By Jacqueline Grima
Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets is a quirky collection of short stories by New York writer, Jacob M Appel. Appel is the author of over 200 published short stories and two novels and, alongside his work as a writer, is also a renowned physician, attorney and bioethicist. His first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012.
The collection begins with an intriguing tale about Zigfrids Imants Lenc, an alien otherwise known as Red Ziggy, who comes to Earth in the guise of a Latvian refugee. After opening a restaurant, Ziggy tries hard not to attract attention to himself, regularly reporting back to his superiors on his home planet regarding his findings on earth. When he befriends a young woman, however, a vegetarian pro-lifer taking part in demonstrations outside a nearby abortion clinic, his life becomes more complicated. Whilst attempting to push Ziggy for his opinion on all things pro-life, including the renowned Roe vs Wade case, Erin also asks him to teach her Latvian, a language of which he actually has very little knowledge. Can Ziggy stick to the brief given by his superiors or will his relationship with Erin complicate his time on Earth?
In ‘Phoebe with Impending Frost’, Appel sets his characters in the onset of the new ice age, university lecturer William Deutsch attempting to rebuild his relationship with a now-married ‘teenage crush’ whilst also advising the public about the impending life-changing weather conditions – ‘basically, we’re screwed’. Unsettling and intense, the story follows the clearly unreliable narrator as he almost becomes Phoebe’s stalker, both of them struggling with what appears to be a fragile future.
In what is probably the most magical story of the collection, ‘Invading Species’, we follow single mother, Meredith, as she attempts to cope with the impending demise of her terminally ill daughter, Celeste. Preparing herself for the afterlife she is convinced exists, eight-year-old Celeste has taken to hiding inside her mother’s Grandfather clock, what she calls ‘death practice’. Supported by new neighbour and widower, Cohen, a metaphorical grim-reaper who spends his days hacking at the garden with a scythe, Meredith can only wait for her daughter to die, Appel ending the story beautifully when Celeste’s end eventually comes.
Other stories in the collection also explore the theme of death, Appel successfully managing to avoid a perhaps inevitable depressive tone with his beautiful and, often, uplifting prose and imagery. In ‘The Resurrection Bake-Off, a reputable doctor deals with his wife’s cancer, and the possible return of his dead mistress, during a period that sees many of the world’s dead suddenly coming back to life. In ‘The Orchard’, a fourteen-year-old would-be-poet watches his still-married mother form a relationship with exquisitely-named pensioner, Happy Gallows, who, of course, is hiding a secret of his own. And, in ‘Shell Game with Organs’, a budding magician, whose best friend is a parrot named Houdini, considers donating a kidney to his sick girlfriend. Will the relationship survive?
Jacob M Appel has a very special gift for storytelling, both his characters and their settings possessing a magical quality that brings them to life on the page. Exploring different lifetimes, parallel universes and, even, other planets, in Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, Appel successfully pulls his reader into each and every one of his worlds, his characters and the dilemmas they face lingering long after their stories are finished. Indeed, readers of Jacob M Appel’s work will be hard pushed not to find themselves thinking about this writer and his stories, and wanting to read more, weeks, or even months, after the collection has been returned to the bookshelf.
Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets is published by Black Lawrence Press and is available now from Amazon.