What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

By Nathan Englander

(Knopf Doubleday, $24.95, 224 pages)

Who is this author?

When your work gets reviewed by Three Jonathans:  Franzen, Lethem and Safran Foer, not to mention Dave Eggars, Michiko Kakutani, Tea Obrecht and just about every major player known to American letters, you can be sure you are among the most talented writers in America, and in fact,  the world over.

That’s the pinnacle Nathan Englander has attained, and his latest story collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” shows us why.

Englander, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., (of course), won major plaudits for his novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases” and the story collection “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” and has been favorably compared with the immortal Jewish author, I.B. Singer. Englander’s home territory is the world of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, that stubbornly (and some would say insanely) devout remnant in a much wider world of secular Jews and non-Jews of every kind.

His work often attempts to answer this question, asked by a character in his story, “Peep Show,”: “What is a boy raised in a world of absolutes to do when he is faced with contradictions?”

It’s a question with particular resonance in this odd year of religion-infused politics.

You can learn more at www.nathanenglander.com.

What is this book about?

The eight stories in this collection range from the factual to the fanciful. The title story, a play on the famous “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver, also features two couples, but what they are talking about is the Holocaust, smoking pot, survival and betrayal. The ending is one you will not easily forget.

“Peep Show” is a comic horror story, in which a man drops tokens at an X-rated girlie show and besides the requisite sexy dancer, gets up close and personal with his rabbi – and even more scary, his mother. “How We Avenged the Blums” is also funny/not funny: a tale about anti-Semitism and bullies who get bullied. “Sister Hills,” biblical in cadence and content, is a parable about the bloody history of Israel and its continuing costs. And there are four more, equally as impressive.

Why you’ll like it:

Englander is a craftsman with words and also possesses a masterful sense of irony and the ability – not uncommon in Jewish thought – to explore multiple sides of even the most-thought-to-be settled question.  His skill at delineating a character through descriptive detail gives ballast to his philosophical flights.

There are books you read for pure enjoyment and others because they are a challenge. Englander gives you both. He’s what we talk about when we talk about talent.

What others are saying:

Says Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times: “…Mr. Englander’s tales use allegory and folkloric techniques (reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer) to tackle the largest questions of morality and history…At his best, Mr. Englander manages to delineate…extreme behavior with a combination of psychological insight, allegorical gravity and sometimes uproarious comedy. He can be as funny and outrageous as Philip Roth in describing the incongruities of modern life.”

“Englander knows where to hold back, a particular gift when writing about and around the martyr of his title, the locked up and locked in. A kind of hard-won wisdom spills out on every page,” says Stacy Schiff in The New York Times Book Review

“It takes an exceptional combination of moral humility and moral assurance to integrate fine-grained comedy and large-scale tragedy as daringly as Nathan Englander does,” says Jonathan Franzen.

“For now — no American storyteller writes more beautifully about Jewish identity, and “What We Talk About when We Talk About Anne Frank” is an indelible confirmation of Englander’s observant integrity, one more attestation to the promise of his greatness,” says William Giraldi for the Barnes & Noble Review.

When is it available?

It’s waiting for you now at the Hartford Public Library.

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