The stories in Ramona Ausubel’s new collection, A Guide to Being Born, will appeal to readers who are willing to make a certain intellectual commitment, appreciate lyricism and delight in the absurd.
A Guide to Being Born (Riverhead, $27) is divided into four parts (birth, gestation, conception and love), but every story has the same DNA. “Safe Passage” begins with dozens of disoriented grandmothers aboard a large crewless vessel, drifting at sea with some unusual cargo (padded toilet seats, yellow roses, baseball bats). Some try to escape, others worry about unattended husbands and pets. One grandmother, Alice, recalls her two marriages, her hospital stay and the realization that she is adored by family and friends. In “Poppyseed,” parents make an impossible decision about the welfare of their severely disabled 8-year-old daughter.
“Atria” is an especially challenging story, first published in The New Yorker in 2011. Hazel is a high school freshman when she loses her virginity. Her first encounter is with a convenience store clerk, but the story takes a dark turn when she’s raped behind a church. Unclear who the father is, she speculates about the baby growing inside her. She imagines a fur-covered infant, a bird of prey, a seal. I found Ausubel’s ending upsetting, but after revisiting the story a day later, I came to appreciate the risks she took.
In “Chest of Drawers,” Annie and Ben are expecting a baby but it’s not just Annie’s body that’s changing. “Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations” is the seriocomic tale of Houdini, a pet cat who meets an untimely end and how his human owners cope with the pain of Houdini’s gray fur turning to gray ashes.
Many of the stories in A Guide to Being Born feature single parents, loneliness and death. In “Saver,” Mabel attends college and shares an apartment with her father. She works at a grocery store but quits after an unwelcome sexual advance. She runs into Booker, a former employee, and they begin an awkward, tentative dance toward romance. In “Snow Remote,” Leonard tells his children their mother died in a car accident. In reality, she simply rejected motherhood and the ashes in her urn came from the fireplace. “Magniloquence” reads like something out of Beckett. Faustus Macelovich, a widowed English professor, waits in an auditorium for a lecture from a Nobel Prize winner and slowly realizes he’s not the only one aching for a human connection.
These are grim fables borne of universal fears: relationships, childbirth, parenthood and aging. Ausubel reminds us that life is hard and filled with struggles, but never without hope. ★★★★☆
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Chosen by Vegas Seven A&E Editor and closet fantasy fan Cindi Moon Reed.
If Salman Rushdie is the public intellectual for the best of us, then Neil Gaiman is the public intellectual for the rest of us. Rushdie was married to model/reality star Padma Lakshmi; Gaiman is married to controversial rocker Amanda Palmer. Rushdie writes serious novels, essays and children’s books; Gaiman writes seriously fun novels, comics, screenplays and children’s books. They both tweet (@SalmanRushdie and @NeilHimself, respectively). Naturally, I prefer Gaiman, which is why I can’t wait till June 18, when The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow, $26), his first novel for grown-ups in nearly 10 years, will debut.