his hidden guilt about suppressing his Jewishness in favor of a secular life. “Everything I Know about My Family on My Mother’s Side” is uniquely structured as a series of sixty-three numbered paragraphs, intermingling family lore with the narrator’s personal struggle to form meaningful relationships. Perhaps the best story is the last one, “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in which a father teaches his son about moral ambiguity and unconditional forgiveness. Judaism is a big part of these stories, as are family relationships and the theme of individual responsibility. This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking collection by a masterful story teller.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
Nathan Englander's book of short stories about the life of Jews both in America and in England is by turns funny, provocative and disturbing and demonstrates a clear-eyed picture of teh somewhat schizphrenic way that modern day Jews fit into society both in America and in Israel.
LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This was an excellent collection of short stories. Although they deal with Jewish experiences, there is a universality that can be appreciated by all people. Being Jewish I related to the stories and understood the source material. It gave me a chance to see a more ethnically focused aspect to the
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religion than I practice. The stories were very creative. I especially like the title story. Having read a novel by Englander and hearing the great reviews of this book, I can say that I was not disappointed.
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LibraryThing member kisigler
Though the styles of the stories jumped around - some realism, some surrealism, some allegory - they all dealt with cultural, spiritual and political aspects of Judaism. As someone who is Jewish and has traveled in Israel, I found the stories very interesting and relatable. I would be curious to
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hear the reaction of someone with no connection to Judaism, though.

The title story, the best in the book, is about two middle aged Jewish couples, one American-secular and one Israeli-Orthodox, getting together after many years apart. Tensions build around their differing attitudes towards relationships, parenting, religion and politics. Their positions are put to the test, and some are found wanting, when they play a "game" in which they have to decide who would hide them and who would turn them in if there was ever a second Holocaust.
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LibraryThing member KatyBee
A fine and thoughtful collection of short stories by Nathan Englander. I'm very glad I found this in the library - it only takes a sitting to read. The characters and scenarios are beautifully crafted. He is a wonderful writer with intelligence and heart.
LibraryThing member Brainannex
I am not usually a fan of short stories. I find I get invested in the characters and the story and then it's over. Very unsatisfying. However, these stories are well-rounded and long enough so that the arc of the story seems right but not rushed. Some are stronger than others; the first story was
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my favorite by far. I will definitely seek out more of his writing.
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LibraryThing member fist
We are all Jews. Englander's stories are set in a Jewish world, with protagonists as diverse as settlers on the West Bank, secular couples in Florida or old World survivors in Israel. Yet, as rooted as they are in this particular world with its own customs and language, their ethical dilemmas are
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clearly universal, and the reader cannot help but be drawn in. The story about the Author's readings provides a little dip in the momentum, but otherwise all stories in this book are gems. The author dissects these quandaries with Talmudic precision: when and how to forgive? What is a life worth living? By what standards should you pick your friends? The author has chosen Jewish settings from past and present in which these questions crystallise, and people need to make life-and-death decisions based on what othermise might be academic niceties. The author's kindness, humour and intelligence shine through throughout in a beautifully written and memorable book that I will want to re-read soon.
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LibraryThing member msf59
This is a collection of eight stories, with the Jewish experience being a major theme in nearly every tale. There are two couples having a cultural and religious showdown, a man trapped in a “peep show”, an aging author, making the rounds to various book signings, where no one attends, a group
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of boys trying to rally against an anti-Semite bully and, my favorite, a visit to a Jewish elder hostel, starts funny and becomes very dark. I’m not Jewish and I know little of Judaism but I was drawn into the lives of these richly-drawn characters. This was a fine introduction to an equally fine writer.
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LibraryThing member Rdra1962
Quick read, brilliant stories, the first story, for me was the best, but they are all chilling.
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
A very recommendable book whose stories take the Jewish experience as their main theme. The author writes fluidly and with a light touch, even dealing with enormously sad subjects, and there's a touch of sensuality to his writing, too, whether he's discussing women, as in "Peep Show" or produce, as
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in "Fresh Fruit for Young Widows." I suspect that Englander is on the dovish, leftish side of Israeli politics, but he's a good enough writer not to let on: the best stories here -- story that gives the book its title, "Sister Hills," "Camp Sundown" and "How We Avenged the Blums" -- really get at the basic issues and contradictions facing Jews, either in Israel or elsewhere, right now. Englander has a talent for compressing the Jewish experience into brief, often surreally humorous incidents, and, more importantly, seems to really sense the dangers and possibilities that the community he belongs to contains. The only one of these stories I found lacking was "The Reader" -- though I'm amused to think that the title might be a nod to the much-derided novel of the same name, just as the book's title references Raymond Carver. It's a complaint about the supposed death of print and the difficulties of writing, but as an e-book enthusiast I didn't buy it. Bookstore owners -- who are certainly feeling the squeeze these days -- may sympathize, but I tend to think that digital books let more people read more books than ever before. That rather bitter story excepted, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" is recommended to anyone interested in well-written short stories. Englander once again proves that small can indeed be beautiful that the biggest issues can sometimes be dealt with in small spaces.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
'What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is the title story in this collection of 8 short stories. All of the stories speak to an aspect of Jewish life and experience, ranging from the legacy of the Holocaust for survivors or their children, the settlement of Israel, or questions of
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faith and ethics. I liked the final story best. “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” perhaps partly because it follows the weakest story in the collection, “The Reader.” It seems to be an allegory of the transaction between an author and his or her reader, but the use of third person and labels rather than names served to distance this reader from what should have been a more intimate experience.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
Last year when I was in Brattle Books in Boston I heard a patrician lady say to her granddaughter, I think you'd love Nathan Englander, he's funny and his stories are deep but quick. Such was my experience today. I think part of the reason was the title -- Jesus, I love it -- but I had looked
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forward to reading this in public. Alas, I went for bicycle ride and returned home beat. I picked this collection up and read straight through.

The Shoah features in at least half of the stories. Some made me chuckle; the last one left me with tears: much like the two GIs who find a survivor in Free Fruit For Young Widows. I thought of other authors which slip into this vein for me personally: Rick Moody, Ken Kalfus, David Bowman. It strikes me that these are but products, designed for the consumer to emote. If only we had an Onion Cellar Club like young Oskar.
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LibraryThing member nancyjean19
Smart, funny and thoughtful stories that take on history from several angles. Though I was initially disappointed that the stories weren't all like the title story, which I loved reading in The New Yorker, I came to appreciate the variety of tone, setting and approach. I don't have much of a
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connection to Jewish culture, besides living in NYC (ha), but I don't think that's necessary to enjoy the stories and appreciate the themes of family, history and guilt.
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LibraryThing member potterhead9.75
This book grew on me like Jew's ear on dying Elder. (Is that offensive?)

Camp Sundown. Everything I Know About My Family On my Mother's Side, The Reader, each one better than the last, more intimate.
LibraryThing member Juva
This is a thoughtful collection of stories about the experience of being Jewish post WWII. Some deal with issues of orthodoxy versus secularization. Others examine life in war-torn Israel. Others with vigilante justice against anti-Semitic bullies and ex-Nazi's. Sometimes funny, sometimes
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heartfelt, always entertaining.
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LibraryThing member johnluiz
There’s a blurb on the back of this book from the great Richard Russo that really captures what makes this collection so special: “Nathan Englander is one of the rare writers, who like Faulkner, manages to make his seemingly obsessive, insular concerns all the more universal for their
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specificity.” Englander’s characters are all Jewish, struggling with antisemitism, memories of the Holocaust and the pull between religion and the secular world. As someone raised Catholic, I may not get all the Hebrew and Yiddish words that pepper some of these stories, but I found every one of the stories riveting. Englander is one of those amazing writers that you just sit back comfortably to read, knowing that with every turned page he’s going to delight and amaze you. The other startling things about this collection is the range – he takes you from the silly revenge fantasies of a pack of teenage boys to the gripping reality of a violent, soul-deadened man whose ability to empathize was killed off by the horrors he lived through in a concentration camp. I highly recommend this collection to anyone.

The eight stories in the collection are:

1. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank -- 30 pp – An Orthodox couple living in Israel visits another secular couple living in Florida so the two wives, who were childhood friends in Brooklyn, can reunite. The story, told from the secular husband’s perspective, starts off with a very funny take on the man’s annoyance at his Israeli’s counterpart’s constant attempts to prove he and his wife are living a more Jewish life than their American friends. But when the couples play the “Anne Frank game” to determine who they could depend on to save them if they needed to be hidden in a secret place, the Orthodox wife comes to a startling realization about her husband.

2. Sister Hills – 39 pp – A great story about two women from families who founded a small Jewish settlement near the Palestinian border that grew to a bustling city. One woman loses her husband and three sons to various wars and accidents, and when she is left without family, she expects her neighbor to honor a contract they made when the other woman’s daughter was an infant and feverish. Hoping she could trick the angel of death, the other woman “sold” her daughter to her neighbor, for a minimal amount and then continued to raise her, never thinking the other woman would ever really consider the daughter hers.

3. How We Avenged the Blums -- 21 pp – A very funny tale about a pack of boys plotting their revenge against a bully who likes to pick on Jewish kids. Part of their plan includes getting very unorthodox martial arts training from a Russian refusenik who works as a janitor at their school. This story was in the 2006 Best American Short Stories collection.

4. Peep Show -- 15 pp – Another funny, but this time surreal, story about a young, married lawyer who steps into a Times Square peep show, but gets very excited by one of the girls who works there. When he deposits more coins in the machine, to open his window and view her again, the stage has been taken over the rabbis, now naked, who taught him as a boy and want to know why he has abandoned his religion.

5. “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” - 21 pp – A story written in short numbered sections about a writer with a Bosnian girlfriend who worries that he doesn’t have as interesting a family life as she does – and therefore may not have enough material to create interesting fiction. When he starts to piece together his family history, he discovers there are more interesting stories than he realized – all the while mourning the loss of his girlfriend after she leaves him.

6. Camp Sundown – 25 pp – One of my favorite stories in the collection. Starts off as a very funny tale about the frustrations of a counselor at a Jewish camp for the elderly, but takes a movingly darker turn when some of the older folks plot revenge against a fellow camper they are convinced was a guard at a concentration camp they managed to survive.

7. The Reader -- 18 pp – A writer was once the toast of the town, but 12 years elapsed before he published his next book, and now he’s forgotten. He goes on a book tour and faces empty seats at bookstores for his readings – except for one loyal fan who shows up at every reading, in cities across the country, forcing the author to put on the standard show, even though there’s no one else in the audience. The slightly surreal piece becomes a great contemplation of the relationship between writers and their readers.

8. Free Fruit for Young Widows – 17 pp – Englander saves the hardest hitting story for last. The story begins with a description about a heartless Israeli soldier who kills four spies in the Israeli army and then savagely beats the man who questions why he did it, when he could have just as easily taken them as prisoners. Years later, the victim of that beating treats that man to fruit from his stand whenever he encounters his former adversary, who has become a professor. The fruit seller’s son, knowing the story, wonders how his father could be so kind to a man who was so brutal to him, but then he learns about the soul-deadening atrocities the man experienced in a concentration camp, and the further heartlessness he experienced after the war when he tried to reunite with the non-Jewish family who worked the farm his family owned before they were shipped off to the camps. A grabs-you-by-the-throat powerful story that selected for the 2011 Best American Short Stories collection.
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Original publication date



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