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Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
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737005.pngNathan Englander, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community in Long Island, is the author of the award-winning For the Relief of Unbearable Urges: Stories (1999) and The Ministry of Special Cases (4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2007). He lives in Brooklyn.

The Story: Filled with regret, mercy, vengeance, sexual longing, and the tension between the religious and the secular, Englander’s eight stories illustrate the elusive appearances of modern Jewish life. In the title story, a play on Raymond Carver’s small masterpiece, two pot-smoking couples, one secular and one Hasidic, play "the Righteous Gentile game," in which they determine which of their friends—or, more horrifyingly, of their own spouses—would hide them if another Holocaust occurred. In "Camp Sundown," two Holocaust survivors in a summer camp for elderly retirees think they recognize a third as a former concentration camp guard. And in "Sister Hills," which takes place in one of Israel’s West Bank settlements from the Yom Kippur War to the present, two mothers strike a terrible deal to save a sick child.
Knopf. 224 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780307958709

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Each of these meticulously chiseled stories—most of which center on Jewish characters and the ways past tragedies loom large in their present lives—contains a hidden stinger that throws the reader for a wicked loop. The best stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, such as ‘Sister Hills’ and ‘Camp Sundown,’ entrance you with wry humor and stark prose, only to jolt you with a disturbing, revelatory turn." Stephan Lee

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"If there is an abiding theme, it is the way in which notions of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, victim and oppressor, shift over time as memories fade or new perspectives open up on old struggles. … What is so good about … most of the stories, in fact, is that they orchestrate precisely such moments of discomfort into their own twisting and turning plots, always a step or two ahead of the reader, and furthermore that they do so in the service not of partisan judgment one way or the other, but of deep, clear, unflinching understanding." James Lasdun

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"In addition to love, then—and Anne Frank—the story teases apart over the course of an afternoon the nature of loyalty; the significance of symbols; the idea that theory is superior to practice, or the other way around. And as these themes develop more fully throughout the book’s eight stories, so does Englander’s aptitude for humor, depth and invention." Annie Fischer

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"For Englander, this weight of truth is significant, since he can tilt toward the magical realist or, more precisely, toward the tradition of Jewish fable writing as embodied by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem. … More to the point, the best stories here function as fables of their own." David L. Ulin

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Echoes of the two Isaacs, Bashevis Singer and Babel, can be heard throughout his pages, though Gogol is somewhere in the neighborhood too." Stacy Schiff

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"[The collection’s] theme—postwar Jewishness as black comedy—isn’t exactly unfamiliar, but Englander has a knack for a fresh scenario, and his light touch is well suited to dark subjects. … This is Englander’s second collection, and it’s great to see an author devoted to short stories in their own right—as potential gems worth polishing to perfection, rather than mere stepping stones to the traditional big game of the Great American Novel." Anthony Cummins

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This volume showcases Mr. Englander’s extraordinary gifts as a writer—and his liabilities. … At his best, Mr. Englander manages to delineate such extreme behavior with a combination of psychological insight, allegorical gravity and sometimes uproarious comedy." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Nathan Englander may not be the most prolific author around, but each story he produces is a near-perfect, minimalist jewel. Though his subjects usually have dark undertones as he searches for a deeper truth, he tells each story with a light, sometimes fabulist touch that masks the disturbing turns that usually come. As with any collection, critics favored some stories over others, though they universally praised "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side" as proof of Englander’s evolution as a writer and new mastery of contemporary realism. This is a collection with few, if any, missteps (though "Peep Show," in which a husband visits a Times Square nudie and guiltily encounters some naked rabbis, feels contrived) and a rare exploration of faith, family, and individual identity.