Phoning Home by Jacob Appel

Reviewed by: Charlene Caruso



Publisher: University of South Carolina Press
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-1611173710

When read together, each of the thirteen pieces in Jacob Appel’s Phoning Home build upon the next, resulting in a multifaceted glimpse into the mind of Appel as he explores the ways in which identity can be consumed by illness and eroded by modern society’s response to approaching death. He is uniquely qualified to tackle these questions as he is both a physician and a bioethicist. Each essay is crafted to invite the reader into the author’s mind. The title essay introduces us to seven year old Jacob. His parents are being tormented by a crank caller who is never caught. Appel employs this experience to reflect on deceit, secrets and how little we know about ourselves or others. He manages to slip in and out of his past, admitting about his childhood self, “I still have no idea what made this creature tick,” peeling back the layers of time—as a grown man—sitting across from his aging parents wondering if he should confess the truth. He decides against it as he looks at them, “What they have gained in happiness, they have lost in joy.” He riffs on how confession reveals what strangers we are even to those close to us and that misbehavior is not always a predictor of pathology.

We follow him as he explores assumptions and beliefs about his own identity, those of his family members, and by extension each of us. He is a storyteller, a man full of important questions. In “The Man Who Was Not My Grandfather,” he reveals his grandmother Lillian’s refusal to marry a distant cousin, thereby denying her family their only opportunity to leave Latvia and come to America, a chance to escape the Nazis. This story is untold until an aunt tries to track down Lillian’s genealogy, finding an old photo of this handsome unnamed cousin with all his sisters. There is also a group portrait of three rows of the extended family taken at a wedding, rows of young children, many of them toddlers, unknown cousins, staring at the camera. They were among 16,000 Jews who lived in that region of Latvia before World War II. Less than one hundred survived. All the rest murdered, likely shot or starved, many before the end of 1942.

When asked about the man in the photo, Lillian admits he was the man her father wanted her to marry. “Why should I marry a man I’d never met?” This is a story Lillian doesn’t want to remember. She reminds Appel that if she had made the choice to marry that cousin, there would be no Jacob Appel to ask these questions. Instead, an entire branch of the family tree was destroyed. Who could predict such evil? Who can acknowledge its meaning, even now? A young girl’s decision, reflected back in time, can never answer these questions.

Another essay, “Caesura—Antwerp, 1938,” is a story about Grandpa Leo and a broken watch. Leo had emigrated with his parents from Belgium before the Nazi invasion. He met Lillian in the U.S. and they married. Decades later while in Spain on vacation, his prized watch stops working. The watch is old, and after asking around he is given the name of one man who possesses the skill to repair it. When Leo enters the shop he recognizes the man as a childhood friend from Antwerp. Their meeting is brief and they part without any promises to keep in touch. This man is one of the only survivors from their neighborhood. “Each had assumed the other was dead.”

Leo had told many stories about his life in New York but rarely discussed his early years in Antwerp or his boyhood friends. Appel finally realizes, “For my grandfather, time had stopped like a broken watch in 1938 Antwerp—and when it restarted in Manhattan, after a seven-day voyage across the Atlantic, it did so in a different continuum, its hours and minutes both identical to and, entirely unlike, the hours and minutes preceding his escape.”   Appel reads a letter written to his grandfather at the end of 1945, “Alas, the news from the East is not good. We have heard nothing from the following relatives, and we can only assume the worst.” The rest of the letter contains a handwritten list over two pages long of names of another branch of the family murdered in the Holocaust. Name after name, all memory of them erased. These two essays linger, acting as a refrain throughout the collection.

In “An Absence of Jell-O,” Appel draws us in by humorously describing a child’s anticipation of tasting his grandaunt’s Lime Jell-O, “a weapon of torture,” a forbidden treat secretly promised to him if he behaves himself while visiting his elderly great aunt. He uses humor to convey his overwhelming, childish disappointment as visit after visit, no matter how hard he tries to be good, he fails to secure any Jell-O. Looking back as an adult he realizes there never was any Jell-O. He sees her bizarre behavior and peculiar eccentricities as a form of dementia, often undiagnosed in those days. He concludes she may have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Appel’s disarming use of humor nudges us past our fears and into examining the pros and cons of undergoing DNA testing to determine the presence of genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease. He presents facts in a conversational tone, and poses moral dilemmas in a personal framework. Appel makes the decision to get tested.

Appel’s voice is engaging and compassionate. We meet real people in his essays, people losing the battle with age and disease and losing the right to decide their fate, patients in hospitals and mental wards. We meet doctors who cannot heal them.  In “Dropping Dead—A Eulogy,” he makes a solid argument for dying with dignity instead of enduring the suffering a prolonged death imposes on us by advances in medicine. Many diseases which proved fatal not so long ago can now be managed and the mortality risk reduced. For Americans, sudden or swift death is now the exception rather than the rule.

Appel reminds us that the added years of life are not always a positive experience. Sometimes, surviving one illness leaves us vulnerable to developing other chronic diseases that rob us of our independence and prevent us from enjoying those extra years. It is an important discussion as technology and scientific discoveries rush far ahead in the ability to extend the length of our lives but often at the cost of significantly reducing its quality.  Whether discussing lost toys, lost loves, lost minds or lost lives he reminds us that our individual voice needs to be heard. It is rare when a collection of essays written and separately published over a span of almost a decade reads like cohesive chapters of a tightly constructed book. Phoning Home gives us that experience.





The Wes Letters

Reviewed by Amber Parker
wes letters

The Wes Letters By Feliz Lucia Molina, Ben Segal and Brett Zehner
Published 2014 by Outpost19 | San Francisco
$16.00 paperback ISBN 9781937402648

The Wes Letters is an epistolary novel, or more simply: a collection of letters addressed to the famed film director, Wes Anderson. These letters are penned by three friends – Brett, Ben and Feliz – a trio of artists/grad students, quirky and neurotic. The story begins when Brett meets Wes Anderson on a train moving through New Mexico but expands into something unexpected. And from that moment—a discussion of literature between sips of wine—a story unfolds. It’s a language-driven story that travels first across the US—by train, plane and bus—from the Midwest to San Diego, until finally ending in Finland’s Bear Forest. Ultimately, it’s a story that isn’t really about Wes Anderson at all.

Wes Letters is a chronicling of musings and imaginations. It’s absurdly funny (they consider breaking into Anderson’s home to steal his toothbrushes, asking him to help paint their apartment, celebrity therapy by way of Snoop Dogg/ Lion, “Moonrise Condom,” etc.), somewhat confessional, and, at times, deeply personal. It’s a mix of self-reflection and philosophical meditation. It’s an evaluation of changing technologies, multiple media platforms, celebrity/recognition, and the general state of the modern world and how we project ourselves into it. It’s also about traveling and place (physical and emotional), loss and connection—“writing to you calms me because the further I type the more real you become,” writes Feliz. Wes Anderson is the constant and is what keeps readers grounded, even though he never actually responds. He is the “black hole” into which they confide their deepest thoughts and memories: “I am specifically writing these letters to forget, or to replace memory with stories, shifting sand and perhaps some magic,” says Brett. Rather than losing their most intimate thoughts into the void that is “Dear Wes,” we are on the other end, listening and understanding the pain of remembering and what it means to forget/be forgotten.

A novel as personal letters reflects a sort of realism, and it helps that the authors’ first names match those of the three narrators, which verges on a kind of “collective memoir.” The epistolary style is unique to each narrator, and perhaps that’s a nod to Anderson’s own distinct narrative and visual style in filmmaking. It’s also written as stream of consciousness. I particularly loved the story’s vividness, the precision and intensity of language, especially in Brett’s hybrid letter/poems. The sound sensations he creates are incredible, almost haunting (for some examples, read entries: “AIR SPACE,” “CHICAGO,” “INSOMNIA,” “MIDWEST,” and “SNAG.”).

Memory and place are key motifs in this novel. Memories were strewn together anxiously, brilliantly fragmented, offering a fracturing of time. The two year timeframe in this novel is easily tracked through events, technology, and thanks to Feliz, by specific dates/hours/minutes. But most striking about Wes Letters are the darker, private moments – the poignant glimpses of fragile humanity, most often revealed through Brett’s letters. I’ll not forget the memory of his dying friend, Eddie, the memory of his grandfather (a man with a “6-minute memory loop”) triggered by a bus ride, and the section about his mother’s brain cancer. The results are breathtaking imagery, language and emotion: “In the sunshine I forget to miss people,” Brett says.

This novel is also about writers/writing. Oftentimes the narrators are too critical of themselves, but that’s something I (and any other writer) could relate to. “Too scattered perhaps, not enough of a cohesion,” Brett writes in his final entry: “LOCATION SCOUT AND TENTATIVE ENDING,” but I disagree. These three perspectives are collectively strong because the stories elegantly entangle themselves, creating cohesion. The structure also lends to that cohesion because it keeps everything together in a neat framing device. One could argue that the story lacks plot, an arc, but they address some of these “faults” throughout (and who says we need any of that?). Brett even defines the reasoning behind it all: “I just feel that location, and the assembled relationships between interiority, is what matters most to me at this point.” At one point he describes himself as without character, that he is just “settings and moods,” which I thought summed up perfectly how Wes Letters is written.

On the other hand, I believe that there is character development. Readers get to their cores; we understand them by the memories they choose to share. Their stories are relatable, not isolating. Anderson-haters and non-writers alike can enjoy this novel because it speaks to our generation, a generation of ambitious and creative types, as well as a universal feeling of anxiety and despair. I think, too, that Wes Letters might be saying that life isn’t like a Wes Anderson movie; there are no “happy solutions.” Life is “about what makes us weep. The molecular emotions. The little accumulations. All those repeated rememberings…placeholders,” Brett says. It is a story about forgetting (or replacing, rewriting) memories, but it is also a story about remembering and being memorable. I think that’s something all of us can identify with, which is why the journey we take with them is unforgettable.


A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies

Reviewed by Joel Bahr

Published 2014 by Outpost19 | San Francisco
ISBN 9781937402624

“Everyone thinks a lot of things are going to happen,” the narrator tells Moody Fellow, the central character in Douglas Watson’s A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies, “but only some of them do.”

Indeed, the conventional workings of novels—a problem resolved, or a lesson learned, or a redemption made good—don’t ever come into play in Watson’s first novel. The title is a dare of sorts. Watson tips his hand from jump street, and pulls the reader along in direct, stripped bare prose as he slowly teases out Moody’s origins, his failures (and eventual success) in love, and, ultimately, his death.

A Moody Fellow is quick and easy, a fairytale telling of an ordinary life, one where the fourth wall is broken so regularly that it’s reduced to rubble by the time Moody meets his messy end, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the novel’s pages, we follow Moody from childhood to college and eventually into the unnamed City. It’s a sparse world, and for a majority of the book we only see Moody fail. He is earnest and too nice for women to love as he bounces from one unfulfilling place to another. Throughout the book Moody sits at a piano, though untrained, and produces wild, erratic concertos from his heart. A strange girl sees him play one night, and takes him into his arms, eventually bringing Moody the love he seeks.

A few other characters dart in and out of the novel—a woman so beautiful that men (and birds, too) catch sight of her beauty and fall down dead at her feet; her insecure boyfriend; an artist who produces statues of cubes; a psychiatrist who worries about his wife’s infidelity—but primarily the novel is Moody’s, and he fills it with sincerity and false starts.

The novel evokes a sense of waiting. While the fairytale feel opens the door for profundity, either from Moody or the narrator, it never really comes. The closest we come to it is in the book’s waning pages where Moody is pulled from the dictation of his life to have a conversation—an exit interview—with the narrator.

Moody, upon being informed of his impending death, protests, “But I’m in love!” only to be undercut by the narrator. “So what? So are billions of others.” The only redemption for Moody is found in knowing that he had been loved before dying—a gift not granted to all. And the novel, which ultimately is a love story of a quiet, ordinary life, is also redeemed by Moody’s romantic. While there may have been a sense of expectancy because of the form of the novel, the real trick here is that sometimes—in both art and life—things don’t go as we expect them to. If the title of the book is a dare, a challenge to watch things unfold exactly as they were promised, then those readers who follow through can pull some satisfaction from knowing that Moody, who has loved and been loved, gets a happier ending than some.

In his exit interview, Moody asks “Shouldn’t I have to make some kind of big definitive choice or screw something up and then try to fix it?”But life has a way of not being art, the narrator reminds Moody, and after Moody offers a truism on love (“It’s something you go out and look for in the world, I think, but it’s really inside you, is what I would say if pressed.”) the narrator dabs a magic ointment behind his ears and sweeps away any memory of the conversation.

A Moody Fellow is a work that imitates the majority of normal life—full of disappointments and misunderstandings. Pages turn quickly, lulling readers into a world that resembles a life they’re familiar with, but novel has a strange gravity to it. For those who stick it through, they’ll find there is no ointment behind their ears, and in the days after tucking Moody Fellow away they’ll notice him lingering in their mind.