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

I’ll get straight to the point here. Despite having an insatiable thirst for short stories I’ve never read anything by Nathan Englander. Why, I don’t know. I’m well aware that he’s a ‘hot number’ in short fiction, but for whatever reason he’s always seems to have slipped beneath my radar. I’m about to rectify that though. What with Englander recently winning the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and me going to see him at EdBookFest this month, there’s no better time to get to know the short fiction of Nathan Englander. And what better collection to do that with than his newest, the one that won him the Frank O’Conner Award. Before I get going with What We Talk About When we Talk About Anne Frank (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) however, I want to share a few forethoughts.

So Nathan Englander, I’ve heard a lot of good things about him. Born in Long Island, New York, and raised as part of the Orthodox Jewish community in West Hempstead, Englander graduated from the illustrious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, at the University of Iowa. It seems he was destined to be a great writer and his debut short story collection published in 1999 – For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Faber & Faber), won him the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Malamud Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kauffman Prize. Englander has also had stories and essays published in The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and numerous anthologies. Englander was also selected in 1999 as one of ’20 Writers for the 21st Century’ by The New Yorker. He has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003.

From what I’ve heard, orthodox Judaism – its history and the orthodox life – is a big theme of Englander’s stories (the title of this collection certainly alludes to that), and this excites me hugely, not least because I have more than a passing interest in orthodox Judasim (and in particular Hasidism). Englander also lives in Brooklyn, which is possibly my most favourite place on earth. I love much of the writing that comes out of Brooklyn. The multiculturalism of the borough has a big affect on the writers who live there – it resonants in their prose – and so I’m doubly intrigued to delve into Englander’s fictional world.

Let’s have a look at the cover blurb for What We Talk About When we Talk About Anne Frank to see if we can gather any clues as to what may lie within this collection:

Nathan Englander is one of the most acclaimed American writers of his generation. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is the book to show you why.

Between these covers, deep tragedy will rub shoulders with sharp comedy. Relationships will be brought to the brink, and choices made that change fates and lives for ever. There will be vengeance and violence, coming of age and coming to terms.

Beautiful and courageous, funny and achingly sad, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank shows an astonishing writer grappling with the great questions of modern life.

Well that’s the blurb, and to be honest there’s not a lot in there that tells us about the contents. Putting aside the marketing drivel, there are some tantalising clues about the collection’s flavour – tragedy mixed with comedy, strained relationships, difficult choices, adulthood, revenge, violence. Quite a mixed bag I’m sure you’ll agree, but all hugely potent themes, which become all the more powerful when orthodox religion is added to the mix.

‘Powerful’ also seems to be the verdict of this year’s Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award judges who bestowed the top honour on Nathan Englander because his collection was ‘powerful and resonant’. Furthermore, they added that they were ‘impressed by the seasoned maturity shown by the author in stories multi-layered in meaning and written in an austere, contemporary idiom applied to ancient ethnic themes.’ All very reassuring indeed, and if this doesn’t add shine to the reasons for reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, then I don’t know what would.

Being so much in the dark with regards to Nathan Englander, I guess there’s little more I can say for now. It’s simply time to open my mind and my heart and let the stories of Englander wash over me. Heaven only knows what lies in the journey ahead but I’m sensing that the voyage is going to be a memorable one, and for all the right reasons. I can only hope that my intuition is right on this occasion.

As I’m seeing Nathan Englander at EdBookFest on the 17th and 18th of August (details below), I shouldn’t be all that long in getting back to you with a final verdict on What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. As always I list the contents of the collection below, and as I review each story I’ll link to it. Meantime, if you have any spoiler-free thoughts on this collection yourself then I’d love to hear them.


:: Contents of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank ::
(links lead to individual reviews of each story, when posted)

Weidenfeld & Nicolson | 09 February 2012 | £12.99 | HARDBACK | 224 PP | ISBN: 9780297867692

Find out more about Nathan Englander:

Nathan Englander will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in a ‘Masterclass’ event with Etgar Keret, on Friday 17th August 7:00pm – 8:00pm. For ticket information and booking, please visit the event page on the EdBookFest website.

Nathan will also be appearing in an event with Junot Diaz on Saturday 18th August, 7:00pm – 8:00pm. For ticket information and booking please visit the event page.

A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.

Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).