It has been four years since I listened to Nathan Englander's excellent collection of short stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Having greatly enjoyed that book, I was eager to get his new collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. As you might guess from the title, Englander focuses once more on the Jewish experience.
In the title story, an American couple awkwardly entertains another couple who emigrated to Israel several decades earlier. The wives are old friends, but the husbands clash, verbally sparring about issues of politics, orthodoxy, and kosher laws. The Americans are surprised to find that the seemingly zealous Israelis like to smoke pot, and the American wife steals some from her teenage son. Under the influence of the pot, the four begin to question each other about what sabbath laws they would break in emergency situations to save the lives of friends and family. The revelations are uncomfortable for all.
"Sister Hills" is the most historical of the stories. In it, two zealous families claim farms on adjacent hills in disputed territory intent on forming new settlements. While the region becomes a metropolis, one family thrives, but the other is reduced through war and misfortune to only the matriarch. In a desperate attempt to find solace, she demands the payment of a terrible debt, bringing heartache to all. Her struggle to get her way involves the invoking of Jewish laws.
There are six more stories, each read by a different reader on the unabridged audiobook. With each, Englander creates a different world, showing great range of setting, pacing, and mood. All revolve around the ways Jewish laws are interpreted and applied. Serious book discussion groups should consider this worthy collection.
Englander, Nathan. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Knopf, 2012. 207p. ISBN 9780307958709.
6 compact discs. Books on Tape, 2012. ISBN 9780307989314.