Buzzed Books #23 by Rachel Kolman
Einstein’s Beach House by Jacob M. Appel
Appel is a writer who knows how short stories work best. He knows how to hit all of the right notes and how to balance humor with serious emotional engagement. Appel’s diverse background (on top of being a writer, he’s also a physician, attorney, and bioethicist) gives him a rich world of details that provide authenticity to his characters. Each story is a line-up of quirky character habits and genuinely unique conflicts. The opening story, “Hue and Cry,” features two young female pre-teens, who might have slight crushes on each other, spying on the registered sex offender who lives next door. In “La Tristesse Des Herissons,” (which translates to “the sadness of the hedgehogs”) a couple tends to their depressed pet hedgehog while the husband wonders if their marriage is falling apart.
And these quirky stories are great, for a while. However, by the end of the collection (which is only 8 stories, mind you), the consistent, similar beats and voice of every story grows tiresome. There’s not one, but two stories that feature a couple strangely over caring for a pet as if it were a child, and two stories that feature a young daughter being exposed to some aspect of adulthood through a disturbed father. There are also at least four older narrators looking back on some anecdote of their childhood, as is the case in “Einstein’s Beach House” and “Limerence.”
Often, Appel’s tells the readers just exactly what his story is about at the end – essentially, a statement of the story’s theme summed up in one line. In case we missed it, an extra beat to feel the author’s smugness at his own clever nature, after a deeply enjoyable narrative. And the few stories that strayed away from that idea (“The Rod of Asclepius,” for one) were incredibly more enjoyable.
There’s still plenty that Appel is doing right: he aptly explores the way the past influences us, with insights that linger long after the story is finished. “Einstein’s Beach House” and “Limerence” both feature older narrators looking back at some particular incident of their childhood, attempting to figure out what it meant, using the distance to reveal more insight into what could seem on the surface as a meaningless childhood adventure.
The distant narrator looking back works well for these two stories; it doesn’t work, however, for the most intriguing story in the bunch, “The Rod of Asclepius.” This story shows a father and seven-year-old daughter going around to hospital rooms and “injecting” patients. It is later learned that the father is quietly targeting and killing the relatives of doctors, due to a bitterness over his wife’s own death in a malpractice case. It’s an intriguing, complicated storyline, which loses some of the immediate thrill with the distance of the narrator, the seven year old now re-telling this story in her thirties, ironically now a doctor herself. Personally, I’d rather have stayed in the scenes with this young girl who already knows at seven that what her father is doing is wrong. The whole present-day narrative of her now being a doctor steals from the complex internal conflict she faced with at such a young age
Despite this, the idea of facing the past and trying to understand the complex dynamic of relationships is a commendable theme and explored thoroughly and inquisitively in this collection. There’s no doubt Appel’s voice is fresh, contemporary, quirky, and lively. Sure, he might be a bit “one-note,” but lucky for him, it’s a remarkably good note to hit.
Rachel Kolman (Episode 85) received her MFA in fiction from the University of Central Florida. She currently teaches composition at Valencia College and Seminole State College. She’s also a barista at Vespr Coffeebar and can make a mean cup of joe. When she’s not grading papers and drinking coffee, she’s probably watching Netflix and eating Vietnamese food.