Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Review: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" by Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander's first short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, brought him to the literary spotlight in the late 1990s. His magical prose, his creative plots, and his wicked sense of humor had me up late into the night to finish the story collection and laughing (sometimes out loud) as I did. A number of years later, Englander's newest collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, captivated me in much the same way. While on the whole this book isn't quite as good as his first, some of the stories made me gasp just the same.

The title story follows two couples, one visiting from Israel and one which has moved away from the religious fervor of youth, who use an obsession with the Holocaust as the root of a parlor game, with disturbing results. "Camp Sundown" is told from the point-of-view of the director of a summer camp that attracts both children and elderly Jewish adults, and the disaster that ensues when a group of seemingly harmless people are left to their own devices. "How We Avenged the Blums" is a humorous look at how a group of school children react when one of their own is bullied. At first glance, "Sister Hills" looks like the story of an Israeli settlement through the years, but it runs far deeper than that. And that's just four of the eight stories in the collection—not all have the same power, but Englander's writing remains masterful.

Englander has a knack for capturing the Jewish experience from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of settings, but you don't need to be Jewish to enjoy the stories. Some will knock you over, some will make you laugh, and some will make you uncomfortable, but this is a terrific story collection worth reading.

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