the title What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank sure sounds like it'll be a story collection about angsty Jews—and by god, that's exactly what Nathan Englander delivers. The eight stories in Englander's new collection explore a handful of ways Jewishness is experienced across the country and the world, from a mostly Jewish Long Island town to a settlement in Israel to the most sinister geriatric camp east of the Mississippi.
The title story's setup gently alludes to the Raymond Carver story from which the collection takes its name—here, a Florida couple are visited by two old friends, married Orthodox Jews on a rare vacation from their home in Israel. In an afternoon that's unmoored by considerable amounts of vodka and weed, the four spar over the notion of cultural identity versus religious practice, with the Orthodox husband taking American Jews to task for an "obsession with the Holocaust as a necessary sign of identity. As your only educational tool. Because for the children, there is no connection otherwise... Judaism is a religion. Culture is nothing." The Americans respond predictably poorly to this—eventually, the afternoon plunges into a grim, Holocaust-themed parlor game.
Throughout this collection, Jewishness informs feelings of victimhood, pride, anxiety and historical curiosity, not to mention the oddly pervasive wearing of ankle-length denim skirts. But the collection's subject matter and even story structures vary wildly in other regards, creating a multifaceted catalog of Jewish experience that brilliantly informs itself, each story casting both light and shadows on the stories around it.