Phoning Home Essays On Success

A collection of short personal essays on complex issues that range from humorous to poignant

Phoning Home is a collection of entertaining and thought-provoking essays featuring the author's quirky family, his Jewish heritage, and his New York City upbringing. Jacob M. Appel's recollections and insights, informed and filtered by his advanced degrees in medicine, law, and ethics, not only inspire nostalgic feelings but also offer insight into contemporary medical and ethical issues.

At times sardonic and at others self-deprecating, Appel lays bare the most private aspects of his emotional life. "We'd just visited my grandaunt in Miami Beach, the last time we would ever see her. I had my two travel companions, Fat and Thin, securely buckled into the backseat of my mother's foul-tempered Dodge Dart," writes Appel of his family vacation with his two favorite rubber cat toys. Shortly thereafter Fat and Thin were lost forever—beginning, when Appel was just six years old, what he calls his "private apocalypse."

Both erudite and full-hearted, Appel recounts storylines ranging from a bout of unrequited love gone awry to the poignant romance of his grandparents. We learn of the crank phone calls he made to his own family, the conspicuous absence of Jell-O at his grandaunt's house, and family secrets long believed buried. The stories capture the author's distinctive voice—a blend of a physician's compassion and an ethicist's constant questioning.

Jacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney, and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of the novel The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up, the short fiction collection Scouting for the Reaper, and more than two hundred published stories. He also writes about the nexus of law and medicine, contributing to many leading publications including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and Detroit Free Press. His work has been nominated for the O. Henry Award, Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-required Reading, Best American Essays, and the Pushcart Prize anthology on many occasions.

"Entertaining, intelligent and compassionate essays that provoke reflection."—Kirkus Review (starred review)

"In his essays, Jacob Appel vividly evokes a younger version of himself, whom he treats with both cruelty and affection. His essays are gentle, crisp, self-mocking, and sneakily absurd. In each essay, he reaches some sort of equilibrium, a kind of intellectual epiphany that doesn't come easily; instead, it feels raw and hard-earned."—Rachel Aviv, staff writer at the New Yorker

In these essays, a noted bioethicist takes a thoughtful, wry look at his personal life as a way to touch on larger issues.

Appel (Scouting for the Reaper, 2014, etc.) is one of life’s overachievers: a physician, attorney and professional bioethicist, he also writes fiction, essays, opinion pieces and plays; his 2012 novel The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up won the Dundee International Book Prize. This strong volume brings together 13 previously published essays, in which Appel delves into his family history, childhood and other personal experiences, generally as jumping-off points for insights related to his medical, legal and ethical concerns. In “Two Cats, Fat and Thin,” for example, Appel spins an anecdote about stolen toys into a consideration of wealth, privilege, loss and changed lives. Should his parents try to get back Appel’s toys, which may have been stolen by a motel maid for her own son?: “Did I really want to yank [them] from his deprived little hands? Yes, I did.” Here, as in other essays, the author is disarmingly willing to consider his own shortcomings and misprisions. Several essays examine the role of history in family culture. His Belgian Jewish grandfather’s experience of anti-Semitism, for example, led him to adopt “Never, ever, stick your neck out” as a motto—which, Appel comments, is “probably good advice when you’re hiding from a mob of middle-class churchgoers lobbing stones, but my grandfather applied it universally.” Among the many thought-provoking pieces is “Opting Out,” which examines decisions around death and dying. Here, too, Appel mixes personal observation, family drama and his work as a physician to tease out difficult issues: “My grandfather had always said, ‘Where there is life, there is hope,’ which may explain—at least, in part—our family’s reluctance to withdraw care. But the unfortunate reality is that, where there is life, there is often false hope too.” Readers may not agree with every conclusion (“No acute sorrow, not even the death of a friend, compares with romantic rejection”), but they will understand how Appel reached them.

Entertaining, intelligent and compassionate essays that provoke reflection.

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