Phoning Home: Essays by Jacob M. Appel
The University of South Carolina Press, 2014
This is an excellent, entertaining, and provocative short collection of essays by the prolific writer Jacob Appel. (Read my review of his most recent collection of short stories here: Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets.)
Roughly the first half of the book is about the author’s family. The title essay is about his own childhood, as is the essay that follows it. Then we have pieces that are about Appel’s colorful ancestors, although as with the best personal essays, these expand beyond the nominal subject. (For example, “Sudden Death–A Eulogy,” is about the death of Appel’s great-grandfather, but it’s also about some of the ethical questions associated with living longer lives. It’s also interesting to note that the great-grandfather’s death also makes its appearance, in a fictionalized form, the story “The Grand Concourse,” from the story collection mentioned above.) I found these essays extremely appealing.
The second half of the book includes more essays that deal with Appel’s professional life as a bioethicist–a physician and lawyer who addresses a wide range of ethical questions that are faced by the medical profession. These pieces also are personal–the author writes primarily about situations he has been faced with–and also expand to the general in important ways. As entertained as I was by the first half of the book, the second half had me on the edge of my seat. These essays address truly important questions: when a patient can opt out of treatment; what are the limits imposed on treating physicians to act in a patient’s interest; the danger of taking controversial positions and the greater danger of silencing those with whom we disagree.
These essays are exactly the kind that resonate for me. Personal and specific, yet raising larger, challenging issues.