By Nathan Englander
Available now from Knopf in hardcover and Vintage in paperback (Random House)
I have a friend who is crazy about Nathan Englander's short stories. WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK is his first collection since his debut FOR THE RELIEF OF UNBEARABLE URGES in 1999, but he's already considered a master of the form, a peer of Raymond Carver. No wonder the eponymous story references Carver's famous "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."
I'm not sure it was the best choice to lead the collection, no matter how wonderful the title. It's the story of two couples, the wives best friends in school now reunited for the first time. One lives in Israel, now converted to Hasidic Judaism with her husband. The other is more secular and lives with her husband, the narrator, in Florida. Yet for all the story pushes their differences, there's a sameness to the characters. It lacks the punch of the better stories in the collection.
My two favorites are "Sister Hills" and "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side." "Sister Hills" is a series of snapshots from 1973 to 2011 of two hills not far outside of Jerusalem and the families who live on them. There's tension between the colonizing Israelis and the Arabs, but the biggest bitterness comes from within the community, building to a funnily nasty conclusion. And it's all held together by the intense portrait of Rena. The story did briefly lose me in a scene showcasing truly devilish wit on Rena's part that delved too deeply into Jewish law and tradition for me to follow.
"Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side" is a brilliant, clever title and the story lives up to it. I liked how it moved from a very broad opening to sharp focus, vignettes moving back and forth in time. Even when broad, the understanding of human nature is keen. "The wife faces the husband, and the point she argues is so large, it's as if the wife believes traffic will stop for it when the light changes, as if, should the cars roll on, it's worth being run down to see the point made (115, ARC)." But it's even tighter when it moves into focus and examines family stories, and how they develop and how two cousins might tell the same family story completely differently. It's a very personal look at the past and how much it can mean once you know it, even if it is subjective. I was slightly bothered by the meta in the story, the narrator being a writer named Nathan. I'm not sure the flourish added to the tale.
I quite liked "Peep Show," "The Reader," and "Camp Sundown," but they were more uneven reads. "Peep Show" forgoes realism for a dreamlike logic that's compelling once you go with it. "The Reader" has a couple of nice shifts in tone. As for "Camp Sundown," I really enjoyed the beginning but the story lost me about half to three quarters of the way through. It was darkly comic, but then the strings showed too much - I had to roll my eyes at some of the reversed symbolism.
I think Englander is an exciting writer and can see why my friend is so enamored. He has smooth, readable prose and his stories are nicely observed with a bit of humor to alleviate their darkness. But I found him thematically repetitive and some of the questions he asks just don't resonate with me. There is much discussion of what it means to be Jewish, and I found some of the stories to be strangely contradictory. For me, this is more of a borrow-from-the-library than buy book.