A world of hunger and desire

 

A Guide to Being Born
Ramona Ausubel
195 pages, hardcover, $26.95.
Riverhead, 2013.

When an innovative style is a writer's main goal, emotional subtleties tend to fall by the wayside. Ramona Ausubel, raised in New Mexico and now based in California, crafts literary fiction that manages to keep out the chill. The stories in A Guide to Being Born have a lot of heart, and their characters are well worth rooting for, no matter how improbable their situations.

Ausubel's lush and playful prose transports the reader to a mysterious world: Departed grandmothers embark on an endless afterlife cruise, people in love sprout an extra arm, and the thought of becoming two intertwined saguaro cactuses brings a new couple together.

Ausubel divides A Guide to Being Born into four sections, "Birth," "Gestation," "Conception" and "Love," and her stories delve into these quintessential human experiences in original ways.

In the moving and surprising "Poppyseed," the parents of a severely disabled, mute and immobile girl named Poppy consider a surgery that will halt her development. Poppy's mother is secretly glad that although her daughter remains the size of a second-grader, her sexual maturation is progressing. She writes in a letter to Poppy, "I went into your room and shook your hand. I wanted to congratulate you on your optimism. Poppy, your body is going about its business … to make ready for new life."

In the funny "Chest of Drawers," a father-to-be eagerly follows the development of his baby, yearning to participate physically in the miracle of gestation. One day several two-inch drawers appear in his chest, where he stores both essential and fanciful items while he waits for the birth, including his wife's lipstick and tiny plastic baby dolls. Ausubel makes this scenario -- a beautifully loopy metaphor for a father trying to participate in the physical changes his pregnant wife undergoes -- feel real.

At the conclusion of another story, Ausubel writes, "Life crawled over other life, devoured it, opened itself up to whatever it had been given. The whole world squirmed with hunger and desire, in the thick and thin places, in the trees and in the clearings." That passage exemplifies this honest and life-affirming collection of tales.