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Book review of “The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street” Poignant and Delightful Short Stories by Jacob M Appel

By Claudia P. Slovacek

It’s been a few months since I put down this collection of short stories by Jacob Appel, but some of them remain embedded in my sub-conscience. Appel has been added to my “must read more by this author” list. Unfortunately, since I’m in two book clubs and the last quarter of the year tends to be my busiest at work, I haven’t had a lot of additional free time to pick up other volumes by this author. I will though, and I recommend you do so as well.

Appel has an amazing way of painting various portraits of the human condition in all its pain, joy, banality and splendor of our interactions with others who inhabit our shared space. Sometimes this is quite literally as in the story of “The Current Occupant”. This tale finds us with a couple whose prefabricated house has been delivered and installed at the wrong address. That it now ensconces the husband’s former college sweetheart adds to the dilemma of how they might go about rectifying this delivery error. Past indiscretions impact current and future relationships, sometimes for a reason, but more often, only because we fear those indiscretions are perceived as worse than they really were.

My favorite story was of course the title story, “The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street”. As a naturist, I’ve never understood all of the hullabaloo about naked bodies. This tale finds us with the problem Quincy Marder faces as he tries to persuade Ilene, his elderly mother, who has taken to nude sunbathing in her yard, to put on some clothes. As Appel draws the picture of the son and mother’s relationship, we see the futility of Quincy’s attempt to rectify the situation:

“Quincy drew a deep breath. Reasoning with his mother, he’d discovered soon after he learned to form his first sentences, was like straining the Sahara Desert through a sieve. ‘Lance Otten rang me up this afternoon,’ he said. ‘He’s concerned that you’re – well – he’s upset about you sitting out here topless.’

‘That’s what you’re worked up about?’ Ilene brushed away his complaint with the back of her hand. ‘You had me worried it was something serious.’

“Rendezvous in Wikiternity” feels a bit surreal as two lost souls attempt to disconnect or connect as the case may be, through entries in Wikipedia. This online knowledge base has some quirky side effects which occur because anyone can edit the entries to suit their reality. Safeguards are put into place to keep the general tenor of the entries as close to the truth as possible. This tale takes us through an esoteric mating ritual of two strangers feinting and parrying online. Appel masterfully melds current technology with the thousands year old story of how two humans falteringly step down the path toward getting to know each other.

I recommend this latest collection of eight stories from Jacob Appel as it makes some fine winter reading, and allows us a delightful AND poignant peak into what makes us tick as humans.

The author of the Topless Widow of Herkimer Street is Jacob M. Appel, a physician, attorney, and bioethicist with multiple degrees, collects literary prizes the way some other authors collect rejection slips, and for good reason. This latest collection again offers well-constructed stories that sharply but compassionately observe people trying to make sense of life’s disruptions. Uncontrollable forces (including the absurd, the magical, and the tragic) upset carefully ordered lives in this short story collection that won the 2016 Howling Bird Press fiction prize. In the title story, for example an elderly woman’s nonchalance is revealed to be no stunt but rather a radically self-affirming gesture. Phillips resident Claudia Slovacek reviews this book by Augsburg College’s Howling Bird Press released in November 2016

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