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

“This collection is a jolt of electricity through the heart, the head, the whole body nation. Here is a latitude of exquisitely-wrought prose. Courageous and provocative. Edgy and timeless. In Englander’s hands, story-telling is a transformative act. Put him alongside Singer, Carver and Munro. Englander is, quite simply, one of the very best we have.” —Colum McCann

These eight new stories from the celebrated novelist and short-story writer Nathan Englander display a gifted young author grappling with the great questions of modern life, with a command of language and the imagination that place Englander at the very forefront of contemporary American fiction.

The title story, inspired by Raymond Carver’s masterpiece, is a provocative portrait of two marriages in which the Holocaust is played out as a devastating parlor game. In the outlandishly dark “Camp Sundown” vigilante justice is undertaken by a group of geriatric campers in a bucolic summer enclave. “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is a small, sharp study in evil, lovingly told by a father to a son. “Sister Hills” chronicles the history of Israel’s settlements from the eve of the Yom Kippur War through the present, a political fable constructed around the tale of two mothers who strike a terrible bargain to save a child. Marking a return to two of Englander’s classic themes, “Peep Show” and “How We Avenged the Blums” wrestle with sexual longing and ingenuity in the face of adversity and peril. And “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is suffused with an intimacy and tenderness that break new ground for a writer who seems constantly to be expanding the parameters of what he can achieve in the short form.

Beautiful and courageous, funny and achingly sad, Englander’s work is a revelation.

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Nathan Englander was born in New York in 1970. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and numerous anthologies including The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Anthology, and The Pushcart Prize. Englander’s story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kauffman Prize. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2003 and a Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library in 2004. He lives in Manhattan.

Meet Nathan Englander on his book tour

From our Q&A with Englander:

Q: Your debut short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was a national bestseller in hardcover and paperback, winner of the PEN/Malamud award, and drew comparisons to Chekhov and Malamud. In 2009 you published a novel, but with What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank you’re back to the short story form. How does it feel?
A: How does it feel to be back to stories? It feels fantastic, is how it feels. I love this form. And I say that, not just because we’re talking about a collection, and not only because stories need extra championing for the incomprehensible-to-me fact that there’s a much smaller segment of fiction-reading folk that are willing to give a collection of stories a chance. I say it because, as both reader and writer, I have always had a deep-deep connection to the short story. I could go on pretty endlessly talking about spring-loaded forms, and what it takes to build a complete world in that space, how a story can leave you with that transformative wind-knocked-out-of-you moment if everything is just right (and I say ‘just right’ as the faux-epiphany is a gravely dangerous short-story fallback, and there’s a very thin membrane that separates the two experiences, which is, again, another reason why I love writing them. It’s surgical and delicate and so easy to go wrong). What I’d like to make clear, simply, is that when I fell in love with books, I fell in love with the short story. There are so many great stories that have changed who I am, and how I see the world—that have, at this point, woven themselves into my very being. I don’t know how to explain it better than to say, go read Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecot” which I reference in the book, or Grace Paley’s “Goodbye and Good Luck”, or Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother”, or Gogol’s “The Overcoat” or “The Nose” and you will be changed forever—and then you will know what I mean.

Q: The title story, which was published in The New Yorker, is fashioned after Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Can you describe how that story inspired yours?
A: I’ve had that story in my head for years and years—the image of those two couples, and that dark game. As it took shape in the imagining, as I saw the pantry, say, or the house in which the story is set, I was also quite suddenly interested in ideas of ownership and inspiration and in exploring a different kind of writerly ease or comfort (and, trust me, the ideas of ‘comfort’ and ‘ease’ are groundbreakingly new for me, and of possibly fleeting interest). And I thought, I have two couples coming together in this way, what if I marry it to my own version of Raymond Carver’s very-iconic story. And—it’s important to stress (though I can’t tell you exactly why, except that it feels important)—that I didn’t go back to the Carver book until I was well into the drafting of my story. I think it’s because I’ve become really interested in how we make stories our own, literally how memory forms around them. So it was more, my personal memory of the Carver story—what it had turned to in my brain—that was the inspiration. When the story had taken form, and I felt committed to that literary-echo, I went back and reread the Carver story, and made my quiet links between the two.  As for the game in the story—that crazy, who-will-hide-me-game—it’s a real game that, as the story says, is very much not a game. It’s dead serious business. And I’ve been playing it with my sister for as long as I can remember. And, if you ever try playing it, you’ll see. People take the game real seriously. I just saw a friend in from Berlin last night, a friend I hadn’t seen in years, and she’d read the story in The New Yorker and she said, do you remember when we played that in Germany? She said, she’d looked at her children and—honestly considering the peril hiding us would put them in—thought, No, I couldn’t hide you, it’s too much to ask. And then she said she’d looked at my girlfriend and me, and knew that she would. I had no memory of the evening, or the interaction. But how serious is that? How raw? And, I can trace the kernel of the story to a time my sister and I played that game, now twenty years ago. It stayed in my head from then. And my sister gave me her blessing to acknowledge that she is the one who put it there—that, in our family, it is her game. The only thing she asked that I stop doing is calling her “my older sister” when I discuss it. So, yes, it’s my sister’s game.

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