Jacob M Appel is a physician, bio-ethicist, attorney and registered tour guide based in New York City. If that wasn’t enough of an impressive CV, Appel also has a magnificent talent for storytelling and has published over 200 short stories, his novel The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up winning the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012. Seeming to draw from this impressive amount of life experience in his writing, Appel, in his latest release, Coulrophobia and Fata Morgana, has created a magical collection of short stories that stay with the reader long after the reading light is turned off.
In this collection, Appel explores the world of family and friendships, picking apart the daily lives of what, at first, seem to be very ordinary characters with the perception and insight that seem to be this author’s trademark. The recycling of family violence and relationships, the dilemma of companionship over love, power, family hierarchy, sexuality and disability are all subjects explored by this author with an honesty and delicacy that is always very much without judgement.
“There but for the grace of God go I…” the reader might think as we follow the story of two lonely border guards pondering their isolation as they are faced with what seems like certain death. “What would I do?” we might ask, as we enter the life of Rita the butcher, suddenly finding herself sole carer of her dysfunctional sister’s newborn. Wincing as we witness a grandmother’s punishment of her wayward grandson, we wonder what we would truly do if we were in her position, if we were left to raise a grandchild alone, had been raised in a violent household. Indeed, as Appel makes us flies on the walls of his characters’ homes, he also makes us look more closely at our own lives, our own families, our own relationships, if only to stop for a few seconds and reassess them, perhaps value them more highly.
As in Appel’s previous collections, running through these shorts is a sense of magic, the mysterious mime artist, who has a profound effect on those around him, the Mrs Robinson type language teacher and her handsome chimney sweep, the baby prone to swallowing coins, not to mention the ghost of Greta Garbo, all being brilliantly rounded and fully formed without being quite real. Indeed, in each and every one of these stories, Appel’s characters seem to be of our world but, at the same time, not quite, the author seeming to create an other-worldly scenario with which the reader can nonetheless very much identify.
Anyone who thinks that short stories do not have a place in the publishing market should read the stories of Jacob M Appel, an author who actively exercises his gift of drawing the reader in and never letting them go.
Coulrophobia and Fata Morgana is available now. For more information, visit jacobmappel.com.
This review was originally published on Humanity Hallows.