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Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Short Review of Nathan Englander's Short Story Collection

Short story collections always seem to have the coolest, most inventive titles — and Nathan Englander's recent volume is definitely in the top tier: What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise, then, that the stories themselves are top tier, as well — this is a fantastic, very entertaining group of stories.

In the interest of full disclosure, I rarely read short story collections, but I loved Englander's last novel The Ministry of Special Cases, so I thought I'd give this a try. The most effective way to judge a collection, in my view, is to look back and try to fit each story into categories, such as "Loved," "Really Liked," "Wasn't Bad" and "Didn't much care for." The more stories fall into the first two, the better the story collection. Simple, right? Here's my tally on this collection's eight stories: Loved = 2, Really Liked = 3, Wasn't Bad = 2, Didn't much care for = 1. So, by this very unscientific criteria, this is a very good collection.

The stories here all have a Jewish angle of some sort — they often look at some aspect of how history impacts modern life; how the past informs the future. Not every story mentions the Holocaust, but many do. One of the stories that does, the title story, and one of the two in my "loved" category, is also far and away the funniest. A couple who now live in Israel where they have 10 daughters and practices an ultra-Orthodox form of Judaism, return to the U.S. to visit another couple, their long-time friends. Thankfully, whiskey and pot are kosher, and the four wind up getting toasted...nicely toasted. This wasn't exactly an expected direction for this story. Anyway, the title refers to a game one of the couples plays — they think about their neighbors and other friends (and, eventually, each other), and try to decide whether (or under what conditions) they would sell out those people to the Nazis if those people were hiding in an attic. What results is a rather sobering conclusion to an otherwise pretty funny story.

The second story I loved is titled "Camp Sundown." It's about a new camp director at a place where old Jewish folks go to play cards and whatnot. Two of these campers are certain they recognize a third camper as a guard from a concentration camp — but are they just senile old people, or is there a possibility, however small, that their accusations are true? The new camp director must decide, as the story hurdles towards a rather shocking conclusion.

Again, the other stories (with one exception) here are very good as well — so if you are a fan of short fiction, this is definitely a volume to pick up. Highly recommended!

11 comments:

  1. Glad you reviewed this. I've been dying for more by Englander. Ministry is one of my favorite books and though I want to reread it soon, it's been too long since I've read his stories. To give you an idea of how pathetic I'm being about this (or what a Devoted Fan I am - that sounds better), I've already begun editing the shopping cart of books I'm ordering just before I fly home. I'll be adding this one.

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    1. Devoted Fan, indeed (nothing pathetic about that at all)! If you liked Ministry, and it sounds like you did, I think you'll really like this. It's got just the right amount of quirk, humor and shock.

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  2. Thanks for recommending this collection. I've been in a reading slump lately and really need something different to read... and I mean really different! I'll keep my eye out for it and get my nose between the pages of it when I can. :)

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    1. Many of these stories are different enough, too, that you can say you're reading something quite different within the same collection. I hope you enjoy it!

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  3. Read it too and totally enjoyed it. Doesn't hurt that Englander is totally nice- I tweeted him when I received my advanced copy and we bantered back and forth a few times. Good stuff.

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    1. That's a good idea - tweeting to Englander. Maybe I'll try that - now that you've assured me he's not a jerk. ;)

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  4. I have this on my pile; I've been a fan of Englander since I read his first story collection "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" -- definitely worth checking out.

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    1. I think I will - thanks for the recommendation!

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  5. So this is what we talk about when we talk about you talking about What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank? (Sorry, I couldn't help it). This looks like a good collection. Is there anything in it that reminds you of Philip Roth, or would that not be an apt comparison with Englander?

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    1. I guess there's a little Roth in Englander, just as much as Jewishness is a dominant theme. But their styles are completely different - Englander's a bit more "playful," for lack of a better word. He much less dense than Roth.

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    2. Oh, and nicely done with the first line there. Got a laugh out of me.

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