“You can’t be infinitely open minded and effect change.”

whatwetalkaboutBooks on Tap read What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank  (other editions available) by Nathan Englander at Champion Brewery on March 1st. This is the first title in JMRL’s Same Page program, which invites Central Virginians to read the book and discuss its themes at events throughout March 2018. A collections of short stories, it plumbs themes of Jewish life, trust, questioning and anxiety while providing a healthy dose of humor. Our readers didn’t think the title was indicative of the stories inside, but each story was complete in itself, the sign of a great collection.

In the title story, two American women who had attended yeshiva together are reunited as adults. The narrator’s wife is living a largely secular life, while her friend is living in Israel as Orthodox. While partying, they debate who would hide them in a second Holocaust, pointing out that not only can they not trust all of their neighbors, but each other. While specifically about the Shoah, it points to a universal question of trust, relevant today in LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter and the resurgence of Nazis in America. We discussed how we hope that we would act heroically but very few do. As we age and have more responsibilities, these decisions become more fraught.

“Sister Hills”, set in an Israeli settlement, is a story of  spite & revenge played out over two generations. Englander uses the tree imagery to highlight the fragility of life. The misfortunes to befall the two focal families can be read as noble sacrifice and the price to pay for taking Palestinian (Arab) land. The characters draw multiple lines in the sand against neighbors and their own family members. The bitter ending, seen on high by strangers, looks like familial devotion while in fact stressing the limits of a legalistic reading of religion.

In comparison, “Free Fruit for Young Widows” has a more humane, nuanced look at revenge. As we learn more about  Egert (a man with that name is thanked in acknowledgements), we forgive his gruff attitude. His friend even makes a skillful argument for pre-emptive revenge, including killing a baby, giving context to the decisions of a child. From the very beginning of the story, when Egert kills soldiers eating with his friend because both sides are wearing the same French-supplied  uniforms, Englander stresses that you can’t tell who is bad on the surface.

“Peep Show” and “The Reader” were only briefly discussed. “The Reader” was a hopeful meditation on the reciprocal relationship between artist and viewer.  “Peep Show” succeeded as dream-like reverie, due to its specific details, ending with the re-named narrator proving to himself he is no longer Orthodox. It was the least well-received by our group.  

“Camp Sundown”, on the other hand, generated much discussion.  The distinct voices made each character real as opposed to the over-the-top murder plot. The elderly campers are obsessed with past wrongs while ignoring the dangerous current harm they are causing. One reader paired this strand of the story with the young director’s similarity to a politician to Israel/Palestine relations. Doley Falk, the camper accused of working in a concentration camp, is pleasingly ambiguous. If the rumor is true, why would he come to this Jewish camp? Was he made to work by the guards? Is the revenge justified?

“Everything I Know about My Family on my Mother’s Side” is both about immigration and the power of storytelling for forgiveness and redemption. The family knew they came from a town called Gubernia, but didn’t know that word just means “state” generically. The narrator doesn’t think he as a history, but his girlfriend persuades him that he may not know the details but he does retain a specific culture and set of expectations, which inform not just his actions but also those of his parents’ grandparents’ generations.

Finally, we discussed the stories in relationship to Charlottesville after 2017. Some took it as a call to arms in reaction to specific events, others as a reminder to be their brothers’ keepers. One reader left us with a quotation attributed to Helen Keller,“although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”

Join us in April to discuss Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt and chose titles for the summer.

More Information:
Meet the author at Northside Library and the Festival of the Book (a Same Page partner)
Interview with the author
About the book
Other works  

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