Indie bookstores of the world, why are you not carrying this small collection in the folds of your shelves. I live in a small town, but I have ventured to my four main Indies to find this collection dusted in the crack of shelf labeled “Short Stories” in cool, script font by a store clerk who sells books with her hipster handwriting. Nowhere, nowhere has put this Penguin hardcover on display and I am sorely disappointed. Yet they all carry her other book, No One Is Here Except All Of Us, probably because we all know novels are better sellers than short story collections, har har goes the breast pocketed critic. On Ausubel’s website, it says that B&N carries the collection, but I have asked three mustached men in khakis if they could locate this book for me and it’s always, “We can order a copy to your desired location.” As polite as that sounds, I needed the book in my hand, at that moment, tied with a ribbon if one so chooses, and expertly put in a plastic bag to keep safe on the journey home.
Unfortunately, I had to order it on Kindle. GASP. Which led me to writing 9 pages of quotes down in my sturdy notebook because you can’t sticky pages in a kindle. Yea, yea, you can highlight and add a note, but then everyone knows that “four other people have highlighted this line,” or you crack your ipad’s windshield and lose all your notes in arial font about quotes that made your heart dance to blues. My heart only dances to Billie Holiday.
Anyway, this story collection is brilliant. A Guide to Being Born is one of the best short story collections next to Miranda July and Hollie Goddard-Jones. The entry story is about a collection of grandmothers who find themselves a board a steam ship headed for floating. They mingle into groups of different grandmotherly stereotypes and then there’s Alice, because there’s always Alice. She is the lullaby-inventor, woman of two husbands and therefore two lives, and adored by so many that they call the hospital as the tubes are removed from her pruned body. It’s devastating and beautiful and immediately made me want to think that my dead grandfather is sailing the ocean, in her own tamed and cleaned cabin, picking her teeth of life’s worries and swimming in just a nightie after hours when the stars reflection’s globe in the sea. This story is so good that I need my mother to read it. My mother is a newspaper reader, a reader of facts and of political interest. It’s rare that she reads a book, my father is the bookish one. However, my mother has to read this one. And any other mother out there, all you other mother’s, get this collection, read the dead back to life.
The second story is the story of an autistic child and her parent’s own story of coming-to-grip with that. I had never read a story like this before. It seemed wholly new to me that someone could fictionalize a parent’s ordeal of having and caring for an autistic child. It’s both letters from the mother and story from the father. I was amazed at her ability to locate the sadness that a person must feel when they realize the things that their child will never do rather than hoping in the things that their child could do. The mothers of Olympians must never think that their child will one day win gold, but what must the parents of children who are disabled feel. Truly remarkable writing in the fact that it was so honest it rips your guts open and tiptoes among your ribs like a hopscotch table.
In the middle stories a teenage girl has the baby of a rape and believes that she’s birthing something covered in fur, something in need of wetness, neck as long as a giraffe, tongue purple on her cheek. A pregnant woman watches her husband grow a chest of drawers. A dead general comes to speak to a child name Buck who owns a story about herself that is all a lie. Booker gets a job as a dental assistant and uses his gum pick to pick-up women. The couple becomes cactuses in the night. A father produces fake snow in California while his daughter opens a “dark passage into her throat.” A boy learns the meaning of his name during a sexual encounter. A couple wait for death with nothing better to do with their young hearts and bodies naked in the window light. The professor who loses his wife plays spin the bottle, listens to the silence of a body’s calf.
The story collection is called A Guide to Being Born and I should have known that this would be a collection raw with skin, exposed longing and stirred bodies, but I went in blind and naive. There is so much sex of the ages in this story collection and it’s not 50 Shades of Smut sex, it’s 50 Shades of Longing, 50 Shades of Desired Effect, 50 Shades of how it feels to experience your first time all in your head. Doesn’t everyone wonder what goes on in the head of a teenager when they’re laying in the anti-perfect of their first time. Ausubel goes there, multiple times. It isn’t a how-to experience, it’s a what if experience. It’s a place where grandmothers are “constellated out over the surface” like they’re sitting in a high school cafeteria, couples with nothing better to do but drum their bodies like soft fruits plucked and thumped are lonely, and the story of the mechanisms of our body’s workings becomes the story of our outside features.
My favorite story (I think) is the final story. It may be the Grandmothers, but the final story is so imaginative that I almost wish it were true. In it, people in love grow extra arms, which makes it seem very lame and very much like science fiction and not literary fiction. It’s not though, it’s beautifully written, completely feasible. It’s the story of a principal and the people around him. He has a fake arm that he claims to have grown for his generous wife, but waits for her to remove it in the evenings with oil and a sweet bath. A teacher has grown too many hands for all the love she’s given away, but no arms for the one true love. I can’t go into how obsessed I am with the idea that people grow body parts in order to show their love. We would give ourselves away we love so much. “But I have proof all over me that no one is alone in my heart. Everyone wants to be alone in someone else’s heart. In the end, I am alone in mine.”
The heart of good writing should make a person want to write for themselves. I found a few great lessons for my students from this story collection and wanted to share for the writers out there at their evening desks:
- Imagine a conversation where you have to describe your favorite place (or a place you’re visiting) to someone you love, but the someone you love can’t see (very well) (or they’re blind).
- Describe the love life of a high-schooler in one paragraph with as much imagery as you can.
- Pick one tangible adjective to describe high school (soggy).
- Make a list of reasons you exist (this one is my favorite).