a guide to being born – ramona ausubel

Rating: 4.5/5

Where do I even start with this wonderful, magical short story collection? Ms. Ausubel has done my heart so good with her prose that reads like poetry, with her stories that all touched me in some way. Ranging from old women finding themselves on a ship at sea to a man waking up with a chest of drawers, these strange tales have forced their way into my heart and have since settled there.

The collection is divided up into four sections: Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love; all of which deals with tremendously difficult issues (death, rape, teenage pregnancies, loss, etc.), but Ms. Ausubel handles them with such dexterity these themes transcend their magical plane and bleeds reality. 

Although I loved almost every one, my favorite stories inclue Safe Passage, Poppyseed, Atria, Chest of Drawers, Magniloquence, and Tributaries. Someone once told me that to write a good short story collection, one would place a really good story as the first, one in the middle, and one at the end, and Ms. Ausubel has done exactly that.

A Guide to Being Born starts off with Safe Passage (my personal favorite), a story about a a couple dozen old women stranded at sea. It drew me in from the very first sentence and piqued my interest throughout. It seems as though the old women are caught between life and death, and it naturally ends with (what can be assumed) Old Woman #1 dying. The way I’m summarizing this story does not do the actual story any justice and you would have to read Ms. Ausubel’s poetic prose to really feel the magic of it.

Chest of Drawers is perhaps the most bizzare of the the collection – it tells of a soon-to-be father waking up one day with a literal chest of drawers, and storing small plastic babies (including other things) into his chest. It’s strangely terrifying yet still entrancing to see the phsyical manifestation of the father’s emotions – mainly, that he isn’t able to contribute to the pregnancy in the same way his wife does. It’s an interesting take on pregnancy and I’ve never really thought men would be jealous of carrying a baby around for nine months, but Ms. Ausubel has managed to convince me.

The last story of the collection, Tributaries, was the one that made me think about the most. It told of a world where the physical manifestation of love – whatever that love is – is the growing of another limb. For example, some people would have three arms or ten hands, depending on the number of people (or characters) they’ve loved and how much they loved them. If one’s love is just blooming, one would grow a hand. There are situations where people would fake their limbs to present to the outside world. For me, the story connected with Chest of Drawers in the way that they both deal with a physical manifestation of emotions and feelings. It also raised several interesting questions about how we can tell whether a person truly loves us, or is truly in love with us. Can we tell from the things they do for us? The words the say? Their heart rate? This thought brought me to the question of whether love was really something transcendental (as many poets and writers and romantics love to believe), something beyond the physical plane, or was love simply a product of chemical hormones, something that could be measured quantitatively, like a science experiment.

Does Ms. Ausubel offer an explanation? You should definitely read and see.

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