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Friday
Apr102015

Book Review: Einstein's Beach House by Jacob Appel

Einstein’s Beach House

By Jacob Appel

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

Did Einstein own a beach house?  With considerable literary license, Jacob Appel suggests that the renowned genius did indeed own such a house, but its exact location remains a mystery. As in several of the stories in his collection, Einstein’s Beach House, Appel embraces absurdity to the point that reality becomes as ephemeral as possibility. In the title story, a misprint in the AAA guidebook for New Jersey misidentifies the location of the famous physicist’s summer residence by transposing the numerals in its address. The  owner of the misidentified cottage, taking advantage of the error, begins offering tours of the house. Unfortunately, one of his first customers is a university student who is doing research on Einstein, and when the  ersatz tour guide claims that he bought the house from the physicist’s niece, the student writes to the niece to inquire further. Somehow, the niece produces a deed to the house, despite its having been in the real owner’s family for four generations, and the faux tour guide and his entire family are  evicted.

“Paracosmos,” is a story in which a young girl develops an obsession with an imaginary friend. When her parents forbid her to “play” with the friend any longer, fearing for her mental health, the girl’s mother is visited by the imaginary friend’s father, with whom she begins an affair.

Whimsical, paradoxical, absurd?  

What these stories, as well as the others in Einstein’s Beach House have in common is a charmingly playful approach to reality, couched within familiar, often touching, settings involving family and relationships. The author’s sense of humor is present, either as foreground or background, in every story, making each a delight to read.

Some themes are repeated. Two of the stories involve taking care of an unusual pet: a box turtle in one and a hedgehog in another, and the consequences of taking such custodial relationships too seriously, so that they dominate the characters’ relationships with other humans.  In two of the stories the father is  portrayed as a fast-talking psychopath who nevertheless devotes his scheming and lying to the welfare of, and in one case to  exacting revenge in the name of, his family. Whether such characters are busy duping the public or secretly killing off the relatives of wealthy doctors, they nevertheless come across as human and ultimately lovable.

Throughout the stories, Appel displays a talent for exposing the weaknesses of humans, even in situations where they are presented as irritating, defiant, or vengeful. Often he achieves this by presenting the story through recollections of a child within a family—a child who embodies the innocence and faith in his or her parents that only a child possesses.

What emerges from this collection of stories is a subtle but telling argument for tolerance and understanding, an appreciation of the common human motivations behind what can appear to be aberrant or misguided behavior. And Appel’s story-telling skills are considerable. Each story unfolds with an effortless progression, which snares the reader’s curiosity, arouses his or her emotions, and makes the story hard to put down. At the close of each story,  I found myself pausing to reflect on the emotional insights which had been plumbed within me—but pausing only until my need for reflection was outweighed by my eagerness to begin the next story and see what the author’s quirky, original imagination would come up with next.

Einstein’s Beach House is published by Pressgang, an affiliate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Butler University and  it won their 2013 Pressgang Prize contest. It is available in paperback.

 

 

 

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