A Consciousness-Raising Read

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

A Review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

What do you think about when you think about Anne Frank? Nazis … Holocaust … hiding … incredible courage in the face of overwhelming odds—which are all themes of Nathan Englander’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, JMRL’s Same Page Community Reads selection (which replaces the traditional Big Read this year).

In the title story, two Jewish couples—an ultra-Orthodox pair visiting from Jerusalem and a secular, suburban couple living in south Florida—play the “Anne Frank game,” in which they try to imagine which of their friends would hide them in the event of a modern-day Holocaust. Would you? The characters slowly drop their inhibitions as they sit around the kitchen table drinking and smoking pot, reminiscing about the wives’ shared childhood in yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish school that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts), and dancing in the rain (a rare experience for the Israelis). This “thought experiment,” also jokingly referred to as the “Righteous Gentile game,” leads to results that surprise everyone. But the results don’t really matter; it’s the existence of the game itself, the need to even ask that question, that is so troubling and that sets the tone of this story collection.

In the same way that whites have difficulty understanding the challenges of the black experience in America, Gentiles may be largely unaware of the fear of present and past persecution experienced by our Jewish compatriots. These brilliantly written and thought-provoking stories introduce us to some of the issues playing out today in the Middle East as well as in Europe and America in a subtle, indirect form that is more accessible than an academic explanation. In a way, all of the characters in these stories are exposed to the threat of anti-Semitism, which, though seemingly hidden, still lurks in the shadows of modern global society. As one online reader of The Washington Times commented, “In my life, not a day goes by without discussion of survival tactics of one sort or another and political and religious issues based on the experience of the Holocaust…Englander exposes the realities of day-to-day Jewish life.”

The story’s (and book’s) memory-taxing title alludes to the classic story by Raymond Carver (1938-1988)—credited with reviving the American short story—called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in which two couples drink gin and talk about love “in an atmosphere that grows increasingly tense, leaving at least one of them irreparably exposed” as perhaps unable to love at all. Englander also successfully mimics Carver’s realism and minimalist prose style, which implies far more than it states. Exposure plays a role in several of the stories in Englander’s highly acclaimed, cutting-edge collection, as he explores the meaning of faith and Jewish cultural identity in the contemporary world. The book’s cover, depicting a brick wall with occasional peepholes, magnifies the themes of threat and entrapment.

In “How We Avenged the Blums,” a group of timid Jewish middle school boys sets out to thwart an anti-Semitic bully by taking self-defense classes. “A shaving-cream swastika … painted on their walkway, [which] washed away in the rain before anyone could document its existence” is taken straight from Englander’s own experiences growing up in an orthodox Jewish community on Long Island. The devastating “Sister Hills” chronicles the history of Israel’s settlements from the eve of the Yom Kippur War through the present in a political fable constructed around the tale of two mothers who strike a terrible bargain to save a child, and dramatizes how hardship, loss, and suffering can turn a heroine into a villain. In the fable “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” a Holocaust survivor, upon his return home after liberation, must confront the family of his childhood nurse who have taken possession of his (deceased) family’s house and farm. Even my least favorite story, a heavy-handed allegory of the relationship between Author and Reader, contains the memorable quotation, “I write to touch people in the way that I, as a reader, have been touched.” And in my favorite story, “Camp Sundown,” elderly Holocaust survivors at a summer camp in the Berkshires become convinced that Doley, a hulking Ukrainian who plays bridge, was formerly a guard at their Nazi concentration camp. “To murder is to murder,” Arnie argues, insisting that the young camp director take action. “To stand by for a murder is to murder. The turning away of the head is the same as turning the knife.” Ironically, as vigilante justice takes over, Josh himself may end by being the one to turn away his head. The juxtaposition of the two “camps” underscores the irony.

Englander handles these intensely serious issues with a subtle, honest touch and an undercurrent of deliciously dark humor that keeps us turning the page. One couple at the summer camp, who live in an adobe house because of their extreme fear of wooden house fires, wear around their necks “a smoke alarm on a lanyards woven specifically for this purpose in crafts.”  In the allegorical “Peep Show,” Allen confronts his guilty conscience at an adult theater in the form of naked rabbis and his own pregnant wife. The two couples in the first story, after “borrowing” the pot from the suburbanites’ teenaged son, roll the joint in the only paper at hand—a tampon wrapper! Each story is different, the plots unpredictable but always memorable, and they all share the same underlying theme of “how notions of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, victim and oppressor shift over time as memories fade or new perspectives open up.” As USA Today notes, “these eight masterful stories also continue the work of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud—authors who mined the Jewish-American experience with tremendous humor, humanity, and healthy amounts of guilt.”

Nathan Englander grew up on Long Island and lived in Israel for five years during the ‘90s. His debut short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999), won the PEN/Malamud award, and this collection won the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Now Distinguished Writer-in Residence at New York University, his short fiction and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Washington Post. Other works include the 2007 novel The Ministry of Special Cases and the play The Twenty-Seventh Man (2014). Englander will be talking about his new novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, at the Virginia Festival of the Book Literary Luncheon on Thursday, March 22 from 11:45-1:30 (a ticketed event), and that same evening at 6 p.m. at the Northside Library (free). He will also join Rabbis Dan Alexander and Vanessa Ochs to discuss interpretations of the Haggadah, including Englander’s translation of the New American Haggadah (edited by Jonathan Safran Foer), at Congregation Beth Israel on Friday, March 23 at 10 a.m.

Jefferson-Madison Regional Library’s Same Page Community Read is a community reading program to promote and discuss one book throughout the month of March by an author featured at the Virginia Festival of the Book, coming up March 21-25. JMRL invites all book lovers in Central Virginia to join this reading initiative, and to join our discussion at the Crozet Library Book Club on Monday, March 5 at 7 p.m. This book was selected in part to connect with the events that took place in Charlottesville last August as torch-bearing marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” (one can’t help wondering who “us” is?). Englander wrote a moving response to these events in the New York Times titled, “What Jewish Children Learned from Charlottesville.”

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