Book Review: “The Liars’ Asylum” by Jacob M. Appel

by Cindy Song, Managing Editor

For the first book review on this blog, I will be reviewing “The Liars’ Asylum” (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) by Jacob M. Appel, a collection of fictional short stories centering around the themes of love, identity, and lies. Each story is full of humor and wit, and illustrates the complexity of relationships in everyday life. Through the characters’ charming yet clearly faulty personalities—characters who dream, desire, regret, and fail—readers can find themselves drawn to the stories’ honesty and humanity. 

Out of the eight stories, my favorite one would probably be “Prisoners of the Multiverse,” an intricate narrative about a childhood high school teacher that raises questions about self and the universe. The multiverse—defined by Appel as the “infinite reflection of alternative universes paralleling our own”—is a fitting title as the narrator ponders about the choices in her own life, encouraging readers to join in. The ending lines of the story are magical and hopeful, demonstrating the brilliance of Appel’s writing. 

Every story in the collection focuses on a different storyline but each pulls on the reader’s heartstrings. Appel is brilliant at paying attention to detail, both in crafting his characters and plot. He is also wonderful at bringing to life the seemingly ordinary aspects of life—fittingly for the mission of Minute Magazine. I would strongly recommend this collection to anyone who wants a lighthearted and witty, yet strangely philosophical, read to reflect on the trials of daily life. By accompanying Laurie Jean, Maia, and the many other characters on their respective adventures, readers will be sure to leave with new insights and experiences.

Check out “The Liars’ Asylum” on Amazon!



Cindy Song
is a freshman at Princeton University planning on studying economics and creative writing. Her poetry has appeared in Words Dance, Cicada Magazine, Noble Gas Poetry, and elsewhere. When not writing, she enjoys taking long walks and looking at dessert recipes.

Jacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City. He is the author of more than two hundred published short stories and is a past winner of the Boston Review Short Fiction Competition, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Short Story, the Dana Award, the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction, the North American Review‘s Kurt Vonnegut Prize, the Missouri Review‘s Editor’s Prize, the Sycamore Review‘s Wabash Prize, the Briar Cliff Review’s Short Fiction Prize, the H. E. Francis Prize, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award in four different years, an Elizabeth George Fellowship and a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writers Grant. His stories have been short-listed for the O. Henry Award, Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Mystery Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology on numerous occasions. His first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012. Jacob holds graduate degrees from Brown University, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Harvard Law School, New York University’s MFA program in fiction and Albany Medical College’s Alden March Institute of Bioethics. He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Music Minute: March 2018

Here are our monthly music faves for March, curated by our editors!

  1. Sit Still, Look Pretty (Daya) — Catchy melodies, bright and addictive. Also has a theme of female empowerment!
  2. Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys) — An oldie (1966), considered one of the masterpieces of rock music.
  3. your text (Sundial) — Sundial is an Asian American duo. Their songs have a R&B / slow jazz kind of sound.
  4. Imagine (John Lennon) — When I think about March for Our Lives, Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and other current movements, the lyrics “imagine all the people living life in peace, you/ you may say I’m a dreamer/ but I’m not the only one” drift through my mind. John Lennon was more than imperfect. The continuum of his identity shifted during the period when he wrote “Getting Better” and later the beloved peace anthem “Imagine.” Listeners of Lennon and Yoko Ono’s albums witness an intimate, almost primal breaking open, a yearning to be really, truly, deeply seen and accepted. In a Playboy interview, Lennon not only admitted his violent past but explained, “That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite.” “Imagine” is a powerful song, but Lennon’s history makes it even more meaningful. To achieve world peace, we must first rehabilitate ourselves before seeking to redeem others. // Review by Prose Editor Sarah Hutchins
  5. Who You Are (Jessie J) — Beautiful vocals, catchy melody, melancholic yet upbeat.
  6. Min (Hunjiya) — Hunjiya, an emerging Korean American artist, explores themes of heritage and family.
  7. Something in the Way (Jorja Smith) — Haunting, classy, romantic.

Music Minute: December 2017

As 2017 comes to an end, the staff at Minute Magazine would like to introduce a new blog installment called “Music Minute,” where editors share their favorite music picks of the month. Below are the tracks for December 2017 – take a listen as you enjoy this holiday season.

Listen on Spotify

Some highlights from the playlist…

  1. “Champion” by Fall Out Boy // reviewed by Prose Editor Elizabeth Ruth Deyro
    Notable lyrics: “I’m just young enough to still believe / but young enough not to know what to believe in”
    Since their pre-hiatus emo days, bassist and songwriter Pete Wentz has always made sure that their songs would be poems for the troubled, and I love that most about this band. This song from their forthcoming album “Mania” just hits so close to home. With strong lyrics that scream “If I can live through this, I can do anything”, this anthem aims to inspire – and it surely does.
  2. “Mrs. Potato Head” by Melanie Martinez // reviewed by Prose Editor Elizabeth Ruth Deyro
    Notable lyrics: “Mrs. Potato Head, tell me / is it true that pain is beauty? / Does a new face come with a guarantee? / Will a pretty face make it better?”
    This song is a powerful piece that talks about the pressure to change what you look like to fit in the societal standards of beauty. As a feminist and a firm believer of body positivity, I feel strongly about Melanie Martinez’s obvious criticism of plastic surgery, the risks it entail, and the repercussions that ensue. This song is dark, raw, and bold – perfectly complemented by Melanie’s unique style and brilliant voice.
  3. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen // reviewed by Prose Editor Elizabeth Ruth Deyro
    Notable lyrics: “Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide, / no escape from reality”
    Honestly, who even doesn’t know Bohemian Rhapsody? This song is literal classic: unique in its form as it doesn’t fall under a single genre, but rather weaves together different sounds into six beautiful minutes. Fans speculate on what the song truly conveys, relating it to other literary texts such as the tale of Faust and Albert Camus’ The Stranger because of the many similarities in themes and tone.
  4. “The Trio Project – Warrior” by Hiromi // reviewed by Poetry Editor Tanya Singh
    This piece is a battle cry, the roar of a thousands lions collective, the dance of penguins, the bustle of magpies living in the anticipation of a rain shower some light years away. It is a sort of transformation. Hiromi, Anthony and Simon, have blessed this piece  with the joy escaping their hands in music, reaching to us, you and me, their heart-beats synchronizing with all the notes you didn’t even know existed before. This is the kind of music that makes me feel that this is all beautiful, that the world is a possibility in the making. It transforms itself, it transforms me, we are both different people when the piece hits its last note. A part of me feels, this, now, is a healing, kind of like nan’s stories, full of magic, and all the more possible.
  5.  “Blue Drag” by Django Reinhardt // reviewed by Poetry Editor Tanya Singh
    The first time I heard this, the guitar dancing a sort of hopscotch, I thought to myself, Reinhardt must really know what he wants from his life, to make others feel that the tinge, fading light is a want, still burning, asking — you want this, don’t you?  How many lives would you be willing to live through again simply to feel, to know, that you want what you want? Want is endless, never ending, and sometimes almost bigness, self driven madness, that is both selfless and selfish. But this want feels like a soft prayer to yourself, an antidote for your fears, the guitar is reciting your name like a poem — doesn’t that feel warm? This piece is a want, a child-full desire to dream again. I listen to it often, often enough to remind myself that my dreams are colours,  these pastels rising to a birth of another possibility.

Weighing In: The Purpose of Poetry

by Devon Balwit, Poetry Editor

What is poetry for? Lately, many have weighed in on this topic in the popular press. Why do big events like natural disasters, 9/11, or Trump’s election seem to call it forth? Why do many people hate it? Why do many others continue to produce it? How should one approach it as a reader?

A recent essay in The New Yorker titled “In Defense of Poetry” by Louis Menand examines a number of claims made about poetry’s utility or lack thereof. Of interest is his summation of Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry”: “Poems simply cannot do what people want them to do—create timeless moments, or express individual experiences with universal appeal, or create a sense of communal identity, or overturn existing social mores, or articulate ‘a measure of value beyond money.’ All they can do is expose the impossibility of achieving any of these things by writing a poem.”

I disagree that poems “can’t” do these things. They do them all the time. To write a poem is to take a moment—historical or personal—and expand it, first, through the act of writing, and then again through the act of reading.  Does the moment become “universal”? That word is perhaps too large unless you mean the space of intersection with an Other and the finding of commonalities there. The commonalities may not even lie in identity or shared life-experience, but in the power of art to produce shared emotions: nostalgia, indignation, empathy, lust, etc. They create a space apart from the world. (Perhaps this is why we shouldn’t be troubled with liking the work of a poet whose politics we disagree with. Inside their work, we can encounter them in a different space, that of our shared language, or of the creative process itself.)

Poems also frequently overturn existing social mores—perhaps not in the sense of fomenting social movements or inspiring legislation, but in that of an individual sharing information that otherwise wouldn’t be shared publicly, or sharing it in language usually deemed socially inappropriate. We see this when poets write about being victimized, about perpetrating crimes, about acts normally performed behind closed doors. By bringing these taboo events and thoughts into the open, they challenge social mores.

Similarly, too, poetry celebrates a value beyond money. Few poets earn money through publishing, teaching, lecturing, websites, or workshops. Thus, the creation of poetry is largely unpaid as is its dissemination. In fact, I’d venture that this is the source of much of the scorn leveled at those who write and read poetry. Those caught up in the production or enjoyment of capital cannot understand dedication to something that doesn’t pay homage to the currency of this realm.

Menand also paraphrases Matthew Zapruder’s essay “Why Poetry?”: “Where people who are puzzled by poetry go wrong, he thinks, is in expecting poems to say something straightforward about life, to be useful. Poems are really about language—ultimately, about the impossibility of fixed meanings.” I want to step out of this grad-school lingo. Many poems, I’d counter, are quite straightforward. They use simple language and situate themselves in recognizable and commonly-lived experiences. Sometimes, even the most successful poems emerge from the artist’s personal experience. (I think of Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” about explaining death and evil to a child.) Poems are evidence of the writer’s grappling with a moment. The fact of a poem is like an intimate stain on a sheet. We know sex occurred. We can imagine it. We didn’t live that encounter with the lover, but the facts of it resonate within us. And what of the “impossibility of fixed meaning”? One does find meaning in or through poems. They don’t mean anything or nothing at all. Perhaps “fixed” is the key term as each reader might enter the poem through a different line or phrase, and the same reader may enter it by a different one the next time they read it.

Perhaps those people who are puzzled by poetry are not really puzzled at all, but rather offended. They don’t want to slow down. They don’t want the apparent slightness of a poem compared to a Netflix series, a movie, or a book. They might be affronted by the gossamer lines asking for “weighty” consideration. They may resent having to work for pleasure in their leisure time.

Menand also intrigues when he notes: “One of Lerner’s chief examples of misplaced expectations for poetry is what he calls ‘nostalgia for a poetry that could supposedly reconcile the individual and the social, and so transform millions of individuals into an authentic People.’” We imagine a “back then” in which children routinely memorized and performed poems in school, or when people kept notion books of notable lines or whole poems. We imagine the pool of poems smaller and thus shared and familiar. I wonder if we are romanticizing the past. Then, as now, only a fraction of extant poems are offered for such activities, usually the most accessible, the best-known, those with the most marked rhythm for ease of memorization, those most likely to carry the audience along. The rest, certainly the most daring or experimental, or those written by “margin-dwelling” writers didn’t find themselves “reconciling individuals into a People,” at best perhaps they brought together a group of friends/compatriots around a café table, or as now, rippled outward among a “friend group” on social media.

I take issue with Zapruder’s lines: “We find genuine questions everywhere in poetry because they direct the lines away from certainty and stasis. In the best poems, often the poet does not know the answer.” A poetry critic always runs the risk of elevating personal preferences to principles. For example: “I prefer ambiguity; thus, the greater the degree of ambiguity, the better the poem.” Many poems that I love examine recognizable themes in language that invites the reader in (see, I am doing it too: elevating my preference to an aesthetic ruler). These poems take the reader to what could be called a “conclusion.” The final line “makes sense.” The poet—gasp!—perhaps even knows where they are going and how they wanted to arrive there. This doesn’t render the poem “static.” We know any given wave will advance over the shore and retreat, but never the same way. Its movement isn’t ambiguous and enigmatic, only variable.

Without being churlish, I confess that I like the final two lines of Menand’s essay best: “I understand that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.” This, indeed, sums up the impulse. I see, read, hear, feel something, and it sparks a desire to respond. It opens the door to the room set apart, that strange room of the mind that is bigger than the whole world, that exists outside of time, unbound by it. The saying of the thing created there is pure pleasure, independent of whether it is read, understood, appreciated, or remunerated. The act of transmuting lived experience or thought into language is all-absorbing.

I would like to end by quoting Menand: “You read this piece…maybe it will change your life. If it does, the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments. Don’t expect too much out of any one thing. For although the world is hard, words matter. Rock beats scissors. It may take a while, but paper beats rock. At least we hope so.” Our brains are restless tools. Poetry, the making and reading of it, gives this tool its perfect exposition. It is the sought-after perpetuum mobile, the inexhaustible process.