Blog Archive for August, 2012

24 Aug 2012

Nathan Englander: Modern Storyteller

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Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.–Free Fruit for Young Widows

If  Raymond Carver is a master storyteller who provides the most pared down snapshots of human drama, then Nathan Englander is a modern storyteller who fleshes out his narratives to provide the context for specific behaviors. Both are brilliant at crafting short narratives and engaging the reader, yet their styles are distinctive.

Englander, whose work we will be discussing in our second short story session at Books and Books, draws scenes that provide much more than just the bones. While never sacrificing form, Englander layers his fiction with history and politics to show that human behavior cannot be divorced from what is happening in the world around us.

We will focus part two of our discussion on three of Englander’s stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” “Sister Hills,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows.” With the first, we will compare his story with Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and specifically address why Englander chose the Carver story as an inspiration.

We will also engage in conversation about the following:

  • The title story, “Sister Hills,†and “Free Fruit for Young Widows†all pivot around incidents within Jewish history, and the question of how essential stories—stories that define us, that shape both our understanding of the past and our vision of the future—are told and retold over the course of many years. What do you think Englander is suggesting about history, tradition, and storytelling itself?
  • “Sister Hills†can be read as a political allegory based on the story of a bargain struck in order to save the life of a critically ill child.  In this reading, who or what does the child represent, and what meaning can be inferred from the exchange of money? What is the relevance of the two mothers?
  • Discuss the contrast between the narrative form of “Free Fruit for Young Widows,†in which a father is lovingly recounting a story to his son, and the story’s actual substance. How does this dissonance contribute to the story’s power? What is the significance of the comment Etgar’s father makes when Etgar is twelve: “Do you want to know why I can care for a man who once beat me? Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.â€
  • In “Free Fruit for Young Widows†Englander distinguishes between two kinds of survival, saying that Professor Tendler “made it through the camps. He walks, he breathes, and he was very close to making it out of Europe alive. But they killed him. After the war, we still lost people. They killed what was left of him in the end.â€Â  What does he mean?

Raymond Carver and Nathan Englander use perfect language to convey loss, despair, intimacy, tenderness, shame, truth, justice, and pain and suffering all in the space of a short story. Yet, Englander is becoming more Carveresque: “Generally Englander works with a light touch, a nearly whimsical sobriety. He is more of a minimalist here, even when exploring the thickets of cognitive dissonance that flourish between faith and falsehood.” (NY Times 2/19/12)

To our ears, that sounds like the highest praise. Let us know what you think about Carver and Englander by posting a comment on our blog.

(Questions adapted from those found on the Random House website.)


16 Aug 2012

Raymond Carver: Master Storyteller

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You could write a story about this ashtray, for example, and a man and a woman. But the man and the woman are always the two poles of your story. The North Pole and the South. Every story has these two poles. –A.P. Chekhov

When we sat down to write this blog we struggled with how to best describe Raymond Carver’s spare yet powerful writing style. A short story master, his work explores loss, loneliness, despair and anxiety without an ounce of sentimentality. Nothing is ever over-written. His prose strikes exactly the right notes and hits the reader with an exacting punch.  But who better to describe good writing than Carver himself? In “On Writing,” he states:

It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things–a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring–with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine….that’s the kind of writing that most interests me…..In Isaac Babel’s wonderful short story “Guy de Maupassant,” the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” This ought to go on a three-by-five.

With these thoughts in mind, we will explore three of Carver’s best stories next week at Books and Books: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” “Where I’m Calling From,” and “A Small Good Thing.”  Questions we will consider include:

  • Do Carver’s characters learn or grow from their experiences?
  • How do they express themselves? Do they understand their emotions and limitations?
  • Is Carver’s minimalist style appropriate for conveying his themes?
  • What kind of characters appeal to Carver and why?
  • Does Carver sympathize with the working class man and woman?
  • Is Carver using his fiction to convey a message?
  • How does he create tension?
We are looking forward to a lively discussion. If you are unable to join us, please visit the blog for a recap of the session or to post your comments.



01 Aug 2012

Summertime Short Story Fix

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A statue of a man holding a cane on top of books.Summertime is perfect for short fiction, especially if you need an ‘in-between novels’ fiction fix. With this in mind, Books & Books, an independent bookstore in Coral Gables, Florida, is holding two classes (August 20 and 27) focusing on topnotch short stories.

For the first session, we will be reading from Raymond Carver’s classic collection Where I’m Calling From. Our discussion will include the title story as well as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and “A Small, Good Thing.â€

For the second session, we will read from Nathan Englander’s latest release entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. We will start with the title story and consider its connections to Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.†We will also discuss “Sister Hills” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (which first appeared in The New Yorker).

So, if you are hungry for summer snacks instead of full meals, consider joining us for these sessions. Details can be find on the Books and Books site.

If you are not local but would like to participate, you can follow the discussion on our blog at