Jacob Appel’s new collection of short stories journeys through genies, to quadriplegia, iron lungs, Wikipedia, and platygaeanism (the belief that the earth is flat). Some are lighthearted and clever while others take a darker turn, but they each capture a deeper question. Appel winds the theme of choices through each story.
At first glance they appear simple but as you move toward the end, you along with the characters, are presented with questions. In “The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street,” after which the book was named, a widow is sunbathing topless in her backyard. Her grown son is forced to confront her after complaints from her neighbors. At first the widow presents it as a feminist issue. Why are men allowed to go shirtless when women are not? As the story continues you are forced to consider what really matters at the end of your life. What choices have you made in life and do you regret them? If you had the chance would you change your mind? Each story discusses these questions in a different manner, and each character approaches them in his or her own way.
Carried alongside the choices are relationships. In “Bioethics for Dunces” he writes, “It didn’t surprise Leonard to anticipate his wife’s thoughts. This was marriage, after all: being able to pick up the threads of a conversation, without context, after thirty years of silence.” And in “The Current Occupant” a similar thought, “How familiar she was – her body, her henna bangs, the contours of her cynicism.” Relationships and our connections with others are what keep life interesting, and they are addressed here with humor and a dose of realism. They are also at the root of many choices we make in life.
Appel brings his broad range of expertise to present us with a diverse and unique set of stories. They read as engaging, bite-sized philosophical pieces in story form. If you’re looking for a quick but clever and insightful read I would recommend The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street. The vivid images he creates will remain with you for some time.
By Melissa Blakely
The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street is available November 1, 2016.
All images from Pixabay.com