Englander's 'Anne Frank' a gem

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

NANCY SCHIEFER, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:04 PM ET

There isn't much about the legendary Anne Frank in Nathan Englander's new and perceptive collection of short stories, but there is much about Jewish identity as perceived by a writer tightly tied to his Jewish-American heritage.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank combines both identities in a set of stories sure to win plaudits from readers and critics alike.

The most impressive story in Englander's book is Sister Hills, a fable-like fiction concerned with bargains made and bargains kept and with the aftershocks contained in both.

When two Israeli families, living on opposite hills, establish a settlement outside an urban centre, they fall prey to ongoing Middle East conflict.

Rena's husband and three sons are away, fighting in the Yom Kippur war.

Yehudit's husband is in America on business and her baby daughter, for whom it is impossible to summon help, is critically ill.

In desperation, Yehudit sells the infant to Rena, "in the way of the old country," hoping her gesture will save the child from an untimely death. The girl recovers and Rena returns her to her rightful mother.

Years pass. But when Rena loses her own three sons, she comes to claim what she had once bought.

It is a plot twist Englander handles with aplomb as the laws on an ancient religion and the law of unintended consequences take effect with a vengeance.

Anne Frank does make an appearance, and an important one, in the collection's title story, a clever construct which sets the religious against the secular.

Here, the narrator and his wife, Deb, spend an afternoon with Deb's childhood friend, Lauren, and her husband, Mark, who have changed their names to Shoshana and Yerucham.

On a long ago trip to Israel they had become ultra-Orthodox and are now, after 20 years and complete with beard, black hat and wig, visiting their friends in Florida.

As the four while away an afternoon over vodka and marijuana arguments ensue, and the claims of religion demand their due.

The two couples engage in what they call the Anne Frank game, dissecting Christian friends with the puzzling question of who could be counted on to hide them, if a second Holocaust was to happen.

That the query should be flung back on the questioners themselves, is a disquieting, if not surprising twist.

One of Englander's stories finds a "goy" bully in dead combat with a gang of Jewish boys, while another (the only tiresome tale in the book) finds a lapsed Jew in a strip club in New York, while in another, Camp Sundown, octogenarians on holiday exact a different sort of retribution than that meted out by Rena in Sister Hills. In this tale, aging concentration camp survivors are certain they recognize a Nazi among the resort's guests, and decide to take action.

Or, as in the startling story Free Fruit for Young Widows, vengeance must always be seen in context. There are reasons, a fruit vendor tells his son, why a good man can resort to murder. In fiction, he tells the young man, there is always context and, he adds, there is always context in life.

Englander's eight-story collection is a gem. Although edgy and exacting, the Brooklyn-based writer's fiction is suffused not only with humour, but with compassion for his characters and for the situations in which they find themselves.

BOOKS IN BRIEF

Victims

By Jonathan Kellerman

(Random House)

Best-selling author of more than 30 crime novels, Jonathan Kellerman continues the saga of his alter ego, child psychiatrist Dr. Alex Delaware. In this new novel, Los Angeles is being plagued by an outbreak of gruesome and violent murder/mutilations, and Delaware, who is a police consultant, and his friend, veteran police detective Milo Sturgis, are trying to solve them. Even the shockproof Delaware is startled by the vicious killings. The first victim, Vita Berlin, is a bad tempered woman with a load of enemies and possible killers. Soon after other similar killings are discovered, but with no apparent links between them, solving the crimes seems almost impossible. Only when an old, abandoned mental institution leads to some vital clues, do they begin to find some answers.

- Yvonne Crittenden, QMI Agency

Phantom

By Jo Nesbo

(Random House)

Harry Hole, the beleaguered hero of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo's gritty crime series, is back in Oslo. Self-exiled for three years in Hong Kong after he was stricken from the police force, Harry is in Norway because his former lover Rakel's son Oleg, is in prison for the killing of a fellow junkie. Oleg proclaims his innocence and despite the police denying Harry permission to reopen the investigation, he goes onto the city's mean streets, filled with drug addicts and pushers and a toxic new drug called violin which is earning a fortune for a mysterious drug kingpin known as Dubai, the 'phantom' figure of the title. Harry's unique talent for burrowing into dangerous places, makes him a target not only for Dubai, but a corrupt policeman who is angling for the top job in the force. Fast and furious, this is another tour de force by a brilliant writer.

- Yvonne Crittenden, QMI Agency


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