These eight new stories from the celebrated novelist and
short-story writer Nathan Englander display a gifted young author
grappling with the great questions of modern life, with a command
of language and the imagination that place Englander at the very
forefront of contemporary American fiction.
The title story, inspired by Raymond Carver's masterpiece, is a
provocative portrait of two marriages in which the Holocaust is
played out as a devastating parlor game. In the outlandishly dark
"Camp Sundown" vigilante justice is undertaken by a group of
geriatric campers in a bucolic summer enclave. "Free Fruit for
Young Widows" is a small, sharp study in evil, lovingly told by a
father to a son. "Sister Hills" chronicles the history of Israel's
settlements from the eve of the Yom Kippur War through the present,
a political fable constructed around the tale of two mothers who
strike a terrible bargain to save a child. Marking a return to two
of Englander's classic themes, "Peep Show" and "How We Avenged the
Blums" wrestle with sexual longing and ingenuity in the face of
adversity and peril. And "Everything I Know About My Family on My
Mother's Side" is suffused with an intimacy and tenderness that
break new ground for a writer who seems constantly to be expanding
the parameters of what he can achieve in the short form.
Beautiful and courageous, funny and achingly sad, Englander's work
is a revelation.
Nathan Englander's short fiction has appeared in The New
Yorker, The Atlantic,
and numerous anthologies, including
The Best American Short Stories
and The O. Henry Prize
Englander is the author
of the novel The
Ministry of Special Cases
and the story collection For the
Relief of Unbearable Urges,
which earned him a PEN/Malamud
Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American
Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
1. The narrator of the title story suggests that his wife's
preoccupation with Holocaust survivors is excessive. "And Deb
has what can only be called an unhealthy obsession with the idea of
that generation being gone. Don't get me wrong. It's important to
me, too. I care, too. All I'm saying is, there's healthy and
unhealthy, and my wife, she gives this subject a lot, a
lot, of time." How do you feel about this? Later, the
narrator suggests that Deb was disappointed by the story about the
two survivors meeting years later in the locker room in Florida
because she was expecting something that would "reconfirm her
belief in the humanity that, from inhumanity, forms." What
does it mean to have an unhealthy obsession with the
Holocaust? How do you feel about Deb as a character?
2. Yerucham and Shoshana used to be called Mark and Lauren,
before they became ultra-Orthodox. Early in the title story,
though, Shoshana confides, "We still get high. . . . I mean, all
the time," and that, in relation to traveling with drugs, "it's
pretty rare that anyone at customs peeks under the wig." What
do you think Nathan Englander's point of view is about religious
Orthodoxy? What point is he trying to make?
3. Appearance and reality, secrets and hidden truths, are themes
in the title story. These are approached comically, at first, when
Deb and her husband discuss Trevor, and the discovery Deb had made
and kept a secret. "But he's the son. . . . I'm the father. Even if
it's a secret with him, it should be a double secret between me and
you. I should always get to know-but pretend not to know-any secret
with him. . . . That's how it goes. . . . That's how it's always
been. . . . Hasn't it?" What is at stake here? Why does the
narrator suddenly feel "desperate and unsure"? What fears are
gathering force in this moment?
4. The idea above-the possibility that we don't know our
spouses, or even ourselves, and that perhaps our lives are
something quite other than what we believe them to be-is echoed
with powerful, indeed tragic, implications at the story's
conclusion. Discuss the terrible parlor game the couples play in
the story's final pages. What do the couples learn about one
another? About themselves? How does this change your understanding
of each character and the portraits the author had painted of them
in the story's opening pages?
5. The story "Sister Hills" is divided into four discrete
sections. Why? Discuss how the story's structure relates to its
6. "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?
7. Rena changes dramatically over the course of "Sister Hills."
Describe her journey and discuss the difference between her true
relationship with Aheret and the way the young couple perceive the
nature of their relationship at the story's end. What point is the
author trying to make through his use of irony here, and how does
this irony relate to the story as a whole?
8. What statement, in "Sister Hills," is the author trying to
make about the history of the Israeli settlements? What do you
think the author believes about their cost? About their fate?
Look in particular at pages 64 to 66, where Rena discusses
with the rabbis the nature of a contract, both symbolic and real,
and the nature of justice.
9. How does the story of Masada relate to the story of Zvi Blum
and the bully known as the Anti-Semite in "How We Avenged the
10. On page 88 of the story above, Englander writes, "We weren't
cohesive. We knew how to move as a group but not as a gang. We
needed practice. After two thousand years of being chased, we
didn't have any hunt left in us." What does he mean? How is
he suggesting Jewish history relates to the fate of these
neighborhood boys and their plight?
11. "How We Avenged the Blums" concludes with a powerful image
of a circle of boys clustered around the Anti-Semite, and the
narrator's unexpected insight about the nature of helplessness and
power, dignity and victimhood: "As I watched him, I knew I'd always
feel that to be broken was better than to break-my failing." What
does he mean? And why does he consider this his failing?
12. At the start of "Peep Show," Allen Fein reflects on his
transformation. "He had only wanted a peep. He'd gone up the stairs
a loyal husband and lover, a working man on his way home to the
burbs. And now, minutes later, a different man emerges: a violator
of girls and wives and matrimonial bonds." Then, when the
partition rises and unexpectedly reveals a rabbi, Allen muses:
"Where the rabbis are involved, there is always a path to be
followed. Either you stay on it or you stray into darkness: This is
the choice they offer. And, much as Allen feels bitter and lied to
for all these years, he half wishes he could live in their realm,
where a man is religious or he is not, a good husband or
bad." How are these two moments related? What is the author
saying about the nature of identity, morality, and truth?
13. How is "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's
Side" different from the other seven stories in this collection,
thematically and tonally? Did you feel it was more personal,
intimate? Why do you think the author chose to narrate this story
in the first person?
14. "Camp Sundown" is a story about vigilante justice undertaken
by a group of geriatric campers at a bucolic summer retreat.
Discuss the author's views on guilt and innocence. Look in
particular at the passage on page 166, where one of the campers
confronts the director and implores, "It's your choice, Director.
You take one crime to bed with you every evening; take a second one
tonight." What is happening in this scene?
15. What do you think the director should have done in "Camp
Sundown"? What should the campers have done? Why?
16. "The Reader" is an exploration of the relationship between
authors and readers. Is there a social contract between writers and
readers? What is an author's responsibility to his or her
17. 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
18. 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." What does he mean?
19. At the heart of several of these stories is the relationship
between religious orthodoxy and contemporary American culture. How
do you think the author views religion and issues of faith and
20. 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
21. Many of the stories in this collection are comic in tone,
despite the tragic nature of Englander's dramatic
predicaments. How does humor serve the author's intentions?
How does it express his view of life?
The author of the sensational national bestseller "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" and "The Ministry of Special Cases" returns with a commanding new collection of short stories.