Ramona Ausubel - Lyrical stories arranged around themes of birth, gestation, conception and love. Makes you feel as if you have emerged from a concert of atonal music, every object in the world momentarily transformed by Ausubel’s gloriously eccentric vision
Ramona Ausubel, A Guide To Being Born, Riverhead Books, 2013.
An isolated village tries to save itself from a war through sheer force of imagination—all at the suggestion of a girl.
In 1939, the families in a remote Jewish village in Romania feel the war close in on them. Their tribe has moved and escaped for thousands of years—across oceans, deserts, and mountains—but now, it seems, there is nowhere else to go. Danger is imminent in every direction, yet the territory of imagination and belief is limitless. At the suggestion of an eleven-year-old girl and a mysterious stranger who has washed up on the riverbank, the villagers decide to reinvent the world: deny any relationship with the known, and start over from scratch. Destiny is unwritten. Time and history are forgotten. Jobs, husbands, a child, are reassigned. And for years, there is boundless hope. But the real world continues to unfold alongside the imagined one, eventually overtaking it, and soon our narrator—the girl, grown into a young mother—must flee her village, move from one world to the next, to find her husband and save her children, and propel them toward a real and hopeful future.
Reminiscent of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell—this enthralling new collection uses the world of the imagination to explore the heart of the human condition. A New York Times Editor’s Choice.
Combines the otherworldly wisdom of Ausubel’s much-loved debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, with the precision of the short-story form. Long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize. A Guide to Being Born is organized around the stages of life—love, conception, gestation, birth—and the transformations that happen as people experience deeply altering life events, falling in love, becoming parents, looking toward the end of life. In each of these eleven stories Ausubel’s stunning imagination and humor are moving, entertaining, and provocative, leading readers to see the familiar world in a new way.
In “Atria” a pregnant teenager believes she will give birth to any number of strange animals rather than a human baby; in “Catch and Release” a girl discovers the ghost of a Civil War hero living in the woods behind her house; and in “Tributaries” people grow a new arm each time they fall in love. Funny, surprising, and delightfully strange—all the stories have a strong emotional core; Ausubel’s primary concern is always love, in all its manifestations.
"Ausubel is a master stylist of vibrant, concise prose, and these stories, with love most often at their cores, can be appreciated for that alone."– Booklist
"These stories reminded me of branches full of cherry blossoms: fresh, delicate, beautiful, expressive, otherworldly. I eagerly read from one story to the next."– Aimee Bender
What is it about?
This unusual short-story collection follows the life cycle from birth to death through different, fantastical stories.
Why are we talking about it?
Ausubel's debut novel, No One Is Here Except All Of Us, was one of our favorite books of last year. This book has received a lot of pre-release attention, showing why Ausubel is one of the most imaginative and provocative rising literary stars.
Who wrote it?
Ramona Ausubel grew up in Santa Fe, and holds an MFA from the University of California. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and Electric Literature, and she currently lives in Santa Barbara.
Who will read it?
People who enjoy fresh voices in modern literature. Fans of George Saunders will find a lot to enjoy in Ausubel's writing, as will readers of Junot Díaz and Argentine fabulist Julio Cortázar.
What do the reviewers say?
New York Times: "Each story in this collection finds a way to record the tensions between the corporeal and the invisible, the forces that animate us but ultimately can’t be dissected, our anti-anatomies."
Publishers Weekly: "A charming, at times precious collection of stories that tackles the frustrations and fantasies of being alive... the author’s greatest triumphs come in narratives that weave the defeated with the absurd."
Impress your friends:
The remarkable cover is adapted from an illustration by the artist and surrealist writer Lou Beach.
The grandmothers - dozens of them - find themselves at sea. They do not know how they got there. It seems to be afternoon, the glare from the sun keeps them squinting. They wander carefully, canes and orthotics, across the slippery metal deck of the ship, not built for human passage but for cargo. Huge shipping crates are stacked at bow and stern. The grandmothers do not know what it means. Are we dead? they ask one another. Are we dying?
The boys like to watch Miss C walk down the hall, all those hands and fingers moving together under her clothes, beckoning. This evening, when she makes a trip back and forth to her car, the football team turns from the field where the lowering winter sun skates the grass pink. They watch her search in her bag for keys, which come out glinting. Her hair picks up the light in the usual way, but it is her body that receives it in waves, like she is the surface of the ocean and all the water inside is angling for a peek at the great open space of the sky.
Correction: There was a typo in the opening line section, "desk" instead of "deck". It has now been corrected. - www.huffingtonpost.com/
The stages of human life, death, or grieving provide the subject for many of the stories here, most frequently birth or childhood, as the title suggests — which means, for this book, the act of being a parent. Ausubel torques these stories in unexpected ways, though, and her parent figures gain our sympathy by never being entirely able to cope with these twists. In “Poppyseed,” an 8-year-old developmentally challenged girl grows breasts and pubic hair, to the consternation of her parents — her body achieves the growth her brain cannot. When the girl’s breast buds are removed to stop that part of her physical development, her parents find a way to cope with the situation that is absurd, and in its own way violent, but believable in and of itself. In “Atria,” a pregnant woman becomes convinced that she is giving birth to various animals. While her extensive imaginings ultimately engulf her experience of birth, making it so she sees a baby seal when gazing directly at her human baby, her prenatal hallucinations reveal a great deal about universal all-too-human fears about what it is, exactly, that takes place during human conception and pregnancy.
Ausubel’s sentences are carefully wrought, each one tipping you over a bit with its surreal, skewed stance. While it would be unfair to call her a “writer’s writer,” this level of craft does help the book achieve transcendence. In “Magniloquence,” a recently widowed professor finds himself in an absurd but typical situation: waiting for a speech by a Nobel laureate who may never arrive. After a lengthy blackout occurs, Ausubel makes the experience seem galvanizing and almost uplifting: “A huge river of light washed into the room, whiting everything out for Faustus, whose eyes had gotten used to dimness.” The opening story, “Safe Passage,” shows us a ship full of grandmothers, headed for (one thinks) the afterworld; when one of them dives into the ocean, Ausubel gives the moment luminescence and profundity: “The ocean is full and the sky is full: how plentiful the elements are! Alice floats on her back at the exact point of their meeting, held like a prayer between two hands pressed together.”
To call these stories ambitious is wholly accurate; Ausubel is constantly pushing for her characters to be more, to feel more, to experience more. In this rush, though, some things are overlooked. For instance, her female characters are often invested with the most personality, the most feeling, while her male characters are often ciphers. The soon-to-be father in “Chest of Drawers,” as if in an unintentionally ironic gesture, has drawers growing out of his chest, as if to suggest how empty he is. Also, the stories are occasionally end-loaded, as if each story’s bulk were an excuse to get to the conclusion, resulting in a mix of workaday sentences with more poetic ones. These slipups don’t change the final effect of the book, though, which makes you feel as if you have emerged from a concert of atonal music, every object in the world momentarily transformed by Ausubel’s gloriously eccentric vision.
The strange cover — a beautiful, precise, mishmash of subjects - is perfect for the stories it protects. They, too, are a mixed bag surrounding the subject of familial relationships of one kind or another, whether between mothers and children-to-be; fathers and their desire to carry something around, womblike, in a set of drawers; or lovers and their possible futures as seen embodied around them in the elderly couples inhabiting their neighborhood.
From the very start, this book informs the reader that these stories contain elements of the abnormal; consider the opening of “Safe Passage,” the first story in the collection:
The grandmothers — dozens of them — find themselves at sea. They do not know how they got there. It seems to be afternoon, the glare from the sun keeps them squinting. They wander carefully, canes and orthotics… Are we dead? They ask one another. Are we dying?Call it what you will: the fantastical, the imagined, magical-realism. The truth is, I’m not sure you can categorize it as any of these. The unreal elements, often dreamlike but never cast under the shadow of doubt or suspicious, are part and parcel of the real world, of life, birth and death in these stories. If you have trouble believing something, my advice is to sit back with your favorite soothing beverage; let go, let the story take over, let yourself sink into the deceptively simple language Ausubel uses to tell her stories:
A tiny white spine began to knit itself inside Hazel. Now it was just a matter of growing. [. . .] She dreamed that night, and for all the nights of summer, of a ball of light in her belly. A glowing knot of illuminated strands, heat breaking away from it, warming her from the inside out. Then it grew fur, but still shone. Pretty soon she saw its claws and its teeth, long and yellow. It had no eyes, just blindly scratched around sniffing her warm cave. She did not know if this creature was here to be her friend or to punish her.Each story is crafted independently, but they fit together in this volume under the headings that Ausubel has given to the four sections, an optimistic backwards version of coming to life: Birth, Gestation, Conception, Love. The writing isn’t pretentious. The metaphors are beautifully simple, sprinkled sparingly enough not to make the careful reader cringe at the literariness:
Laura and I sat on a picnic blanket in the middle of our suburban front yard. Poppy sat there too, only she was in her stroller bed as always. The grass was craning out of the dirt and the birds were going for all our scraps. We lay on our backs like Poppy does, flat down, and looked at the graying blue of the sky. It came at us. Storming us with its color, with its light.This is a first-rate book of short stories, and in a time when such books are difficult to publish, I have no doubt as to why this one succeeded in the task. It is a labor of love, and I’m glad it has come to light, a quiet baby of a book, crying when it is hungry but not screaming, sleeping through the night so early that you may wake up seeping milk, wondering if something is wrong with it. It will stay with you after you finish the stories, and you will worry about it a little bit, wondering if you understood it as you should have, cared as much as you could. Like an anxious parent, you may never know, but you can always go back and care some more.