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

June 17, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is an incredible set of short stories dealing with various topics surrounding Jewish identity. I want to preface this post with a little disclaimer – I feel a little out of my league trying to describe this book as I am neither Jewish nor a frequent reader of short stories. That being acknowledged I will say that I liked this collection very much, and I’d like to tell you why.

The title of this book alone was enough to pique my interest, it’s an unusual title for a work of fiction, but the story that lends its title to the book makes it work perfectly. This book also found itself on the list of nominees for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction this year, meaning it has been creeping up my to-read list for the past few months. After reading the short stories compiled in this work I have to say that the positive hype around this book is completely deserved.

There are eight short stories in the book, and while each story only took 30-45 minutes to read, but I found myself putting the book down after each one to think about what I had just read. Englander’s stories all seem to revolve around a central topic of being part of a Jewish community and what that means to an individual or a family in the modern world. And each one packs a solid punch.

No single method can be used to describe all eight stories in this book. They are all so different and uniquely captivating, and I think that’s what makes them all wonderful. The stories feel real and the challenges – from the transition from a jewish childhood towards a secular grown life to fighting the playground’s anti-semitic bully to surviving the Holocaust – at once feel personal but communal. The presence of a Jewish community can be felt behind each one of these short stories – a collective history and wisdom that made me even more interested.

I think my favorite one is the title story – What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. A fairly secular American Jewish couple host old friends who have since become orthodox jews in Israel. The careful study of the similarities and differences of how the two couples live their lives is fascinating in its own right, but soon their conversation turns to the Holocaust. One of them poses a single, straightforward question – If there were a second Holocaust today, could you count on a friend to hide you? That one hypothetical creates an unresolvable psychological game that sticks, not only with the four characters, but with the reader. I would recommend this collection for that story alone!

I deeply enjoyed each and every one of these short stories in a way I wasn’t expecting to. I often feel that short stories cut to the end just as the story gets interesting, but each story in this book is substantial and satisfying in its own right. I would encourage you to read them for yourself!

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