Saturday, May 26, 2012

Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

Nathan Englander's new collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, first entered my consciousness when I read the title story in The New Yorker. For days, I read parts of it aloud to anyone within earshot and vowed to read the book when it was published.

I enjoyed the stories immensely and hope other readers will take up this tome as soon as they can.

The title story involves two friends whose lives went separate ways and brings them back together to ask the question one of them has asked herself, and others, since childhood. Long-term friends whose relationship gelled during crazy, cattywhompus youth know each other best, this story reveals. The story weaves between the friends, the friends' husbands, the couples, never flinching, refusing to let go no matter how much it burns.

Each of Englander's stories in this collection does that very thing: hang on for dear life until your time is up and the peep-show door closes. There are laugh-out-loud moments and others that leave readers quietly asking themselves questions they never considered. No one can walk away from this collection unaffected.

My favorite story was, of course, the title story, followed by "Free Fruit for Young Widows," in which a fruit seller Shimmy explains to his son about a professor who receives his fruits and vegetables for free at his stand, as do war widows.  Englander doesn't just blurt out the story, but allows Shimmy to unfold it in increments, as our maturity matches that of Shimmy's son Etgar, to whom he tells the tale.

Every time I try to attach an adverb to a story, such as "disturbing," "amusing" or "startling," I realize it fits more than one story — but never in the same way. "Camp Sundown" was disturbing, but so was "Peep Show," and not for anywhere near the same reasons. (I mean, only a limited number of naked rabbis can be included in a single volume, even in the age of Fifty Shades of Gray.) Witnessing the unveiling, and unraveling, of the narrator's family history in "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side" was startling, but not in the same way as "What We Talk About..." Some stories ended with a bang, others ended with a revelation that was hoped for, but never guaranteed.

Read this book, but take your time. Absorb the stories, mull them over for a while, before starting the next one. They deserve that level of thought and attention.

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